Henri Nouwen on Christian Leadership

Have you read In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, by Henri Nouwen? I just finished it, and I thought it was fabulous, so I wanted to share some thoughts about it here.

Since beginning my new role at Wartburg Seminary, I have been reading different books on leadership, and so when I saw this one referenced, I was eager to read it. And, I was not disappointed. It is short and straightforward, but very rich and extremely timely, even though it was written more than 30 years ago.

As I continue to think about my new call and my hopes for the future of Wartburg—and for the church—I think his reflections are worth sharing, for all of us who are called to be Christian leaders in all of the different contexts in which we find ourselves.

The first thing that is important to note is that these insights were sparked by Nouwen’s move from Harvard to L’Arche, an intentional living community of people with disabilities and people without. In short, a more dramatic change in context would be hard to imagine.

From his experience at L’Arche, Nouwen comes to a new understanding of what it means to be a leader, and the book is structured around three movements: from the desire for relevance to a life of prayer; from a desire for popularity to collaborative ministry; and from leading to be led. In each one of these sections he outlines first the temptation, and then the corrective spiritual discipline. (He notes that he is guided by the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, and the story of Peter’s call to be a shepherd).

In the first section, the temptation is the desire to be relevant, and the discipline is contemplative prayer.  Here, he writes: “The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God’s word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life” [30]. This “first love” of God, is the foundation from which everything else flows.

The corresponding spiritual discipline here is contemplative prayer, and I have to say that this was my favorite chapter in the whole book. Nouwen’s focus is on the call to be a mystic, which he defines as a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God‘s first love.  He writes that contemplative prayer keeps us home: “Contemplative prayer deepens in us the knowledge that we are already free, that we have already found a place to dwell, that we already belong to God, even though everything and everyone around us keeps suggesting the opposite” [43].

Nouwen then suggests that the central question for Christian leadership is the following: “Are the leaders of the future truly men and women of God, people with an ardent desire to dwell in God‘s presence, to listen to God‘s voice, to look at God‘s beauty, to touch God‘s incarnate word, and to taste fully God‘s infinite goodness” [43].

He then goes on to talk about something that is extremely relevant today, which is the moral and political debates that are going on in society. He argues that these battles about “right” or “wrong” are often removed from the experience of God‘s first love, which lies at the base of all human relationships. In his view, Christian leaders must do more than simply engage in political and moral battles. He writes, “Christian leaders cannot simply be persons who have well-informed opinions about the burning issues of our time. Their leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source for their words, advice, and guidance” [45].

He then goes on to say something that really resonated with me in light of the past year we have had. He says, “Dealing with burning issues without being rooted in a deep personal relationship with God easily leads to divisiveness because, before we know it, our sense of self is caught up in our opinion about a given subject. But when we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative. For Christian leadership to be truly fruitful in the future, a movement from the moral to the mystical is required” [46-47].  

I think in today’s context, where many well-meaning Christians often lose sight of Jesus in the pursuit of justice, these are particularly powerful words.  For Christian leaders, the latter [justice] must always flow from a deep grounding in the former [Jesus]—there is no other way.

In the next section, Nouwen describes the temptation to be spectacular, based on the misguided idea that ministry is an individual affair, resting on one’s own training and competencies.  Nouwen reflects that his own education led him to feel like “A man sent an a long, long hike with a huge backpack containing all the things necessary to help the people I would meet on the road” [51].

But the reality is that the task of ministry is a shared task; as he did with the apostles so long ago, Christ continues to send us out in pairs—“We are called to proclaim the Gospel together, in community” [58]. The discipline of confession and forgiveness is the spiritual discipline that helps nurture this communal understanding of ministry—the practice of confessing our own brokenness and asking for forgiveness: “Confession and forgiveness are the concrete forms in which we sinful people love one another” [64-65].

Finally, the last section describes the temptation to be powerful:  “The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led….Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love” [78-79]. That temptation is as much with us today as it has been throughout history.

The corresponding spiritual disciple here is “strenuous theological reflection”—be still, my beating heart!  He writes, “The Christian leaders of the future have to be theologians, persons who know the heart of God and are trained—through prayer, study, and careful analysis—to manifest the divine event of God’s saving work in the midst of the many seemingly random events of their time” [88]

Nouwen concludes the book with the following image: “…the praying leader, the vulnerable leader, and the trusting leader.”  It is that image, “the oldest, most traditional vision of Christian leadership,” that he believes can fill our hearts with hope, courage and confidence. I continue to think about what it might look like, in my particular context, to be that kind of leader.

Nouwen’s book is definitely worth reading–or, if you read it decades ago, when it first came out, I think it is worth reading again.

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