Henri Nouwen on Christian Leadership

Henri Nouwen’s book In the Name of Jesus deserves the widest readership among Christians. After twenty five years as a “successful” priest, academic, author, and lecturer, something was missing for Nouwen. He was led by God to join L’Arche, a community started by Jean Vanier that serves and lives with disabled and mentally challenged persons. This experience brought Nouwen far outside his comfort zone and nearer to the wounded beauty of the Body of Christ. This challenged him to rethink what it means to “lead the flock” and “tend the sheep.”

In the Name of Jesus records the fruits of this transformation and presents a compelling vision for Christian leadership. In three thematic sections, he diagnoses a main problem facing Christian leaders and offers a solution. In what follows, I’ll reflect on these three main themes in hopes that it will inspire the reader to read the whole book. I’ll leave out my favorite part though, the story of Bill, a mentally challenged man from L’Arche who travels with Henri and accompanies him on stage for his big presentation–and reaches everyone with his delight and simplicity.

Relevance → Prayer

The worldly attitude tells we are the Doer, the Shower, the Builder. We are supposed to take big tasks upon ourselves, prove our relevance and the relevance of our project. Recognizing that this attitude often results in us closing off from others, obsessing over our own works, and calculating everything for some idea of success, Nouwen turns it on its head. The Christian leader is called instead to be completely irrelevant. They are to stand on the side of invalid, anguished, disabled, oppressed peoples, without reputation or “use” in the world. God does not love because we are useful, successful, and accomplished: God loves us because he created us, because we are his, and for the Christian this is the central reality to inhabit and communicate. Likewise, against the image of the polished self who has it all put together, instead we are to bring our naked, vulnerable self to every situation, not afraid to show our weakness and the areas where we need strengthening.

For the Christian leader, a real, steadfast, genuine love for Jesus should be the top priority, and nothing should ever replace it or get in its way. That alone is relevant and pertinent for our grounding in a Christian life. We should know–not only intellectually, but deep in the heart–that the heart of God is love. Only thus are we preserved from fear, isolation, and despair. Only then can we look on obstacles or failures with the eyes of faith, knowing everything is in God’s hands.

Let us love, because God loved us first (1 Jn 4:19). Nouwen calls this God’s “first love.” All the other loves between spouses, family, friends, and with those suffering, are secondary loves that reflect this first love of God. They all have shadow elements that go back to our own wounds, reservations, prejudices, projections, and so on. But God’s love is pure light, The Christian leader, above and beyond any other work, should proclaim this Jesus as light of the world. “Jesus’ heart is the incarnation of the shadow-free first love of God,” he writes. If we want our secondary loves to be without shadow, we need to truly know Jesus’ heart and let it dwell in us, change us, guide us, and move us in everything. Our number one duty is to tell all people: Do not be afraid, you are loved. You are in God’s hands. Turn to him and see–his plan for you is greater than you can ever imagine! Jesus will show you the way. That is what we’re here for, to show and remind people that God loves them with an unlimited love, and so bring healing and reconciliation in the deepest sense.

It is said that, for Christianity to survive, the Christian of the future will have to be a mystic. Nouwen offers a definition that confirms and grounds this idea. A mystic, he says, is someone whose “identity is rooted in God’s first love.” Now the only way to stay rooted in God’s first love is through prayer, regularly daily prayer, unceasing prayer. Through persistent prayer we come closer and closer to realizing that we are already free, we already belong to God. The contemplative in action is someone who has tasted God’s infinite goodness and is therefore able–without subterfuge, but nakedly and openly–to bring that goodness wherever they go for God’s good works. Then every word we say, every strategy we undertake, comes from a heart that knows God. Nouwen calls for this a move “from the moral to the mystical.” When we can listen to the voice of Love, in personal intimacy with the Source, then we live and act from there and share in the incarnational act of Jesus Christ in this world.

Popularity → Ministry

The temptation of someone in a leadership position is to act like they are “self-made” and “impressively autonomous.” We are social creatures who get our sense of worth through the reaction and feedback we get from others. This is good to an extent, but it carries many risks. If we do not get the response we wanted, we may find ourselves discouraged and resentful. If we do get the response we wanted, we may become addicted to that praise and admiration and lose sight of the true task. That is the risk of popularity–when looking good in the eyes of others takes precedence over doing good in the eyes of God. As we know, it is much harder to do God’s will above all, no matter the immediate human reaction. It calls again for vulnerability, self-exposure, difficult honesty with the brethren, and great perseverance. Popularity, by contrast, tends to hide what is hard. It casts a long shadow of earthly desire. It may burst with flavors the crowd loves, but its fruits do not last past the day.

