Servant Leadership: Why we need it now more than ever.

As I pen these words, we are either in the beginning or middle of what is known as the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. This morning, like several recently, I awoke thinking of some visits needed to important people, cousins in Ireland, connecting with my wife, currently stranded in Massachusetts, my grandchildren, and family in the UK. Within moments of course, I realized that this is not possible. As we are now in a “Stay at Home” order in the state of California, and I remain, with a few essential workers and the Passionist priests behind a locked gate. A gate that protects us from others and others from us.

Usually, we wake in the morning from a dream and then step into reality. Today it felt like the reality was a movie and the dreams were normality. I say this not to complain, but merely to observe the times and challenges we face. Perhaps the most important aspect of this is a call to leadership. A call to be selfless, to be there for others, to separate ourselves from others, and yet still find ways we can support those in need. Their needs have just become more acute because of the crisis. This remembering of a call brought me to a topic which has been much on the lips of many in this situation, the call of a leadership style called Servant Leadership. What is that, and how does that relate to me?

Responding To Christ

“and whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all.” (Mt. 20:27)

At times like this we have a tendency to surround the wagons, protect those close to us, and in a way, become selfish. So much about our situation today is antheical to a normal response, we cannot gather in the normal way, but we can communicate. We cannot share in a traditional manner, breaking bread together at the table, even receiving the Eucharist has become a visual event, not a physical one.

Yet, we must remember that grace flows from the within as well as from the traditional sources we hunger. God is within us, His grace is there waiting to be tapped into. To be exported to those who need it. In words, prayer and actions.

Servant leadership gives us a clue of how we align our response. We receive love by giving love. We gain happiness by sharing with others. We only truly receive by giving.

Let us remember the call in Matthew 20:27, we can only receive by serving others. If you want to examine yourself, Jesuit style, take a look at the ten principles of Servant Leadership as practiced today, and check out how you are using them in this crisis.

The Ten Principles Of Servant Leadership

• Listening

• Empathy

• Healing

• Awareness

• Persuasion

• Conceptualization

• Foresight

• Stewardship

• Commitment to Growth

• Building Community

Reflection, Poem and Photograph Copyright 2020 by Michael J. Cunningham OFS


How often do we find ourselves in life tense to the point of frustration? When we really could scream at others for the smallest reason. When we seem to have no patience for anything.

The ability to tolerate difficulties and pressure varies considerably from one person to another. Don’t you get irritated by those folks who never seem to get phased by anything, as if God gave them an unlimited supply of patience and understanding? When was I when that particular form of grace was being doled out. Perhaps I didn’t get the wake-up call, or I showed up at the wrong location?

It seems when we come under pressure, particularly pressures where we are unwilling to communicate it to others; for whatever reason … we let it build up. Like steam in a container, the heat increases with the pressure. On the outside, it looks like all is well, but inside the liquid is turning to vapor.

When I look back on situations when this weight affects me, I liken it to folding up a piece of paper. Not in a good logical way, like perhaps creation of some wonder of origami, but more like a paper grabbed by the hand in scrunched up in a ball. It is still a piece of paper, but it now cannot perform its function as it has all folded in on itself.

While logic can sometimes help to return us to a better place, it is often not the case. We are often so emotionally charged by the frustration which has built up inside us, and are unwilling to submit to whatever realities are facing us. In my own case, the more I try and deal with all these problems without help, the more I found myself folding in on myself.

As the folding and resistance increases, we become less able to see a way out of the situation, until perhaps eventually, events take over to release change the tension. It might be a health scare, stress, depression, financial failure, emotional dryness, the list is long.

So what to do. Well, one place to start is to have that soul unfold again. Many of these problems are based on a spiritual disposition that is not recognized. We are being closed instead of open. Unwilling instead of willing. Resistant rather than compliant.

Prayer, particularly prayer without an agenda can help us here. This is a time to remember St. Augustine’s quote of “my soul is restless, till it rests in thee.” Of us simply allowing ourselves to unfold in the presence of God.

What were, or are the fishing tangles of your life? The screwed up balls of paper? The angry remnants of relationships broken but not repaired?

Contemplation and meditation can be a helping hand which we may be ignoring. After all, silence is the language of God.

An Unfolding Soul


An Unfolding Soul

Let me out of this fishing line tangle,

Of this knotted gut,

And this un-ironed selfishness which caused me to become this ball of paper;

Now both fragile and tense,

I curl up in my own self-interest.


So, let me unfold.

One corner at a time,

Stretching the scrunched up parts until all creases are smooth,

Revealing the parts of me which have become concealed to others,

Even myself.


Let me be open once more,

Willing to written on,


Directed without agenda.


And see the face of God once more,

Merely by unfolding my resistance.


I recently had some discussions on the topic of adventure. When we say the word adventure, we often consider it as an event or activity that might break us out of our normal pattern of life. Whatever that is!

Adventure conjures up feelings of excitement, change, adrenalin, and activities that might be considered outside the norm for us. In many cases, what we once considered an adventurous activity is now part of the norm for us. For example, if you are not used to public speaking, then those first steps in grade school or high school can be considered adventurous. We put ourselves out there for all to see (and criticize) and rely on our skills and wit to get us through it. It often takes courage to even place ourselves in line for an adventure, such as getting on that roller coaster that the kids want to ride, but you really would prefer to avoid.

So adventure firstly requires a commitment and then the second stage, the follow-through. When I review my own life and this topic I often feel that adventure, or trying something new, can become a part of your journey. A willingness to take a risk, push your skill sets, explore where you don’t have a map or a guaranteed outcome all comprise of how the adventure is perceived and understood. So, this willingness can apply to our vocational and family life as well as our spiritual journey.

Rather like a child who often takes their lead in the taste of food from diets served and eaten by parents, we gradually build up a list of food types we are unwilling to try. Even when we know that food is good for us, tastes pleasant and looks great, we still refuse to try it out. This is a learned trait even in a two-year-old. When we add up our places of “don’t go there,” they become a massive list by the time we are adults.
Over time, this creates a list of places where our tastes, likes and dislikes come to govern our approach to the world based on a limited palate. This does not just affect food, relationships, social interaction but also our spiritual journey. We become judgmental on prayer types, worship venues, even who we are willing to socialize it.

This coming week perhaps we can reexamine our taste for adventure. Are we willing to try our a new prayer form? Engage in a new spiritual group? Listen to a new message? All these are signs that we have opened ourselves up to hearing what God is saying to us on the inside. Christ is with us always, but are we open for His next suggested adventure in our spiritual journey?

After all, this adventure may have been sitting there for a long time in our hearts and minds, but somehow we didn’t dare to say Yes to it. Perhaps the time to say Yes instead of No to God’s next adventure is here, all we need to do is answer it.