Servant Leadership and Leading Volunteers in Ministry

Mar 2nd, 2020 | Category: Columns, DCE Ministry
By Kevin Borchers

A DCE Perspective

Leadership is not only about influence, but also about the relationships that exist between the leader and the led (Northouse, 2010). In the church, the model of ministry leadership and followership is exemplified in the gospel narratives about Jesus and His disciples and Jesus, the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53:1-9). Jesus’ model of servant leadership perfectly combined the influential and relational aspects of ministry leadership into a single construct first recognized in the writings of Robert Greenleaf beginning in the early 1970s.

Review of Literature

Research (Jaramillo, Grisaffe, Chonko, & Roberts, 2009; Melchar & Bosco, 2010; Peterson, Galvin, & Lange, 2012; Choudhary, Akhtar, & Zaheer, 2013) demonstrated the existence of a relationship between servant leadership and job satisfaction, and between servant leadership and organizational performance. However, much of that research concentrated on the servant facet of servant leadership, neglecting the leadership dimension. It was not until Dutch researchers van Dierendonck and Nuijten (2011) developed and validated the Servant Leadership Survey (SLS) that a survey instrument comprehensively captured the seemingly paradoxical aspects of service and leadership initially described by Greenleaf (1970).

The SLS collects data accurately, representing followers’ perceptions of the extent to which leaders demonstrate both the service and leadership dimensions of servant leadership using eight factors, as defined by van Dierendonck and Nuijten (2011): accountability, authenticity, courage, empowerment, forgiveness, humility, standing back, and stewardship. Borchers (2016) studied these eight servant leadership characteristics in an investigation of the relationship between servant leadership and job satisfaction in a faith-based nonprofit healthcare organization with Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) roots. The study sought to identify a direct relationship between followers’ levels of job satisfaction and their perceptions of servant leadership, as demonstrated through the manifestations of the eight aforemetioned characteristics in their dealings with supervisors. Survey administration occurred over two days covering the various work shifts in a 48-hour period so as to provide the opportunicy for all members of the organization to participate. This resulted in 162 returned surveys for a return rate of 43.7%. However, data cleansing removed 20 cases and resulted in a final sample size of 142 cases and a final return rate of 38.4% with a confidence level of 87% and a confidence interval of ± 5%.

Quantitative data on job satisfaction and perceptions of servant leadership were obtained by combining the Abridged Job in General Scale (AJIG; Russell et al., 2004) and the Servant Leadership Survey (SLS; Van Dierendonck & Nuijten, 2011) to create a single instrument with two parts. In Part 1, participants reacted to eight words or phrases associated with their feelings about their jobs and responded with “1 = YES it describes your job,” “2 = NO it does not describe your job,” or “3 = UNDECIDED if you are unsure.” In Part 2, participants responded to statements associated with the eight servant leadership characteristics (van Dierendonck & Nuijten, 2011) using a six-point Likert scale (“1 = Strongly Disagree,” “2 = Disagree,” “3 = Somewhat Disagree,” “4 = Somewhat Agree,” “5 = Agree,” or “6 = Strongly Agree”). Following this, data transformation yielded job satisfaction scores that ranged from 0.00 (no or low job satisfaction) to 3.00 (high job satisfaction). Perceptions of servant leadership scores ranged from 1.00 (strong disagreement with a perception of servant leadership) to 6.00 (strong agreement with a perception of servant leadership).

Job-satisfaction scores ranged from .38 to 3.00 (M = 2.54, SD = .67), were non-normally distributed, and had a skewness of -1.63 (SE = .20) and kurtosis of 1.99 (SE = .40). Forty-nine percent (48.6%, n = 69) of participants reported job satisfaction at the highest level (3.00) and 73.9% of participants (n = 114) reported job satisfaction scores above 2.00.

Overall servant leadership scores, which addressed all eight servant leadership characteristics as one, ranged from 1.63 to 6.00 (M = 4.45, SD = .84), were non-normally distributed overall, and had a skewness of -.86 (SE = .20) and kurtosis of .62 (SE = .40). Eighty-seven percent (86.6%, n = 123) of the employees somewhat-to-strongly agreed that direct supervisors exhibited servant leadership behaviors or characteristics overall.

