Part-Time Recommendation: In the Name of Jesus

I've been skimming through a lot of Christian leadership books the last couple of weeks (part of something I'm working on for school) and I came across this simple little book on leadership from Henri Nouwen that I'd never seen before. Full disclosure: I'm a huge Nouwen fan. I'd list him as a top five Christian author of all-time for me. This book does not disappoint. This text has all the classical hallmarks of Nouwen's best work: simple, direct, and always focused on the suffering servant leadership of Christ. If you have ever experienced a position of Christian leadership for any time then I think Nouwen has a way of speaking out loud your struggles and pains like few others can do. I think every Christian leader should read this book every couple of years. 

The text came about because Nouwen was invited to speak about Christian leadership in the 21st century at the Center for Human Development in Washington, DC. Nouwen had been a professor of pastoral theology, pastoral psychology, and Christian spirituality at academic institutions like Notre Dame, Harvard, and Yale for over twenty year and had only recently made a move to serve in L’Arche communities for mentally handicapped people. His experience with teaching at these hallowed academic institutions humbled him into reflection, “As I entered into my fifties and was able to realize the unlikelihood of doubling my years, I came face to face with the simple question, ‘Did becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?’ After twenty-five years of priesthood, I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much preoccupied with burning issues. Everyone was saying that I was doing really well, but something inside me was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger.” (19-20) He later put it another way, “I woke up one day with the realization that I was living in a very dark place and that the term ‘burnout’ was a convenient psychological translation for a spiritual death.” (20)

This experience of moving from the “best and brightest” to those considered marginal to the needs of the world was like a rebirth for Nouwen says these, “broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self - the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things - and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.” (29-30). The insights of this experience at L’Arche would become the foundations for his talk at the the Center for Human Development and the text of this book.

Part of my reading process is to synthesize and paraphrase major quotes/ideas from the book to make a book summary - though this book is so short and direct it's almost a fools errand to summarize it. Still, I enjoy the process of taking the best and most substantive quotes and mashing them together into something more concise, without losing the punch of the book. I thought you might get something out of the summary I created so I've shared it with you below. Keep in mind that this is my synthesis of Nouwen's key quotes (meaning it's almost entirely composed of his words) with a bit of light paraphrasing of my own. You can purchase the book HERE *I don't get referral money :)

Book Thesis: 
“Too often I looked at being relevant, popular, and powerful as ingredients of an effective ministry. The truth, however, is that these are not vocations but temptations. Jesus asks, ‘Do you love me?’ Jesus sends us out to be shepherds, and Jesus promises a life in which we increasingly have to stretch out our hands and be led to places where we would rather not go. He asks us to move from a concern for relevance to a life of prayer, from worries about popularity to community and mutual ministry, and from a leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us and our people.” (91-92)

Part 1 - From Relevance to Prayer: 
Nouwen sees the three major temptations Jesus faced in the desert as still the core temptations the 21st century Christian leader will face. Satan’s first temptation for Jesus was to turn stones into bread - to be relevant as a leader. How great would it be to be successful? To see everyone impoverished become comfortable, everyone suffering become healed, everyone hungry get filled, everyone thirsty be satisfied? How wonderful to point to our accomplishments for God? Christ could have done this, Nouwen argues, but instead forgoes this for the ministry of declaring his Word, “ does not live on bread alone.”

In a world where most ministers suffer from low self-esteem and feel less and less relevant in a secularized world that says, “We can handle things without you!” this temptation is understandable and compelling. To this, Nouwen replies, “But there is a completely different story to tell. Beneath all the great accomplishments of our time there is a deep current of despair. While efficiency and control are the great aspirations of our society, the loneliness, isolation, lack of friendship, and intimacy, broken relationships, boredom, feelings of emptiness and depression, and a deep sense of uselessness fill the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world.” (33)

It is here that a new Christian leadership must dare to claim their irrelevance to a world weary of accomplishment, efficiency, and stability. It is the divine vocation of the Christian leader to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self that “allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there.” (34-35) Why? Because this is how Jesus revealed God’s love, “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.” (29-30)

Nouwen sees the remedy to this temptation in the story of Peter’s reconciliation on the shorelines. Before Christ commissions Peter to be a shepherd in his mission he asks him a simple question three times, “Do you love me?” Nouwen says, “We have to hear that question as being central to all of our Christian ministry because it is the question that can allow us to be, at the same time, irrelevant and truly self-confident…The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus?…In our world of loneliness and despair, there is an enormous need for men and women who know the heart of God, a heart that forgives, cares, reaches out and wants to heal.” (36-37)

A powerful way to be confident in our irrelevance, to offer the world our vulnerability and love of God, is through contemplative prayer where we root ourselves in the truth of God’s first love, “Contemplative prayer keeps us home, rooted, and safe, even when we are on the road, moving from place to place, and often surrounded by sounds of violence and war. 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 keep suggesting the opposite.” (43)

In summary, our world suffers from an epidemic of relevancy. The true Christian leader, rooted in God’s first love stoked through contemplative prayer, is willing to stand in the midst of that broken world, confident and vulnerable in irrelevancy, and point to its only healing source in Christ. The central question Christian leaders must ask is this, are they more interested in the rat race of relevancy or are they “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)

Part II - From Popularity to Ministry
“Throw yourself from the parapet of the temple and let the angels catch you and carry you in their arms” is the second temptation of Jesus in the desert. Nouwen identifies this temptation for Jesus and the contemporary Christian leader as the temptation for popularity, for doing something that would gain the applause of the crowd. Linking with our temptation to be relevant, we want those moments of achievement, those unique talents, those glorious contributions to be noticed and connect us with our people. This, however, is not true ministry, it is just another game of the world - individualism heroism and stardom.

