A friend recently shared with me a book written about 20 years ago by Henri Nouwen entitled In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. Nouwen was one of the most prolific and popular spiritual writers of the latter 20th century. He wrote more than 40 books and taught at Notre Dame, as well as at Yale and Harvard. For the 10 years before his death in 1996, he was part of the L Arche Daybreak community in Toronto, sharing life with people with developmental disabilities.
After his move to this community, Nouwen was asked to address a group of clergy on the subject of leadership. This little book contains the material he presented as part of that assignment. The underlying theme for Nouwen was the lessons he had learned in moving from a high-profile academic setting to a chaplaincy role among “the least of these.”
Using the biblical passages on the temptation of Christ (Matthew 4:1-11) and Peter’s call to be a shepherd of God’s people (John 21:15-19), Nouwen identified the three temptations of contemporary Christian leadership, the appropriate response to each, and the spiritual discipline that empowers each the response.
The first temptation is to be relevant. By relevance, he refers to the tendency of many of us today to depend on the findings of sociology, psychology, anthropology, and other disciplines to the point that we say, “We can take care of ourselves. We don’t need God.” The response to this is a call to answer Jesus’ question, “Do you love me?” If we do, we will depend on power in God and not ourselves. Nouwen states, “Many Christian empire builders have been people unable to give and receive love.” The spiritual discipline undergirding the way of love is contemplative prayer in which we look to God for understanding, acceptance, and guidance.
The second temptation is to be spectacular or popular. This is the temptation to pursue individualism at the sake of true community. The response is the task to “feed my sheep.” We must acknowledge that we need one another and support one another on the Christian journey. A true servant leader understands that he or she needs the people as much as they need the leader. The spiritual disciplines involved are confession and forgiveness, necessities for healthy community life.
The third temptation that Nouwen cites is to covet power. He suggests, “Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.” Perhaps it is easier to BE God that to love God and easier to CONTROL people than to love them. The challenge is to understand that the true servant leader will find himself or herself led into “unknown, undesirable, and painful places.” The discipline supporting this is theological reflection. In using this term, Nouwen calls for a lifestyle based on the Word of God—“a deep spiritual formation involving the whole person—body, mind, and heart.” He points out that such thinking is hard to find among ministers!
Nouwen summarizes in this way: “My movement from Harvard to L’Arche made me aware in a new way how much my own thinking about Christian leadership had been affected by the desire to be relevant, the desire for popularity, and the desire for power.” Instead, God calls Christian leaders to “a life of downward mobility” embodied by prayer, vulnerability, and trust.
Nouwen’s words challenge is to review our approach to leadership in light of a different standard. They are more meaningful because of the life and example of the writer himself.