The Heart of a Servant Leader by C. John Miller—or Jack, as he was more often known—is a collection of letters from Miller, penned over the course of his 30-year ministry. Brimming with honesty, pastoral wisdom, humour, and love for Christ and His church, this book is sure to instruct and encourage everyone, no matter your stage or season of ministry.
Written to different people all around the world, Miller’s letters address a range of issues: tensions between leaders, doubts, fears, overcoming sin, suffering, and learning to forgive—to name but a few. Miller is refreshingly frank about his own mistakes. He’s candid about the sins hidden away in His heart.
But more importantly, he’s enthusiastic about his Saviour. Christ’s atoning work thrills him, and these pages bleed gospel. This means that, despite being letters from Miller, you don’t read the book and end up impressed by him. The focus is always on his glorious and beautiful Saviour.
The letters are not presented chronologically, but are grouped into four themes, broadly summed up below:
1) Motivation for Serving: The Glory of God
2) The Basics of Serving: Faith, Humility, and Prayer
3) Persevering in Serving—through Spiritual Warfare, Conflict, and Change
4) Encouragement: for Sinners and Sufferers
The first section begins with a letter that sets the tone for the rest of the book. While writing to a missionary family who’d moved to Uganda, Miller says this: “Getting the glory of Christ before your eyes and keeping it there… is the greatest work of the Spirit that I can imagine.” He encourages them—and us—to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus above everything else.
We pastors serve to make Christ’s glory known. That’s the foundational motivation for us in our service of Him. Miller continues: “Think much of the Savior’s suffering for you on that dreadful cross, think much of your sin that provoked such suffering, and enter by faith into the love that took away your sin and guilt, and then give your work your best.”
This is not simply a book of ‘advice’ from a pastor. This is a collection of letters from a man who knows what it means to be forgiven and redeemed by his Saviour, and who therefore longs to serve Him with all his heart, encouraging others to do the same.
From start to finish, Miller’s work drips with an intense knowledge and experience of the gospel. He knows his greatest need is to be daily reminded of Christ’s finished work. In one letter, he says: “A pastor really needs to be broken before God every day, or he will break up the church of God with his wilfulness or let it slip into spiritual death through his sloth.” For Miller, the gospel is not merely a theological stance. It’s a way of life.
And a right understanding of the gospel changes everything. It leads to humility, prayerfulness, and submission to God’s will and timing. To one young missionary, Miller writes:
“[T]he only real leader you have is Jesus Christ. Unless you are daily taught of Him you will not be able to make the right decisions. To get to know Him, you need to pray… learning to wait upon the Lord for Him to make known his will.”
Prayer is a constant theme through the book. Miller encourages prayerfulness in all of life, and especially in church planting: “The beating heart of Christ’s planting of churches is found in corporate prayer. It is through corporate intercession that the leader and the team of shepherds find release from fears, misconceptions, prejudices, pride, and self-will.” He carries on “What are they (the planters) seeking? For God to work in others, of course, but as a presupposition of His working they must be seeking a manifestation of Christ’s presence in their own hearts and lives.”
This has shaped our approach to church planting on a housing estate here in Leicester. We know that without prayer, the best we can achieve is a religious-themed social club which will have no gospel impact. From the early days of exploring the possibility of growing a church in Eyres Monsell, we have committed to monthly prayer meetings for the estate.
Praying for our estate has become a part of our monthly family meetings too. We are keenly aware that we need God’s leading and the Holy Spirit’s help. And we long to pray together—not just on our own—as we hope to move ahead with these plans. But then we want to act with confident faith on those prayers, something Miller also urges in one letter: “Don’t rest until you have at least twenty people who pray for you and your ministry daily. Ask them to pray for you to be able to lead five people to Christ in the first six months. Then put feet on your prayers and go out and find them.”
There is so much in this book for those of us who are ministering to, or planting in, poor communities. The gospel doesn’t change, no matter where we live, so we need to keep focussed on it. It’s the sole motivator for us, whatever circumstance we find ourselves in, and it’s the only hope for communities battered by the effects of sin and darkness.
Not only is there a focus on the gospel, Miller also models confidence in the gospel. That’s one of the most striking things about this book. Miller is not content with one or two converts a year—he wants the church and Christians around the world to fight back against the darkness we see around us.
This only serves to cement Miller’s emphasis on prayer. For pastors with a shaky prayer life, this is a startling wake-up call. It’s not that God needs our prayers in order to accomplish His purposes, but rather that we need to pray in order to know God. Prayer serves as a recalibration tool in the Christian life. Without it we will wander.
This book forces pastors to ask—What is my prayer life like? When thinking about their vision for mission, both locally and also around the world, Miller says this: “It simply cannot happen unless we learn to pray better and train better… We all have a heart burden to plant churches in the world’s darkest places. But think for a moment. This requires sacrifice, suffering, endurance, even death… Are we really ready for this?”
Look to Jesus
There is so much in this book—far more than one small review can cover. And not just for people like me who are in the early days of full-time ministry, but for all Christians. This book challenges us in our faith, prayer, and confidence in the gospel. It forces us to consider how we live out our faith, but it never leaves us defeated and broken. Rather, it consistently focuses on our beautiful Saviour and all He has won for us.
If you read this book, you’ll come away refreshed by the knowledge of God’s good purposes for His people. You’ll be encouraged, as I have been, to look to Jesus daily. And you’ll be eager to preach the brilliant news of His gospel to those in your context, no matter what that may be.