Henri Nouwen vs. CGP Grey

This title is a little misleading. Having the “vs.” implies that there will be a winner and that one person is right or more right than the other. I don’t think that is the case. I think that both ideas can exist not in conflict with one another, but both sources are very different. This post will NOT explore the church’s political power with regard to government, so if that is what you wanted, sorry. This post will explore if there is a similarity between political power structures and power structures within the church.

Henri Nouwen is an author that lived in the twentieth century. He was a priest for a long time and then also taught at Duke, Yale, and Harvard divinity schools. Later in his life he moved to Toronto to live and work with mentally handicapped individuals. The book that Nouwen wrote that I am pulling from is titled In the name of Jesus. In this book Nouwen lays out his thoughts on Christian leadership.

CGP Grey makes YouTube videos and he is pretty good at it. The video that he made that I am pulling ideas from is The Rules for Rulers. You can understand this article without reading In the name of Jesus but this probably wont make much sense without watching CGP Grey’s video. The video is just under twenty minutes, but I promise it’s worth the time. However, just in case you don’t want to read the book or watch the video, I will summarize both of the main ideas from each.

Nouwen opens his chapter on the discussion of being powerful as a temptation in Christian leadership. The scripture he uses is from Matthew when Jesus is being tempted in the wilderness. He brings up specifically verses eight and nine when the Devil offers Jesus power in exchange for him to bow before him. While some people may view political power as an opportunity for good, Nouwen points to the Crusades, Inquisition, and the treatment of Native Americans in “missions.” When referring to why the temptation of power is so attractive, Nouwen wrote that “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life” (77). The solution for Nouwen is a different kind of leadership. John 18:21 says “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” This new kind of leadership is defined by service, vulnerability, humility, and irrelevance to the world. Nouwen’s phrase that he uses is that Christian leaders should move from “leading to being led.”

CGP Grey said “No ruler rules alone.” Even the most centralized authoritarian dictator does not rule alone. The ruler cannot build roads, fight wars, or collect taxes without key supporters. These supporters CGP Grey call the “keys” to ruling. In order to stay in power the dictator must keep these key supporters happy via paying them or giving them “treasure.” In a dictatorship there are a few key supporters, and in a democracy there are a lot of key supporters. Without the keys on the side of the ruler, the ruler will lose power and be replaced by someone who will give more treasure to the keys. This doesn’t just apply to dictators and presidents, but deans of schools, police chiefs, CEO’s, and other positions. All must keep their keys happy in some way shape or form to stay in their position. If you would like to watch the video there is a link at the bottom of this post.

This brings me to the question that led me to write this post. Do these rules for rulers apply to pastors, priests, and ministry leaders, and if it does, to what extent?

My answer is yes; it does apply to those in ministry. If no man rules alone, then I think this still applies to Christian leaders in full or part time ministry. Priests are accountable to the bishop above them and to their congregation. Pastors are accountable to their church board and to their congregation. Ministry leaders are accountable to those in the ministry and their pastor to which the ministry is a part of. A pastor can preach what he wants, but if the church board decides that they don’t like him, they can vote to replace him (or her).  In this scenario the church board would be the keys to power. For the church board, the keys for them would be the congregation. Even though there is no financial treasure given out, there are other types of treasure such as various forms of social capital. One story that is often far too common is a youth pastor replacing a senior pastor because he has won the favor of the church board. The church board is not satisfied with the senior pastor, so the keys switch allegiance to a new leader that will give them what they want. A pastor, ministry leader, priest, and any other type of leader must keep his keys happy to maintain their support.

Now let me quantify this. I do think there is a big difference in the mind of an individual between losing a job as a pastor, and losing control over a nation/large scale political body. I think someone is much more likely to do stuff like wage war on their own people not when they’re going to lose their job as a pastor, but when their political rule is at stake. Despite this difference, there are still similarities in the power structure that I think are worth addressing.

Now you might be wondering why this is important. The reason is that the nature of this power structure could affect a pastor’s work. If a pastor feels or even suspects that the keys are threatening his job, he may change the way he does his ministry. This could have a positive or negative outcome. However, from the outside this change in behavior to the congregation may seem weird or out of nowhere. Behavioral change might even go unnoticed by people unaware of how the pastor is feeling. Politics exist even within a church. Even as unfortunate as that may be, it is the reality.  Nouwen calls Christian leaders to be openly vulnerable through the practice of confession. Nouwen does not call for open confession from the pulpit; in fact he believes this would be extremely counterproductive. The practice of confession for Nouwen is something that is healing for people and he feels that most Christian leaders, particularly those in full time ministry, do not have an opportunity to practice it.

Can those in full time ministry truly be vulnerable while leading churches in twenty-first century America?

I don’t know. In theory, they should be, but I personally do not know what this looks like in practice. Americans are very concerned with their image. I do not think (opinion alert) that in America it is possible for pastors to be vulnerable with their congregations and keep their keys happy unless it is a smaller congregation. It would be stressful and almost counterproductive for a pastor of a mega church to try to be vulnerable with every single person in their congregation. If it is a small congregation this could possibly be done, but in larger churches this would be impossible. A lot of larger church’s handle this problem by having a large pastoral staff and having a large pool of laymen volunteers. I think that for the most part though, church’s in America have a large problem where pastors feel like they have to put on this fake façade of everything is alright even though they may be decaying on the inside. One thing that would be extremely beneficial would be for those in full time ministry to see counseling regularly. While this can be expensive I think that it could aid in giving those in full time ministry an outlet to be vulnerable where they would feel comfortable.  Christian leaders need people they can be vulnerable with, but that can’t always be their congregation as Nouwen thought.

Rules for Rulers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rStL7niR7gs


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