Service and Supervision

Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”

Mark 9:35

The relationship between a supervisor and their student is a strange one. Speaking as a student, supervisors are not our boss, they’re not our line manager, they’re not a family member (for most of us) and they’re not really our teacher (in the undergraduate sense). Working out just what our relationship to our supervisor is can be difficult because we’ve never been in such a relationship before. Not only this but the relationship changes over time! At the beginning supervisors are definitely there to teach and to guide. Towards the end, however, there’s only so much they can teach.

But, the encouragement we get from Jesus in Mark 9 transcends relationship boundaries. Jesus, speaking to a rabble of unruly and proud disciples, reminds them that, if they are to welcome Christ as their King, they mustn’t trust in their own position and their own status. Rather, after they had just been arguing about who is the greatest, Jesus reminds them that

Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.

Jesus is addressing the disciples. If they want acceptance by Christ they must deny themselves and…be the servant of all. This may strike us as strange. We might expect Jesus to say “be my servant” or “have me as Lord.” But he doesn’t. He says “be…the servant of all.”

This is because understanding Jesus’ lordship has a striking normative force. If they serve the ones they are expected to serve the least then they are, in effect, recognising that they are not Lord of all but that there is one who is above them. If they’re prepared to welcome even children then they welcome Christ (v37).

It is our understanding of who Christ is that fundamentally affects our relationships; it affects all of our relationships. So, even though spelling out our actual relationship with our supervisors is difficult, one thing should be clear. We’re to serve them in all things (1 Corinthians 10:31) as serving the Lord.

This means: in meeting deadlines, being prompt to a supervision or replying to emails effectively; in doing marking for their course, helping them to help us by asking questions that we really struggle with (even if we think they’re silly) – or even making them a cup of tea – we should be serving.

Above all else, then, we’re not to see our supervisors either as a boss: the ones we need to obey because they say so, or as an instrument: the ones who just help us get a PhD… but as we see everyone: people to be served.

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