Nouwen on Mutualism

Recently, I’ve been reading Henri J.M. Nouwen’s book, In the Name of Jesus:  Reflections on Christian Leadership.  Before his conversion to evangelicalism in 1996, Nouwen and I would surely have some important theological and exegetical disagreements (in 1996 he went to be with the Lord).  🙂  However, regardless of our disagreements, I find that he understands the human soul well and is insightful in his writing.  In this book, he discusses Jesus’ three temptations in the wilderness and uses them as a paradigm for the temptations that Christian leaders experience.  In the first temptation of turning the stone into bread we find a lesson of moving from being relevant to prayer.  Our great need is to be connected to Christ–not just to have something culturally relevant to say about Him.  In the second temptation of casting himself down that God would save him, Nouwen finds a lesson about moving from being spectacular to being a shepherd who lives in a mutualistic relationship with his sheep.  I was struck by the poignancy of his discussion of what it means for a Christian leader to live in a mutualistic relationship with those he shepherds.  In this section, he attacks the rampant individualism that has found it’s way into the church telling ministers that they must be self-made heroes and stars who should be able to do it all and do it successfully.
Jesus, speaking about his own shepherding ministry, says, “I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for my sheep” (John 10:14-15).  As Jesus ministers, so he wants us to minister.  He wants Peter to feed his sheep and care for them, not as “professionals” who know their clients’ problems and take care of them, but as vulnerable brothers and sisters who know and are known, who care and are cared for, who forgive and are being forgiven, who love and are being loved.

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.  Someone serves, someone else is being served, and be sure not to mix up the roles!  But how can we lay down our life for those with whom we are not even allowed to enter into a deep personal relationship?  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.

We are not the healers, we are not the reconcilers, we are not the givers of life.  We are sinful, broken, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for.  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.

Therefore, true ministry must be mutual.  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.  The world in which we live–a world of efficiency and control–has no models to offer 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.  The leadership about which Jesus speaks is of a radically different kind from the leadership offered by the world.  It is a servant leadership–to use Robert Greenleaf’s term*–in which the leader is a vulnerable servant who needs the people as much as they need their leader.

From this it is clear that a whole new type of leadership is asked for in the church of tomorrow, a leadership that 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.

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*Robert K. Greenleaf, Servant Leadership:  A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (New York:  Paulist Press, 1977).  See also Robert K Greenleaf, The Power of Servant Leadership (San Francisco:  Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1998).

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