This past week our Church Council just finished reading and discussing Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. This is a book that has meant a lot to me over the years. On the inside cover of my copy I have written down various settings where I have led groups through discussions of the book. They are a college ministry student leadership group (Summer 2005), a megachurch staff team (Fall 2005), the staff of a new church plant (Spring 2010), and this past summer (2021) with our staff team here at Eastbrook.
Nouwen’s book is framed around the three temptations of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11) and Peter’s reinstatement and call to shepherd the flock (John 21:15-19). I don’t want to summarize the entire book here. For that you can look at my earlier interactions with the book here:
Instead, I want to share what I found in the back of the book while reading it this time. I found a list I made somewhere along the way of Nouwen’s descriptive statements about the nature of the Christian leader throughout the book.
It was helpful for me to remember these things, so I simply want to share them here. Nouwen tells us that the Christian leader:
claims irrelevance in solidarity with society’s suffering to bring Jesus’ light (35)
knows the incarnate heart of God in Jesus (38)
is a mystic who dwells in the presence of the loving Jesus by contemplative prayer (42)
is a vulnerable brother or sister, not a “professional” who knows clients’ problems (61)
makes their own limited and conditional love a gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God (62)
is a servant leader like Jesus, not playing the power games of this world (65)
must be willing to confess their own brokenness and ask for forgiveness (64)
is called to live the Incarnation, both in their own bodies and in the corporate body (68)
is to be a full member of their community—accountable and affectionate—with their whole selves (69)
walks in the way of downward-mobility like Jesus, not the upward mobility of our culture (81-82)
will be radically poor, thus led where they do not want to go (84)
is strenuously theologically reflective (85)
thinks, speaks, and acts in the name of Jesus (86)
is called to help people hear God’s voice and be consoled and comforted by God’s voice (88)
is spiritually formed as a whole person (90)
If you’ve never read the book and Nouwen’s words move you or unsettle you, encourage you or confuse you, I strongly encourage you to read it. It is a great book on Christian leadership and pastoral ministry. Let me close by sharing Nouwen’s final paragraph of the book:
I hope and pray that you have seen that the oldest, most traditional vision of Christian leadership is still a vision that awaits realization in the future. I leave you with the image of the leader with outstretched hands, who chooses a life of downward mobility. It is the image of the praying leader, the vulnerable leader, and the trusting, leader. May that image fill your hearts with hope, courage, and confidence as you anticipate the new century. (92-93).
Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:26-28)
Lord Jesus Christ,
King of all kings and Lord of all lords,
teach me to live in Your servant way
as I walk with You upon this earth.
Help me to approach my life
not out of selfish ambition or prideful clamoring,
but with the same attitude You had
as You took the downwardly mobile path of the Cross.
I confess this is difficult for me
and seems to cut against our human nature
as shaped by the self-will of the Fall
and the prideful ladder of success.
Purify me of the ways in which this seeps
into Your church and into ministry,
where agendas and pride are baptized
with a thin veneer of religious words and actions.
Purify me and sanctify me
that I might become more like You
from the inside out, oh Jesus,
my Servant King.
In Thomas Oden‘s Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry, he takes one chapter to reflect on the analogy of pastor as shepherd. In the midst of that chapter, he strikes at the heart of what I think is missing within much of pastoral ministry as it is currently practiced in North America: pastoral authority approached as service.
The shepherd is not without authority, but it is of a special sort. The shepherd’s authority is based on competence grounded in mutuality, yet this authority requires accurate empathy to be properly empowered. Pastoral authority is not primarily coercive authority, such as that of a judge or a policeman, but rather authority based on covenant fidelity, caring, mutuality, and the expectation of empathic understanding (Gregory, ACW, vol. 11, Part 2).
This conception of authority has a christological base in the minds of Christian believers. From where else did Christianity learn this unusual view of authority? It is precisely from the servant messiah that we learn of the paradoxical unity of dignity and service. It is from the true God, true man, who though he was rich became poor for our sakes (2 Cor. 8:9), “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8, RSV). The pattern of authority is that of the incarnate Lord, who expressed in a single, unified ministry the holiness of God amid the alienations of the world, the incomparable power of God that was surprisingly made know in an unparalleled way amid crucifixion and resurrection.
Wherever Christians speak of authority or dignity of ministry or headship of the shepherd, those are not properly understood as coercive modes of power, but persuasive, participative modes of benevolent, empathic guidance. This is an extraordinarily complex, subtle, and highly nuanced conception of authority, but it is intimately familiar to those who love Christ and listen for his voice. The proper authority of ministry is not external, manipulative, alien power that distances itself from those “under” it, but rather a legitimized and happily received influence that wishes only good for its recipient, a leadership that boldly guides but only on the basis of a deeply empathic sense of what the flock yearns for and needs. The analogy of shepherd was not promiscuously or thoughtlessly chosen by Jesus as the centerpiece of ministry, but wells up from the heart of God’s own ministry to the world. (p. 53)
Murray comments briefly on a series of verses on meekness and humility from Jesus before drawing summary comments later. I found it helpful simply to read those verses one after another:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven….Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:3, 5)
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:29)
“An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.'” (Luke 9:46-48)
“Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.'” (Matthew 20:25-28)
“The greatest among you will be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11)
“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)
“For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)
“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14)
“But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” (Luke 22:26)
Let me ask you a question: which of these verses stands out to you most and why?Read More »