Owen Phelps conducted a retreat on servant leadership for Diocese of Superior staff June 24 in Lake Nebagamon. Phelps is an author and speaker who teaches leadership skills. (Catholic Herald photo by Anita Draper)

Owen Phelps conducted a retreat on servant leadership for Diocese of Superior staff June 24 in Lake Nebagamon. Phelps is an author and speaker who teaches leadership skills. (Catholic Herald photo by Anita Draper)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

As a young adult, Dr. Owen Phelps had what he describes as a fairly limited view of his religious role.

“My sense is that as a Catholic sort of adult, I’ve got three obligations: Pray, pay and obey,” he said.

Being a model Catholic didn’t interest him much; he figured two out of three would get him a passing grade.

“It was all about doing the minimum,” he remembers.

A summer resident in Lac du Flambeau, Phelps is the director of Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute and the former director of communications and publications for the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois. A speaker, author and leadership consultant, Phelps led a workshop-style retreat for Diocese of Superior staff Wednesday, June 24, at St. Anthony, Lake Nebagamon.

“S3 Leadership: A Catholic Perspective on Leading Like Jesus,” one of Phelps’ books, is an exploration of servant leadership. Needless to say, his sense of mission has evolved over time.

“It’s the laity’s role to sanctify the world,” he told an audience of mostly laypeople. “A bit bigger, I suppose, than pray, pay and obey.”

Leadership is primarily about influencing others, he explained. All are endowed with different gifts, but they are all granted through the same source: God. Jesus’ approach to leadership was rooted in interdependence.

“All of us are smarter than any of us,” he added.

The Second Vatican Council expounded on the laity’s mission to sanctify the world; St. John Paul II wrote on the clergy’s role to be servants of the people.

“They’re here to serve us,” he said. “They’re here to help the laity sanctify the world. This character of service is deeply embedded in our clergy.”

Pope Francis shared the same message at World Youth Day in Brazil: “The life of Jesus is a life for others. It is a life of service.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also affirms that matrimony and holy orders are directed at the salvation of others.

“You’re here to keep my butt from burning,” Phelps tells his wife.

Servant leadership is about four things, according to Phelps: Heart, head, hands and habits.
“If the heart isn’t right, nothing else matters,” he added.

A heart for leadership

“What would you want to talk about tonight if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, and you were having your closest family and friends at dinner tonight?” he asked. “Is it safe to say that we want to talk about the things that are most important to us?”

During the Last Supper, Jesus instituted the Eucharist and the priesthood; endured Judas’ betrayal; foretold Peter’s denial; heard an argument over who was greatest; instructed his disciples how to lead; modeled servant leadership; and gave his disciples a commandment.
Jesus exemplified servant leadership in the washing of feet, Phelps continued. It was a humbling act.

“People walked in the dirt and the dust,” he said.

Then, the Son of God explained why he humbled himself.

“I did this … so you will do it too,” Jesus told his disciples.

The birth of Jesus appears in two Gospels, but Jesus addresses leadership in all four Gospels. That doesn’t mean leadership is more important, Phelps said, but “that must mean it mattered a lot to him.”

Phelps believes interdependence is counter-intuitive for many in a culture that prizes self-sufficiency.

The “genius” of the Catholic Church is its teaching that we are part of a community, “and that community is the Body of Christ,” he said.
The Catholic vision of leadership is not “just me and Jesus,” Phelps added. Interdependence is fundamental.

In traditional leadership models, “everything flows from the leader down … an incredibly naive, incomplete model, by the way,” he said.

Servant leadership follows the triangular model, with the leader at the top, but also includes a second, inverted triangle, with the leader on the bottom.

The leader is the “keeper of the vision,” Phelps said, but he or she depends on and values others – in the church’s case, the laity – for implementation.