Scores for overall perceptions of supervisors’ servant leadership ranged from 1.00 (strong disagreement with an overall perception of servant leadership) to 6.00 (strong agreement with an overall perception servant leadership). Accountability was the servant leadership characteristic most strongly perceived (M = 4.92, SD = .93) by participants, followed by stewardship (M = 4.67, SD = 1.05), empowerment (M = 4.59, SD = 1.10), standing back (M = 4.45, SD = 1.04), and humility (M = 4.33, SD = 1.08). Authenticity ranked sixth (M = 4.28, SD = 1.00), followed by forgiveness (M = 4.28, SD = 1.15), and, finally, courage (M = 3.81, SD = 1.23) with 43.0% (n = 61).

Bivariate correlation using the Pearson correlation coefficient was used to determine that a moderate, positive correlation existed between followers’ job satisfaction and their overall perceptions of servant leadership, r(140) = .47, p < .001, which indicated the existence of a direct relationship between followers’ levels of job satisfaction and their perceptions of their leader’s servant leadership.

Pearson’s correlation analyses using levels of job satisfaction and perceptions of individual servant leadership characteristics indicated moderate, positive correlations existed between the level of job satisfaction and perceptions of empowerment (r(140) = .47, p < .001), stewardship (r(140) = .45, p < .001), standing back, r(140) = .45, p < .001), and humility (r(140) = .41, p < .001). Weak positive correlations existed between job satisfaction and perceptions of authenticity (r(140) = .32, p < .001) and accountability (r(140) = .31, p < .001). A weak, slightly positive, correlation existed between job satisfaction and perceptions of courage (r(140) = .26, p < .01). No statistically significant (p < .01) correlation existed between levels of job satisfaction and perceptions of forgiveness (r(140) = .15, p = .09).

Even though the servant leadership characteristics of accountability, courage, and forgiveness were among the servant leadership characteristics with weak or no correlation with job satisfaction supported, van Dierendonck and Nuijten’s (2011) assertion that accountability, courage, and forgiveness had the lowest correlations with subjective outcomes of well-being at work, which included job satisfaction. However, van Dierendonck and Nuijten (2011) noted that accountability, courage, and forgiveness were essential characteristics of servant leadership, since none of the three were previously included as part of any previous instrument used to measure servant leadership. In addition, accountability and forgiveness, along with empowerment, were identified as essential factors for the leadership facet of the servant leadership construct (Van Dierendonck & Nuijten, 2011).

Applying the Research to Volunteers in Ministry

The study identified a direct, positive relationship between followers’ perceptions of their leaders’ servant leadership and the levels of satisfaction followers had in their jobs. While that study was not conducted in a congregational setting, it would be appropriate to consider how servant leadership could affect the satisfaction of congregational ministry volunteers serving under the leadership of professional staff.

People are most important. The most valuable resources available to any organization are its people. In the business world, frontline employees are positioned closest to the business’s customers or clients. In congregational ministry, volunteers serve on the frontline caring for church and community members who participate in that ministry program. Therefore, ministry leaders (i.e., called workers with responsibility for ministry leadership) should involve frontline volunteers in the identification of future direction of the ministries in which they serve. Such a practice is in line with the servant leadership characteristic of empowerment, which this study reported as having the highest correlation with job satisfaction.

It is recommended that church leaders seek to become more aware and more receptive to the needs of the volunteers they lead in ministry. For this to happen, though, church leaders like pastors, DCEs, and other staff members should invest time in relationship with volunteers. Ministry is relational, so church leaders should seek to strengthen personal relationships they have with volunteers, thereby increasing levels of trust between leaders and followers. Such efforts could lead to volunteers feeling more valued and better heard by church leaders and the congregation. This could be accomplished by simply engaging in personal conversations with individual volunteers outside church “business” meetings, recognizing that some individuals feel less comfortable sharing ideas, feelings, or thoughts within a larger group. These conversations should focus on getting to know and understand volunteers’ needs and eliciting their ideas to improve or to make the their ministry jobs easier or more efficient. Such conversation could also include seeking volunteers’ thoughts about ways leaders can help them grow and become more successful in their ministry.

