By Dick Kunnert

Yeshua Fellow & Master Facilitator

Not long after retiring from academic life, Henri Nouwen wrote a monograph about an adventure he had delivering a talk to a group of priests and ministers in Washington, DC. The booklet is titled In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. The booklet covers two areas:

  • the content of the talk, which was on leadership, and,
  • the interaction that went on between Father and his travel companion, Bill. 

Father Nouwen had decided to retire to a L’Arche community in Toronto, Canada, named Daybreak. Father was to be the chaplain to the community. L’Arche communities serve special populations, people experiencing mental or emotional disabilities. In the Toronto community most of the members were experiencing forms of mental retardation.

What is fascinating about the priest’s account is how living with a group of intellectually challenged men  had changed his prospective on the concept of leadership within his spiritual life and how he looked at his priesthood.

Life is a mess

Imagine this: Father Nouwen is an international renowned author of 40 books on Christian spirituality. He has retired after teaching theology at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard. At retirement he knows he is a mess. He is a priest, but he senses his personal prayer is poor, he has become socially isolated and his passion is following the burning issues of the day in politics.

He has the sense that his outward success “was putting my own soul in danger”.  So Nouwen, after asking God for direction, shares his dilemma with Father Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche communities. Vanier immediately gives him advice: “Go live among the poor in spirit and they will heal you.”  So Nouwen is off to Toronto and to Daybreak as their chaplain.

Starting over

At Daybreak none of the priest’s housemates give a wit about his past successes in academia or his renown as an author. His housemates care only about the quality of his relationships.  His absences from the house require an explanation about where he is going and when will he return. He gets direct feedback on the quality of his homilies and sermons -- while he is giving them! Then gradually comes the question: “How come none of us get to go with you?”

All of this is new to Father Nouwen. Never has he had to answer to this level of accountability. While he is initially conflicted, he senses that there is something healthy and wonderful about needing to daily deal with these relational issues and the many opportunities to respond as a Christian man.

It is not the power of the office – priest -- that matters here. It is the power of the person that is important in this household.  He has to walk the talk.

Reconsidering leadership

This life experience becomes for Nouwen an insight into priestly leadership in general.

Nouwen tells his ministerial audience in Washington that their situations are similar to what he is experiencing at Daybreak. Just as his housemates are not impressed with his academic credentials or experience, so in the secular world the office of priest or minister will not by itself bring enough gravitas to impress people to bring them to the fold.

Relationships count

Relationships are what count. It is the priest or minister’s own relationship with Jesus Christ and sharing the love of God that counts.  At its core, what counts in Christianity is our relationship with Jesus Christ. We are to sell love. Love is in many cases perceived as weak, so the task of having disciples see love as their power is not an easy one and will take much effort.  

Here is part of what he said in his talk to the priests that convey his belief that priests and ministers must change their posture:

I am telling you all this because I am deeply convinced that 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. The great message we have to carry, as ministers of God’s word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.

Nouwen’s notion of “completely irrelevant” is a mature, humble man who does not seek positional power but who is committed to sharing the Gospel with God’s people and who knows that ministry is a communal and complimentary life.  

In the talk Nouwen also tells the priests:

One of the main sufferings experienced in ministry is that of low self-esteem. Many priests and ministers today increasingly perceive themselves as having very little impact. They are very busy, but do not see much change. It seems that their efforts are fruitless. They face an ongoing decrease in church attendance and discover that psychologists, psychotherapists, marriage counselors, and doctors are often more trusted than they.

Nouwen adds:

The Christian leader of the future is the one who truly knows the heart of God as it has become flesh, “a heart of flesh,” in Jesus. 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 begin to invade the human soul this is not something that comes from God. This sounds very simple and maybe even trite, but very few people know that they are loved without conditions and limits. This unconditional and unlimited love is what the evangelist John calls God’s first love.

Are you a lover?

Nouwen notes that at one point Jesus challenged Peter by asking “Peter do you love me? Peter do you love me? Peter do you love?” For Nouwen this is the challenge for people in ministry -- are you a lover? Yet, he says that too many priests want to lead from a safe distance, which he thinks is ridiculous. If a shepherd is to lay down one’s life, it isn’t from a safe distance.

