As people of significant conveniences, many of us have been offended by the intrusion of a global pandemic into our routines. Somehow, though, a pandemic arrests our attention long enough to explore which version of ourselves will we give our world as we ease back into our routines. Though there are many wise voices from which to choose, both past and present, we can glean wisdom from an unlikely source for contemporary Christians: Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), the former Dutch Catholic priest, professor and author. Nouwen assists us in determining which version of ourselves we will offer a hurting world, helping us cultivate virtues attuned to helping others find their tomorrow.
Henry Nouwen: Leading Someone to Their Tomorrow
Nouwen took seriously the ministry of compassion to the marginalized; he modeled the necessity of being present with sufferers; and he was transparent with his weaknesses, fears and struggles. In his 1972 book, “The Wounded Healer,” he urges readers to reject definitions of leadership that only prize the powerful, the studious and the commercial. Instead, he insists upon a view of leadership that acknowledges the simple, one-to-one relationship structures of our daily lives. In the simplest of conversations, Nouwen suggests, we can lead someone to “their tomorrow.”
To illustrate his point, Nouwen narrates an interaction between two men, Mr. Harrison and John Allen. Mr. Harrison is a 48-year-old farm hand, overwhelmed at the prospects of impending death as he is holed away in a big-city hospital. Hailing from a simple Baptist family, Mr. Harrison needs someone to enter his isolation and offer a path to tomorrow. Enter John Allen, a precocious theology student well equipped with textbook worthy answers to life’s dilemmas. Though John’s approach provided doctrinal paradigms, he failed to lead Mr. Harrison to his tomorrow because he lacked human connectivity; his approach was void of empathy and his ignorance of Mr. Harrison’s inherent fears of death and despair further convinced Mr. Harrison of his hopelessness. As an antidote to this sort of static ministry, Nouwen suggests three qualities we must include to buttress Christianity’s doctrinal truths.
1. Personal Concern
From urban centers to rural outposts, the downstream effects of our fragile economy have been felt by all. It won’t be enough for us to encourage the jobless to dust off an old resume and polish their social media platforms. Nouwen suggests we must be the sort of Christian leaders who embody empathy and personal concern, possessing a willingness to feel the wounds of despair.
“The tragedy of Christian ministry,” Nouwen states, “is that many who are in great need, many who seek an attentive ear, a word of support, a forgiving embrace, a firm hand, a tender smile or even a stuttering confession of inability to do more, often find their ministers distant men who do not want to burn their fingers” (p. 71). Bearing one another’s burdens consists of structure, planning and resources, but absent of personal concern, these responses are stale. As Nouwen describes, leading others to their tomorrow requires a willingness to empathize with sufferers, a “burning of the fingers” in service of others.
2. Faith in the Value and Meaning of Life
Whether it’s a tear-filled embrace or the ministry of physical presence, the gift of personal concern demonstrates Nouwen’s second principle, that of espousing faith in the value and meaning of life. Regardless of how bleak our circumstances, the Christian life is not a dead-end street: “A Christian leader is not a leader because he announces a new idea and tries to convince others of its worth; he is a leader because he faces the world with eyes full of expectation, with the expertise to take away the veil that covers its hidden potential” (p. 75). Those becoming a minister of tomorrow must clear their calendars, for now their pressing ministry is to help sufferers see beyond the veil of present darkness. People matter, and ministers of tomorrow must champion their worth by lifting fear-filled hearts to what lies ahead.
Those who plan to become a minister of tomorrow must be filled to the brim with gospel hope, and this hope is not based upon talent, intellect or any expectation of reward. Nouwen grounds the Christian hope in the resurrection, and ministers of tomorrow must speak of hope, but not as an attachment to one’s experience or giftedness. Instead, our hopes rest in the one to whom all authority in heaven and on earth rests, Jesus, the resurrected and conquering King. Thus, as Nouwen suggests, “Hope prevents us from clinging to what we have and frees us to move away from the safe place and enter unknown and fearful territory” (p. 76).
Becoming a minister of tomorrow means they are liberated from the fears of horizontal critique, and they’re not deadened by the applause of man. Instead, they lead tenderly with transparent courage; they are patient enough and humble enough to bear the burdens of the suffering, and their message and ministry is saturated with gospel hope. When the curtain fully rises from pandemic disruption, and when the stage is set for our return to normalcy, these are the ministers tomorrow needs on center stage.
Grand Canyon University has been training Christians in ministry since its inception. If you are interested in pursuing a career in ministry, GCU's College of Theology has many degree programs, including Bachelor of Arts in Christian Ministry and Bachelor of Arts in Christian Studies.
Nouwen, H. (1979). The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. Image/Doubleday.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University.