Leadership and Staff Retention

Retention of ministry volunteers is very important. Leadership style has been shown to have a direct relationship with followers’ commitment to the organization (Aydin et al., 2013). Servant leadership has demonstrated positive correlations with the organizational commitment of followers (Liden et al., 2008; Van Dierendonck & Nuijten, 2011). Previous research by van Dierendonck and Nuijten (2011), Gunnarsdóttir (2014), and Borchers (2016) reported direct, positive relationships between levels of job satisfaction and servant leadership in general, and between levels of job satisfaction and individual characteristics included as part of the servant-leadership construct.

Church-staff members, by virtue of the Call they have received from God, should seek to model the servant leadership Christ Jesus modeled to His disciples. Church leaders would do well to develop written servant leadership objectives based on the eight servant leadership characteristics set forth by van Dierendonck and Nuijten (2011). Servant leadership objectives should be designed to increase the leader’s personal practice of servant leadership and its modeling to followers. These objectives should identify strategies that the leader applies to work with the volunteers they lead. For example, a leader selecting the characteristic of empowerment might have an objective that states, “I will help my volunteers experience opportunities for personal and professional growth by helping them to identify available opportunities to grow in their ministry abilities and by providing them with the resources they need to participate in these growth opportunities.” 

Annual leadership reviews. The Servant Leadership Survey (SLS) was the first instrument of its kind to measure followers’ perceptions of servant leadership in the workplace and the first instrument to account for both the servant and leader facets of the servant leadership construct. While the SLS does not assess servant leadership on an organizational level as does Laub’s (1999) Servant Organizational Leadership Assessment (SOLA) instrument, the SLS does provide a clear assessment of the ways in which followers’ perceive servant leadership characteristis in their leaders. Therefore, the SLS could be used as part of an annual leadership review for church-staff members having ministry leadership responsibilities that include leading volunteers. As in Borchers (2016), base scores for overall servant leadership and individual scores for each of the eight characteristics could be established during a first review using the SLS. These initial scores could then be used to provide direction in the development of servant-leadership-development plans using the statements for selected SLS items as guides to develop objectives to be addressed in a given amount of time. Scores from subsequent reviews (e.g., annual or other) could then be used to assess progress toward achievement of development objectives on which leaders were to work and to establish revised or new servant-leadership-development objectives for the following year.

Leading in Ministry as a Servant

Congregational ministries are dependent upon volunteers. Just as the retention of high quality, qualified, and caring employees is a primary function of great importance to any organization, the recruitment and retention of ministry volunteers in the church is a key function of church leadership staff. Developing, maintaining, and improving volunteers’ satisfaction with the program ministries in which they serve is a high responsibility of Directors of Christian Education (DCEs). Along with that, encouraging a commitment to the mission and vision of the church and the role they play in achieving that mission and vision must also be a high priority of the DCE and all other called church workers. It could be said that it is part of our vocation – our calling – as described by the apostle Paul. “And he [God] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…” (Ephesians 4:11-12 ESV). This same passage is used by Rueter (2019) in his explanation of auxiliary offices within the Office of Public Ministry. 

Equipping the saints is what DCEs do when they recruit and train men and women to teach Sunday school, devote time and energy to be in ministry to and with the youth of our congregations, serve on congregational boards and committees, and undertake a host of other endeavors for the sake of the Kingdom. It is of utmost importance in retention efforts. Servant leaders who develop relationships with and care for their followers contribute greatly to the volunteers’ satisfaction with their ministries, the retention of volunteers in ministry, and the strengthening of their congregation’s efforts.

Empowerment. Motivating, enabling, encouraging, and empowering the people of God to pursue personal development for the sake of the organization (e.g., congregation, ministry) or to further their own lives is at the heart of empowerment. It is the ability of a leader to foster a proactive, self-confident attitude among followers that builds and uplifts the volunteers serving in a ministry so that they believe they are making a difference. Empowerment provides followers with a sense of personal power. The responsibility for ministry belongs to them (i.e., the volunteer members of the congregation). They own it.

The empowerment actions of servant leaders are based in the trust they have in the volunteers with whom they serve. It is not about maintaining one’s personal control and decision-making powers, but about giving those things away to those serving in ministry on the front lines. Empowerment is all about the DCE walking alongside and mentoring the individuals with whom he or she serves so that the responsibility for ministry itself could be turned over to God’s people (i.e., the Church) – the Priesthood of All Believers.

