A Reflection on Servant Leaders by George Merrill


This month marks a significant anniversary in my life.

On December 17, 1960, I was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.

I have fond recollections. It was a grand occasion. The cathedral setting and the ceremony’s grandeur left me feeling as though I were being knighted, and instead of a sword laid upon my head while I knelt in fealty to a King, the Bishop of New York laid his hands upon my head in the way of the ancient rite that confers the order of priesthood. The rite was dignified, noble in its intent and the prayers and invocations spoken in the lyrical Elizabethan language from the old Book of Common Prayer, lofty and inspiring. It marked the beginning of my lifetime career. I was not being ordained to a privileged office, but equipped to be a servant.

It took me a while to get it, but in time I learned.

Sorting out my feelings about the ordination experience happened to fall on the day that former president George H.W. Bush’s funeral service was held at the National Cathedral. It too, was lofty and inspiring, but this occasion marked the end of a life of service, not the beginning.

In a way, the funeral at the Washington Cathedral reminded me of my ordination. Both services were held in large cathedrals, both magnificent settings that were regal, elegant, communicating how serving others was a noble calling. For former president Bush, the funeral at the National Cathedral celebrated the years of service he offered to our nation. The funeral was a celebration of one leader’s life as a public event. The service united us in collective thanks for his contribution to the world. He presided over the end of the Cold War without a shot being fired.

My ordination at St. John the Divine was not the end of a career of service, but instead a ceremonial beginning, essentially commissioning me in the words of Jesus, to “love one another as I have loved you.” Then, I was as green as grass and only imagined how living out such a charge might be like. The overriding themes of the ordination rite and the presidential funeral liturgy highlighted a fundamental human responsibility, each rite in its own way claiming that serving others is the highest calling for all of us whether offered professionally or in the practice of daily life. Who doesn’t want to know that someone cares enough about who we are to look after us?

Teaching, medicine, nursing, psychology, healthcare, ministry, social work, emergency services and some arms of public service are generally regarded as “helping professions.” Almost any service others provide for our well- being are strictly speaking “helping,” but the above-mentioned vocations are directed specifically to psychological, spiritual, physiological, and social needs with specialists equipped to deliver them.

There’s a common thread woven through the helping professions but how some deliver their services differs dramatically, like the neurosurgeon. He or she functions in much tighter parameters, than say the teacher, nurse and clergyman who enjoy greater latitude in performing their duties. One British neurosurgeon, Henry Marsh, in his fine book, “Do No Harm” describes his work like the men who defuse bombs and mines. The window for error is crushingly small for such surgeons. Marsh says that neurosurgeons breed a kind of hyper attentiveness in performing their craft. Attention dare not drift even for a second. It’s always a matter of life and death.

For clergy and politicians, and I suspect for nurses, teachers, psychologists and social workers, the services they provide are intimately wrapped around the personalities through which they mediate their service. An ability to feel compassion is the sine qua non for this group; the kinder they are, the more enduring their impact in and out of their professional roles.

I’ve often thought of Jimmy Carter as compassionate. His political successes are not remembered as much as the impact of his person. Like Bush has was a one term president and humble by nature. Carter did not have a dynamic personality. He was not a great speaker and he did micro-manage the White House. His presidency did not enjoy the same successes as Obama and Clinton, but for integrity he had no parallel. If white conservative Christians today think they are getting bad press from fake news, they might look to president Carter for the inspiration they need to polish their image. A born-again Southern Baptist from Georgia, a religious conservative, who after his presidency, returned to his roots in Plains to continue a life of service. He still teaches Sunday School, lives in a rancher valued at about $240,000, and receives about half the retirement pension that Obama and Clinton enjoy in retirement. Recently, he left his life-long church affiliation in protest against its failure to support gender reform. He has been responsible for housing thousands of the poor worldwide by promoting Habitat for Humanity. He’s been a tireless advocate for peace and was successful in establishing a Middle East Truce.

As the saying goes, Carter walked the walk as did Bush, but in very different ways.

The funeral of George H.W. Bush, and that of Senator McCain recently highlighted in painfully sharp relief what today we are missing in public life. Committed and caring, these men were different in temperament; Bush, the steady handed patrician, McCain, the firebrand and scrapper and Carter the plodder. Despite differences these men dignified us and the country by their commitment to public life and service. They cared; they cared for the people, the nation’s institutions, and they honored the men and women who serve them.

It’s written in scripture: “And whoever will be great among you, let him first be your servant.”

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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