Over the past two days, I’ve shared some thoughts and responses to Henri Nouwen’s book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. In the first section of his book, Nouwen calls us to be leaders who are deeply connected to Jesus and lead out of that relationship, not according to corporate models or the desire for relevance. In the second section of the book, Nouwen calls for Christian leaders to lead from a place of vulnerability so they enter in and become part of the community. Our willingness to confess our sin, seek forgiveness and be honest about our doubts and struggles deepens our ministry to others even as it invites them to minister to us.
In the third and final section of the book, Nouwen says,
“One of the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders constantly gave in to the temptation of power – political power, military power, economic power, or moral and spiritual power – even though they continued to speak in the name of Jesus, who did not cling to his divine power but emptied himself and became as we are” (p. 76).
Somehow it has been believed by many leaders that power is a good thing and can be used for God’s glory. It reminds me of the rings of power in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Many thought they could use the ring for good, but its power corrupted them and wound up destroying the ring-bearer and those he led. It’s the same way in our age. Such power in the hands of Christians caused such things as the crusades, inquisition, slavery and so much more.
What makes the temptation for 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. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” We ask, “Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your Kingdom?” (Matthew 20:21) (p.77).
Not only is the path of power easier, it feels better. It feeds our egos. It builds our reputations. Humility and trust, submission and compassion take work because they are the path of the cross, the path of self-denial, the path of love. Instead of leading from power, we need to surrender ourselves that we might be led by Christ. “Jesus has a different vision of maturity: It is the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go” (p. 83). A Christian leader allows his or her agenda to be directed and controlled by the Holy Spirit. The leader develops a discerning and sensitive spirit that responds to God’s promptings so that the leader is really a follower of the true Leader. Says Nouwen, “Here we touch the most important quality of Christian leadership in the future…a leadership in which power is constantly abandoned in favor of love” (p. 82).
Nouwen suggests that leaders grow in this by “the discipline of strenuous theological reflection” which “will allow us to discern critically where we are being led” (p. 85). He believes the church has lost its ability to think theologically, preferring to think sociologically or psychologically instead. He wants leaders to have “the mind of Christ” Paul talks about. The goal of such theological reflection is to make God’s presence more real. It is to enable us to discern and understand where God is and what he’s doing in a specific situation.
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 (pp. 86-87).
Theological reflection, believes Nouwen, has the ultimate goal of enabling us to see that “even the smallest event of human history…is an opportunity to be led deeper into the heart of Christ” (p. 88). Each day, we have the opportunity to pause and ponder the activities of our personal lives and all that has gone on around us. Where is God? What is he doing? How is he leading me deeper into his heart? How should I respond to his loving invitation?
As we ground ourselves in such reflection, we become leaders who are being led. We become leaders who can invite people into the a life-changing encounter with the God who loves them so much, he became one of them and died on the cross.