A deacon greets a young parishioner. Spencer Grant

Servant Leaders in the School of Jesus

Growing on the path of ministerial discipleship

Comments Off on Servant Leaders in the School of Jesus

One way of considering the three-year public teaching ministry of Jesus during his earthly life is through the lens of leadership development. In this regard, the late Cardinal Carlo Caffara, in his work “Living in Christ,” identified three main differences between the school of the rabbis and the school of Jesus in first-century Palestine, which could be instructive for us.

First, with the rabbinical schools, the disciples traveled from school to school and finally chose their rabbi and master. With the school of Jesus, he chose his disciples (cf. Jn 15:16).

Second, with the rabbinical schools, the disciples would gather around a rabbi and study the Torah of Moses. With the school of Jesus, he was the living Torah to be studied. He was the fulfillment of the Torah of Moses and the words of the prophets. His words and deeds were the subject matter of the lessons for his disciples (cf. Jn 8:31-32).

Third, with the rabbinical schools, the disciples might eventually go and form their own particular school and become rabbis themselves. With the school of Jesus, they were forever the disciples of the one master (cf. Mt 23:8-12).

To be a Christian disciple meant to learn and follow the teachings of the one Master. The Greek word μαθητής (mathētēs) referred to a student or apprentice of a teacher, and all four Gospels use this term to refer to the followers of Jesus. The root of the English word disciple, which we use to translate the Greek, comes from the Latin word disciplus, which means “student, learner, pupil.” A related Latin word, disciplina, refers to “instruction, teaching, learning” and in subsequent developments it referred to the disciplines, practices or conduct of an apprentice who demonstrated learning.

As clergy — bishops, presbyters and deacons — we are constantly reminded of our calling to discipleship, in part by the garment we all wear — the alb in the West or the sticharion in the Greek East — which is either a plain or somewhat ornate baptismal garment. It is a reminder to us of our entry point into the Kingdom as disciples of Christ. It is also a reminder that, although we are entrusted by ordination with the responsibility of teaching and ministry to the broader school of Jesus’ disciples in the Church, that path of baptismal discipleship does not end, but rather, through a special consecration, is empowered to serve with an even higher degree of accountability (cf. Jas 3:1).

With and for the Church

So how does one integrate this call to discipleship and call to ministry? I believe that the slightly amended words of St. Augustine of Hippo to his local Church express it best: “With you I am a Christian, for you I am a minister of the Gospel.”

What do we call this path of the ordained, then, who are called to be disciples of Christ and yet serve as ministers of the Gospel?

I refer to it as the path of ministerial discipleship.

Ministerial discipleship is a way of defining the service of all of the ordained of any rank to the life and mission of the Church and her faithful. It means that we do not forgo either the universal call to holiness given to us in baptism, the exercise of the charisms of the Holy Spirit given to us in confirmation (or chrismation), or the spiritual disciplines we learned through catechesis. Rather, the fulfillment of this calling and the exercise of these disciplines in the school of Jesus takes on a ministerial shape and direction toward serving others in helping them realize their own call to holiness and service.

St. Paul expresses well the work of those ordained to serve and equip the whole People of God for ministry: “And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and knowledge of the Son of God … with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love” (Eph 4:11-16).

If we follow a common image of the contemporary servant-leadership schools, the Church is truly an upended pyramid, with the lay faithful at the top of the pyramid and the ministers who serve them and equip them at the lower levels. At the same time, these ministers are truly themselves part of the broader body of disciples. They minister to others and are ministered to by others.

Head, Hands, Heart, Habits

What are the implications, then, of this view of ministerial discipleship, especially for those of us who are ordained? What does faithful ministerial discipleship look like? What do ministerial disciples do and how do we describe the behaviors that are in keeping with the mission of the ordained who are themselves called first to be disciples and then to be ministers of the Gospel?

As we know, bishops are entrusted with the three munera — or duties — associated with apostolic ministry. For the deacon who shares in the bishop’s ministry through ordination, the three derivative munera of word, worship and charity form the primary domains of his service.

