This week I began a new class on Christian Leadership. Our first reading assignment was In the Name of Jesus by the late Henri Nouwen. Nouwen, a Catholic priest, spent years teaching at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. He writes, “Everyone was saying that I was doing really well, but something inside was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger” (p. 20). He went from Harvard to the Daybreak Center in Toronto – a home for mentally handicapped men. The book is his reflections on the direction he believes Christian leadership should take in the future.
Nouwen suggests leaders need to stop seeking to be relevant and commit themselves to seeking God through contemplative prayer. He says, “The question is not: How many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus?” He goes on to say, “The central question is, Are the leaders of the future truly men and women of God, people with an ardent desire to dwell in God’s presence, to listen to God’s voice, to look at God’s beauty, to touch God incarnate word, and to taste fully God’s infinite goodness” (p. 43).
In a world where many churches seem to operate by more of a corporate model, I was challenged and refreshed by Nouwen’s challenge to seek God first and foremost. His challenge takes the onus off us to figure out what people want and catering to their perceptions and desires, and calls us to a deep, intimate relationship with Jesus that we might be led by the Holy Spirit.
I agree with him that “very few people know that they are loved without any conditions or limits” (p. 38). As a result, “Christian leaders cannot simply be persons who have well-informed opinions about the burning issues of our time. Their leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source for their words, advice and guidance” p. 45). Such a person will be “flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative” (pp. 45-47).
Such leaders – who lead from intimate relationship with Jesus rather than giftedness or ability – are leaders who may swim against the current of what is popular or deemed relevant, but they are surely the kind of leaders who touch people in deep places and make a difference that cannot be quantified or programmed.
In times of silence, solitude, and contemplative prayer, we find our true selves and experience the freedom that comes from knowing we are loved deeply and unconditionally. As leaders, as Christian leaders, how much more important is that intimacy that as we lead and as we serve we are not playing to the masses but to the “Audience of One”.