After Jesus asked Peter three times, “Do you love me?” he commissioned Peter to feed my lambs, look after my sheep, feed my sheep. He gave Peter the task of ministry. If we are to minister as Jesus ministers, we must eschew the power games and professionalism of the world and look to Jesus’ servant leadership, “[Jesus] wants Peter to find his sheep and care for them, not as ‘professionals’ who know their clients’ problems and take care of the, but as vulnerable brothers and sisters who know and are known, who care and are cared for, who forgive and are being forgiven who love and are being loved.” (60-61)

Here is the key quote of the chapter: “Somehow we have come to believe that good leadership requires a safe distance from those we are called to lead. Medicine, psychiatry, and social work all offer us models in which ‘service’ takes place in a one-way direction. Someone serves, someone else is being served, and be sure not to mix up the roles! But how can we lay down our life for those with whom we are not even allowed to enter into a deep personal relationship? Laying down your life means making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life. We are not the healers, we are not the reconcilers, we are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for. The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God. Therefore, true ministry must be mutual. When the members of a community of faith cannot truly know and love their shepherd, shepherding quickly becomes a subtle way of exercising power over others and begins to show authoritarian and dictatorial traits.” (61-62)

The discipline required to keep us in mutual ministry and overcome individual heroism with those we lead is confession and forgiveness. Unfortunately, it seems that , “that priests and ministers are the least confessing people in the Christian community…“How can priests or ministers feel really loved and cared for when they have to hide their own sins and failings from the people to whom they minister and run off to a distant stranger to receive a little comfort and consolation? How can people truly care for their shepherds and keep them faithful to their sacred task when they do not know them and so cannot deeply love them?” (65) Confession has power, it is “Through confession, the dark powers are taken out of their carnal isolation, brought into the light, and made visible to the community. Through forgiveness, they are disarmed and dispelled and a new integration between body and spirit is made possible.” (68) Nouwen doesn’t think this means that priests and ministers bring their sins and failures explicitly into their pulpits and ministries as they wouldn’t be servant leadership. It does mean that our communities must make a truly safe place for priests and ministers to share their deep pain and struggles with someone who doesn’t need them and can bring them deeper into the mystery of God’s love.

In summary, the second major temptation for Christian leaders is to seek the applause of those we serve. This temptation mistakes true ministry which is not a professional “one-way” service, but is a mutual ministry where we remain broken people God is using. To accomplish this, ministers must be able to safely practice confession and forgiveness - they must remain known to their sheep.

Part III - From Leading to Being Led: 
The third temptation of Jesus, and of ministers today, is the temptation of power. “One of the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders constantly gave in to the temptation of power - political power, military power, economic power, or moral and spiritual power - even though they continued to speak in the name of Jesus, who did not cling to his divine power but emptied himself and became as we are.” (76) Why are so many drawn to power instead of the hard task of love? Nouwen ponders, ““Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life. Jesus asks, ‘Do you love me?’ We ask, ‘Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your Kingdom?’ (Matthew 20:21)” (77)

After Jesus commissions Peter to be a leader of his sheep, he “confronts him with the hard truth that the servant-leader is the leader who is being led to unknown, undesirable, and painful places. The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross.” (81-82) The Christian leader is one who is being led by the suffering servant to a leadership of powerlessness and humility that demonstrates Christ. This does not mean weak men without any spine, but, “people who are so deeply in love with Jesus that they are ready to follow him wherever he guides them, always trusting that, with him, they will find life and find it abundantly.” (83-84)

The discipline connected with this temptation is, “strenuous theological reflection” that will allow us to discern critically where we are being led. “Theological reflection is reflecting on the painful and joyful realities of every day with the mind of Jesus and thereby raising human consciousness to the knowledge of God’s gentle guidance.” (88)

In Summary, the third temptation of leadership is the call to power. We again look to Peter who was cautioned that he will be led to places of suffering and pain. The Christian leader does not lead, but is being led by Christ into a leadership of powerless and humility that demonstrates Christ. To accomplish this, the leader must be given to strenuous theological reflection, to discern where the will of Christ is leading the servant leader in the confusion and seeming randomness of the present day.

You can purchase the book HERE *I don't get referral money :)

Nouwen, Henri J. M. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership with Study Guide for Groups and Individuals. New York: Crossroad Pub., 2002.