It’s not you, it’s us: unblurring the line between organisational and psychological problems

Image by Shameer Pk from Pixabay 

When the Director of Personnel and Member Care for my sending organisation stepped down recently, I was asked to take on her role in an interim capacity. Having been stuck by hard border closures for more than a year, my first instinct was of course. Why not try and be useful and provide some support to my organisation in this interim period? I’m neither a psychologist nor a human resource professional but both disciplines fascinate me, even more so having spent the last year researching the unique challenges for leadership in cross-cultural mission organisations. Stepping into such as role and seeing things from the other side gave me a lot of food for thought about how we think about both personnel and member care. At heart I am sociologist, driven to understand the cultures, contexts, environments in which we exist and relate. I’m also a lawyer by training and I’m realising both of those parts of my background affect how I think about the roles of people who provide care and organisational support for missionaries. 

I’ve been trying for a while to articulate a quiet discomfort that has been building in my mind, but I wasn’t able to until I listened to a fascinating conversation between Adam Grant and Merve Emre. The podcast was in response to Emre’s eloquent critique of emotional intelligence as a form of corporate control that ignores the social and political factors involved in emotional labour. It’s a fascinating topic and worthy of a much more detailed engagement than I can attempt here. But one thing that really stood out to me during the conversation was when Grant suggested we should “ban psychological responses to organisational problems”. They went on to discuss some COVID-related examples where employees struggling with the circumstances brought on by lock-downs and working from home were sent tips on coping with stress or offered mindfulness training via zoom when what they actually needed was for their boss to recognise and accommodate their reality rather than expecting they could continue to work the same load or hours while simultaneously caring for young children or supervising online schooling. 

In my experience, the lines between member care and the personnel or human resources department in many mission organisations are often either blurred or completely overlap. There is an important and necessary intersection between the two and they are both necessary for flourishing individuals and functioning organisations but I worry that we sometimes forget that they are not the same thing.

I’ve experienced my fair share of frustrations and conflicts in my ten years as a member of a mission organisation. And there were times when what I wanted, more than a compassionate ear or a quick referral to an independent counselor, was someone to actually acknowledge the organisational problems driving my situation and to attempt to find organisational solutions. 

Don’t get me wrong, member care and counselling are vitally important. There were a number of situations over the last few months where I was glad to have people and resources in our organisation that I could call on to help our members in this way. We need to be giving people the emotional tools to reframe and cope with difficult situations, to understand ourselves and our expectations, to process everything from disappointment to grief, and to work through unhealthy or divisive conflict. However, I have seen plenty of examples of member care or mental health support being suggested for people who are in situations that could actually be fixed and changed. Or where processes could be implemented that learn from those situations that might avoid others experiencing similar pain. 

Resources and people are limited and most organisations can’t fill every role they would love to have. This means that people frequently wear multiple hats and are often not trained or experienced in all those hats. There will be a flavour to how they do a role that is most strongly influenced by whatever they have the most training and experience of. Anecdotally at least there a lot more people with experience in counselling and pastoral care than there are HR trained people going into mission. It’s great that those people care so much about our flourishing that they are prepared to take on additional responsibilities, but we do need to take to care to clarify the different natures of the hats. Member care is primarily about helping individual people cope and grow whereas human resources is about providing the institutional support and processes that make it possible for both flourishing individuals and a growing thriving organisation. 

I’ve seen people in conflict over work roles and responsibilities being offered counseling rather than mediation or conflict resolution that might provide clarity and more healing than the best internal coping strategies. I’ve seen leaders offering to pray with a frustrated worker rather than committing to providing feedback or rebuking a manipulative co-worker or a neglectful supervisor. 

