There are not many books that I would say “you must read this”, but – if you are in any kind of Church ministry, you must read this. It is the best book on leadership I have ever read. Honestly. There are a LOT of books on leadership, many seem to focus on how you and I can be fantastic . . . this book however, puts Jesus right at the heart of all that we strive to be and to do. I have underlined most of the book, which makes it quite hard to pick out anything in particular, but, I have been in some way involved in leadership and ministry in the church for nearly 27 years and I keep returning to this particular passage;
“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 own vulnerable self.” (page 17)
What impresses me about Nouwen is that he is so unimpressed with himself. Genuinely, he recognises that without Christ He is nothing, can do nothing and – what I love about the statement above – is that word, “irrelevant” we – in and of ourselves are irrelevant, and discovering that (and remembering it!) is a vital aspect of Christian ministry. I am not the answer, I do not have what you need, I cannot be there for you all the time . . . what we do offer, in being completely powerless ourselves, is a willingness to walk next to any that need, to journey with others as they discover Christ for themselves. Unlike so many Christian books on leadership this book is not about how great the author is, but how great, and loving, and merciful and kind Jesus is. RATHER than live lives which are dominated by the desire to be relevant (who is listening to me? who is reading this blog? who is following me? am I being noticed by others? does it matter what I say and do?) we are encouraged to live lives that are, “safely anchored in the knowledge of God’s first love.” (page 28).
Written nearly 25 years ago now, I wish I had been given this as young man of 21 (in 1989), maybe I would not have read it then – I will never know! Yet, it could have been written yesterday for the clear observations of what so often still pre-occupies those of us in ministry. In writing about how we label each other he says, “our sense of self is caught up in our opinion about a given subject.” This is bang on for today – in fact, the immediacy of our expected responses via twitter or places like a blog to the moment, the thing happening right now – and the fact that we might determine that somebodies worth is closely associated with the last thing they uttered (in 140 characters) about a topic that within a couple of days will be forgotten . . . just makes this statement from Nouwen even more true than when he wrote it.
I can’t say enough how essential this book is, but I have to acknowledge, as with many books in this list of 20 – that I have fallen into the trap of reading them, but not doing them, not putting into practice the wisdom found in their pages. I can only say so much – I will give you a few more passages from Nouwen, that if you have not read this yet – I hope might compel you to get hold of a copy and soak it in.
“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.” (page 42-43)
“We are not the healers, we are not the reconcilers, we are not the givers of life. We are sinful, broken and vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for. The mystery of ministry is that we have chosen to make our own very limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.” (page 44)
This is tough stuff to get our heads around, but Jesus himself to the nature of a servant and stooped down into the rubbish of this world to lift us, to bring us hope, ultimately to bring us life. We must engage with the mess of life around us with those we lead, whilst not denying or ignoring our own mess . . . one of the most stunning statements in the whole of scripture sums up what leadership should be, what servant-hood is, what ministry is and what this book from Nouwen is about, “His strength is made PERFECT in our weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Perfect? Really? Wow! The challenge to us as leaders is we don’t know how to BE weak, and in fact, Nouwen points out – we don’t want to be;
“One of the greatest ironies of the history of Christianity is that its leaders constantly gave in to the temptation of power – political power, military power, economic power, or moral and spiritual power – even though they continue to speak in the name of Jesus, who did not cling to his divine power but emptied himself and became as we are.” (page 58)
We – I would say especially in the UK, have become shrill in our shouting for Christian rights, demanding to be heard, clinging to what is left of power after Christendom – and yes, Christendom as we knew it has gone . . . the greater the audience the greater we believe our influence might be. How foolish are we if that is what we think! On our knees for our nation, seeking the face of just 1 person will wield more influence in this world and in the heavens than filling stadiums with people or hanging out with prime-ministers and presidents. Mother Teresa knew this – she gave her life for the poor and the broken and the outcast, the rich and famous and powerful came to her – not the other way round.
Ultimately, this book for me will help nail the motivations of our hearts and why we are in ministry at all – whether that is children”s, youth or adult ministry or all three. It is a good book to begin with, the others 19 have also become essential reads as ministry tools and aids – but, apart from scripture, no other book has impressed upon me so forcefully what a life of vocation and ministry should be about.
A final quote, one which helps me with my perspective (I need to keep reading it!);
“The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross.” (page 62)
Please, get this book, read it and then allow the values expressed to build a foundation on which God can build anything with your life and vocation.