I frequently suffer from bouts of depression. One cause is that I have a great burden to minister to believers but a crippling sense of inadequacy over my own abilities, particularly my speaking and social skills. Moreover, I have suffered from debilitating doubts about the adequacy of ministry itself as the roles of psychiatrists, counselors, and other professionals increasingly seem to make the clergy less and less relevant. Henri Nouwen’s Creative Ministry (Image, 1971) explains why ministry is relevant and how one’s feelings of inadequacy may be a necessary part of ministry.
When I picked this book up a few months ago, I was particularly down and desperately wanted relief. I was in no mood to read anything theoretical or clichéd. What recommended this book, besides its brevity, was its first page.
The author begins by sharing a difficult personal experience of his in counseling a young woman dying of Hodgkins disease. If you know anything about Nouwen, this comes as no surprise. Nouwen’s philosophy of ministry is represented by the title of one of his books, The Wounded Healer. He believes that a person best ministers to others by making available his own painful experiences. Through showing one’s vulnerability, rather than presenting oneself as a spiritual superman, a person can be a more effective witness of the transforming power of the gospel. He can testify to others not merely as to what God did 2,000 years ago but to what God is doing still, for example, in his life. This principle is evident throughout Creative Ministry.
If the first page of this book pulled me in, I hope the following quote from the last page will pull readers who are not ordained ministers in to read this important book. He concludes: “Ministry means the ongoing attempt to put one’s own search for God, with all the moments of pain and joy, despair and hope, at the disposal of those who want to join this search but do not know how. Therefore, ministry in no way is a privilege. Instead, it is the core of the Christian life. No Christian is a Christian without being a minister.” (p.114)
What follows are just a few of the grains I have personally gleaned from each of the five chapters of this insightful book.
Chapter one: Teaching – beyond the transference of knowledge
On the teacher’s task, Nouwen offers this analogy: “In many ways we are like the busy man who walks up to a precious flower and says: ‘What for God’s sake are you doing here? Can’t you get busy someway?’ and then finds himself unable to understand the flower’s response: ‘I am sorry, sir, but I am just here to be beautiful.'” In other words, the teacher’s role is first to help a person realize who he is in Christ, and then by that fact, what he is to do. (p.11)
Nouwen renounces fostering an atmosphere of fear caused by competition (mainly over grades), taking advantage of one’s position of authority, or treating class time as merely a means to some future end (and not relevant for the hear and now). These common methods of teaching result in closed-minded students who do not seek to understand the views of their colleagues, who are intimidated from reflecting on their own thoughts, and who feel alienated from reality.
Nouwen suggests that the task of the teacher instead is to engage in a “redemptive method” that consists of an evocative, bilateral, and actualizing process. (p.10) He explains, “[W]hen schools are places . . . where people can live together without fear of each other, and learning can be based on a creative exchange of experiences and ideas, then there is a chance that those who come from them will have an increasing desire to bring about in the world what they experienced during their years of formation.” (p.14)
Before closing his chapter on teaching, Nouwen gives an important caveat on the obstacles to the redemptive process of learning. He points out that we all suffer from blind spots which result in “endless academic quarrels in a world filled with atrocities” and “much talk about hunger by people suffering from overweight” and “allows church people to indulge in comfortable discussions about the Kingdom of God while they should know that God is with the poor, the hungry, and the dying.” (p.16) Nouwen suggests that only in a redemptive method, which requires introspection and respect for others’ opinions, can our blind spots be overcome.
Chapter two: Preaching – beyond the retelling of the story
Nouwen begins this chapter with a disquieting quote by a church-basher: “There is perhaps no greater hardship at present inflicted on mankind in civilized and free countries, than the necessity of listening to sermons.” (p.23)
Though sympathetic with the quotation’s sentiments, Nouwen nevertheless upholds the necessity of “every preacher . . . to assist men in their ongoing struggle of becoming.” He states that this is done by dialogue and by availability. (p.34) Dialogue means “a way of relating to men and women so that they are able to respond to what is said with their own life experience.” (p.35) It creates the following kind of response in the audience: “What you say loudly, I whispered in the dark; what you pronounce so clearly, I had some suspicion about; what you put in the foreground, I felt in the back of my mind.” (p.35) How the preacher does this is by making himself available. Nouwen explains, “A preacher who is not willing to make his understanding of his own faith and doubt, anxiety and hope, fear and joy available as a source of recognition for others can never expect to remove the many obstacles which prevent the Word of God from bearing fruit.” (p.37)
The profound premise behind availability is that “[w]hat is most personal is most general.” (p.39) He writes, “Repeatedly I have found, to my astonishment, that the feelings which have seemed to me most private, most personal, and therefore the feelings I least expect to be understood by others, when clearly expressed, resonate deeply and consistently with their own experience.” (p.39) Therefore, Nouwen concludes that the gift the preacher can give to his congregation for their spiritual growth is security: “When a man listens to a preacher who is really available to himself and, therefore, able to offer his own life experience as a source of recognition, he no longer has to be afraid to face his own condition and that of his world because the one who stands in front of him is the living witness that insight makes him free and does not create new anxieties.” (p.39)
Chapter three: Individual Pastoral Care – beyond the skillful response
Ministry is relevant because the age old question, which ministry alone can sufficiently answer, is still being asked by most people: “What happiness can there be in the world where everyone is born to die?” (p.48)
Nouwen states that pastoral care, or spiritual counseling, is “the continuing search for God in the life of the people we want to serve.” (p.63) This section consists of Nouwen’s analysis of his seminary student’s bad experience of trying to counsel a terminally ill cancer patient in the hospital. The chapter is somewhat complex and subtle, so I’ll leave it to the reader to study it more in depth on his or her own. I’ll just summarize this chapter with the following quote: “The paradox of the ministry indeed is that we will find the God we want to give in the lives of the people to whom we want to give Him.” (p.63)
Chapter four: Organizing – beyond the manipulation of structures
Nouwen describes the importance and dangers of the minister engaging in social justice. The importance is manifest in the question that any minister with a conscience inevitably asks: “Why do I spend so many hours talking about the individual pains of people, while I leave the society that creates these pains unchanged?” (p.69) But the danger for the minister, according to the author, is the temptation of viewing such problems politically rather than spiritually, being caught up in power grabs, and becoming proud through one’s blind spots.