For the DCE, empowerment is about knowing and understanding each person’s spiritual gifts, their passions for ministry, and their unique talents and abilities – a recipe established by God (Psalm 139). More importantly, not only should a DCE know these things about people, but they should also prayerfully seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to consider how that knowledge guides their fellow members of the Body of Christ into ministries in which they can flourish and feel they are making a difference in the lives of others, the church, and the world.

Stewardship. If you work in the church, then this is not what you think. Stewardship, as it relates to servant leadership, is a willingness to take responsibility for the larger institution, seeking to serve instead of seeking control or pursuing one’s self-interests. It is the extent to which a leader acts as a caretaker and role model, thereby motivating followers to act for the common good of the organization. Stewardship is closely related to empowerment in that it is other-centered leadership. It is not about making you, your ministry programs, or even your congregation look or sound better than others. Stewardship provides the attitude; “There’s no ‘I’ or ‘me’ in “team.”

Stewardship is not just something a leader does. Sergiovanni (2007) indicated that stewardship is an act of trust whereby one entity (e.g., congregation) places its trust in another entity (e.g. pastor, DCE). The people, members of the congregation, entrust the DCE with the responsibility for administering and leading their congregation’s small group ministry. However, the DCE cannot lead every small group operating under the auspices of the church. Therefore, she recruits and trains volunteer in accordance with their gifts and entrusts each individual or team of leaders with the obligation and responsibilities for caring for their small group without maintaining a direct hand of control within the group. It is safe to say that DCEs who are good leadership stewards develop strong bonds of trust between themselves and the ministry volunteers with whom they serve so that the DCE can give away the ministry to the rest of the church. This, then, contributes to a healthier, more positive and productive congregational culture that has the potential to increase ministry success.

Standing back is the extent to which a leader prioritizes the interests of others first, providing them with the support they need and credit they deserve. It is the extent to which a leader willingly remains in the background upon successful accomplishment of a task while others receive the accolades. MacBeath (2005) suggested that standing back involves maintaining the support of others while those others lead. It is characterized by mutual trust and self-confidence. Where there is a high level of trust, differences can be tolerated, yes, even appreciated.

Standing back can be seen in the DCE who enables Sunday school teachers, youth ministry volunteers, and volunteer planning teams to receive the credit for making a difference in the lives of God’s children in the church and community. It can be seen as a DCE allowing a team of volunteers with previous experience in serving and with varied gifts and talents to collaborate, to review and recommend the theme and publishing company, if one is to be used, for the upcoming summer VBS program. Standing back, in some instances, means the DCE, often cast as the leader, becomes the follower.

Humility. Van Dierendonck and Nuijten (2011) described humility as the ability to maintain a proper perspective on one’s personal accomplishments and talents; the ability to acknowledge one’s strengths and weaknesses, thereby making it possible to admit personal imperfections and mistakes one has made. Greenleaf (1970) suggested that servant leaders put their personal agendas and goals on the back burner in order to care for their followers. Maxwell (2019) indicates leaders choose dispositions of humility in recognition that they need other people, and in their desire to become someone other people want to follow. In humility, leaders acknowledge their shortcomings and failures. They possess a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. By adopting a personal sense of humility, leaders develop a clear view of what only they can do and fully accept that others can perform certain tasks better than they can.

Humility could mean something similar yet very different from the above discussion. It could mean doing the job that no other person is willing to do. 

Authenticity. When people express themselves in ways that are consistent with their inner thoughts and feelings, they are being authentic (van Dierendonck & Nuijten, 2011). Authenticity is being true to oneself, privately and publicly representing internal thoughts and attitudes, intentions, and commitments in an accurate manner. For a servant leader like a DCE, pastor, Lutheran teacher, or other church worker, it means behaving in such a way that professional roles remain secondary to who the individual is as a person.

The same could be said of congregations and their leaders, whether ordained, commissioned, contracted, or volunteer. 

A pastor and the church leadership cannot just put on the right clothes, drink the right beer or coffee, or throw about key phrases to retain young people in the church. Many churches have tried and failed to put on what’s ‘cool,’ only to find that young people see right through their attempts. (Curnutt, Kiessling, Shults, Borchers, & Rueter, 2019, p. 126) 

Being real, being genuine, being who God made you to be is what counts. 

