Dan Ebener

Dan R. Ebner, Servant Leadership Models for Your Parish (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 2010).

Review by Mark F. Fischer

Servant leadership is a term coined by Robert K. Greenleaf in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as Leader.”  Now Dan R. Ebener has showed the continued relevance of the concept for Catholics in Servant Leadership Models for Your Parish.

"Servant Leadership Models," a new book by Dan Ebener, describes the difference between the "servant" leader and the "pedestal" leader.

Ebener contrasts servant leadership with “pedestal” leadership, his term for the behavior of those in positions of authority who understand their role as self-aggrandizement.

The true servant leader, by contrast, serves followers by helping them achieve their goals.  Such a leader presupposes that followers already know in general where they want to go.  The servant leader facilitates their own growth and goal-oriented activity.

Ebener shows the relevance of servant leadership to the Catholic pastor.  His people already know their goal in general — it is union with God.  The pastor who is a servant leader helps his people achieve that goal by clarifying it, focusing his people’s attention on it, and helping them achieve it.

Such leadership offers a powerful and persuasive model to Christians.  As followers of Jesus Christ, they are inspired by his willingness not to be served but to serve.  Servant leadership in the Catholic parish presupposes a congregation that is committed to its goal of union with God.  The congregation will be inspired by a leader whose ministry is to help them achieve their goal.


What happens to servant leadership, however, when the congregation loses sight of its goal or does not fully understand it?  In these cases, the servant leader must remind the congregation of the goal and teach them what it means.  Teaching is fundamental to the ministry of the pastor.  Bishops entrust a parish to him because they have confidence in him.

Ebener calls the power of the appointed pastor “positional” power.  The positional leader, he says, has been “placed” into a position of leadership (22).  Such a leader can use his position to great effect.  “Servant leadership that flows out of positions of authority in the church,” Ebener writes (7), “surprises, excites, and inspires church members.”  But the positional leader who does not serve hurts the church.  Ebener puts it this way: “When the person with positional power in the situation is a pedestal leader, it makes it hard for others to practice servant-oriented ministry, whether leadership or followership” (184).

So positional power is not incompatible with servant leadership, but differs from it.  Tension may arise between the positional leader (who sees the Christian goal and understands it) and the congregation (which may not see or understand in the same way).  It is not easy to help people achieve their goal when they lose sight of it or misunderstand it.

Ebener acknowledges the possibility of this tension.  The pastor can be caught between the expectations of the bishop and those of parishioners.  To resolve the tension, he suggests, the servant leader must remember that he comes not to be served but to serve.  Service to the bishop, however, is not always the same as service to the congregation.

Transformational and Transactional Leaders

Ebener expresses another aspect of the tension that pastors feel in terms of a contrast between “transformational” and “transactional” leadership.  The transformational leader, he says, transforms the institution “by focusing on organizational change and a shared vision of the future” (26).  Such a leader inspires, motivates, and stimulates others by presenting a goal that is worth pursuing.  The transactional leader, by contrast, “focuses more on the day-to-day transactions between leader and follower, particularly the system of rewards and consequences needed to motivate others toward the common goal” (28).  In the Catholic parish, Ebener acknowledges, both are important.  Pastors have to perform their management duties as well as steering the congregation toward its long term goals (172).

Ebener clearly believes, however, that the pastor who is a true servant leader should be more concerned with transformational than transactional leadership.  Quoting John Kotter, Ebener suggests that Catholic parishes, like most organizations today, are “over-managed and under-led” (28).  Too many pastors are transactional leaders or managers.  Ebener would prefer to see pastors embrace the role of the servant leader and delegate management duties to others (172-3).  He wants them to transform the parish, not simply ensure that it is smoothly managed.

For those of us who are committed to the well-being of Catholic communities, Servant Leadership Models updates the concept of servant leadership and shows its continued relevance.  The servant leader will always experience the tension that exists between meeting the needs of Christians as they understand their needs and calling them to a deeper vision and greater discipleship.  Such a leader will also have to negotiate the tension between the obligations of day-to-day parish management  and the longing to guide a flock to green pastures beside still waters.  Not every transaction will transform the community into what God wants it to become, but transactions remain important.  Even the pastor who wants to be a servant leader cannot escape management responsibilities.

To order a copy of Servant Leadership Models for Your Parish, click on the Ebener Flyer 2-27-10.

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