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Washing Vessels

Why Humility Matters for Teachers as Much as Learners

Written by

Katie Gerdt, Contributing Writer

on December 5, 2018

“I want to teach in church, but I’m not sure about my motives,” a friend shared as we sat on my living room floor, our earnest discussion juxtaposed with toddler babble and plastic toys. I felt the gravity of her introspection, but I smiled in spite of myself. Years of teaching had convinced me that such concern was both unnecessary and insufficient so early in the journey. I have come to realize that our motives are revealed not so much before we start working as during our work.

Initial forays into teaching should not feel high risk in a healthy assembly of those following and trusting Jesus Christ. Even while we take seriously both faithfulness to the Word of God and training in godliness, a growth mindset (such as we see displayed throughout the New Testament epistles) allows people opportunities to exercise and develop their gifts (teaching or otherwise). Worshipping and living in community enables us to perceive people’s strengths, walk beside them as they start serving, and lovingly redirect them along the way.

If completely blameless motivation was a prerequisite to contributing in our churches, we would be rather shorthanded! As James points out, “We all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). A Biblical doctrine of sin prevents us from pretending we do anything out of perfect love. The Apostle Paul himself made no bones about his failures, even as he penned the Holy Spirit inspired letter to the church in Rome (Romans 7). A teacher and his or her community step forward with the understanding that the act of leading will inevitably reveal imperfections in both ability and desire. The question is, what will happen when it does?

The authority and influence of a teaching platform come with increased exposure to criticism and public ramifications for failure. A hard heart of pride will either crack or calcify under these pressures. Stepping away from ministry appears humble, but may betray an intolerance for confrontation. Conversely, a teacher may be tempted to grasp power too tightly, throwing around the weight of her authority and talking down to students. Negative feedback (whether valid or not) feels like a threat to who she is or what she has. In an attempt to protect herself and her position, she meets concerns and criticism with either derision or spineless compliance.

A Holy Spirit filled teacher will also struggle with the influence and confrontation innate to leadership. “Bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” (James 3) may be exposed. But through confession and repentance, grace softens the heart. Belief in and love for Jesus Christ draw her to follow both His mission and His method.

In 2 Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul writes of the mission given to us: reconciliation. He beautifully describes Christ’s love compelling us away from self-service as we learn to see His redemptive intentions for both ourselves and those around us. This is the amazing abundance of life in God’s love: as we experience His affection and delight we lose the felt need to cling to power or hunger for compliments. Teaching becomes one of many ways to humbly minister that love to others.

And truly, servanthood is the leadership method Jesus models for us. His leadership was not a quest for authority or power. John 13 says that, knowing he already had these things from his Father, Jesus humbled himself and washed the feet of his closest followers. Then, in a play on logic, he tells them that since they, as students, are not greater than him, their teacher, they should follow his example of becoming less.

A pastor of mine once encouraged me to visualize through prayer the process of tying on an apron to do the dirty work of serving. Before I teach, I ask the Holy Spirit to replace my self-focus with a desire to refresh others and help them on their journey. In obedience to God’s call and aware of my imperfections, I move past the initial sting of negative feedback and keep learning. As I empty myself, I am filled by Jesus’ promise to leaders who kneel in humility: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

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