Towel & Basin Reprise

By Tim Bentum  |  September 5th

Last year’s Towel & Basin section of the Edvance Notice did a deep dive on John 13 and the powerful image of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. The striking imagery is of the greatest leader the world has ever known giving us one of his most powerful lessons in leadership by lowering himself to the status of a slave and eventually actually dying the death of a criminal. This picture of leadership is often hard for our modern, western notions of leadership to appropriate in practical ways.

Looking again at John 13, Johannine biblical scholar David Ford notes, “perhaps the richest theological words in John are ‘as…so…”. These two words appear throughout the gospel of John in the context of Jesus inviting others to take what He has done (ie. ‘as I have done’) and ‘improvising’ further (ie. ‘so you are invited to do’). In John 13:15 for example, we read Jesus’ invitation following his washing of the disciples’ feet where he says, ‘I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.’ Ford notes here that the word ‘example’, “does not imply exact repetition, but rather suggests the possibility of continual variations, in innumerable other situations, in the spirit of what Jesus has done.”

This leaves modern Christian leaders with the question: ‘How can I authentically improvise based on Jesus’ example?’

I will offer three very brief thoughts on improvising based on Jesus’ foot-washing:

  1. Jesus’ act of foot washing was very personal, a one-to-one intimate encounter with each disciple. What are ways that you can intimately, personally connect with your staff to serve each of them this year? For those with larger staffs, this may be challenging, but the genuinely personal approach of Jesus is convicting. To improvise, perhaps this may mean keeping a short running prayer journal for each staff member to build on year after year and remembering to pass on notes or prayers of encouragement in relevant ways. As a leader in a Christian school, this type of thing was often a challenge for me due to the time and effort it takes – but conversely, I still recall situations where others did this for me; powerful stuff!
  2. Jesus’ act of foot washing was also communal in nature, meant to inspire mutual acts of love and service. How can you multiply an attitude of broader ‘improvisation’ within your school building in an authentic (not forced) manner this year? To improvise, perhaps this means something like taking coffee/drink orders for every staff person and hand-delivering them on a random Tuesday in February, just to communicate that you are there to serve them and not the other way around on the org chart. As an aside, I have found that the more you can build serving food into your daily practices and rhythms in school, the better things tend to go. Yes, please do spend that extra $50 to get the ‘nice’ treats!
  3. Finally, Jesus’ act of foot washing radically challenged hierarchies of power. How can you demonstrate to your staff and students that to gain your life, you must lose it? Perhaps this may mean something like eating last at lunch on a PD Day (or joyfully not eating at all if the food happens to run out), remembering to invite the custodian and bus drivers to a staff celebration and also providing seats in the front for them, highlighting the good work of students on the margins in the weekly newsletter on the front page, passing on the credit to challenging staff members when general encouragement is received, or perhaps re-orienting your graduation awards to ensure that a broader spectrum of students are recognized for a broader spectrum of gifts, talents, and experiences.

In the end, John’s gospel invites us to ‘improvise’, not according to our own rules, but according to the challenging and inspiring life of Christ. As I read the stories of Jesus, I am both strangely comforted and also unsettled at the same time. I can see more clearly all the time the ways that my life is oriented towards ‘my will’ and not ‘your will be done’. My encouragement to you as a Christian school leader, who is leading in the most complex environment ever, is to daily remember to pull out your Towel & Basin. That is where true leadership begins.

God’s blessings as you launch into this new school year!


Tim Bentum is the Director of Leadership and External Relations at Edvance.

Photo Credit: basin, by Flood G., Flickr