Leadership that is Christian

Henri Nouwen challenges us to remember that all leadership that is Christian must be grounded in the greater reality of God’s love. Nouwen provides important ballast to Wesleyan ministry leaders since, according to the latest research data, 52 percent of Wesleyan pastors are prone to make decisions, “at least some of the time,” without taking God into consideration. As one of the researchers noted, we could describe ourselves as “functional atheists”! Nouwen keeps us honest as leaders who claim to be Christian. The following five points about Christian leadership are taken from Nouwen’s book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership.

  1. Christian Leaders Must be Rooted in Jesus. “Leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source for their words, advice, and guidance. . . .When we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative” (p. 45). Is your leadership rooted in Jesus?
  2. Christian Leaders Practice Vulnerable Leadership. Christian leaders must be “persons always willing to confess their own brokenness and ask for forgiveness from those to whom they minister … When the members of the community of faith cannot truly know their shepherd,” leading others “quickly becomes a subtle way of exercising power over others and begins to show authoritarian and dictatorial traits” (p. 62). Jesus exemplified servant-leadership, “in which the leader is a vulnerable servant who needs the people as much as they need their leader” (pp. 62-63). Are you a servant leader? Are you able to be vulnerable with the people you lead?
  3. Christian Leaders Find a Safe Place to Talk. Nouwen states, “I am convinced that priests and ministers … need a truly safe place for themselves. They need a place where they can share their deep pain and struggles with people who do not need them, but who can guide them ever deeper into the mystery of God’s love” (p. 69-70). With whom can you go to share your pain and struggles?
  4. Christian Leaders Avoid the Temptation to Power. Nouwen points out the irony of ministry leaders who succumb to the desire for power. “Power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people” (p. 77). “The temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat. Much Christian leadership is exercised by people who do not know how to develop healthy, intimate relationships and have opted for power and control instead. Many Christian empire-builders have been people unable to give and receive love” (p. 79). Do you love God or love power? Do you love people or do you control people?
  5. Christian Leaders Engage in “Theological Reflection.” What Nouwen means is that leaders must have “the mind of Christ” in regard to who they are and what they do. “The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which our world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross … The most important quality of Christian leadership … is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest” in our leadership (pp. 81-82). Are you striving for upward mobility, respectability and “success” or the humility and suffering of Christ?

To learn more about leading in the manner of Jesus, see the following resources:

Nouwen, J.M. (1989). Reflections on Christian Leadership. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company.

Peterson, H. E. (2007). The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways that Jesus is the Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Snyder, H. (2014). The Radical Wesley: The Patterns and Practices of a Movement Maker.  Franklin, TN: Seedbed Publishing.


Intellectual contributor: Dr. David Higle, Director of Clergy Development, Education and Clergy Development

Executive editor: Russ Gunsalus

Curator of content: Dave Higle