Saturday morning, I walked into a church for the first time in many, many years. While our beliefs are worlds apart, I couldn’t fathom not being there for one of my best friends as his over seven year path to the priesthood culminated in a beautiful ceremony. I’m saving thoughts and reflections about our journey through spirituality and friendship for another post (and after I’ve had more time to truly reflect on the day and the history that brought us there), but I wanted to share a brief thought about something else today.
The bishop giving the homily at the mass spoke of service. He asked a question from the gospel that has very real implications for higher education and our work in student affairs.
“Who is greater? The one who sits at the table, or the one who serves”
At first glance, the answer seems simple. Leadership as service is a popular conception, and with good reason. We speak of the role of a leader as one who serves and works in service of a greater good or goal. This higher calling of a leader is, paradoxically for some, to act in ‘lowly’ service.
This question, however, implies that those who sit at the table remain fixed and stubborn in their position. Their is an implied dichotomy that one who sits at the table cannot, or will not, trade places with or make room for one who has yet to pull up a chair. Sitting at the table seems to imply a level of privilege and status, neither of which are cast in the most positive of lights. The moral of this short story seems to be act and lead, or sit and do nothing.
Is it possible to serve while sitting at the table?
As I continue to progress through my career in student affairs, I’ve seen leadership in action take many forms. My introduction to the field was through the ‘in the trenches’ work this question highlights – spending long hours setting up and taking down events, arriving on campus almost before the sun was up for orientation and spending time with as many students as possible for more hours than there are in a typical day. Now, I spend more time in meetings and at my desk than I do on the front lines. Does this mean I am serving students less? Is my service quantifiably different now?
I’ve come to see my time ‘at the table’, whether the boardroom oval or my desk, as a new avenue for impact. I may not be working directly with students in real time, but I still see my work behind the scenes as service. There is of course a unique and privileged power I possess being able to send emails and make phone calls that impact our students’ experience, but I see it as an opportunity to expand the breadth and reach of my work, in service, ultimately (as I think it should be) for our students.
What about you? Can you be at the table and still be of service to your students?
Can you serve by sitting?