1. Bredemeier, Heidi BSN, RN

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After witnessing some of the world's heartaches such as poverty, AIDS, and hunger in Africa, I've begun to question how my position as a wealthy U.S. citizen interfaces with my role as a believer in Jesus Christ. In my quest, I've found nursing to be an outlet for living Christ's call to clothe myself with compassion in my work (Colossians 3:12). God's Word repeatedly instructs followers to serve others. A clear example is 1 Peter 4:10: "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms" (NIV).


As a student nurse, I have plenty of opportunities to serve my peers, my professors, and my clients. However, when called to leadership roles, I find it easy to neglect or struggle against servanthood. Slowly, I am learning that in receiving the gift of leadership, I must use it to serve other people; I must be a servant leader in my nursing vocation.


It is appropriate that in the phrase "servant leader," servant comes first. To be an effective leader, one first has to serve. Although reluctant, Moses was eventually willing to serve, and his leadership skills were developed with God's help. His example provides a Christlike perspective of serving and has shaped my nursing philosophy.


While studying in Uganda, East Africa, in 2005, I participated in a service-learning project working with malnourished children. I went weekly with a physician and nurse to a village to assess the children, provide porridge, and teach basic nutrition and hygiene. One day the physician took me on a home visit. As we approached the mud home, the grandmother was outside cooking, and two tiny infant babies were lying on the ground beside her. The mother of the babies had died in childbirth 3 weeks earlier. The baby girls had big hollowed eyes, tissue paper skin, and bloated empty stomachs.

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I picked up one baby, Joyce, and looked into her eyes. All I could think about was the potential these little girls had, and how this tragedy would never happen in the United States. I wondered what I could do to change this situation. However, due to cultural restrictions and the grandmother's wishes, baby formula and a hospital visit were not appropriate. There wasn't anything I could physically do to help. Instead, I showed my support and love by listening and holding the girls.


It wasn't until later that I began to understand the meaning of compassion. The word is derived from the Latin words pati and cum, which together mean "to suffer with" (McNeill, Morrison, Nouwen, 1982, p. 3). At that moment, while holding Joyce, I realized how important it is to support our sisters and brothers and to suffer patiently through the hard times with them, showing empathy.


The African word ubuntu means that my humanity is wrapped up in your humanity (Kenyan proverb). Life is about serving others first and loving your brother enough to die for him. A servant leader sees need and responds by trying to meet the need.


Sometimes the needs are overwhelming. Mother Theresa's example has reminded me what to do when these burdens are upon us: "You do the thing that's in front of you" (Hall & Price, 2006, p. 36). I am learning that service leadership first means being willing to suffer with others, and second, acting on what I see. A favorite author, Tim Hansel (1987), says, "With the eyes, a servant leader sees the gap; with the heart, the servant leader decides to fill the gap; with the hands, the servant leader works to fill the gap; with the feet, the servant leader stands in the gap" (p. 165). Service and leadership have made Christ come alive in me. I feel God's presence as I serve and lead others, especially in my nursing profession.


The story of how God chose and used Moses is incredibly inspiring (see the book of Exodus). Although Moses wasn't eloquent, God chose Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. I often feel like Moses-unable to meet the requirements of the work. As a nursing student, I have felt inadequate walking into a client's room to make assessments and provide treatment and care. But somehow, when I am weak, God demonstrates his strength and shines through me. Being a servant leader is about filling the gap, no matter how big the gap is compared with how small we are. God transcends the gap.


As a nurse, this perspective of being a servant goes with me everywhere. When I am willing and ready to serve, God enables me to be an effective leader. God has demonstrated not only that he can work through me, but also that I can't do it alone. The body of Christ functions best when we give and receive support. It is my nursing philosophy that to be an effective leader, I must first get my hands dirty and serve with compassion.


Hall, T., & Price, T. (2006). Changing the face of hunger. Nashville: Thomas Nelson. [Context Link]


Hansel, T. (1987). Holy sweat: The remarkable things ordinary people can do when they let God use them. Dallas: Word Publishing. [Context Link]


McNeill, D. P., Morrison, D. A., & Nouwen, H. J. (1982). Compassion: A reflection on the Christian life. New York: Doubleday Random House. [Context Link]