WEB XTRA: Facing the Temptations of Leadership

by Justin Lonas

In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership

Henri J.M. Nouwen, Crossroad, 1993, 107 pages, $14.95, softcover.

If you have not encountered the work of Henri J.M. Nouwen, you are missing an incredible opportunity to deepen the spiritual understanding of your faith - his writing has a prophetic, soul-piercing quality seldom found in modern Christian authors.

The Dutch-born Nouwen studied for the Catholic priesthood and spent nearly 20 years teaching theology and psychology at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard before moving into the Daybreak L'Arche community for developmentally handicapped persons near Toronto. Much of his best theological writing comes from this experience caring for those the rest of society had abandoned - L'Arche gave him a unique perspective on the broken, childlike spirit that Christ requires of his followers.

In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership is just one of about 40 works Nouwen published. This short book (at barely 100 pages, really more in the pointed tone of an essay) was printed from the transcript of a speech Nouwen gave to a conference on 21st Century Christian leadership in 1989 (the speech was actually delivered while Bill Van Buren, one of the L'Arche residents sat on stage with Nouwen as a testimony to the ministry he was calling them to). In it he lays out, quite bluntly, that for the church to be effective in the future, its leaders must follow the example of Christ in resisting the three temptations Christ faced in Matthew 4:1-11: The temptation to be relevant, The temptation to be spectacular, and the temptation to be powerful.

The book is divided into three chapters (each dealing with with one temptation).

Chapter one, "From Relevance to Prayer", likens Satan's tempting Jesus to turn stones into bread to the pastor's temptation to meet the felt needs of society, to become vital to the culture by obtaining knowledge of its workings and pointing out its failings. Nouwen asserts that Christ's repeated question, "Do you love me?" (John 21:15-17) is a challenge to the pastor to maintain our focus on Him through the discipline of contemplative prayer. He maintains that our goal should be to show Christ as He is (the suffering servant) to all people, regardless of their position, in such a way that allows us to diminish and Him to shine through.

"The leader of the future will be one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying the glitter of success and to bring the light of Jesus there," he says.

The second chapter, "From Popularity to Ministry", addresses the temptation to be spectacular (as illustrated when Satan urged Jesus to leap from the temple spire and be caught by angels); to make a difference in the world and to appear stoic, resourceful, and driven while doing so. This, Nouwen says, is a twisted perspective on ministry that flows both from the Western business model of church organization and the age-old distinction between clergy and laity. As he points out, "Stardom and individual heroism, which are such obvious aspects of our competitive society, are not at all alien to the Church. There too, the dominant image is that of the self-made man or woman who can do it all alone."

He counters that by extrapolating on Christ's repeated command to "feed my sheep" in response to Peter's confession of love in the aforementioned passage. Nouwen's perspective (heavily influenced by his years at L'Arche) is that real Christian leadership involves caring for the flock from within, from a position of honesty and commonality developed through the disciplines of mutual confession and forgiveness. He rejects the notion of a pastor or church leader "maintaining his distance" from the congregation or reveling in authority over them. He says that "a new type of leadership is asked for in the church of tomorrow, a leadership which is not modeled on the power games of the world, but on the servant-leader, Jesus, who came to give his life for the salvation of many."

The final chapter, "From Leading to Being Led" is based on John 21:18 "Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were younger, you used to gird yourself, and walk wherever you wished; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will gird you, and bring you to where you do not wish to go." Nouwen uses this verse as a rebuttal of the temptation to be powerful; that is the temptation to own and rule rather than to love and serve. He reminds us that it is not our place but the Lord's to guide the steps of His followers. This temptation is particularly attractive because it appeals to our weakness. As he says, "What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? 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."

The antidote to this is what Nouwen calls theological reflection; not a study of God's person but a meditation on it. Only when we draw near to Christ and allow His spirit to fill us, he says, are we humbled enough to shepherd the flock. He says that the Church's greatest need is "a leadership in which power is constantly abandoned in favor of love . . . 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." He adds "If there is any hope for the church in the future, it will be hope for a poor church in which its leaders are willing to be led."

In the Name of Jesus should shake your understanding of what it means to lead, and draw you into the deeper fellowship with Christ that will give you the grace to follow Him into servanthood. This is a must-read for pastors, church leaders, and anyone called to ministry.

Justin Lonas is publisher of Pulpit Helps.

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