By Dr. Chip Henderson

I think most spiritual leaders battle with ambition at some level. Jesus once spoke into the lives of His disciples about the proper perspective on personal ambition. In Mark 9:31-37, Jesus plainly laid out for the disciples what was about to happen. He was about to be “delivered into the hands of men.” They would kill Him, and “when He has been killed, He will rise three days later.”

So as they traveled, the disciples began to discuss which one of them was the greatest. We judge the disciples harshly and look with a furrowed brow and think, “How could they be so self-centered and selfishly ambitious?” But as I put myself in their shoes, I wonder, I’m confident I probably would have joined in the same “discussion.” The discussion was doomed from the start for two reasons. First, Mark 9:32 tells us the discussion grew out of misunderstanding and fear. We don’t know what the exact form of their fear was, but we do know that they didn’t understand the Kingdom of God clearly. Jesus said he would die and then rise. But they couldn’t get past “die.” At this point, they still saw life and ministry purely from a fleshly and earthly perspective. And if Jesus wasn’t going to be on earth in the flesh, then somebody else had to step up. They totally missed the resurrection and the eternal and spiritual nature of the Kingdom. Because they didn’t understand the Kingdom, they argued about something that was normal, but totally unnecessary. Wasn’t their discussion a natural thing to talk about? The leader just said He’s about to be taken away, so it was only natural for us to try and figure out who the next leader will be. Apparently each disciple weighed in with his resume’ and rationale for being “the man.” It’s natural to promote yourself. It’s the natural way, but it’s not the Jesus way.

When they finally came to a resting place, Jesus asked them what they had been talking about, and predictably they all kept silent. Maybe because it just isn’t appropriate to talk about who is going to lead when the leader hasn’t left yet. It’s just awkward. Or maybe they kept silent because they knew something wasn’t right about the way the conversation went down.

Since none of the disciples would talk, Jesus did. He gave them a proper perspective for spiritual leadership and how leaders rise.

“Sitting down, He called the twelve and said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all,” (Mark 9:35).

Jesus said spiritual leadership isn’t earned by pressing your way up, but rather by working your way down. The way to truly lead in the Kingdom isn’t to push to be first and recognized, but to put others ahead of you and be willing to be last. From this I see three keys to spiritual leadership for any spiritual leader at any age or stage in their journey.

Kingdom Leaders Are Humble—Humility isn’t serving and going to the back of the line because it’s the “right thing to do.” I think biblical humility is a real awareness that you aren’t better than others, and you don’t deserve anything special. The truth is, we are all beggars when it comes to spiritual life. None of us can commend ourselves to God. Like Paul, we need to honestly recognize that whatever I am, I am by the grace of God. The truth is, no matter how gifted you are, you aren’t really “all that.” Actually, you are “none of that.”

Kingdom Leaders Value People—Why do you serve and elevate others ahead of yourself? Is it so others will see how godly and humble you are? It’s possible to serve others for your own sake. Or do you serve and elevate others because you really value them? Right after Jesus spoke the principle, He picked up a child and said, receive people like this. He wasn’t being sweet. He was being revolutionary. Children were objects, with no voice and no power and no status. So Jesus says, real spiritual leadership can be measured in your attitude and actions toward those who have no rights and no voice. Don’t serve people who can “scratch your back.” And don’t serve people with an eye toward how it makes you look to others. Just serve people. Period. But especially serve those who can do nothing for you.

Kingdom Leaders Exalt Jesus—The disciples “discussed” who was the greatest because they misunderstood the Kingdom. They assumed that if Jesus went away, one of them would need to step into the leadership void. But they totally missed that Jesus wasn’t really going away and no new leader needed to emerge. Jesus was and remains the King in the Kingdom. Spiritual leadership goes off track when you forget who you are really exalting. The goal of spiritual leadership is never to exalt the leader- that’s idolatry and sin. The goal of spiritual leadership is always to exalt the Leader. There is only One. John the Baptist had it right. He must increase, and I must decrease.

As a spiritual leader, if you will get this principle, it will allow you to serve in unseen places, through difficult circumstances, while others may seem to pass you by. You can lead knowing that it’s an honor to serve The King at any post. And you can lead knowing that God humbles those who exalt themselves, but he exalts those who humble themselves.

Dr. Chip Henderson has been senior pastor at Pinelake Church since 1999.