Sometimes in mission it’s further complicated by a misunderstanding of what the biblical response should be. The biblical approach is not a grin and bear it (or pray and bear it). It should be pray and fix, like we see with the response to the widows in Acts 6. If we care about people, we want to make their lives better not just enable them to better cope with their lives.  It’s good that we don’t fence employee wellbeing off into a separate and mostly token program like many corporations do. I love seeing organisations that take member care seriously and make it a key part of executive leadership strategy. One of the key ways we lead people is by connecting with them as individuals. The ultimate responsibility for member care should rest with leadership, but it needs not be the only way that we care for people. Caring for people can be as much about good management practices, clear policies, understandable processes. Clarity is loving. Practices, policies and processes that really understand people and their contexts, that are flexible and adaptable, can make a huge difference to individual flourishing and hence the effectiveness of the mission of our organisation as a whole. 

Gianpiero Petriglieri in an article about crisis leadership discusses the difference between interpersonal and institutional holding and the importance of institutional holding. He says:

“Leaders provide institutional holding by strengthening the structure and culture of an organization or group. They do it, for example, when they put in place policies and procedures that reassure people about their job security or how fairly the organization is treating them. They do it when they promote dialogue that lets diverse people participate in decisions and in adapting to new challenges together, rather than encouraging polarized factions. For leaders in executive positions, this is the most impactful way of holding people in a crisis. Failing to provide it makes expressions of sympathy and understanding ring hollow.”

I’ve only just finished the interim role and it was a bit of a whirlwind so undoubtedly would have been a lot more to learn over the long term. My approach in that short period was to see member care as primarily a form of interpersonal holding while human resources was about institutional holding. I think we should not forget that in our efforts to care for individuals. Leaders need to take ownership of ensuring that members get both interpersonal and institutional holding. 

That’s where the sociologist in me comes out; we exist in a context and in a series of relationships. Fixing that context and working on those relationships to me is as important (maybe more important) as working on ourselves in the quiet confidentiality of the counselor’s office. It’s also where the lawyer in me comes out. As interesting and important as court cases are every lawyer knows that if you can avoid court cases with carefully created agreements between individuals or create structural and social change with meticulously drafted legislation that is always preferable to the cost and pain of litigation. We should be holding our people in ways that create not just stronger individuals but stronger organisations.

Dissent and conflict in effective teams

A guest post

Conflict is exhausting, conflict is divisive, conflict can cause emotional or relational damage that is hard to undo. I am a lawyer and football (soccer) coach. Those worlds are built around differences of opinion and in those worlds, I thrive on robust debate. Yet, when I first joined a cross-cultural mission organisation 10 years ago, I found myself in a team where people were reluctant to disagree, and any challenge was quickly labelled as conflict. I spent years feeling like I was keeping my mouth shut all the while being told I was too “heart on my sleeve”. I found my myself trying to figure out what role disagreement and challenge should play and whether good conflict was a skill we could all get better at. 

We talk a lot about unity and harmony in Christian organisations, so I went back to the bible to remind myself what it had to say. I was struck by what I think is something of a paradox. 

We are definitely called to unity and harmony, to live at peace wherever possible (Ephesians 4:3, Proverbs 20:3, Romans 12:18). Yet the bible also exhorts us to seek and speak truth, to rebuke wrong and even gives accounts of righteous anger and godly leaders disagreeing with each other (Proverbs 19:25, Galatians 2:14, Acts 15:39). The are many of stories of those who dissent and disagree being used powerfully by God such as the two spies in Numbers 13 and 14, Daniel and his friends, and the prophets who argue with kings. These men stand alone and are prepared to disagree. There is clearly a virtue in being prepared to be different for the sake of the kingdom.

If you are a leader of any kind of team you will know doubt understand this image and probably have been that guy in the middle. We’ve made the plan, done the work, talked to a few people we trust, we are just ready to get everyone excited and get on with putting the plan into action. But how should he engage all those other members of the team? I know I have thought all those thoughts. Figuring out how to deal with unexpressed disagreement prompted me to do some research. 

On the one hand you would expect Western corporate leadership books to be unafraid of conflict. And this is indeed what I found in books like The Challenge Culture. Nigel Travis believes that the ability to create a culture where it is okay for people to challenge leaders is essential for survival in a chaotic world. In No! The power of disagreement in a world that wants to get along, Charlan Nemeth illustrates the power of dissent to protect against group think. She argues that consensus narrows thinking while dissent diversifies and strengthens thinking. 

