How to Develop the Heart of a Servant

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Purpose Driven Life" by Rick Warren. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the heart of a servant like? Do you have one?

When you serve the church, you want to make sure that you’re doing it for the right reasons—in a way that honors God and serves as an example to others. You need to have the heart of a servant. Pastor Rick Warren outlines five characteristics and five attitudes of a servant’s heart.

Keep reading to learn how you can develop the heart of a servant.

Developing the Heart of a Servant

Knowing your unique ministry is the first vital part of serving others—the second vital part is developing your servant’s heart. You must have the heart of a servant for two reasons:

  1. It prevents you from feeling tempted to use your abilities and gifts for your personal benefit rather than for service. 
  2. It will urge you to answer God’s call to service even when the call is for something you’re not particularly gifted at. While your main focus is your unique ministry, your second focus is any call to service. Someone who doesn’t have the heart of a servant only responds to calls for their main ministry, and selfishly ignores God’s calls for other types of service.

A servant’s heart is made up of who you are and how you feel—a combination of character and attitude that lend themselves to serving others. 

The Heart of a Servant Has Five Characteristics

Anyone can perform acts of service in their church, but not everyone is doing it for the right reason—rather than these acts coming from their heart, they come from a need to be recognized or the desire to be liked. A true servant has a strong, developed character of servitude. There are five characteristics that indicate that service is part of who you are.  

Characteristic #1: Availability 

Keep your schedule unburdened enough to be able to answer the call to service when it comes, or be willing to put aside less important matters to answer the call. As a servant, you must be willing to let God interfere with your schedule as he needs to—those who only serve when they feel like it or when it’s convenient aren’t true servants. 

  • This may sound stressful, but it’s freeing. Changes to your schedule and interruptions in your day become less irritating when you see them as opportunities to do God’s work. 

Characteristic #2: Perceptiveness 

True servants always look for ways that they might be able to serve others and take opportunities as soon as they spot them. You need perception and flexibility to fulfill this characteristic:

  • Perception helps you sense when someone needs your help, even when it’s not immediately clear. 
  • Flexibility is necessary because moments to reach out to those who need help usually pass very quickly, so you need to be flexible enough to seize the moment without thinking about your schedule. 

To work on your servant’s perception and flexibility, make a point of looking for small, unnoticeable tasks that need to be done. 

  • For example, you might rake your elderly neighbor’s leaves while they’re out, or stay after a committee meeting to clean up the room. 

This will train your eye for subtle places to help, and teach you to adjust your schedule around what needs to be done—not vice versa.

Characteristic #3: Dedication

True servants always do the best they can, no matter the circumstances. They don’t wait for better timing or better tools, and they don’t make excuses—they use whatever they have and jump into their work. This is because they understand that thoughts don’t count as service; imperfect service is much better than thoughts of service that never gets carried out. 

You may be hesitating to serve or waiting for a “better time” because you think you have nothing worthy to offer. There are two arguments that can help you get over this mindset: 

  • God doesn’t care about perfection. He can use any sort of service you put out into the world, but he can’t use your thoughts of service.
  • Everyone has a learning curve, and their first attempts at service aren’t always their best. The only way you can improve is by practicing. 

Beyond doing their best, true servants give the same amount of dedication to every task. No service is beneath them, or too small—everything is done with their whole heart. Many people are only willing to perform grand gestures of service. Reveal that you have the heart of a servant by being the person who is willing to take care of the small things. 

  • Always keep in mind that no task was “beneath” Jesus. He washed feet, helped lepers, and made food for his disciples—all to the best of his ability. 

Characteristic #4: Reliability 

Servants are dependable—they do what they say they will, whether it’s a task they need to get done or a promise they need to keep. In a world where it seems to be increasingly difficult to get people to stick to their commitments, servants are steadfastly trustworthy and reliable

Characteristic #5: Humility 

Servants don’t need to be noticed or praised for their service—they do humble service and don’t go out of their way to get attention for it. If they do get praise, they acknowledge it but don’t let it change the way they serve or get in the way of it. 

  • This contrasts with how many people tend to serve, with the intent of being seen serving. For these people, service is not a way to do God’s work but a way to get attention and praise and seem to others like a faithful servant. 

If you catch yourself feeling upset that your ministry seems unimportant or is going unnoticed, remember who it’s for. God sees everything—he notices your ministry and he appreciates it.