Ministry should be two things, Nouwen tells us: communal and mutual. The Christian leader should never think he is alone, but rather accountable, in an earnest way, to the flock. Communal ministry means praying with others, keeping others in check, being challenged by others. Likewise, we should evangelize with each other. Others see Jesus in us more easily when we preach together. Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs of two and said, “Where two or three are gathered, there I am.” As ministers, we depend on every member of the Body of Christ just as much as they may depend on us as their shepherd. We are not there to impress them or satisfy them, but to minister to their wounds and bring to them the glorious revelation of God’s first love–the only foundation of Christian community. “The same Lord who binds us together in love will also reveal himself to us and others as we walk together on the road.” Without that community-binding first love of God, “ministry” devolves into yet another social initiative based on the designs of man, loaded down by self-will and self-designs that foreclose direct and dynamic collaboration with God in the heart. It turns things the way of rivalry, competition, factionalism, and so on. We must know that there is no Christian, no Christian fellowship, no Christian Church, without the constant gift and intercession of the Holy Spirit Himself, who is the bond of love between Father and Son: out of their bounty of infinite goodness and obedience to goodness, They send Him to us humans, so that we will be established in the power of God’s love.

Secondly, the Christian leader is not a “professional” in the way that a doctor, psychologist, sociologist, or counselor is. In those professions, care is largely a one-way street, e.g. from therapist to patient. But when that model of care dominates the relation of shepherd to flock, priest to parishioner, the very essence of caring Christian community is lost. Mutual ministry means that the leader both cares and is cared-for, forgives and is forgiven. Nouwen advises that it is gravely detrimental to the spiritual life of the priest when, for example, he feels he must drive miles away to a spiritual director, so that no one in the parish will find out about his struggles. This may work in the secular professional sphere, when the only unifying factor between patient and therapist is session and payment. But the shepherd and the flock are united in the most astounding way: they exist in each other, indwell each other, as members of Christ’s Body. “Now you are Christ’s Body, and individually parts of it” (1 Cor 12:27). The same circumincessio that theologians use to describe the dance of Persons in the Trinity is reflected in the dance of the Church’s members as persons in Christ. That means, simply put, that a wound can’t hide. A dark spot in one part of the body is a dark spot in the whole body. And it will have effects over time that can be catastrophic, if we do not shed light upon it together (Lk 8:17).

The Christian leader should thus thoroughly “de-professionalize” their outlook, admitting that they need salvation as much as those to whom they minister. We ourselves are not anyone’s savior. Jesus alone is Savior, the Savior of all. And so we don’t need to stand at the podium pretending we are anything less than a sinner in need of saving too. Leaders should be visible penitents, confessing their own brokenness, asking for forgiveness. Nouwen warns: there is not much true sacramentality in the confession booth if there is not deep listening. When it becomes more like a pit stop, we are losing the whole principle of mutuality. The more that the priest becomes removed or detached from the embodied, incorporated life of the flock, the more two things happen: on the one hand, spiritualization, so that he’s up in his head with everything troubling him and his relation to God becomes abstract, disembodied; and on the other hand, a carnalization that will seek to recoup embodiment in all the wrong places. The Christian leader simply must allow space for their own “humiliation” before the community, confessing their sin and brokenness, so that the dark powers at play can come to light and be purged. Then there can be an integration of body and spirit, not only in the leader, but in the whole Body of Christ.

Leading → Being Led

The crucial question is this. As leaders, do we act in control and lead like we are God? Or do we give God the control and let ourselves be led by his first love? In the first case, strategies of power become substitutes for the “hard task of love,” and “the temptation to power is greatest when intimacy is a threat.” Building on what’s been said about vulnerability and mutuality, being led by God implies an ever-deepening acceptance of intimacy with Him–total exposure in his light. This intimacy culminates in total reliance and dependence on God for all one’s moves. This means vigilantly following God’s ‘rule’: not just the general rules of moral conduct in Scripture, but also the inwardly prompted rule of the Holy Spirit, that “still small voice” which the lover of God strives to hear, to always better discern God’s will. Once discerned, intimacy also means honoring, acting on what one hears, undertaking the mission faithfully: “Be doers of the Word, not hearers only.” This ‘doing’, however, is not our doing, for the primary cause is God, just as he is its primary power, wisdom, and fruit. To act on God’s word is not a strategy of power or self-initiative, rather it is an obedient intimacy with his saving mystery come alive in us and everything we do.

