“The servant-leader is servant first…It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” –Robert Greenleaf
Serving others wasn’t always a conscious priority in my life. Of course I served at Mass when I was a kid—mostly because my mom told me I had to. I also “served” food at Dunkin Donuts in high school and in the dining hall in college, but that “service” was about paying for school, not helping others. The truth is, I didn’t really start thinking about what it means to serve until one fateful evening during the spring of my senior year in college.
I tagged along with a friend to a dinner in another dorm hosted by Brother Boneventure Scully, who was an Xaverian Brother and rector of Keenan Hall. Brother Bonny (as he was fondly known) regularly cooked meals for students in his dorm, and I had little expectation for the evening other than a free, home-cooked meal. Throughout the meal he asked us questions about who we were and who we wanted to be. Learning that I was still on the market for a job, Brother Bonny asked me if I had ever thought about doing a year of service. I hadn’t–service seemed out of the question given the size of my school loans. But that didn’t dissuade Brother Bonny, who then asked me a simple question: “If I get you a plane ticket, would you be interested in visiting an under-resourced Catholic school in Baltimore?” Why not? I accepted his kind invitation, visited Mother Seton Academy, and realized my vocation to serve students who need help the most.
Brother Bonny passed this September, shortly after celebrating his 70th Jubilee. He had such a profound impact on my life, and in reading his memorial, I learned he had similar impact on many others. Brother Bonny taught science and religion, was a high school principal and served as the superintendent of the Archdiocese of Denver and Diocese of Memphis. I didn’t know any of this when we broke bread so many years earlier, and I was particularly interested to hear of his long tenure serving in Catholic schools—a path that was opened to me because of his simple invitation.
I am struck by how one invitation can change a person’s life trajectory. It makes me rethink what it means to serve. Serving others is both saying “yes” and inviting others to say “yes.” I saw this two weeks ago at St. Luke Catholic School, a Notre Dame ACE Academy in Palm Beach, Florida. I observed a middle school crossing guard outstretch his hand and invite a kindergartner to walk with him into school. I saw it last week in Indianapolis when a student made extra room at the lunch table and invited another student to join his group. We do this when we invite our class to pray before meals or invite a student to a deeper relationship with Jesus by studying Him in the Gospels.
As teachers and leaders we have to constantly challenge ourselves to have eyes that look outward, to keep answering the call to serve, and as we aspire to lead, to never underestimate the power of an invitation.