CultureTheology & Spirituality

Nouwen On Christian Leadership

For Christian leaders, each year offers a whole slate of conferences to attend for the purpose of honing and developing the skills needed to lead the church in the next millennium. A few notable examples of popular conferences, especially with younger evangelical leaders, are Willow Creek Leadership Summit, Catalyst, and Q. These conferences host keynote speakers from both within the church and from the wider culture. Attendees listen to talks from pastors, military leaders, business gurus, filmmakers, musicians, and the like. For example, I have listened to mega-church pastors like Bill Hybels, Steven Furtick, Andy Stanley, and Craig Groeschel and cultural movers and shakers like Colin Powell and Carly Fiorina. Whenever I attend these events, I try to listen and take home a few good ideas, but, in general I am not really inspired by them. For my money, and these conferences are quite expensive, I would rather learn from someone like Henri Nouwen.

Henri Nouwen and L’Arche

Henri Nouwen was a Dutch priest who came to America and eventually ended up teaching at some of America’s most prestigious academic institutions– Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. While at Harvard, Nouwen, as he recalls in his book In the Name of Jesus, felt both a sense of spiritual dryness and a sense of calling to pastor in a non-traditional setting. He made the radical decision to leave his teaching position at Harvard to become the pastor of a L’Arche community. For those interested in the full story, Nouwen’s book The Road to Daybreak uses his personal journals to tell the powerful story of how he left Harvard to live in the L’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto. L’Arche is a spiritual community where disabled and able-bodied persons live in a relationship of mutuality and interdependence.1 Nouwen writes about this change of calling, a calling that was criticized by many of his elitist academic peers:

“So I moved from Harvard to L’Arche, from the best and brightest, wanting to rule the world, to men and women who had few or no words and were considered, at best, marginal to the needs of society.”2   

As a pastor of a small church with a focus on intimate community, Nouwen is the type of Christian leader I want to learn from. I want to learn from a man who would leave behind honor, power, and influence to pastor in a community where people do not care about degrees, books, awards, or notoriety. To me, Nouwen truly embraced the spirit of Paul in Philippians 3:7-8– counting his credentials as “rubbish.” This is what Nouwen says about the experience:

“Since nobody could read my books, the books could not impress anyone, and since most of them never went to school, my twenty years at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard did not provide a significant introduction.”3

Three Temptations of Modern Christian Leadership

Having pastored in this unique environment, Nouwen was asked by a friend to share his thoughts on Christian leadership, especially as it pertains to the future of Christian leadership. Those thoughts were compiled into the short and accessible book, In the Name of Jesus. Originally published in 1989, the book remains applicable and challenging to this day. In the book, Nouwen identifies the 3 great temptations facing Christian leaders today:

  1. To be relevant
  2. To be spectacular
  3. To be powerful

For people who have been to Christian leadership conferences, Nouwen’s book is a breath of fresh air. So many of these conferences claim that Christian leaders have to be dynamic, visionary leaders. They have to be movers and shakers. They have to be hip, relevant, technologically-savvy, and charismatic. Christian leaders need to be in tune with cultural fads and trends. Their churches have to be changing the world. They have to be innovative in their approach to ministry. Anything less is failure. I always leave these conferences with a strong sense of inadequacy– I do not know if I can ever be good enough or do enough to be a successful Christian leader. Thankfully, Nouwen comes along and reminds us that it does not have to be like that. We can be irrelevant, unspectacular, and weak. We do not have to do big things. We can pastor small communities of marginalized people. In fact, Nouwen challenges Christian leaders to embrace their irrelevance and weakness– maybe then God can really use a person, just as God used Paul in all his weakness. At the end of the first chapter of the book, Nouwen leaves his reader with a profound challenge:

“It is here that the need for a new Christian leadership becomes clear. 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.”4

The Pressure of the Mega-Church Model

Just this past week I watched a YouTube video from GQ Magazine on the Hillsong church in New York City and read an article on the music at Elevation Church in Charlotte by Pitchfork. From what I gathered, these are two of the hippest and fastest growing churches in America. Both churches produce a worship experience that would rival a U2 concert and both are adept at reaching millennials and the unchurched. Both pastors are young and charismatic communicators who dress like rock stars and live desirable lifestyles. As evidenced by mainstream media coverage, these churches influence the wider culture in profound ways. Worship services at these popular mega-churches attract celebrities and athletes.

While mega-churches and their pastors dominate the headlines, the vast majority of churches in America are still predominantly small and the vast majority of clergy are rather unhip and uncultured. Very few churches can rival the production value and musical talent of mega-churches. The weekly routine of a mega-church pastor, who functions primarily as CEO and lead communicator, is miles apart from the daily grind of most ordained clergy. Yet, Christian leadership conferences continually uphold the mega-church and the mega-church pastor as the model for all churches and all ministers of the gospel. While this may be seen as a way to inspire smaller churches to be more creative and culturally relevant, I believe that this creates unrealistic and unhealthy images of faithful ministry that very few pastors can ever measure up to. This also creates an undue pressure on churches and pastors to be successful in terms of numbers and economics.

The Freedom of Insignificance

Instead of succumbing to the temptation to be relevant, spectacular, and powerful, Christian leaders should become content with the smallness of everyday Christian ministry– sharing meals together, gathering in homes, teaching Bible study, praying for the needs of the community, visiting the sick, discipling the congregation, and practicing what is preached on Sundays. A leader who does these things will probably not be invited to speak at a conference for thousands of pastors. Major magazines and online music publications will never run a cover story on the church. Instead of ministering to hip and creative millennials, this kind of pastor might spend most of his time with elderly widows and over-stressed young parents. Once a pastor embraces the smallness of Christian ministry, there is a wonderful freedom to experience in being insignificant and overlooked. Then, a Christian leader might be able to tap into the Spirit of Jesus, remembering that Jesus often shunned crowds and taught smaller groups of disciples in a home.

In his book In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen is arguing that we need a new generation of Christian leaders who acknowledge and accept their nothingness. We do not need more talented leaders. We do not need more charismatic leaders. We do not need more dynamic leaders. We do not need more hip leaders. We do not need more innovative leaders. We need more leaders like Jesus and Paul– leaders who will empty themselves of their own relevance and power so that they can be filled with the life of Christ. God can certainly do something great, greater than mega-churches and media ministries, with a generation of leaders like that.

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Jarrett Dickey

Jarrett Dickey

Jarrett is a bi-vocational house church pastor and adjunct faculty member. He teaches classes at several local colleges in the areas of religion and humanities. In addition to teaching, Jarrett is the assistant pastor of a house church, where he helps with preaching, teaching, worship leading, and discipleship. Jarrett married his high school sweetheart, Hannah, in 2005, and they now have four small children. Jarrett holds a bachelor of science degree in biology from Ohio Northern University and a master of divinity degree from Emory University, Candler School of Theology. His hobbies include guitar, hiking, bird watching, crossword puzzles, sports, reading, and writing.

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