by Brian Bettes
When you live on a farm and have livestock, your animals become an endless source of “life lessons.” This morning I was doing one of my favorite chores (not!)—cleaning out the chicken house. We have 50 chickens, so this is a weekly event that is not the most pleasant. But suffice it to say that on a weekly basis, I get to spend some “quality time” with my chickens.
As I was doing this, I observed the chickens doing their usual “pecking order” routine. Since we have some well-established chickens and some newer, young chickens, the pecking order is in flux at the moment. Some of the older mother hens who have been with us for a long time are learning that they have to take a back seat to some of the newer, larger, more energetic youngsters.
In the chicken yard, pecking order is important because it determines who gets to eat first, who gets to roost where they want to, and in general who “rules the roost,” so to speak. Everyone has to learn their place in the flock from the first to the last. However, in all this “jostling for position” there is one steady constant. It is the old rooster who struts around the yard providing “oversight” of the pecking order. If he sees something he doesn’t like, he is quick to show his spurs and let the others know who is in charge. Even the young roosters don’t mess with old “Bubba,” or the two hens that are always at his side and are given the privilege of preening him! Every other position in the chicken yard is up for grabs. I call this chicken-yard politics.
As I often do, I see parallels. In this case, it is a parallel between the pecking order of a chicken yard and the “pecking order” within the church. In the church environment I grew up in, there was a very clear pecking order. Everything from who directs the choir to who makes the coffee—including who brings and sets up the snacks, who brings and arranges the flowers, who sets up the hall, who operates and manages the sound system, who directs parking, and even the “lowly” job of who cleans the restrooms—often became an entrenched “position” to be filled. There was definitely a pecking order! There were the opening and closing prayer men who hoped some day they could become song leaders. If you did well at that, some day maybe you could become a deacon who administered all of this congregational activity. For those who excelled in the deacon realm, maybe being an elder might be in your future. The elders were to be the “spiritual leaders” while monitoring the deacons and their activities. Among the deacons and elders there always seemed to be a “head deacon” and a “head elder” that all the others were to go to with questions or special situations. Then there was the rooster, whose name was “Pastor” and he was the final authority in all things within the congregation.
All of this activity was supposed to be done for the purpose of “serving the needs of the congregation,” but it seemed to never fail that each position became a protected encampment. The only way a vacancy occurred is if someone moved, died, or there was “vertical movement,” meaning the pastor elevated by appointment someone to a higher position. And watch out and get ready for some “pecking” if someone stepped into an area they didn’t belong. The pastor would be right there to “clarify the pecking order,” and to make sure everyone had “the right attitude,” using his authority (spurs) if necessary to accomplish this.
How different all this posturing and positioning is from the true servant leadership approach that Jesus taught. Jesus taught that, instead of seeking to be elevated, we should humble ourselves before one another and serve, with the “chief being the servant of all” (Mark 10:42-44). Jesus made this statement because, just prior to him saying it, James and John had tried to jostle for position in Jesus’ future kingdom (Mark 10:35-40). The other ten disciples were incensed about this (v. 41) because James and John had asked for prime positions on the right hand side and left hand side of Jesus (the rooster preening positions?) in His kingdom. Almost certainly each of the ten was upset because they wanted those positions for themselves instead of James and John. Sounds a lot like the chicken yard doesn’t it?
Note Jesus’ response with regard to Himself and to where leadership positions come from. He first identifies the Father as the one who prepares leaders for specific opportunities in the Kingdom (Mark 10:40). But second, He states that even He did not come to be served, but to serve and give His life—literally—in service, and as a part of that service (Mark 10:45). Quite the opposite of a chicken yard isn’t it?
When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:4-5), He portrayed something very different from the norm, and deeply profound. So different was Jesus’ action by doing the job of the lowest servant in the house that Peter had an almost violent reaction (John 13:6, 8). This is just not the way things are supposed to be done! Yet so profound was His action that He made it clear that if He were not allowed to do it, Peter could not be a part of Him (v. 8). Jesus wanted to make sure that it was understood that there is a different path to leadership; the path of servitude. He then told them that they were to treat each other with the same attitude of love, respect, and humility as He had just done (John 13:12-17), which by extension was passed on to us. Can you imagine a rooster going to each of his hens and washing their feet? Okay, maybe the analogy breaks down a bit there, but I think you know what I mean.
In a congregation, there are many things that need to be done; and every one of them is important for the smooth operation of services. Yet while we are doing these tasks, Jesus’ example and His instruction given to us through Paul, teaches us to humble ourselves before on another (Philippians 2:2-4), and to submit ourselves one to another in the fear of God (Ephesians 5:21).
I don’t see a system of vertical movement in play here. What I see is a group of people working together to serve the needs of the whole with each person in the congregation willing to lovingly do any task to help accomplish the end result. What I don’t see is a bunch of chicken-yard politics!