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In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, by Henri Nouwen

by davesandel on October 10th, 2011

In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, by Henri Nouwen, 1989

107 pages (including short study guide)

 Henri Nouwen always seemed to be a relevant, popular and effective teacher, friend, and leader.  No matter where he went (Notre Dame, Yale, Harvard, L’Arche), no matter what he wrote about (South America, the Eucharist, the parable of the prodigal son, living in a monastery, the desert fathers, leadership), Nouwen drew attention and accolades.

Nouwen, however, remained emotionally and personally hostage to his own depressive personality.  Second-guessing himself was second-nature to him.  Part of his charm was the ability to share this with his readers.  And over time it led him more and more deeply into the heart of God.

In 1981 articles in Sojourner magazine, Nouwen explored the principle of “downward mobility”, which is at the center of these reflections on leadership.  Jesus “self-emptied” and Nouwen calls us to do the same, as we are enabled by the Holy Spirit.  These articles, by the way, were republished in 2007 as The Selfless Way of Christ.

Henri focuses on what he calls the only good question: “Am I in love with Jesus?”  I can love Jesus only as the Holy Spirit shows me God’s “first love.”  I love because God first loved me.  We can and must become mystics.  Mystics, Henri says, are men and women whose “identities are deeply rooted in God’s first love” (p. 42).

Leaders who are “mystics” can move away from self-importance and “relevance” toward a sympathy with and acceptance of the hopeless, alienated, irrelevant parts of both themselves and the people they lead.  They will choose to show their own woundedness instead of feigning more wholeness than is theirs to show.  “We are not the givers of life.  We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for” (p. 61-62).  When “power is constantly abandoned in favor of love” (p. 83), then a leader can form intimate relationships which bring others closer and closer to Christ.

Henri was accompanied by another member of Daybreak, the L’Arche community in Toronto.  Bill spoke for himself after Henri was finished:

Bill took the microphone and said, with all the difficulties he has in speaking, “Last time, when Henri went to Boston, he took John Smeltzer with him.  This time he wanted me to come with him to Washington, and I am very glad to be here with you. Thank you very much.”  That was it, and everyone stood up and gave him warm applause …

Bill was delighted.  As people gathered for drinks, he went from person to person, introduced himself, asked how they liked the evening, and told them all sorts of stories about his life in Daybreak …

The next morning at breakfast before we left, Bill walked from table to table with his cup of coffee in his hands and said goodbye.  It was clear to me that he had made many friends and felt very much at home in these, for him, so unusual surroundings.

As we flew back together to Toronto, Bill looked up from the word-puzzle book that he takes with him wherever he goes and said, “Henri, did you like our trip?”

“Oh, yes,” I answered, “it was a wonderful trip, and I am so glad you came with me.”

Bill looked at me attentively and then said, “And we did it together, didn’t we?”

Then I realized the full truth of Jesus’ words, “Where two or three meet in my Name, I am among them (Matt 18:20).  In the past I had always given lectures, sermons, addresses, and speeches by myself.  Often I had wondered how much of what I had said would be remembered.  Now it dawned on me that most likely much of what I said would not be long remembered, by that Bill and I doing it together would not easily be forgotten. (p. 99-101)

My first exposure to Henri Nouwen came through my campus ministry colleague Don Follows, who showed me an article written for “World Vision” in 1988.  In this article Henri described his relationship with another member of Daybreak – Adam – who could do nothing for himself.  For about an hour and a half each morning, Henri bathed Adam, shaved him, cleaned his teeth, gave him his medication, dressed him, fed him his breakfast, and took him to his therapeutic exercises.

He wrote, “Adam’s peace is first of all a peace rooted in being.  Being is more important than doing.  How simple a truth, how hard to live.”

For most of us, more capable than Adam of distracting ourselves with our various competencies, “being” evades us.  But God will have his way with me, because He loves me.  In the last chapter of The Selfless Way of Christ, Nouwen wrirtes that the Holy Spirit works on me through the church, through scripture and through prayer.  Summarized in an Amazon review by Kerry Walters: “in the first we encounter the living Christ in time and space; in the second we encounter the incarnate presence of God in concrete terms; and in the third, we cultivate an inner awareness or receptivity to God.”

Psalm 46:10 can be divided into four parts and spoken as a prayer, as a path toward being:

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know.

Be still.


In the silence that follows the chime-like sound of that final word, I can sit and listen, sit and listen, sit and listen.  Out of this “prayer of quiet” springs a humbler, far more loving brand of leader, a leader led by Jesus.

