In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen

Book review by Jeanné Morson


CROSSROAD, New York, 1991 (81 pages)
A brief yet insightful resource for all leaders dedicated to Catholic education.
Reviewed by Jeanné Morson
Department Head of Religious Education
St. Joan of Arc, CHS
Maple, Ontario


The increasing trend of many individuals seeking to nurture their leadership skills is to submit to the motivational gurus who preach well-packaged and dramatically staged formulas for success. The quest for self-direction, personal efficiency and effective leadership habits, however, still leaves many individuals empty over the long run. The late Henry Nouwen provides the link that is essential for those individuals who not only seek effective leadership skills but an approach that is consistent with their Christian identity. IN THE NAME OF JESUS provides a foundational understanding of effective leadership that centres itself in Christ. Any proposal of personal leadership styles that negate or avoid this authentic presence can offer only a partial definition of what genuine leadership and effectiveness is.

     Where leadership gurus talk about an individual's internalized habits and methods of empowerment, Henri Nouwen begins his reflections on Christian leadership with a focus on the collective. His wisdom is grounded in the foundation that we are a people 'called'. He acknowledges that it is the real presence of the Holy Spirit who motivates us toward a life that is lived not merely 'with' but 'for' others. This adds a distinctively unique layer to general leadership principles that tend to focus on an individualistic perspective. Nouwen's understanding of leadership is other-centred as opposed to self-centered; it is communal as opposed to individual. Skills are not what 'build me up' as a good leader, but what 'build us up' as a community.

     Nouwen regards self-actualization -- that desire to be relevant, spectacular, heroic or powerful -- as a temptation. Leadership is not so much about personal effectiveness and success as it is about one's vocation to proclaim in the word and witness of one's life that God's redemptive presence continues to manifest itself even in the ordinary events of our lives. For teachers in the Catholic education system, this emphasizes that it is not so much about what we do or who we are in terms of social labels, but our capacity to reveal WHOSE we are in the way we choose to live out our relationships and involve ourselves with the others in our community.
According to Henri Nouwen, all principles by which we live, whether it be honesty, integrity, integrity, fairness, excellence, service, etc., pale in their capacity for effectiveness if LOVE is not at the root of them. Love is the first principle and finds its origin in what Nouwen refers to as God's first love - that creative extension of God's self into the life of the world.

     Stripped of all the criteria that made him relevant, spectacular and powerful, Nouwen discovered at l'Arche a deeper well-spring with which to identify his contributions as a Christian leader: "Success was putting my soul in constantly changing involvement in what seemed most urgent were signs that the Spirit was being suppressed." (P.10) Nouwen invites the Christian leader to nurture her/his spirit by contemplative prayer so that "we can keep ourselves from being pulled from one urgent issue to another and from being strangers to our own and God's heart." (p.28) Nouwen defines this balance as something attainable when one responds in the affirmative to Jesus' question: Do you love me?

     For a society that measures successful leadership in terms of the effectiveness of the individual, Nouwen offers a counter definition that is witnessed by a "communal and mutual experience". (p.40) He reflects on the success of Jesus' disciples who were sent out in twos to proclaim the good news: Christian leaders are called to live the Incarnation...not only in their own body but... the corporate body of the community, and to discover there the presence of the Holy Spirit. (p.48) For Nouwen, leadership cannot function apart from the community.
Like other types of leadership, Christian leadership too can get tangled in the charisma of a high profile individual who has all the skills to function well and be effective within the community. Nouwen challenges all Christian leaders to function WITH and FOR their particular community, not in the radiance of their own name and reputation but IN THE NAME OF JESUS.

© Jeanné Morson, 2002

Related: Resources on Henri Nouwen