Nouwen Describes Leadership Challenges

Henri Nouwen, Temptations of LeadersHenri J.M. Nouwen. 2002. In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.[1]

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One professor of mine in seminary described scripture as laconic, meaning that every verse is written with a minimum number of words. We are told only the basics, leaving the rest of the story free to be contextualized—applied to our own situations. The best example of laconic writing in the postmodern world appears in advertising where each word is uttered with a price tag attached. If you say something to the whole world on television during the Super Bowl at the cost of a celebrity’s mansion, what words would you choose?


In his book, In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen writes laconically about Christian leadership. Two passages inform Nouwen’s view of leadership more than the many others that he cites. They are the three temptations of Christ in the desert before he starts his ministry (Matthew 4:1-11) and words of the risen Christ to Peter just before the ascension (John 21:15-18) (23).

Nouwen structures his book in three parts around the three temptations. They are to be relevant (turn stones into bread), to be popular (throw yourself off the temple), and to lead rather than to be led (to have authority). He further divides these parts into three sections: the temptation, a question or task, and a discipline. Throughout these discussions, Nouwen weaves his experiences as a priest living with special needs friends from the L’Arche community in Toronto after retiring from an academic career, which took him to Harvard Divinity School (22).

From Relevance to Prayer

Jesus’ first temptation was to be relevant—turn stones into bread (30). Writing about his experience at L’Arche, Nouwen notes his new friends had no interest in his accomplishments or the network of friends that he had. Nouwen writes:

“This experience was and, in many ways, is still the most important experience of my new life, because it forced me to rediscover my true identity. These broken, wounded, and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.” (28)

Who Are You Really?

If you strip away the degrees and the robes, who are you really? As a chaplain intern working an Alzheimer’s unit, Nouwen commitment cut me to the core—he stayed in this environment that I found solace in knowing that I would leave at the end of three months. My love of the patients was clearly conditioned on my departure, his was not. I missed being relevant—finishing my training, moving to new challenges.

Nouwen sees Jesus’ question to Peter—“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15 ESV)—as being important in understanding the task of the servant leader (36). He writes:

“…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.” (30)

By irrelevance, Nouwen means abandoning the “fix-it” mentality that many of us cling to; he clearly does not mean abandoning the ministerial task of pointing the lost and the suffering to Christ (31). He clearly sees the need to develop contemplative prayer as an antidote to the need to be relevant (42-43).

From Popularity to Ministry

Jesus’ second temptation was to do something spectacular to draw attention to himself (53). The Gospel of Matthew records it this way:

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” (Matt 4:6 ESV)

Jesus responds, saying: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Matt 4:7 ESV). In John, he tells Peter: “Feed my sheep” (John 21:17) For Nouwen, the temptation to engage in heroic leadership is blunted by ministering in teams. As a member of the L’Arche community, he always brought along a companion whenever he was asked to speak (58-59). Nouwen furthermore sees a special need for leaders to practice the discipline of confession and forgiveness as an antidote to the propensity to want to be popular (64-65).

From Leading to Being Led

The third temptation of Jesus was to be powerful (75). Nouwen observes that: “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.” (78) After re-commissioning Peter, Jesus prophesies his death:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18 ESV)

In this sense, as Christian leaders, we find ourselves led, whether we like it or not. Nouwen sees theological reflection as the primary antidote to the temptation to be powerful (88).


Henri Nouwen’s book, In the Name of Jesus, is a short reflection on the nature of Christian leadership. Nouwen sees leadership principles in Jesus’ three temptations. He outlines core leadership principles in terms of polarities—from relevance to prayer, from popularity to ministry, and from leading to being led. This is because polarities have the characteristic of being not problems that can be solved, but of being poles that we move back and forth between. We are repeatedly tempted to be relevant, to be popular, and to lead. It is a struggle to find new ways to pray, to minister, and to be led. In that sense, Nouwen’s work remains fresh and interesting to Christian leaders, regardless of their tenure, position, or experience.


Nouwen Describes Leadership Challenges

Also see:

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site:

Publisher site:

Newsletter at:

You may also like

Leave a Reply