Thursday, April 21, 2011

Rafting for Servant Leaders


The New Testament witness to Jesus Christ makes clear that the primary form of his ministry in God’s name is that of service, diakonia,[1] in the world. Jesus chastised his disciples[2] about the desire to be above others and often spoke of and demonstrated[3] our call to be servant leaders. It might be interesting to note that the same servant, or shepherd, model of leadership can be found in raft guides. Outdoor program leaders often serve as raft guides or guides for tubing trips for youth and adults in their care. Counselors, adventure youth leaders, youth leaders, pastors and lay leaders share the same need for development of humble servant leadership. It is worth considering these characteristics for your next adventure on the water.

Leadership Model

The raft guide[4] seeks to lead a team through service and enable his or her group of people to work together in productive and meaningful ways to draw them closer to the end goal of an exciting trip together, working in service with each other; each one using their own gifts to complement the others in community. The guide needs to be good at shepherding people and be able to provide the specific training necessary to lead the group safely and effectively while maintaining a certain amount of charisma.[5] Contrary to many modern leadership models, the guide sits in the back of the boat, in the position of a servant.[6] By sitting in the rear of the boat, it puts the guide in a better position to steer the boat but also puts him in a seat that gives the opportunity to watch over[7] the crew. From that position the guide can easily offer encouragement or exhortation[8] to keep the crew energized.[9] A good guide recognizes the importance of knowing when to be nurturing or when the need arises to push their crew harder to achieve higher levels of accomplishment. This style of leadership is the result of caring more about the crew than themselves.[10]

Establish Trust

A critical aspect of any type of leadership is developing a high degree of trust. The raft guide must know the river and its dangers and establish a level of trust through experience and confidence. Building trust from the beginning allows the leader to care for those in the boat otherwise the group may find themselves in serious trouble on a challenging rapid. River leaders may have their authority called into question if problems arise, which happens rarely if they have a high level of integrity and commitment to the crew. However, if trust is lost, it is nearly impossible to achieve a high level of group confidence. Being able to “read” the personalities and skills of the crew is an important skill of the river leader.[11] Both on and off the water it is important to initiate incremental steps and “small wins,” or successes, to build confidence and credibility for the leader.[12] If your crew trusts your decisions and directions they will respond quickly and decisively providing a better “ride” for everyone in the boat.

Develop Skills

That means to be an effective leader the guide must not only have natural gifts and talents needed [13] but must also be dedicated to teaching proper techniques[14] to the crew. The importance of being able to paddle forward, sometimes quite powerfully,[15] is obvious, but it should be noted that there are many times when it is important to wait[16] preparing for the next challenge ahead. The life of the guide is focused on the river, a metaphor for a Spirit filled life,[17] with its many twists, turns and surprises around each bend. It is critical that the team works with the river to move efficiently downstream rather than struggling against the current resulting in being exhausted and ineffective throughout the trip.

Safety and Group Care

Even the best guides need a trip leader[18] who they can turn to and follow, especially in times of trouble, for needed guidance and safety. Although the rafts are under the direction of the trip leader, and each raft operates somewhat independently, all are charged to watch out for each other. Group safety is paramount. It is important that the leader “do no harm” on the river and be vigilant so if someone “falls out of the raft” it is important to pull them back in as quickly as possible.[19] The guide and crew must act quickly in the rescue effort because the longer the leader waits the farther the person drifts from the boat. Reaching a hand out to help someone quickly can be lifesaving in extreme circumstances. If they are too far for a hand, the paddle can be turned around to extend the “T-grip” much like a shepherd uses a staff to help rescue lost sheep. The staff is the symbol of care, and a suitable emblem for the provider’s profile we’ve been sketching. With it a shepherd provides gentle assistance, direction, and encouragement at critical moments.[20] Everyone in the raft needs protective gear such as a PFD[21] to help keep people afloat and sheltered from rocks and river obstacles.

A Final Word

As the metaphor implies, all Christian leaders – like raft guides – must provide direction through servant leadership that is dedicated to helping people make the right choices[22] in the midst of chaos because the river of life can be far too dangerous for us to go it on our own.

[1] The primary Greek word used in the Gospels meaning “to serve” is diakoneō and its noun counterparts diakonos (“servant”) and diakonia (“service”). Closely related to this, however, is the word group doulos/ douleuō, meaning “slave/to serve as a slave.” Green, J. B., McKnight, S., & Marshall, I. H. (1992). Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (747). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

[2] Mt 23:11-12 The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

[3] Jn 13:5-17 Jesus takes on the role of the servant by washing the feet of the disciples and encourages them (us) to do the same.

[4] As metaphor for the Christian minister or leader

[5] Derived from the Greek charis which means grace; servant leaders lead by grace.

[6] Mk 9:35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."

[7] Acts 20:28 Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.

[8] I was hesitant to use this “churchy sounding” word but the implication for guides is just too strong. Exhortation - urge strongly; to give warnings or advice; make urgent appeals. I know I have certainly felt the need to “exhort” my crew above some particularly difficult and scary rapids on the river.

[9] Pastors and Christian leaders must be able to speak the truth in love and always be ready to confront conflict in the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation.

[10] Ezekiel 34 stresses that the minister’s role should be like that of an alert shepherd and not be lazy, focused on one’s own personal needs, but rather be focused on the needs of the sheep. Jude 12 adds the “!” to Ezekiel’s charge condemning the “shepherds that only feed themselves.”

[11] Ro 12:4-6 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us…

[12] Kouzes, J. and Posner, B., (1995) The Leadership Challenge. (208) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

[13] In Ro 12:8 and 1Co 12:28, Paul refers to a gift of the spirit that is usually translated as “leader” or “administrator,” however, in Greek literature, the word more directly refers to the ship’s helmsman (a raft guide!). Paul is obviously referring to the skills and leadership needed to steer a congregation, especially important in times of a storm or high water on the river.

[14] Wesley, John On Obedience to Pastors, (123). John Wesley suggested we set an example for the flock…and to guide them in the ways of truth and holiness…and for instruction in righteousness; training them up to outward holiness, until they come to the perfect man, the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

[15] Lk 14:15-24 In the parable of the wedding feast, servants of the master are compelled to go(!) so that many could enjoy the feast celebration together.

[16] Mt 26:36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I go over there and pray." Jesus often retired to a quiet place to pray and rest as we prepared for the coming challenges in his life.

[17] Jo 3:8 The wind blows, the Spirit goes, where it wishes.

[18] The Holy Spirit represents the trip leader in the church. The Holy Spirit gives guidance to groups and individuals facing challenges, decisions and difficulties. Such guidance, however given, effectively specifies the will of God in situations of choice within the biblically established guidelines of righteousness: Manser, M. H. (1999). Zondervan Dictionary of Bible Themes. The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House

[19] Lk 15:4-6 Go rescue those lost sheep!

[20] Laniak, T. S. (2007). While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks: Reflections on Biblical Leadership. Matthews, NC: ShepherdLeader Publications.

[21] A PFD is a Personal Floatation Device (a fancy name for a lifejacket) providing protection. Eph 6:10-19

[22] Luke 10:41-42 But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

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