Henri Nouwen and the Ministry of Presence

The following quote from Henri Nouwen hangs permanently on my refrigerator. Here is what Nouwen said about the ministry of presence.

“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.”  

This convicts me. I think my ministry paradigm is signified in Nouwen’s statement when he said, “my own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project.” Yet, I see Jesus’ ministry more like what is described in Nouwen’s statement. How often in the Gospels do we see Jesus sitting a tables eating with sinners. He shared meals with people. Meals are time consuming. Yet, he often sat with sinners and fellowshiped with them. Do I do that? Not so much.

This lesson is something I’m learning more and more as I attempt to do what Jesus has called me to do. I see in my own heart the desire for prestige and title. The letters behind my name really won’t mean a thing in fifty years (give or take). The position I hold, or will hold, will be given to someone else in due time. Actually, the only thing that matters is that people know (or, knew) I loved them, I cared for them, and more importantly, my love and care were mere extensions (albeit small extensions) of Jesus’ greater love and care He has for them. The real test for success is not whether people call me “Dr” or “Rev” before a certain age, but rather are my children in twenty-five years still following and loving Jesus. Does my wife see a serving, loving husband? Do I point people to Jesus by my words and deeds? Power, position, and title don’t automatically bring any of those things.

I recently read a tweet which quoted an individual I have never heard of. This was the quote: “Imagine what people could do for God if they didn’t care who got the credit.” This sounds like a one line summary of Nouwen’s idea. What could I do and say for Christ if I didn’t care that people remembered that I did it. What if I wasn’t bothered by people giving credit to someone else for my idea. I think when that happens, I will praise Jesus that He is getting the glory due his name, and that I am only doing what a servant ought to do.

May God give the grace, strength and humility to be a more effective minister simply by being present.

17 thoughts on “Henri Nouwen and the Ministry of Presence

    1. Thanks for the link. I had not read that essay before. I especially enjoyed his closing sentence of his closing paragraph in which Nouwen said “you gradually realize that to pray is to live.” May God make it so.

  1. I found your blog while searching the web for “ministry of presence”. As a young evangelical in training to become a church planter, this ministry is often overlooked for CEO-styled operations management. Look forward to reading some of your other posts and thoughts in the near future. Peace be with you. — Jason Palmer

    1. Jason,

      Thanks for stopping in. I couldn’t agree with you more.

      Nouwen’s statement describes me quite well when I was fresh out of seminary. I wanted to be important, be in all the meetings, be useful and significant. Yet, the longer I lived among those to whom the Lord had called me, I began to see more and more clearly what the people really need. They need the presence of those who follow Christ. Instead of having all the facts about my subject matter, I needed to know more facts about their families and where they came from. I’ve got a long way to go in living such a ministry of presence out, but this road is filled with far more ministry opportunities than I could’ve imagined. After all, on each individual soul there is another story of God’s grace and goodness being written. Why not take time to read it?

      Thanks for stopping in and commenting.


      1. I would like to use your quote in an article I am submitting to NDICE newsletter. I’m not sure if your are the author of this article or what you are. Please advise before I send it off.
        God’s Blessings on us All!

        Deacon Jim Martin
        St Louis Airport

      1. ¡Gracias, Débora! I just downloaded the Kindle version of Gracias!: A Latin American Journal. I am utilizing this quote for a presentation on cultural awareness this week and I wanted to be sure of the source!

  2. Thanks so much for your entry and the quote. I live in what some would call a restricted access country, though, I as a foreigner to the culture do not think of it that way. Just this morning I used the phrase, “Ministry of Presence,” in a conversation with another couple who live and work in yet another restricted access country. I believe that this expression of ministry must be the foundation for everything else we do, and that we must never lose it or fail to nurture it. Among other things, it creates and sustains authenticity. As you said, we certainly see it in the life and activity of Jesus.

    People may, or may not, pursue projects or fill their agenda with meetings. Some of us are called to do such things. But they do become sterile, and we become brittle, without a continual experience of God’s promised presence, and with that, a sincere and loving presence to the people of our culture.

    1. Amen.

      When I was going through seminary I pridefully longed for the pastorate of my imagination, living in my over-abundant library, exiting my mohagany bookshelves to ascend to the pulpit where words of the sermon would entrench themselves in the hearts of my hearers. Then, upon completion, hands would be shaken on my way to return to my study where the real work would go on. . . How sad!

      How brittle and sterile! I’d even say arrogant beyond wildest imagination. No regular experience of God’s people. It is in the faces and lives of people we encounter the very image of God. What greater ministry is there than simply being present before his images within whom he breathed his life-giving breath.

      Thank you for stopping in and reading. May God bless your presence and make it fruitful.

  3. I also found your web site searching for insights on the ministry of presence. I have had this desire to begin or work with those in transition of loss or grief. The thought that is is the gift of presence kept coming to me. So I was delightfully surprised to find my way here.
    Can’t wait to share and find more.

  4. Thank you for this. I love this quote too and I was searching for it for a talk to young people tonight. Thanks for your thoughts!!

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