In The Wounded Healer, the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen resituates ministry in the context of shared human brokenness. Summarizing the book’s main premise, we might say that the one who ministers—whether as an ordained pastor or simply as one friend to another—does so most faithfully when drawing upon his or her own experiences of woundedness and healing.
This is not always the posture taken by celebrity pastors in North America. Nor, frankly, is this kind of compassion and care the posture that tends to characterize people like you and me.
While re-reading The Wounded Healer not long ago, I was reminded of another of Nouwen’s short books, In The Name of Jesus, which turns just about every notion of leadership—Christian or otherwise—on its head. In that book, I still remember being startled and unsettled when I read this line for the first time: “The Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.” The rest of the book is equally jarring—and equally liberating. Do read it if you haven’t already.
Returning to the pages of The Wounded Healer, Nouwen suggests three principles of Christian leadership. First, on the basis of the Incarnation as well as our vocation as Christ’s ambassadors, we’re called to be with others in their suffering. Next, we’re to lead others, however dimly we might see the way, into a recognition that life has meaning beyond the chaos and destruction around and within us. Finally, we’re called to be bearers of hope. Nouwen continues:
Leadership therefore is not called Christian because it is permeated with optimism against all the odds of life, but because it is grounded in the historic Christ-event which is understood as a definitive breach in the deterministic chain of human trial and error, and as a dramatic affirmation that there is light on the other side of darkness.
For some of us, Nouwen’s principles won’t go far enough as we consider the very real burden of ministering to those in pain. Belief in the sovereignty of God and confidence in the reliability of scripture’s promises are two more that come to mind.
But Nouwen’s main framework holds: those who minister in the name of Christ must be present with those who suffer—as those who share the basic human condition of brokenness—even while pointing beyond the chaos and despair into glorious, inexhaustible light.