How Selling T-Shirts Taught Me About Servant Leadership

Most young adults who attend a Christian college get more than an earful about servant leadership over the course of their four years.  We say it with a smirk, an eye roll, and a small nod to our college president.  But that shouldn’t mean we should ever think we’ve mastered it.

I recently started interning at a K-8 school for the arts.  In addition to having my ideal placement (K-5 elementary music classes AND a middle school handbell choir!), I also have the fortune of working alongside a brilliant teacher who shares the same faith as I.  Once a week, my cooperating teacher (CT) hosts a morning devotional in his classroom, open to other believers employed at the school.  This past week, the devotional was on servant leadership.

Knowing that I was attending a nearby Christian university, one of the teachers joked, “I bet you know all about servant leadership.”  Then, he commented about how servant leadership is basically what teachers have to do every single day.

I agreed with his comments, appreciated being included in the moment, and didn’t think much of it.

And that right there is the issue.

I didn’t think much of it.

Now, this is just my own opinion on the matter, but I feel as though somehow, somewhere along the line, many Christians stopped really thinking about servant leadership.

We certainly haven’t stopped talking about it, frick no, it’s a catchphrase at most Christian universities, you’ll hear it from the pulpit every other Sunday, and look, wow, you’re even reading a blogpost about it right now!

We like talking about servant leadership.  We like talking about how we should do it, how we are doing it, and how we can do it more.  We even like to build statues of Jesus washing Peter’s feet to serve as a daily reminder to every passerby that servant leadership is important.

I’d much prefer if we thought deeply about servant leadership when hiring (or electing, for that matter) a leader.

But I don’t want to get political, so let me backtrack before I end up somewhere I don’t want to be.

Let’s continue my story, so we can get to the t-shirt selling that I promised in the title.

Wednesday morning was the devotional, and after school that day I picked up a friend and we traveled to Tampa for the Florida Music Education Association (FMEA) 2018 Conference.  The conference is a huge deal, full of professional development experiences, concerts and showcases, networking opportunities, and it’s always brimming with potential.

I could write a whole blogpost just on FMEA, my passion for music education, and the amazing people I was privileged to meet while I was there.  But once again, I must refocus.  T-shirts.

Myself and two others from my university had received a scholarship for a free hotel stay during FMEA in exchange for working at the FMEA T-shirt booth.  The Florida collegiate branch of the National Association for Music Education runs a T-shirt booth every FMEA conference, to raise money for the state chapter of CNAfME, and the state executive board mans the table.  This year, with the help of the recipients of the scholarship and any other willing volunteers.

I’m no stranger to customer service, having worked as an assistant manager for a pool and as a server, so I didn’t anticipate to encounter any problems or difficulties with selling t-shirts.  And, to be quite frank, there weren’t any.  We had rushes, we had slow periods, we sold lots of t-shirts and pins and made a significant profit.

Now, before I get into what this seemingly trivial experience revealed to me about servant leadership (oh boy what a big secret), I want to preface it all with this: I thoroughly enjoyed working with every individual at that table and consider them all friends who I hope to stay in contact with in the coming years.  They were nothing but kind and welcoming to me.

However, every organization deals with conflict.  Organizing and operating a t-shirt table is certainly not immune to conflict.  After all, it is more natural for us as humans to disagree with each other rather than agree.  That’s part of what makes unity so beautiful — it takes more effort, so it’s worth more.

Sheesh, sorry, getting sidetracked again.  Back to the t-shirts.

Basically, there was some behind-the-scenes conflict with the t-shirt table.  The details aren’t important.  I wasn’t part of it.  And being a step removed from it opened my eyes to something that we all know, but seldom think about:

Serving is extraordinary.

Think about it, really think about it: serving requires us to acknowledge, not with our mouths, but with our actions that someone else’s needs are more important than our own.  Our actions are how we choose to spend our time, and how we choose to spend our time reflects our values.  At its very core, choosing to serve is the denial of a very primal instinct: me first.

By serving at a t-shirt table, we were stating that our own desires to run around to the various events at the conference were secondary to the desires of those who wanted to buy a t-shirt.

The conflict arose when serving became more of an inconvenience than a privilege.  When me started to creep back out in front of you.

I’m trying very hard to write this without coming across as prideful, or boastful — know that I fail miserably, many times, when it comes to serving.  Service is not one of my spiritual gifts, and it has been, and continues to be, a concentrated effort to serve with an others-focused attitude.

But I found myself receiving praise for what I had considered to be a fairly average performance at the t-shirt table.  Maybe worthy of a passing “thanks” but not much more.

Turns out all that talk about servant leadership I’ve grown up hearing has affected my standard of basic interaction with people.

What I’m trying to say, is that when you serve, and you are serving genuinely, it will be noticed, and you will stand out.  I’ve become accustomed to operating within Christian circles, where servanthood can become commonplace.  We talk about it, we sort of do it because we know we’re expected to, and we forget about it.

But authentic servanthood is not the norm.  It’s not ordinary.  It’s not commonplace.

It’s extraordinary.

Now, pair that extraordinary act with a situation where you are in a position of power.  Or, not necessarily power, but any position in which others are turning to you for an answer.  Where you are expected to lead.

Think about how revolutionary it is for a person who is respected, in a position of power, and has answers to choose to give up his or her time to take care of the needs of others.

Hello, it’s Jesus.

I want to encourage you to stop talking about servant leadership for a moment, and to think about how mind-boggling, extraordinary, and out of the norm servant leadership is.

Servant leadership isn’t a catchphrase, it’s a superpower.

The Bible sometimes asks us to do some pretty ridiculous things. Take this, for instance:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves” -Philippians 2:3

Umm, Jesus, ambition is great.  Self-improvement is awesome.  2018 is my year.  And by that I mean it’s the year I’ll finally get those abs to show up.  What does valuing others above myself possibly do for me?

“For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” -1 Timothy 4:8

Okay…but like what kind of value?  You say it’s good for me both now, and later?  How so?

“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” -Mark 10:43-44

“Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” -John 13:16

It’s funny.  I write these blogposts with a semblance of an idea as to where I’m headed, but I don’t map out each road there.  I find myself returning to that one side road, unity.  Equality.  Fitting, that I’m writing this post on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

We’ll never fully grasp servanthood, or servant leadership, if we don’t recognize that others are more important than self.  We’ll never attain unity or equality if we don’t recognize that same principle.

It’s not about what’s good for me.  It’s about what’s good for you.

Spend some time thinking about how extraordinary serving is.  How even more so when you are in a position of influence.  Don’t just talk about it.  Start living it.  Witness how it makes a difference.

One final reminder for all my fellow young adults:

“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” -1 Timothy 4:12

Now is the time to start operating as a servant leader.

Now is the time to make an impact.



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