HOW DOES ONE TELL. . .

We convince by our presence. –Walt Whitman

Greenleaf writes: Who is the servant?  How does one tell a truly giving, enriching servant from the neutral person or the one whose net influence is to take away from or diminish other people? …There is no way.  …If there were a dependable way that would tell us, ‘This man enriches by his presence, he is neutral, or he takes away,’ life would be without challenge.  Yet it is terribly important that one know, both about himself and about others, whether the net effect of one’s influence on others enriches, is neutral, or diminishes and depletes.

Greenleaf’s words, ‘There is no way’ puzzles me.  Why?  In a number of his essays he is quite clear about one ‘way’ – his ‘Best Test’ for the servant.  He admits that this test is ‘difficult to administer’ – ask anyone who has attempted to do so and you will probably find agreement with Greenleaf’s observation.  The servant will, according to Greenleaf, seek to live into and out of the ‘Best Test’ – this is one way of identifying the servant from the non-servant. 

In order to live into and out of Greenleaf’s ‘Best Test’ the servant must be ‘truly giving’ and by his/her very presence the other(s) will be ‘enriched’ not ‘diminished.’  If the servant lives into and out of Greenleaf’s ‘Best Test’ then the one being served will ‘grow’ as a person – he/she will become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous AND the person served will more likely choose to become a servant (if he/she is not already a servant). 

Greenleaf is also clear: if one lives into and out of the ‘Best Test’ then folks will not be diminished or depleted – even the least privileged will benefit or at minimum they will not be further deprived.  To up the ante even more, in 1980 (his first iteration for the ‘Best Test’ emerged in 1969) he added that no one will be intentionally or unintentionally hurt by a serving act. 

Greenleaf also states clearly that the servant is first a fully human being.  That is in Greenleaf’s words the person at his/her healthiest is a ‘living paradox’ – the person is both ‘good and evil’ (or if you prefer, gentle reader – the person is ‘virtue and vice’ or is ‘light and darkness’ or is ‘light and shadow’).  This idea of being a living paradox continues to challenge some who espouse (or claim) to be servants – they just cannot embrace the idea that they are BOTH ‘good and evil’ (or ‘virtue and vice,’ etc.)  Because the person is a living paradox, the person is imperfect and will ‘fail’ or ‘stumble’ – ‘consistency’ not ‘perfection’ is the goal. 

Thus, as Greenleaf notes, ‘healing’ becomes another necessary process for the servant (healing for Greenleaf involves ‘making whole’ again); healing involves forgiveness and reconciliation. 

So, I continue to sit with and explore Greenleaf’s question: ‘How does one tell…’ And I continue to hold and explore the second question: ‘Who is the servant?’

To refuse to examine the assumptions one lives by is immoral. –Robert K. Greenleaf

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