Future of ministry now

On my desk for months has been a little book I’ve finally opened. It has been eye-opening.

In the Name of Jesus was written by priest, professor, and writer Henri Nouwen and includes his “Reflections on Christian Leadership.” Originally published in 1989, the book was Nouwen’s look ahead to Christian ministry in the twenty-first century.

Well, here we are. And the future is now.

When Nouwen wrote the book, he was in his fifties, and his ministry was undergoing serious change. For two decades, he had been teaching and writing at the Menninger Institute, Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. He was very well-known. In 2003, seven years after his death, a survey named him as the first choice of authors for Catholic and mainline Protestant clergy.

But after all his success, Nouwen found himself feeling empty. In a “very dark place” in his life, he began to realize that ‘burnout’ was a convenient psychological translation for a spiritual death.”

At that point, he felt led to make a complete change, and he accepted the invitation to move from Harvard to the L’Arche “Daybreak” community for mentally handicapped people near Toronto, Canada, to serve as pastor.

From daily association with the brightest and most “upwardly mobile” of society Nouwen found himself daily ministering in very physical and “non-glitsy” ways to the weakest of the weak, the simplest of the simple, who could read none of his books nor understand his former lectures. The only thing that impressed them was love.

It’s a depressing time (1989) to be a pastor, Nouwen wrote, a time when increasingly people don’t feel a need for God, the church, and a minister. Ministers see little real change, attendance is down, apathy is on the rise. For care, folks look more to psychologists, counselors, doctors, often seeking a “do it yourself” fix in which God and spirituality enter in not at all. Nouwen thought it would get worse.

In an effort to be timely, he said the church and her ministers would face three temptations, the same basic temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness. Worship and prayer would be devalued and forced to bow to “relevance,” the “worth” of churches and ministers being based on their production of social services. Selfless leadership in ministry would give way to “self-made” stardom among rock-star “ministers.” And “leadership” would be seen as the right of the powerful rather than the example of shepherds being humbly led by the Chief Shepherd. Ouch.

But what would really matter? The “leader with outstretched hands,” “praying, vulnerable, and trusting,” who “chooses a life of downward mobility,” who knows that he is weaker than any to whom he ministers and that he needs worse than any to hear the word God speaks through him, “You are loved.”