Monday, May 27, 2013

Nouwen's refreshing thoughts on Christian leadership

I recently finished a book called In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen. It was quite a refreshing read as it addressed issues that Christians face as they desire to be leaders in their ministries and in the world. Nouwen bases his book around the three temptations that Jesus faced in the wilderness.

He explains how Jesus's first temptation was to be relevant, as Satan tempted Him to turn stones into bread. If you don't know, Nouwen left the life of teaching at places like Notre Dame and Harvard to go live with the mentally handicapped people of the L'Arche community near Toronto. He talks about how, when he comes to that community, he is struck by the fact that people did not care at all about all of the useful things he had done up until then, but only how he was perceived in the moment. He explains how this left him naked and vulnerable in many ways:
“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.”
He goes on to explain that the Christian leader has to be one that gives up the desire to be relevant and merely offers the world his or her vulnerable self. He says the discipline that will counteract this desire for relevance is contemplative prayer. Instead of listening to the world and getting pulled into seemingly urgent needs, we need to be people who constantly dwell in God's presence. It is only here that we can find the source of our words and guidance for the hurting world.

The second temptation Jesus faced was to be spectacular, as he was tempted to throw himself down off the temple. Instead of the individual heroism that is so highly touted in our culture, the Bible offers a different perspective where the value is placed on speaking God's Word in community. He also says that ministry is not only a communal experience but a mutual one. This means that we are not called to create a safe distance between us and those we intend to lead, but are called to make our full selves known, including our doubts, fears, sadness, and failures.

The discipline he suggests that keeps us from desiring individual impressiveness is confession and forgiveness. He says, “Confession and forgiveness are the concrete forms in which we sinful people love one another.” This needs to be a two way street. Christian leaders need to be able to share their wounded selves with those they want to lead. Otherwise, there is a bifurcation that occurs. He explains,
“They separate themselves from their own concrete community, try to deal with their needs by ignoring them or satisfying them in distant or anonymous places, and then experience an increasing split between their own most private inner world and the good news they announce…When ministers and priests live their ministry mostly in their heads and relate to the Gospel as a set of valuable ideas to be announced, the body quickly takes revenge by screaming loudly for affection and intimacy.”
The third and final temptation that Jesus faced was the temptation to power, as He was tempted to rule all the kingdoms of the world. Nouwen explains that there is a great temptation to have power among Christian leaders, even though Jesus came and emptied Himself of all rights to power. He goes on to say that it is easier to control people than to love people. It's easier to be God than to love Him. The way of the Christian leader does not look like the world. Nouwen says,
“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.”
The discipline suggested to guard against the temptation to have power is theological reflection. Without this, he explains that we will be nothing more than pseudo-psychologists in trying to help people deal with the stresses of their life. In contrast,
“The task of future Christian leaders is not to make a little contribution to the solution of the pains and tribulations of their time, but to identify and announce the ways in which Jesus is leading God’s people out of slavery, through the desert to a new land of freedom. Christian leaders have the arduous task of responding to personal struggles, family conflicts, national calamities, and international tensions with an articulate faith in God’s real presence.”
Through prayer, through confession and forgiveness, and through theological reflection, Christians can counteract the temptations to be relevant and popular, to be spectacular and removed from those whom we lead, and to exert power and control over others. At this point we can finally help people to hear God's gentle and loving voice in a noisy world.