Drawing on both educational philosophy and some of the servant-leadership literature, I like to think about ministerial discipleship with the diaconate in particular in terms of head, hands, heart and habits.

Head: This refers to the mindset of a ministerial disciple. It refers to not only intellectual knowledge, but also to a clear understanding of what a deacon is — his identity in Christ as an emissary of the bishop — and how one might serve prudentially in particular ministerial situations.

Hands: This refers to the skill set of a ministerial disciple in his service of teaching and preaching, serving and leading the worship of the Church, and ministering in the name of the bishop and in service to the needs of his priest and faithful.

Heart: This refers to the relational abilities of a ministerial disciple. Here the relationship orientations are cruciform in shape: vertically up in relationship first to God and to those in authority over him, vertically down in relationship to those whom he serves, and horizontally in relationship to co-laborers in the fraternity of the diaconate as well as other clergy and lay leaders.

Habits: This refers to the natural and supernatural virtues and disciplines of a ministerial disciple. Habits might include practices like personal study, prayer, fasting, a plan of life, etc., as well as virtues and characteristics like prudence, fortitude, humility, kindness, gentleness, self-control, etc. These often speak to the grace-formed character of the individual, which are then applied in a variety of situations.

Learning and Growing

In our work at The Center for InMinistry Development (inministrydevelopment.com) to train emerging, new and experienced leaders, we identify several steps to learning and growing as a faithful and effective ministerial disciple in the areas of word, worship and charity, incorporating the head, hands, heart and habits. Four keys include:

Be open to learning

If there is anything that defines both the practice of leadership and discipleship, it is a commitment to learning and growing (head). Too often, many of us treat ordination as an end of learning — the capstone to a process of formation. But the reality is that ordination is really where the learning begins! It is the opportunity to put into practice all that we have learned in formation, which requires an openness to learning in a variety of ways.

Learn from experience

The adage “experience is the best teacher” is certainly the case, most especially when it comes to ministerial discipleship. Those who have a growth mindset (head) and are open to learning take the time to reflect on their experiences (whether good or bad) to determine what went well and what they might do differently next time. They also seek out a variety of experiences in ministry to test themselves and develop new skills (hands).

Seek out feedback

One of the best ways to learn is through our relationships with those who lead us, those with whom we serve, and those that we serve (heart). Asking others to help you identify specific strengths and opportunities to improve the way in which you serve reflects a growth mindset, models an openness to change and inspires the virtue of humility, which should characterize every disciple (habits).

Develop a learning plan

Jesus, in his own formation of the apostles, followed a pedagogy to help prepare and equip them for ministry through the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. This plan continued as they exercised this ministry and was reflected in the life of the Church (cf. Acts 2:42; Jn 14:26). For us today growth as a ministerial disciple occurs both informally (ad hoc learning) and formally (based upon a plan). A formal learning plan involves identifying the competencies one needs to focus on for improvement and a strategy to learn and grow through particular experiences.

Journey to Growth

To summarize, the journey to growing as ministerial disciples in the school of Jesus involves the following:

• Understanding that we are lifelong disciples with the Church and ministers of the Gospel for the Church.

• Evaluating our service in the areas of word, worship and charity with our head, hands, heart and habits.

• Following the keys to learning and growing through a growth mindset, learning from experience, seeking feedback and developing a plan.

FATHER DANIEL DOZIER is the co-founder and chief learning officer for The Center for InMinistry Development and an associate professor of Scripture and Catholic Leadership, www.inministrydevelopment.com.


Three Munera Entrusted to Bishops

Bishops are entrusted with the three munera — or duties — associated with apostolic ministry:

Munus docendi (teaching): The ministry of preaching and teaching the Gospel and the Christian life.

Munus sanctificandi (sanctifying): The ministry of sanctifying the Church especially through liturgy.

Munus regendi (governing): The ministry of governance in love as shepherds and servants of the Church.

For the deacon who shares in the bishop’s ministry through ordination, the three derivative munera of word, worship and charity form the primary domains of his service.


Did you enjoy this article? Subscribe now.
Send feedback to us at thedeacon@osv.com