The Heart of a Servant Has Five Attitudes

Along with a developed character, true servants have certain attitudes that reveal their true commitment to serving to help others rather than tally up accomplishments. True servants hold five common attitudes toward service.

Attitude #1: Others’ Needs First 

Think about others’ needs before thinking about your own. When your own needs aren’t the center of your focus, you more easily avoid the mistake of consciously or unconsciously participating in service for selfish reasons.

Imagine that you were interested in becoming the head of your church’s outreach committee. Your church puts out a call for volunteers to help with an upcoming event. 

  • If you were serving with an attitude of “my needs first,” you might volunteer for a position that’s in the spotlight and lets you inform everyone of your candidacy for the outreach committee. 
  • If you were serving with the heart of a servant and the attitude of “others’ needs first,” you’d more likely look for where help is needed most, even if the position isn’t prominent.

(Shortform note: Read our summary of The Road to Character for more insight into the “me first” attitude and tips on becoming more selfless.) 

It takes time to develop an unselfish attitude toward service. There are two aspects to this development: 

1) Practice: You’ll continually be presented with situations that force you to choose between meeting your needs and meeting the needs of someone else. Every time, consciously choose the latter. This practice will always be difficult—humans are naturally selfish, after all—but over time it’ll become more ingrained in your natural mindset. 

2) Regular check-ins: Reflect on how you feel when others treat you like a servant, such as when they take you for granted or are demanding of you. If you don’t notice, you’re serving from a place where their needs come first. If you feel upset or resentful, you’re letting your needs—for appreciation or an open schedule, for example—come first. When you feel negative about your role as a servant, identify which of your needs is clamoring for your attention, and consciously put it aside and refocus on your service. 

  • For example, you might feel upset after spending an afternoon creating a food delivery calendar for a sick church member if no one acknowledges all your hard work. This signals that your need for validation is driving your service. Remind yourself who the work is really for, and forget about getting a pat on the back.

Attitude #2: Stewardship, Not Ownership

True servants remember their commitment to stewardship. All of their gifts—tangible and intangible—have been entrusted to them by God to take care of and use in a trustworthy manner. When you choose to use the abilities, personality, or experiences God gave you for your personal pleasure instead of service to others, you’re using your gifts in an untrustworthy way.

Many people don’t realize that money is a gift entrusted to them like everything else in their lives, to be used carefully and unselfishly. 

  • For example, God might give you the gift of business savvy, the ability to make good deals or sales, or a knack for coming up with brilliant ideas that naturally bring in wealth.

In the Bible, Jesus spends more time talking about the role of money in our lives than he spends talking about heaven or hell—it’s that important for you to think about it. God gives you money to test your faithfulness and see if you’ll choose to serve him or serve your wealth. To be clear, it’s not sinful to have money or wealth. However, it is sinful to prioritize your wealth over your service, or refuse to use your wealth for God’s glory. Instead of wealth-building—that is, amassing as much wealth as possible—focus on kingdom-building. Kingdom builders focus on making money not for personal pleasure, but for the purpose of giving it away or spending it on the church and the church’s efforts to spread the message of God’s glory. 

  • For example, a kingdom builder might set up a scholarship program within her church to send young adults on mission trips all over the world. 

Attitude #3: Competition Is Useless 

A true servant only focuses on her own work, not the work of others—competing not only subtracts from time spent on her ministry, but it’s also useless in several ways.

  • All members of God’s family have the same goal in mind: bringing glory to God. If you’re all headed in the same direction, it doesn’t matter how people differ in getting there. 
  • Everyone has different skills and assignments given to them by God—it’s not possible to directly compare any two people. 
  • There is no such thing as “insignificant” ministry—thinking that your role is insignificant makes you feel insecure, and thinking your role is more significant than others’ makes you arrogant. Remember that everyone has an important role to fill within a diverse church. 

True servants not only avoid criticizing others, but they also avoid listening to criticism. When people don’t understand your unique ministry, they might try to get you to change how you serve so that you better fit their idea of what service should look like. 

  • Ignore these people. While their opinions may feel important because they’re so immediate, you know that the only opinion that matters is God’s and that he wouldn’t want you to change his plan to satisfy other people. 

Attitude #4: Christ Is a Secure Identity

True servants who feel secure about their identity in Christ are able to fully live the characteristic of dedication. Their secure identity means that they never feel the need to prove the legitimacy or importance of their work, so they’re not insecure about doing menial tasks. 