Our ideal for intimacy and obedience to God is, of course, Jesus Christ. In him we see the perfect image of “servant leadership.” In Jesus we see that the leader–the greatest leader–will invariably be led to unknown, undesirable, painful places. But his trust in God will always overcome reluctance and fear. And his faith in God’s providence and plan will enable him to make hard decisions and go to the most difficult spaces. Opposite to upwardly-mobile motivations of power, Nouwen speaks here of a “downward-mobility” that ends in the Cross. This downward mobility does not, however, aim at destitution, which only creates more pain and ruin. Rather, it is a going down with Christ that constantly abandons power in favor of love. It embraces “radical poverty” from the central experience of joy in the Gospel. By that grace, through dependence on God, we are able to “go down,” for then we know we are never alone in doing so–indeed, that in doing so we are coming closer to Christ, conforming ourselves to him, sharing in his work and his joy.

Once we’ve felt the joy and peace that comes from Jesus, from saying Yes to God’s first love, we can consent to powerlessness and total humility before others and love this. Then we participate in the atoning self-sacrifice of the Son. We are enabled by grace to manifest the Suffering Servant manifest in the world. From our great love for God in Christ comes this deep willingness to be led. We trust in his life, we know the truth of his promises. We are ready to act on what he says, even if it means for us personally a loss of everything. This willingness also opens us up most radically to others, for now that we no longer seek relevance, popularity, or power, we can see better how God is working through the positive and negative responses of those we lead. We can see where the Spirit of Jesus is leading us through this direct encounter with his Body, now that we’re not filtering it through our own self-image but wish only to be led truly.

For Nouwen, the key to cultivating this powerlessness, this surrender to God’s love is theological reflection on Jesus Christ. He observes that many in the Church have found substitutes for such reflection in contemporary forms of psychology and sociology. They come to view themselves as counselors, facilitators, role models. They take secular professions as models, rather than Jesus Christ. But this leads to a predictable outcome: the same sort of fatalism, defeatism, obsession with statistics, despair, resignation, and sentimentality, etc., which comes from the secular mindset. As downwardly-mobile Christian-servant leaders, we have to instead rely wholly on Christ, resolutely put on the mind of Christ. We must say with Paul, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil 3:8). While it is of course prudent to seek an integral approach in ministry and gain orientation from all sources of knowledge, at the end of the day Christ Crucified outweighs every other source of knowledge by a factor of eternity. Why? Because it is precisely this knowledge that we have been chosen to communicate for the sake of souls, and none other.

Theological reflection, therefore, does not mean dwelling in abstractions and arcane debates. Remember that Nouwen had already been a successful academic conveying his theological ideas. What he has in mind here is something deeper, informed by his sacrificial experiences at L’Arche. Theological reflection means contemplating how God has acted in salvation history–above all in Jesus–and how he is acting right now in the concrete lives we encounter–above all in Jesus. The purpose of theological reflection is intimacy with Christ–not just an interior feeling of union (though it is also that) but also our crucifixion with him. It is an inner sanctity that is equally an outward-facing willingness to sacrifice everything for God’s good. The more we are conformed to Christ in this way, the better will our ministry in his name be, for then we will become living, breathing witnesses to the hidden presence of God in this world. Then we can raise human consciousness to the knowledge of God’s gentle guidance in all things. Then we can proclaim the incarnate Word as God’s most treasured intervention into time, the name whereby all may be saved. Then we can overcome all the noise and help people hear the voice of God. Then we can proclaim his first love, which endures forever.

Praying, Vulnerable, Trusting Leaders

The Christian leader renounces the concern for relevance in the eyes of men for the sake of deepest prayer. They renounce worries about popularity and effectiveness for the sake of a vulnerable ministry that is communal and mutual. They renounce all power for the sake of being overpowered and led by God. They consent to be radically poor (Mk 6:8), so as to discern where God is leading them without any other attachment save to his will. The Christian leader is thus a servant intimate with God, whose hands are outstretched like Christ’s, whose life is downwardly-mobile to the Cross–they give living testimony to invincible trust in God and to the unsurpassed glory of his first love.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s