Thursday, September 27, 2007

Training Others to Lead In the Name of Jesus

It’s a thin, small book with a non-descript cover. Just a faint green form, that you assume to be a cross, with black font on the front. The title: In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership by Henri J.M. Nouwen. The message: the three temptations of Christ can entice you as a leader, but we can resist those temptations with spiritual disciplines and learn to lead as Christ led. It’s more than just another sermon on resisting temptation. It’s more than just a model of spiritual discipline that creates a Christ-centered life. It is instruction, challenge, and encouragement that reveals the state of our human hearts and invites the reader to learn how to truly be led by Christ.

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.
Here’s another important article by Henri Nouwen that was originally printed in Leadership magazine in 1995. It is entitled, “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry.”

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Answered Prayers

Two days ago I was flipping through a book that I literally have not picked up in 10 years. It was a book about youth ministry, as I'm preparing to teach a class and I was considering using the book for the class. I found a note, scrawled on a small piece of paper from one of my college roommates, Lindsay. It was a sweet note of encouragement that she had given me, and it ended with this: "I pray that someday our prayers for our campus will be answered."

When I was in college, occasionally my friends and I would gather in various places--our dorm room, outside, the little tiny prayer chapel in the library--and we would pray for our friends, for our studies, and for our campus. To be honest, I had forgotten the little note that Lindsay had given me, but as I looked at that 10 year old note, I was reminded of several things.

First of all, God hears our prayers. Those prayers, lo those many nights ago, are being answered. I've said to anyone who will listen to me that God is doing a good thing on the campus of Southwestern College, my alma mater and now place of ministry. We struggled to get together even 30 students to worship on campus when I was a student, and now, it's not uncommon for us to have 150+ at chapel (not too shabby for our campus of 650 students). Those heartfelt prayers that our little group prayed for our campus have multiplied as there are many groups praying for the campus: prayer group on Tuesday nights, a group on Friday mornings, the Nurture Committee weekly, and the morning prayers in my own office. God is truly stirring up our campus to action--and it begins with prayer.

Secondly, I was reminded that somtimes answered prayers take time. How many prayers have I prayed that sometimes feel like they have been stifled? I've lifted prayers to God time and time again, for years even, that I'm not sure if there is any progress on them, but I'm reminded by this simple little slip of paper that God's timing is not my own, and to be patient.

Finally, I remembered how important it is to use our words. Lindsay encouraged me way back then, and her words encouraged me as I found them 10 years later. May I always be free with offering a word of encouragement.

As we enter this new month, may we remember that God is always at work, even (and should I say especially) when we don't see him. May we be faithful in prayer, and diligent in doing the part of the job that we know to do.