What is Christian “Servant Leadership”?

I am currently teaching a course on a Biblical theology of leadership, and we have had a couple of occasions now to talk about the popular notion of “servant leadership.” While it is popular and attractive as an idea, it is hard to nail down in terms of what it actually is. In fact, some would say the phrase itself is an oxymoron (I think of Andy Bernard’s “addition by subtraction”).

Well, I recently read a fantastic discussion of the power and status of leaders according to Paul in Andrew Clarke’s 2008 monograph, A Pauline Theology of Church Leadership (LNTS; T & T Clark; paperback 2012). He writes this:

Paul’s conception of the Christian leader is one who is the head of a household, and master of domestic slaves, and whose house-church in all probability includes other slaves. Accordingly, the message of servanthood as it appears in the Pauline corpus is not a thorough-going servanthood that inverts the normal hierarchy of the home; the head of the household remains the leader. Rather, the context of humility, vulnerability, and service set a context for the exercising of authority, rather than its removal. This is consistent with the portrait of Jesus in the Gospels that shows a figure who was renowned both for his authority and his repudiation of authoritarianism…
The leader has a higher status within the hierarchy, but is not to abuse that status, and there will be occasions when the actions, vulnerabilities, sufferings, and incessant toil of the leader reflect more the status of slave. (pp. 101-102)
I wish to add that, by “toil,” I do not think Clarke is justifying pastors working 80 hours a week (as many seem to do). Rather, the idea of “toil” is one where the high-status leader is engaged in hard work. It is not about hours, but about effort. In the Roman world, someone who achieved high status could find themselves living quite luxuriously, and had little time or need for “labor” of any kind. Not so with Paul or Jesus. They were not afraid to, as it were, “get their hands dirty.”