  • People who don’t serve from a place of secure identity might shy away from work that doesn’t seem important or is “beneath” them. 

True, secure servants are able to focus completely on their work, instead of being distracted by how they look to others. 

Attitude #5: Ministry Is an Opportunity

True servants are happy to serve because it allows them to express gratitude for all they’ve received. They never think of their service as an obligation—rather, it’s a joyful opportunity to celebrate everything they have and demonstrate God’s goodness to others.

How to Make Your Weaknesses Useful to Service

Remember that everything God gave you is to fulfill the purposes he planned for you—even your weaknesses. The Bible is full of examples of ordinary, flawed people being used by God to accomplish amazing things. 

  • For example, Mary was an ordinary woman before she was called to be Jesus’s mother, and Joseph worked on a farm with his brothers before he was given the gift of interpreting dreams.

It can be hard to stop seeing your weaknesses as anything besides drawbacks or obstacles, but if you have the heart of a servant, you will do the work to discover how your weaknesses can serve others. There are four steps you can take to reframe your thinking.

Step 1: Admit Your Weakness

Like many people, you probably hide your weaknesses or deny that they exist. These can be physical weaknesses or disabilities, or emotional weaknesses like mental illness or trauma. 

In order for your weaknesses to evolve and for God to use them as intended, you have to bring them into the open. Identifying and naming your weaknesses is the first step to finding their power. Sit down and make an honest list of your weaknesses. Keep two ideas in mind:

  • There’s no weakness that “doesn’t count” or is “too small” for the list—there’s a reason behind all of it. 
  • There’s no such thing as perfection in humans. If you’re having a hard time coming up with a list of weaknesses, dig a little deeper. 

Step 2: Accept Your Weakness 

It’s normal to feel discontent or resentment toward your weaknesses. However, their power won’t be revealed to you unless you accept them—acceptance opens your mind to trusting God’s decisions and understanding that he created your weaknesses with your best interests in mind.

When you accept your weaknesses, you’ll find that they serve four important roles in your life:

  1. They keep you dependent on God—when you feel weak, you can turn to him for strength and help. If you never felt weakness, it would be easy to think you didn’t need God at all. 
  2. They keep your ego in check. If God only granted you strength, you might falsely believe that you’re perfect or all-powerful. In granting you weakness, God reminds you that you’re human and leaves the opportunity to show his power when yours is lacking. 
  3. They keep you reliant on fellowship. Strength tends to make people isolate themselves, thinking that they can do everything alone. On the contrary, weakness reveals how much people need one another. 
  4. They make you more patient and sympathetic toward the weaknesses of others. You can’t truly serve others if you think you’re better than they are—true servants realize they’re just as human as everyone else.  

Step 3: Share Your Weakness 

This is a courageous step—it requires you to show vulnerability and risk the possibility of shame or rejection. Sharing your weakness is vital to your ministry. 

Keeping your guard up and projecting a perfect image of yourself keeps you distant from others in several ways. 

  • You keep people at arm’s length so they can’t get close enough to see through your perfect façade. This prevents meaningful connections from happening.
  • People who think you’re perfect assume that they can’t talk to you about their problems because you won’t understand them or won’t know how to help them. 

On the other hand, being open about your own flaws or failures makes others feel safe to share their flaws and failures without fear of judgment. They know you’ll understand them, and the lessons you’ve learned from your experiences can help them. Furthermore, seeing you as a flawed person being used by God to serve others signals that they, too, have the potential to serve. 

Step 4: Praise Your Weakness 

Instead of being ashamed of your weakness, celebrate that you can serve despite your weakness. This is proof of God’s goodness—he knows all of your flaws, yet loves you and includes you in his work.

Satan might plant thoughts in your mind, mocking your weaknesses. Don’t deny or argue with what he says. Rather, agree with him and point out why it’s useful to have your particular flaws. 

  • For example, the idea that your chronic illness is making you weak or diminishing your life pops into your mind. You agree: “That’s right, my disease is life-altering. But it’s granted me a unique perspective that I use to support others struggling to come to terms with their chronic illnesses.”

When you have the heart of a servant, you’re able to make a difference that makes God smile.

How to Develop the Heart of a Servant

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Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

One thought on “How to Develop the Heart of a Servant

  • June 14, 2023 at 8:20 pm

    I absolutely agree and support your ideas and values. It’s a recent series of events that made appreciate what a life as a good Servant might be.
    I look forward to put in practice your powerful tips and advice

    God bless


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