Quotations compiled from In the Name of Jesus:

 1. From Relevance to Prayer

After twenty-five years of priesthood, I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people, and very much pre-occupied with burning issues.  Everyone was saying that I was doing really well, but something inside me was telling me that my success was putting my own soul in danger.  I began to ask myself whether my lack of contemplative prayer, my loneliness, and my constantly changing involvement in what seemed most urgent were signs that the Spirit was gradually being suppressed. – p. 20

Though I never spoke about hell, or only jokingly so, I woke up one day with the realization that I was living in a very dark place and that the term “burnout” was a convenient psychological translation for a spiritual death. – p. 20

At L’Arche working with handicapped men, I was suddenly faced with my naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent simply on how I was perceived at the moment. – p. 28

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. – p. 28

The Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.  That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love. – p. 30

Jesus first temptation was to be relevant: to turn stones into bread.  Oh, how often I have wished I could do that … where children die from malnutrition and contaminated water I would not have been able to reject the magical gift of making the dusty stone-covered streets into places where people could pick up bread and drink delicious milk.  Aren’t we priests called to this, to heal the sick, feed the hungry? … When Jesus was asked to prove his power by this relevant miracle, he clung to his mission to proclaim the Word and said, “One does not life by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). – p. 31

A main suffering of ministry is low self esteem.  We have very little impact, see little change.  Our efforts seem fruitless.  We discover that psychotherapists and doctors are often more trusted than we.  Fewer and fewer young people want to follow in our footsteps.  Who can live long in such a climate without slipping into depression?

The secular world says, “We do not need God, the church , or a priest … The problem is not lack of faith, but lack of competence … We no longer need spiritual answers to practical questions.”  Often Christian leaders leave the ministry and develop a new competence in their attempts to make relevant contributions to a better world. – p. 31-33

But there is a completely different story to tell.  Beneath all the great accomplishments of our time there is a deep current of despair.  A deep sense of lonely uselessness fills the hearts of millions of people in our success-oriented world … The cry that arises behind all this is clearly: “Is there anybody who loves me?  Is there anybody who can hold me and give me a sense of belonging? – p. 33-34

Feeling irrelevant is a much more general experience that we might think when we look at our seemingly self-confident society … More and more people are suffering from profound moral and spiritual handicaps without having any idea of where to look for healing.  The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there. – p. 34-35

Before Jesus commissioned Peter to be a shepherd he asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?” … This is the question that can allow us to be, at the same time, irrelevant and truly self-confident. – p. 36

Jesus’ message of love was rejected by a world in search of power, efficiency and control.  Near the end of his time on earth, his only question to Peter was “Do you love me?”  Not … “How many people take me seriously?  How much did I accomplish?” – p. 37

The only good question is, “Are you in love with Jesus?” – p. 37

Knowing God’s heart means consistently, radically, and very concretely to announce and reveal that God is love and only love, and that every time fear, isolation or despair begins to invade the human soul, this is not something that comes from God. – p. 38

This unconditional and unlimited love is what the evangelist John calls God’s first love.  “Let us love,” he says, “because God loved us first” (1 John 4:19).  The love that often leaves us doubtful, frustrated, angry and resentful is the second love, that is to say, the affirmation, affection, sympathy, encouragement, and support we receive from our parents, teaches, spouses, and friends.  We all know how limited, broken, and very fragile that love is. – p. 39

The radical good news is that the second love is only a broken reflection of the first love and that the first love is offered to us by a God in whom there are no shadows.  Jesus’ heart is the incarnation of the shadow-free first love of God. – p. 40

From that heart come the words “Do you love me?”  Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing. When we live in the world with that knowledge of Jesus’ heart, we cannot do other than bring healing, reconciliation, new life, and hope wherever we go. – p. 41

The desire to be relevant and successful will gradually disappear, and our only desire will be to say with our whole being to our brothers and sisters of the human race, “You are loved.  There is no reason to be afraid.” – p. 41

We have to be mystics.  A mystic is a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God’s first love. – p. 42

Dwelling in the presence of the One who keeps asking us, “Do you love me?  Do you love me?  Do you love me?” is the discipline of contemplative prayer. – p. 43

Are the Christian 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’s incarnate Word, and to taste fully God’s infinite goodness? – p. 43

Reclaiming the mystical aspect of theology means that every word spoken, every word of advice given, and every strategy developed can come from a heart that knows God intimately. – p. 44