Nouwen’s analysis of the danger of being caught up in power grabs is particularly insightful. He writes, “The most subtle desire for power, and the most difficult to overcome is thanks. As long as people keep thanking us for what we have done for them, they are, in effect, admitting that they were at least for some time dependant on us.” (p.75) Nouwen states that the minister is tempted to work on behalf of the community in order to establish “a small kingdom of thankful people who are willing to say that without him they would not be who they are now or do what they do now.” (p.76)
In order to combat this temptation for power, Nouwen stresses that the minister must be willing to receive from those he is trying to help. Nouwen states, “As long as a man sees only distatestful poverty, he is not really entitled to give.” Only when a person can see that among the impoverished “there is hidden so much richness and beauty, so much affection and human warmth” is he ready to minister. “[W]hen we start discovering that in many ways we are the poor and those who need our help are the wealthy, who have a lot to give, no true social agent gives in to the temptation of power since he has discovered that his task is not a heavy burden or a sacrifice but an opportunity to see more and more of the face of Him whom he wants to meet.” (p.84)
Nouwen emphasizes the importance of hope, which gives patience and vision, in mobilizing a community to achieve social justice. Christian hope “believes that God will fulfill his promises” and “this perspective of hope. . . makes man free to look beyond the immediate needs of the community and understand his activities in a larger perspective.” (p.82) Nouwen offers the leadership of Martin Luther King, who could fight the good fight even though he would not see the promised land, as a case in point.
Chapter five: Celebrating – beyond the protective ritual
“The Christian minister is the one whose vocation is to make it possible for man not only to fully face his human situation but also to celebrate it in all its awesome reality.” (p.94) In order to celebrate, according to Nouwen, a person must be able to face his past truthfully (thereby making it a source of recognition for ministry), to live fully aware of the present (thereby giving others his undivided attention), and to live in hope for the future.
Nouwen remarks that a minister can help others celebrate by obeying nature’s call of the preciousness of life (reminding us that life does not have to be), by obeying people’s profound desire “to see what he saw, to hear what he heard” as the minister helps unveil the unseen reality of the universe, and by obeying God’s vision for the world that is seen primarily through prayer. (pp.103-8) On this last point, Nouwen states, “Only a man of prayer can lead others to celebration because everyone who comes in contact with him realizes that he draws his powers from a source they cannot easily locate but they know is strong and deep.” (p.108)
Nouwen concludes that psychiatrists and other professionals cannot replace the minister because in teaching, preaching, individual pastoral care, organizing, and celebrating the minister’s calling is self-sacrifice (John 15:13). He writes, “There are many people who, through long training, have reached a high level of competence in terms of the understanding of human behavior, but few who are willing to lay down their own lives for others and make their weakness a source of creativity. For many individuals professional training means power. But the minister, who takes off his clothes to wash the feet of his friends, is powerless, and his training and formation are meant to enable him to face his own weakness without fear and make it available to others. It is exactly this creative weakness that gives the ministry its momentum.” (p.112)
One criticism that needs to be made of this book is that it mostly leaves open the question of how one is to make himself vulnerable to others? He provides reasons as to why one must make himself available. But how does one gain the courage and strength to make his personal weaknesses known, rather than hidden, as a source of ministry? The answer lies in Nouwen’s other books, as represented by one of his titles, Life of the Beloved. Only when a person has been justified by Christ, that is, clothed with His righteousness, can a person be unashamed and no longer self-conscious about opening himself fully to others and to himself. Nouwen emphasizes over and over again in his more than thirty works that a person must have the assurance that he is loved by God in order to lead the life of God.
If you benefit from Creative Ministry, I would highly recommend Reaching Out : The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life as the next must-read book by Nouwen.