Pastor Joe Parker: Leaders Aren’t Always in the Front

In our first issue of GivingCity, we were extremely fortunate to have an opening essay from Pastor Joseph C. Parker, Jr., of Austin’s David Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. I’d heard him speak at an MLK Day of Service the year before, and it struck me how Austin could have such a powerful speaker with such close ties to Martin Luther King, Jr., himself. Hope you enjoy it.

I believe humans have an instinct that flies in the face of what can help us find our true calling. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called it our “drum major instinct,” in that everyone wants to be important, to be first, and to lead the parade.

Watch a group of children try to form a line, and you’ll see this instinct in action. Too many people never outgrow this instinct, Dr. King said, and by constantly struggling to be first, the best and most important or wealthiest or best educated, we forget one of life’s largest truths: that the real path to greatness is through service.

Choosing to serve others as opposed to serving just yourself does not have to be an overwhelming change. In fact, I believe it’s a simple change: All we have to do is take that instinct, which is turned inward, and reprogram it to turn outward to focus on others. I believe that by putting others first – their needs, their causes, their joy – we ourselves can become leaders and consequently find our own joy.

This concept of finding joy by focusing on others is not a new one, but few people are courageous enough to risk their own well being. Those who take that risk, however, marvel at the results. It’s not just the reward; what we learn is that not only is it right to serve others and not only does it lead to our own joy, but it’s also our duty.

It brings to mind the quote from Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund: “Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time.”

Years ago I gave up a successful law career to give full-time attention to a pastorate here in Austin. To this day, some people cannot understand why I did it. Actually, I don’t think I could be anything else – I was made to serve, and in this capacity.

My father was also a Baptist pastor, and was a friend of Dr. King, having attended college with him and been a co-founder of the Montgomery Improvement Association. Accordingly, he and my father received the same teachings about service, and my family was influenced by those teachings. When I decided to accept my calling to become a minister, I realized that I had found the spot in my heart that had been burning since I was a young boy growing up in Birmingham, and though I didn’t always understand it, I knew it was there all along.

If you have a burning in your heart to serve, to make change in the world, can this fire be made contagious? Can you burn so deeply that you cause others to catch on fire? Can you not hear the words of Dr. King as he stood in the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia on February 4, 1968, and preached his sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct?”

“If you want to be important … wonderful. If you want to be recognized…. wonderful. If you want to be great … wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.

“You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.” GC



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