Curnutt et al. (2019) showed that worship style and aesthetics are relatively unimportant in comparison to relationships when it comes to keeping young adults engaged and connected to the church and its ministries. Furthermore, their research indicated that Millennials (ages 23-37) and Gen Z (ages 8-22) have been so bombarded with marketing that they can spot inauthenticity from a far distance. Just be yourself!

Three of the proposed servant leadership characteristics – accountability, courage, and forgiveness – demonstrated little to no relationship with job satisfaction in Borchers (2016). This might well be due to their inclusion as part of the leadership rather than the servant facet of the construct. While these three are necessary (van Dierendonck & Nuijten, 2011), they might not seem as edifying in the DCE’s ministry with volunteers. 

Accountability is a mechanism by which responsibility for outcomes is given to individuals and teams, ensuring people know that which is expected of them (van Dierendonck & Nuijten, 2019). While this characteristic never demonstrated a high correlation with perceptions of servant leadership, it is important that it be included as part of any leadership construct. Followers are accountable to their leaders and vice versa, but the scope of accountability is much greater. Both DCEs and volunteers are accountable not only to each other but also to the whole congregation. All three can be accountable to a community, and, ultimately, all are accountable to God.

Courage is the ability to take risks and try out new approaches to old challenges, relying on the values and convictions that govern one’s actions. Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to persist and act in the presence of fear (Wong & Davey, 2007). Those called into leadership must be reminded and charged with the biblical words, “You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the LORD on your behalf…Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. Tomorrow go out against them, and the LORD will be with you” (2 Chronicles 20:17 ESV). 

For the DCE seeking to lead and live with integrity, courage is a requirement when facing the temptations of the world. It takes courage to counter-culturally follow God’s lead when the rest of world, even some of your friends, are going the other direction. The Christian recognizes that his strength comes from the Lord (2 Timothy 1:8), and it is in this strength that he can authentically take a stand.

However, we also know that courage is required to go against the status quo, to go against, “We’ve always done it this way,” even when “this way” is not working. Cultural change is among the most difficult forms of change to undertake and successfully make. It is not for the faint of heart. Sometimes it requires the pastor or DCE to help the congregation confront the grim realities of avoiding change. 

Forgiveness. We should know what this is. Right? Forgiveness is the ability to let go of perceived wrongdoings coupled with an ability not to carry a grudge. It is the capacity to forgive offenses, arguments, and mistakes, thereby creating an atmosphere of trust in which people feel free to make mistakes without fear of retribution or rejection (van Dierendonck & Nuijten, 2011). Unfortunately, in almost every study involving servant leadership, it has been found to have little or no relationship with job satisfaction. It is almost as if forgiveness is actually missing despite having been designated as part of the servant leadership construct.

For those of us who work and serve in the church, this should not be so! However, didn’t Jesus say, “Forgive us AS (the author’s personal emphasis) we forgive those who sin against us?” The Church must be a grace place in which the love of God and forgiveness are readily made available to all. Furthermore, DCEs, pastors, teachers, and all others should be God’s instrument of grace – the hands, feet, arms, and legs of our God of second chances. If we equate the non-sinful mistakes people make in process of doing ministry with sin that truly is rebellion against God, or if we fail to speak the words of forgiveness, how are we faithfully living out the vocation to which we have been called? As DCEs and other called workers, let’s make every effort and take every opportunity to share the love of God in Christ. Tell them they are forgiven just as you have been forgiven.

Having been allowed by God to serve just under 40 of the 60 years of DCE ministry that we celebrate this year, I have been blessed to serve with pastors, teachers, directors of parish music, deaconesses, and so, so many volunteers who have led and continue to lead as servants, caring for the flock or the portion given to them. Many have served as powerful witnesses to me and to others about what it means to lead by serving and serve by leading. Each one exemplified some or all of these characteristics to me. It is my prayer, that in the next 60 years, we who are DCEs and all who serve the Church will seek more fervently to follow the example of Jesus, the Messiah who washed feet, the Suffering Servant who gave His life for those whom He cared for and loved so deeply.

Happy 60th birthday, DCE Ministry! LEJ


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Kevin Borchers holds a Ph.D. in Organizational Leadership from Concordia University Chicago, where he currently serves as Associate Professor of Christian Education, Assistant Director of the DCE Program, Director of Colloquy, and University Marshal.