As he concludes In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen leaves us with a powerful image: the leader with outstretched hands, who chooses a life of downward mobility. This is the image of the praying, vulnerable, trusting leader.
Following his move from Harvard to a communal life among mentally handicapped people and their assistants at L’Arche, Nouwen discovered that every day was full of unplanned events and surprises. He writes, “The people I came to live with made me aware of the extent to which my leadership was still a desire to control complex situations, confused emotions, and anxious minds.”
Leadership requires a willingness to be led
Nouwen describes his discovery that “leadership, for a large part, means to be led . . . I am learning . . . not just about the pains and struggles of wounded people, but also about their unique gifts and grace. They teach me about joy and peace, love and care and prayer—what I could never have learned in any academy.”
After reviewing the abuse of power by Christian leaders in the church over the centuries, he asks: “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 challenge of Christian leadership in the 21st century
Jesus’ vision of maturity, Nouwen writes, “is the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go . . . 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 . . . but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross . . . the downward-moving way of Jesus is the way to the joy and the peace of God, a joy and peace that is not of this world.”
21st century Christian leadership “is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest.”
The call for real theological reflection
Here, Nouwen affirms the discipline of theological reflection as an essential component of such a leader’s life and ministry. “Just as prayer keeps us connected with the first love and just as confession and forgiveness keep our ministry communal and mutual, so strenuous theological reflection will allow us to discern critically where we are being led.” He defines real theological thinking as thinking with the mind of Christ.
“To be such a leader, it is essential to be able to discern from moment to moment how God acts in human history and how the personal, communal, national, and international events that occur during our lives can make us more and more sensitive to the ways in which we are led to the cross and through the cross to the resurrection.
“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 . . . they have to say no to every form of despair in which human life is seen as a pure matter of good or bad luck.
“They have to say no to sentimental attempts to make people develop a spirit of resignation or stoic indifference in the face of the unavoidability of pain, suffering, and death. In short, they have to say no to the secular world and proclaim in unambiguous terms that the incarnation of God’s Word, through whom all things came into being, has made even the smallest event of human history into kairos, that is an opportunity to be led deeper into the heart of Christ.”
Discovering the hidden presence of God
“The Christian leaders of the future have to be theologians, persons who know the heart of God and are trained—through prayer, study, and careful analysis—to manifest the divine event of God’s saving work in the midst of the seemingly random events of their time.
“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. This is a hard discipline, since God’s presence is often a hidden presence, a presence that needs to be discovered.”
Nouwen challenges seminaries to become centers where people are trained to discern the signs of the time. We would add local churches, home groups, and Bible studies as additional settings where women and men can learn together how to practice spiritual discernment.
“This cannot be just an intellectual training,” Nouwen writes. “It requires a deep spiritual formation involving the whole person—body, mind, and heart . . . to the degree that such formation is being sought for and realized, there is hope for the church of the twenty-first century.”
By studying the lives and writings of countless women and men through more than two thousand years of history, we can encourage one another in the practices that lead to transformative spiritual formation.
“Jesus sends us out to be shepherds . . . He asks us to move from a concern for relevance to a life of prayer, from worries about popularity to communal 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” (In the Name of Jesus, Reflections on Christian Leadership, Crossroad, 1989, pages 73-93).