My wife has always maintained that those going into ministry should first work a few years in food service. Her main point in this claim is that you will never treat that server, barista, or otherwise unimpressive worker the same after you’ve known what it’s like to be in their shoes. My wife worked her way through college, picking up countless shifts in the campus cafe, serving at banquets, and working in the cafeteria. She finished her undergrad with no debt at all, a feat that her future husband was unfortunately not able to replicate.
Most of my wife’s jobs were on the campus of Southern seminary, where she attended Boyce college. Over the four years she worked on campus, her brief or repeated service interactions with students, staff, and visiting leaders gave her a unique window into the character of each. This is because the way we treat those with supposedly unimportant jobs always says something about our humility. Seminary can be a heady place. World-renowned scholars are teaching and being made. Current leaders rub shoulders with future leaders. Famous pastors preach in chapel and visit to give prestigious lectures. In other words, the temptations of fear of man and showing partiality are regularly present, made all the more slippery in that everything is set in a context of preparation for ministry. After all, why slow down and engage the college kid behind the counter in a black apron when standing right over there is the author of your favorite theology book?
These dynamics meant that my wife and others working service jobs always noticed the ones who would indeed slow down and truly engage them as people and fellow heirs of the kingdom. And of course, they would also notice when students or leaders didn’t extend even basic Christian courtesy. Now, everyone has bad days where we are lost in our thoughts or discouraged and forget to make eye contact or interact genuinely with the person behind the cash register. The issue is not what happens as a one-off, but what is the pattern of our lives and interactions with those in everyday or lowly roles around us? Do we truly see and value those around us whom the world deems unimportant? Do we ever slow down and genuinely engage them, seeking even to delight in them? Pay attention to those who do this well, for they are the kind of leaders worth following.
In the field of leadership training, some authors speak of the “waiter principle,” the idea that how a leader treats a server speaks to whether that leader is truly a leader of integrity or not. A true leader will understand that every role in their organization or company matters, and this will affect how they treat those in even the lowest roles. In Central Asia, it’s not so much the restaurant servers who get treated poorly, but the cleaners or the chai boys. When we’ve taught leadership seminars in local universities, we’ve learned to slow down and focus on this principle, because in a patron-client hierarchical society, the culture says that it’s actually shameful for leaders to treat the unimportant with respect. While Western culture is a little stronger on this point, the temptations toward showing favoritism toward the important are really universal. No matter where you live, our sin natures want to judge by appearances, honoring the rich, talented, and important, and belittling or ignoring the poor or average among us.
Somewhere like seminary can illustrate why it can be downright foolish to judge by appearances. That foreign exchange student making your sandwich might in a few years be leading a thriving church overseas and show up on a 9 Marks podcast (as took place in my earbuds this week). The guy doing landscaping may end up planting a church in one of the hardest cities in North America. The gal making your coffee may become a well-known author, or, in my wife’s case, serve faithfully on a frontier church-planting team in a region overseas where many others would never even consider raising their families. Basic wisdom tells us to honor even the lowly because we cannot predict if or when they will be lifted up to a place higher than ours – and if that someday happens, then our honor or shame is tied to how we treated them before.
But this strategic wisdom really shouldn’t be our primary motivation to show respect to those who appear unimportant among us. It still assumes that it’s the potentially-powerful who are worthy of more honor. Instead, the deeper motivation should be that God has welcomed the lowly, honored them, and even delights in them. We need to remember the upside-down logic of the kingdom of God, “many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Matt 19:30). Jesus welcomes little children and rebukes those who don’t (Mark 10:14). He befriends the outcasts (Mark 2:16). He pronounces blessing on the poor and pronounces woe upon the rich (Luke 6:20, 24). Not many of God’s chosen are rich, powerful, and important in this world (1 Cor 1:26-31). The sick and the poor are the true treasures of the church, and every person we interact with has a fascinating story that overflows with God’s glory, and the potential to themselves be eternally glorious – to even be a judge over angels (1 Cor 6:3).
Being reminded of the nature of God’s kingdom can help us live in such a way that we become believers and leaders who truly see the lowly. Picturing that service worker resurrected and remembering that we are to consider others as more important than ourselves (Phil 2:3) can transform our everyday interactions with those around us – and give life to those who often feel invisible. And if seeing and delighting in those deemed unimportant becomes a pattern in our lives, then we are well on our way to developing this character trait of a true and trustworthy leader ourselves.
While I didn’t have too many jobs in food service (Stints at Jamba Juice and Jimmy Johns showed me my hands could never seem to move fast enough), I have often experienced a similar dynamic because I don’t present as physically or interpersonally impressive. I have a pretty average appearance and bearing and I find myself not very good at first impressions in a Western context. This means that those I’m briefly introduced to often quickly move on to those who appear more interesting. I can’t help but notice that there’s often a very different sort of interest shown later – once they learn about my ministry and story. This means that those who show a kind engagement before they know about my background and ministry accomplishments truly stand out. Their posture toward an unimpressive person has shone a light on their character. Without knowing it, they have outed themselves as humble and trustworthy.
I’ll never forget the time I met a very well-known pastor and author during my first week as a green, 25-year-old missions pastor. This leader was a regular speaker at T4G. He had published numerous books and spoken to tens of thousands. He was at our church for an important meeting with our senior leadership, and I was somehow invited to sit in, even though I was the brand new kid on staff. Yet in the hallway, as we made cursory introductions, this leader didn’t quickly move on to talk with the more dynamic leaders like I was used to. Instead, he slowed down and turned to me, deeply interested in the couple of details that my lead pastor had told him about me. Looking me in the eyes, he seemed to be fascinated by what he had heard. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Brother, I hear you’re just beginning a new role as a missions pastor. I am so excited about your ministry.” I was so taken aback by this kind of focus that I have no idea what I said in response. It was qualitatively different to be seen in that way. And it made me desire to be the kind of leader who would see others around me, even when they haven’t achieved enough to “deserve” that kind of focus. It also made me want to repent for the times I was guilty of ignoring the unimpressive.
Leaders who see the lowly and unimpressive are the kind of leaders worth following – and the kind of leaders we should want to become. This is because how we treat the lowly is truly a window into our character. Let’s keep that in mind the next time we meet someone who doesn’t appear that important. And if God is calling you to go into ministry, then follow a wise woman’s advice and consider first working some years in food service.