Jesus sent out the apostles “two by two,” and that realization affects Nouwen’s perspective too.

At Daybreak he decides that he should engage in no more solo ministry.  He says he has, through his relationships with his housemates, come to realize ministry is not a solo affair.

Consistent with this new conviction, Nouwen brings a housemate with him for this talk. It is his friend, Bill, and it is Bill’s antics that caused his audience to bond quickly with Bill and Henri. Henri realizes the qualitative change in what is happening as compared to what would have occurred if he had come alone. 

Ministry is communal

He reflects that Jesus was right, ministry needs to be a communal activity. The priest must be in a mutually loving relationship with his community. The ministerial leadership described and lived by Jesus is radically different from leadership in the world. Nouwen explains:

From this it is clear that a whole new type of leadership is asked for in the Church of tomorrow, a leadership which is not modeled on the power games of the world, but on the servant-leader, Jesus, who came to give his life for the salvation of many.

Pope Francis has it right!

Nouwen explains the peril of not getting it right in one’s heart:

When ministers and priests live their ministry mostly in their heads and relate to the Gospel as a set of valuable ideas to be announced, the body takes revenge by screaming loudly for affection and intimacy. Christian leaders are called to live the Incarnation, that is, to live in the body--- not only their own bodies but also in the corporate body of the community, and there to discover the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Nouwen, like Pope Francis, is convinced that priests cannot live and present themselves “above” the people. The priest shares the unconditional “first love” from God through his own authentic self, with his light side, but also dealing with his dark side. They are to be full members of the community.

There is a price to be paid by the priest for risking this type of relationship. The priest needs a safe place to go to replenish himself physically, spiritually and psychologically.

The last point Nouwen makes in his presentation relates to the third temptation Jesus received from the Devil -- that of being given power over all the kingdoms of the world.

Willing to be led

Nouwen’s new world at Daybreak taught him that his need for control was not going to be accepted by the people with whom he lived. His new friends did not speak with logic but rather with their hearts, hearts that were sometimes loving, but at other times angry and/or longing. And they expressed themselves “directly and unadorned”.

This interaction leads Nouwen to see that the mystery of leadership is not leading, but being led! By listening to his community he gets in touch with all their humanity, positive and negative. He realizes that his Gospel message needs to tap into the realities of the people around him.

His message to the priests regarding the use of power is dramatic. He says the worst use of power by priests and ministers is the heartless proclamation of the Gospel!  Nouwen sees power as a substitute for the hard task of loving relationships, and he says that by using power of one’s office is easier to control people than to love people. Nouwen writes:

The long painful history of the Church is the history of people ever and again tempted to use power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led. Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are true saints.

And he continues:

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. 

Nouwen’s idea of “being led” is acknowledging that the priest does not bring God with him, but knows God is already present among the people. So the priest listens to his people and their understanding of God’s presence and then leads them on in their spiritual lives.

Nouwen’s vision for the priest of the future is a man with outstretched hands, who freely chooses a life of downward mobility. He is a leader who prays and is vulnerable, plus is a trusting leader. He says this priest needs to be hopeful and have courage.

Memorable housemate

There is a second part to Father Nouwen’s presentation in Washington. As you recall, he was accompanied by Bill from the Daybreak community. Father and Bill had discussions prior to the trip and Bill asked if they were co-presenting? Nouwen said yes, he thought they were a team. Well, Bill’s notion and Nouwen’s notion of what that meant were different.

Upon arriving at the hotel in D.C., Bill was really impressed with his room. When the priest brought Bill to the party before the dinner, Bill presented himself as co-presenter. And when Father Nouwen went up to give the presentation, Bill followed and took care of each page of the speech. A bit later Bill asked to speak, gave support to the priest’s comments and thanked everyone for the invitation.

As Father Nouwen wrote, people may not remember his speech, but they will remember Bill.

Which, as it turns out, marks a very valuable lesson in the life of a very prominent priest-author.









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