Through the discipline of contemplative prayer, Christians leaders can learn to listen again and again to the voice of love and to find there the wisdom and courage to address whatever issue presents itself to them … Then it is possible to remain flexible without being relativistic and willing to confront without being offensive. – p. 45

2. From Popularity to Ministry

I have found over and over again how hard it is to be truly faithful to Jesus when I am alone.  I need my brothers or sisters to pray with me, to speak with me about the spiritual task at hand, and to challenge me to stay pure in mind, heart and body. – p. 58

Somehow we have come to believe that good leadership requires a safe distance from those we are called to lead.  Medicine, psychiatry and social work all offer us models in which “service” takes place in a one-way direction.  But how can we lay down our life for those with whom we are not even allowed to enter into a deep, personal relationship? – p. 61

Laying down your life means making your own faith and doubt, hope and despair, joy and sadness, courage and fear available to others as ways of getting in touch with the Lord of life. – p. 61

We are not the givers of life.  We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for. – p. 61-62

When the members of a community of faith cannot truly know and love their shepherd, shepherding quickly becomes a subtle way of exercising power over others and begins to show authoritarian and dictatorial traits. – p. 62

The world in which we live – a world of efficiency and control – has no models to offer to those who want to be shepherds in the way Jesus was a shepherd.  Even the so-called “helping” professions have been so thoroughly secularized that mutuality can only be seen as a weakness and a dangerous form of role confusion. – p. 62

The servant leader is a vulnerable servant who needs the people as much as they need their leader. – p. 63

Confession and forgiveness are the concrete forms in which we sinful people love one another – p. 64

I am not at all surprised that so many ministers and priests suffer immensely from deep emotional loneliness, frequently feel a great need for affectivity and intimacy, and sometimes experience a deep-seated guilt and shame in front of their own people.   Often they seem to say, “What if my people knew how I really feel, what I think and daydream about, and where my mind wanders when I am sitting by myself in my study?”  It is precisely the men and women who are dedicated to spiritual leadership who are easily subject to very raw carnality. – p. 66-67

Priests and ministers, especially those who relate to many anguishing people, need a truly safe place for themselves, where they can share their deep pain and struggles with people who do not need them, but who can guide them ever deeper into the mystery of God’s love. – p. 69-70

3. From Leading to Being Led

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. – p. 77

One thing is clear to me: The temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat.  Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead.  Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love. – p. 79

The world says, “When you were young you were dependent and could not go where you wanted, but when you grow old you will be able to make your own decisions, go your own way, and control your own destiny.” But Jesus has a different vision of maturity: It is the ability and willingness to be led where you would rather not go. – p. 81

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 in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross. – p. 81-82

A leadership in which power is constantly abandoned in favor of love is a true spiritual leadership.  Powerless and humility in the spiritual life do not refer to people who have no spine and who let everyone else make decisions for them.  They refer to people who are so deeply in love with Jesus that they are ready to follow him wherever he guides them. – p. 83-84

What is good about being “radically” poor?  Nothing, except that it offers us the possibility of giving leadership by allowing ourselves to be led. – p. 84

Just as prayer keeps us connected with the first love and just as confession and forgiveness keeps our ministry communal and mutual, so the discipline of strenuous theological reflection will allow us to discern critically where we are being led. – p. 85

Few ministers and priests think theologically.  The behavioral sciences such as psychology and sociology dominate education.  Most Christian leaders today raise psychological or sociological questions even though they frame them in scriptural terms.  Thinking with the mind of Christ is hard to find in the practice of the ministry. – p. 85-86

Pastors will think of themselves as enablers, facilitators, role models, father or mother figures, big brothers or big sisters, and so on, and thus join the countless men and women who make a living by trying to help their fellow human beings cope with the stresses and strains of everyday living.  But that has little to do with Christian leadership. – p. 86

To be a Christian 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. – p. 86-87

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 fatalism, defeatism, accidentalism, or incidentalism that makes people believe that statistics are telling us the truth.  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 of stoic indifference in the face of the unavoidability of pain, suffering, and death. – p. 87-88

Raising human consciousness to the knowledge of God’s gentle guidance is a hard discipline, since God’s presence is often a hidden presence, a presence that needs to be discovered. – p. 89

I think we are only half aware of how secular even theological schools have become.  Formation in the mind of Christ, who did not cling to power but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, is not what most seminaries are about. – p. 90


Jesus 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 discern where God is leading us and our people. – p. 91-92

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. – p. 92-93

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