This short but classic treatment of ministry and leadership by Henri Nouwen continues to haunt me. I took it with me on the bus yesterday because I am meeting with two younger men in a mentoring relationship.

As I remembered earlier readings, and as I related Nouwen’s work to my current process, I realized I would now modify his framework slightly. Let me tell you why.

If you have read the book – and you likely should – you may recall that he is working with two stories. The first is the story of the three temptations in Matthew 4. The second is the story of Jesus three questions to Peter in John 21. Nouwen characterizes the temptations like this:

1. the temptation to be relevant.
The question: “Do you love me?”
The movement – From relevance to prayer

2. the temptation to be spectacular
The task: “Feed my sheep.”
The movement – From popularity to service

3. the temptation to be powerful
The challenge: Someone else will lead you
The discipline – From leading to being led.

In the closing chapter Nouwen summarizes that the leader of the future is “the leader with outstretched hands.” He describes this leader as the praying leader, the vulnerable leader, and the trusting leader. It is these closing terms that I think need reinterpretation.

For our time and location, I would translate like this:

the praying leader = the listening leader
the vulnerable leader = the vulnerable/transparent leader
the trusting leader = the surrendered/powerless leader

There were two striking elements in my reading while riding the bus yesterday. The first was personal – a sense that the Lord is telling me that he is actively leading in my life, and he asks me to obediently follow, even when I don’t understand. The second was surprise at the closing section, p. 85 and following. Nouwen argues that the discipline necessary for the final movement is theological reflection.

It’s really interesting to connect this final argument with the same argument made by Robert Webber in The Younger Evangelicals in 2002 (p 240-41. If you missed that book view HERE). Webber writes that the new leadership “is not shaped by being right, nor is it driven by meeting needs. Instead, it arises out of (1) a missiological understanding of the church, (2) theological reflection, (3) spiritual formation, and (4) cultural awareness… These four areas represent a circle of leadership.” Connecting theological reflection explicitly with the missio Dei, he writes,

“We do not define God’s mission. It defines us. It tells us who we are, what our mission is, how we are to do ministry, worship, spirituality, evangelism. There is no aspect of the Christian life, thought, and ministry that is not connected with God’s mission to the world.

the leadership circle“For this reason theological reflection is inextricably linked with the missio Dei. It is not an abstract objective discipline that is subject to reason, logic, or science. It is instead a communal reflection on God’s mission that arises out of God’s people as they seek to discern God’s work in history and his present action in the life of the community. As Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, so the Spirit fills the Church, sends it forth, and remains within it always serving Christ, the chief minister of the church.

“Theological reflection is guided by the Spirit and clarifies for the church the nature of God’s person and work in history. The practice of ministry is already theology-theology in action. The church, reflecting on this action, does theological thinking. This process has resulted in a universally embraced Trinitarian and Christologically based theological understanding. The mission of God in the world is the mission of the triune God manifested in Jesus, who is both fully human and fully divine. Every aspect of Christian life, thought, and action is inextricably linked with this universally affirmed understanding of God. God’s union with Jesus, the empowerment of the Holy Spirit in the church, and the work of reconciliation in the world arise from the church’s theology of God, Christ, and the Spirit, which is expressed in the ecumenical creeds of the ancient church. When one enters the circle of leadership through theology, one is driven to missiological reflection, to spiritual formation, to cultural awareness.” (Webber, 241)

Typical Webber, lucid and filled with insight. But in short, we won’t escape the pragmatism or Triumphalism that have subverted our kingdom culture unless we are willing to do theological work. And this is not mere study, but disciplined submission to our active and living Head as he reconstitutes our communities as a faithful witness in a fallen world.