This is one of my favorite books to give as a gift and introduce to students. Often they think that it’s just a “quick read” that they can pull a nugget or two from and put in their pocket of spiritual truths. But as they read it, they find, just as I’ve found, that it challenges their core understanding of what it means to be used by God in leadership. The first chapter in and of itself challenges this post-modern generation who have been formed by church leaders who preach about “being relevant.” It challenges the reader to move “From Relevance to Prayer,” stating that, “The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there.” This isn’t a popular idea at all. Who wants to enter into “solidarity” with “anguish”? And who identifies this desire with leadership, anyway?
But, according to Nouwen, this is part of what it means to become a Christian leader. I’m inclined to agree with him. No, it’s not the way that we usually talk about leadership, but I believe that it’s the way that Christ would have us be leaders. Nouwen identifies that contemplative prayer is the antidote to desiring to be relevant. He says, “To live a life that is not dominated by the desire to be relevant but is instead safely anchored in the knowledge of God’s first love, we have to be mystics. A mystic is a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God’s first love.” He’s got it right: I can’t be used by God to influence others until I’m no longer looking to them to meet my emotional and spiritual needs. The other 2 chapters give similar challenges, moving us from “Popularity to Ministry” and from “Leading to Being Led.” It’s not full of advice that would receive “Amens!” from most of the leadership material out there. It’s no quick fix or list of tips and techniques. But, it does keep in front of us the cost that is associated with being a follower of Christ.
Over the last 5 years, I’ve used this book with probably 6 or 8 groups of students as I’ve trained them to be student leaders in their campus ministry. It’s usually the first thing that I do in training with them. I’m trying to set the precedent that until we have humbled ourselves before God and spent the time being formed, we cannot stand in front of others and ask them to follow. I’m learning this lesson every day in campus ministry and it is my prayer that my students, especially the leaders among them, learn it too.