Reflections on Service, Leadership and Eldership.
So Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King would have been 93 years today had he not been assassinated. As an African-American woman raised in California at a particular time, I grew up, first noticing, then celebrating the legacy of the renowned civil rights, global peace advocate and spiritual-faith based leader.
I, like many of us, remember when this day was not a national holiday nor a day dedicated to public service."
Today while listening to any number of recordings of Rev. Dr. King’s inspiring and spirit-lifting sermons or speeches, I will wipe away tears as my heart breaks open a little bit more. And feeling how much hope, love, and righteous expectation Dr. King held for us as a nation and as a society.
One of his most famous quotes is from “The Drum Major Instinct” sermon, “[E]everyone can be great...because everyone can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” This quote reminds us and challenges us to connect and engage in community. In this assertion of what constitutes the capacity to serve, Rev. Dr. King offers a heart-based approach to service that forgoes ego – if as we lead from our hearts and disregard societal boundaries and symbols of status which separate us, we can engage in acts of common reciprocity that culminate into service.
So much of my early career was established in the national youth service movement working with such entities as YouthBuild, Teach for America, CityYear and Public Allies — there are multitudes of t-shirts with this quote attesting to this core value that fueled the National Service movement, culminating into Dr. King’s birthday is the National Day of Service. Work in the social sector assumes an orientation towards service. Fortunately, these times also invite, even demand, an exploration of the intersection between being of service, social change, power, structural oppression, humility, and relationship building. No longer is it adequate to volunteer in a soup kitchen without asking the question, “What are the root causes of poverty in a community? How does an individual or an organization with resources develop authentic relationships that can lead to sustained change in a neighborhood?”
In his 1963 published collection of sermons, “Strength to Love,” Rev. Dr. King’s emphasizes that “[l]life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?’” In 2022, we can ask the urgent question — how do I facilitate community and individual change that supports us working together for one another?” “What learning and relationships will help me be better at working and serving others including my community and the larger world with grace, integrity, humility and respect?”
As modern elders and aspiring modern elders, we have the opportunity in these times to answer a call to service. Our search for renewed purpose often coincides with the niggling and persistent sense of ‘how can I be of service?’ And we have the privilege, opportunity and honor to self-identify what that service might be. When we consider Chip’s concept of mentoring, there is an integrated sense of mutual service between the mentor and mentee, right?
Our ability to discern and identify what particular aspects of our skills, talents and gifts might we share in our practice of service is a beautiful question to contemplate. Today, I invite us to consider what dimensions of service are currently embedded in our lives? How is service creating opportunities for us to be life-long learners? How is service serving as a gateway to new perspectives, experiences and communities as we humbly and gracefully engage in contributing to others? These inquiries allow us to explore the intersections of modern eldership, leadership and service.
Diane J. Johnson, Ph.D., M.Div., is CEO and Founder of Mmapeu Consulting, a national consulting firm focused on organizational culture change, DEI, strategy development and leadership capacity building. Having worked with almost 12,000 leaders and their teams across the business, philanthropic, government and social sectors. Currently she is most fascinated by operationalizing organizational values that turn into implementable policies and behaviors supporting equity, diversity and inclusion. And, she just finished her second MEA workshop last week in Baja.