Book Review: In The Name of Jesus – Henri Nouwen

nouwenbookLetter IIn the Name of Jesus is renowned author Henri Nouwen‘s call toward a deeper and more truly Christian idea of leadership. His gleanings in this book are taken primarily from his experience living in a house for the mentally handicapped, and the things that he learned about leadership and ministry in the process.

Nouwen is writing because he believes that Christian leadership has been affected by three great temptations: by the desire to be relevant, the desire for popularity, and the desire for power, all three of which are seen as parts of an effective ministry.

In response to this Nouwen calls for three main shifts in Christian thinking about leadership. Each shift is defined in terms of one of the temptations, a question/task/challenge, and a recommended spiritual discipline.

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The first temptation in leadership that Nouwen covers is the temptation towards relevance, toward being the person who can do things, show things, prove things, etc. Here he reflects that his experience working with the mentally handicapped showed him that “the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with noting to offer but his or her own vulnerable self” (p30).

By giving up this desire to be relevant the Christian leader may enter in a deeper solidarity with the true pain that underlies the appearance of success. In this the chief question is “do you love Jesus?” and the discipline which accompanies it is that of contemplative prayer, due to the great need of personal intimacy with God which can help us avoid being pulled from one issue to the next.

The second temptation in leadership Nouwen points out is the temptation to be spectacular, to be popular, to win great applause. Here he points out that we need to move away from “the dominant image… of the self-made man or woman who can do it alone” (p56). In light of this temptation Nouwen suggest that the reader take up the task of “feeding my sheep.” This is a call to not working in ministry alone, such that “Ministry is not only a communal experience, it is also a mutual experience” (p59). This ‘mutuality’ is one in which the leader does not stay at a safe distance from those he or she is leading, but one which joins them where they are at in service, indeed, it is a servant leadership where “the leader is a vulnerable servant who needs the people as much as they need their leader” (p63).

The discipline accompanying the move away from popularity is that of confession and forgiveness. Through the confession and forgiveness the leader is not hidden behind a veil of the seemingly perfect, but joins their flock in that experience. Nouwen is quick to note, however, that this does not entail laying all of their sins before their people, but that they be full members of their communities, accountable to them and not hiding their own wounded self.

The final temptation Nouwen points to is the great temptation to be powerful. Power is one of the greatest temptations for leaders because as Nouwen notes “power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God and to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life” (p77). The challenge that Nouwen offers to go along with this is what he calls “Somebody else will take you.”

This is a leadership that seeks to discern where Christ would have you go, even when you don’t want to go there; one aimed not at upward mobility but the downward mobility which ends at the cross, of the humility of a suffering servant. In this Nouwen argues that the Christian leader of the future needs to be radically poor: “What is good about being poor? Nothing, except that it offers us the possibility of giving up leadership by allowing ourselves to be led… Wealth and riches prevent us from truly discerning the way of Jesus” (p84).

The discipline which will help the leader in this regard is that of theological reflection, a reflection that will keep the leader from being a mere psychologist or social worker; instead, “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” (p88), which will better help the leader navigate the waters of fatalism, defeatism, incidentalism and accidentalism that the world attempts to push on our people.

In sum Nouwen is arguing that the Christian leader make these three shifts, stating that “[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 critically discern where God is leading us and our people” (p92).

On the whole, Nouwen’s book is a refreshing attempt to call Christian leaders away from the trends that have taken hold of it. It is tempting to say that these trends are new, but it would be more accurate to note that they are perennial trends within the church and the world at large. There isn’t much to critique about this book. It might be argued that Nouwen downplays too much the need for critical engagement with the cultural over certain issues such abortion or euthanasia; in point of fact Nouwen seems to be simply calling Christian leaders to make sure that that is not all they focus on, and that when they do focus on it to remember that the goal is not to be proven right or to gain power but to search for the truth and foster deeper human relationship.

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Memorable Quotes:

-“Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing.”-41

-“A mystic is a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God’s first love.”-42

-“Christian leaders cannot simply be persons who have well-informed opinions about the burning issues of our time.”-45

-“The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”-62

-“Confession and forgiveness are the concrete forms in which we sinful people love one another.”-64

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PCABoba

Eugene Lilley (MDiv, MA) is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Chesterton Society.

He may or may not be a Time Lord.

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