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R&V Reflections: In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen

Aaron Burden

I started the year stepping into two new leadership roles in our community—one at the local church level and one at the denominational level. This is the first time I’ve served in either of these roles, although I have led in other capacities in other spaces, and the invitation to serve in these ways felt both intimidating and exciting. As I sought a word for the year from the Lord in 2023, I sensed that a word around leadership could help guide me in this new season. Lead? That’s too obvious. Maybe treasure, as in treasure all these things in your heart, treasure people, treasure moments, treasure the love of Christ. But, frankly, I do a lot of treasuring already. Finally, the word God wanted for my year appeared in a daily email I receive: kneel.

The posture I need to take in 2023 is one of kneeling. It was right about this time that I picked up In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership by Henri J.M. Nouwen. I picked it up on recommendation of my husband, but also to combat the wrecking ball impulse I sense in myself. It doesn’t take me very long to develop a Savior complex. Here I come to save the day! 

But the true Savior of the day didn’t fill a grandstand or start a marketing campaign. The true Savior knelt down to wash his disciples’ feet. He knelt to write in the dirt next to a woman accused of adultery. He knelt to welcome children into his arms. He knelt to speak to a paralytic by a healing pool. This is the model of Christian leadership I needed to be reminded of again, and it’s this exact posture I want to take in the new year.

In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen

In The Name of Jesus © (1992) Crossroad Publishing. 

Henri Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest who lived from 1932 to 1996. He was also a professor at Harvard, a writer, and a renowned theologian. In the Name of Jesus is the product of an invitation Nouwen received from the Center for Human Development in Washington, D.C. to speak on the subject of Christian leadership in the 21st century. Nouwen thoroughly respected the men who made the invitation, so he said yes.

“But after having said yes to the invitation, I realized that it was far from easy to come up with a sane perspective on Christian leadership for the twenty-first century,” Nouwen wrote in the Prologue. “The audience would mostly be priests who were themselves deeply involved in ministry to their fellow priests… Still, the more I said to myself, ‘I can’t do this,’ the more I discovered within me a desire to put into words my thoughts about ministry as they had evolved since my joining the Daybreak community.”

Daybreak is part of the L’Arche Network, an organization that invites “people with and without intellectual disabilities to build community together.” Nouwen served the Daybreak community near Toronto as a priest for the mentally handicapped and their assistants the last ten years of his life.

“For many years I had taught courses about ministry. Now, having stepped away from the academic life and having been called to be a priest for mentally handicapped people and their assistants, I asked myself, ‘How do I now live from day to day after having spoken for twenty years to young men and women preparing themselves for ministry? How do I think about my ministry and how do these thoughts affect my everyday words and actions?”

Out of that calling, Nouwen wrote down his thoughts and headed to Washington, D.C. But he didn’t go alone. One of the residents of Daybreak joined Nouwen on his journey and would present with him. In the Name of Jesus is the result of the speech Nouwen prepared. 

Nouwen approaches the vision for Christian leadership in the twenty-first century through the lens of two stories in the Gospels, Jesus’ temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11) and Peter’s call to be a shepherd following Jesus’ resurrection (John 21:15-19). According to Nouwen, what will be required of Christian leaders in this new era are three movements: from relevance to prayer, from popularity to ministry, and from leading to being led.

We have all sat under leaders in the church and in organizations who strive to be relevant, popular, and powerful. Honestly, who doesn’t want to lead, to be relevant, and to be well liked by others? I can’t think of many people who have stood up in front of an audience and tried to persuade the group to hate them.

But the countercultural Jesus Christ we find in the Gospels upends the expected and models a completely different style of leadership. It is one that changed the world, and it is one that he called his disciples (and us) to when he left us the Holy Spirit.

I want to be well liked by people. I want to be seen as an important contributor to society, someone who does things. And I want to lead. I want to be a voice for truth and love. So you can imagine my dismay when all three of these leanings were identified as temptations I need to move away from.

After presenting each of these movements and its affiliated temptation, Nouwen offers a corresponding challenge (from the Peter passage) and spiritual discipline that will enable followers to be formed into the leaders Christ wants.

In the Name of Jesus is incredibly convicting, simple, profound, and inspiring. It will draw any Christ follower who wants to be a leader back to the call of Christ and the heart of the Gospel.

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