Nemeth and Travis’ arguments about creating space for dissent are compelling. Even Erin Meyer’s book The Culture Map which is in large part designed to avoid intercultural conflict in business reminds us that disagreement is in fact possible in all cultures even if what might work in one culture will not work in another. When I look at an organisation as diverse as a multinational mission agency, I can’t help but think that the existence of a team of really different people who never disagree is probably a sign that something is wrong.

Is it just the secular business world where dissent is important, or might there be a role for it in a Christian fellowship seeking to be characterised by peace and harmony? Jay Matenga, an intercultural Maori, missionary leader, and missiologist, writes about the Maori word whakatete in his article Growing through Tension. The word whakatete refers to quarrelling or dissent, or to create tension, but used as verb it can also mean to strengthen or prop up. While we think of the Maori as warring tribal peoples with a desire to dominate each other, Matenga describes Maoris as people who make room for robust discussion. He says they have a great deal of tolerance for difference and tension and engage in sharing of each other’s narratives until a common understanding emerges. Permanently severed relationships are an undesirable, rare and extreme occurrence. He contrasts this with the western mindset which he thinks is intensely uncomfortable with tension. He says “their individualism allows them to go separate ways to resolve the tension. Nowadays, it does not take a lot for relationships to be severed in order to relieve tension.” Matenga sees tension, disagreement and dissent not just as important for creative and innovative business practices but vital for personal growth and Christian maturity.

Even in a book as conflict-free sounding as The Peace Maker, Ken Sande reminds us that conflict is not necessarily bad. He says: “In fact the Bible teaches that some differences are natural and beneficial. Since God has created us as unique individuals, human beings will often have different opinions, convictions, desires, perspectives, and priorities. Many of these differences are not inherently right or wrong; they are simply the result of God-given diversity and personal preferences. When handled properly, disagreement in these areas can stimulate productive dialogue, encourage creativity, promote helpful change, and generally make life more interesting. Therefore, although we should seek unity in our relationships, we should not demand uniformity. Instead of avoiding all conflicts or demanding that others always agree with us, we should rejoice in the diversity of God’s creation and learn to accept and work with people who simply see things differently than we do.”

How to do it better

The first key thing for me was realising that when we have the power, we also have the responsibility, even if it is uncomfortable. As leaders and as organisations there is a danger that we send people away without being heard because they raise concerns or share hurts or fears in ways that we don’t feel comfortable with. I’d love all my conversations to be light and fun or serious but gentle. But often that’s not likely to be the case. People dealing with their own fears, frustrations, pride, or ego or who have been hurt are rarely easy to listen to but are no less deserving of our attention or leadership. Often, we are way too quick to declare “you didn’t say it right” and stop listening. To tell the dissenter to get better at dissenting rather than sit in the uncomfortable conversation listen to their concerns.

Recently I sat in a meeting room with an angry Dad of one of the players in the football club I work for and was reminded of the power of being the leader who really listens. It was an uncomfortable conversation. It started with a conversation about his child’s involvement in a bullying incident. The child’s coach had made some unwise comments and the Dad was clearly ready to let all of his frustrations and anger about everything that had happened in the last six months come out. I sent the player, coach and manager back to the field and for the next forty-five minutes probed and clarified until the anger dissolved to reveal the hurt, frustration and fear that was driving it. He wanted what was best for his child and felt like people weren’t being honest with him and every time he raised concerns, he was treated like he was being difficult or a troublemaker. Could he have done it better and been less confrontational? Absolutely, but given how strong the emotions he was feeling were, it’s no surprise he couldn’t. 

There is a quote circulating on social media by Sarah Maddux:

“When you debate a person about something that affects them more than it affects you. Remember that it will take a much greater emotional toll on them than on you. For you it may feel like an academic exercise for them it feels like revealing their pain only to have you dismiss their experience and sometimes their humanity. The fact that you might remain more calm under these circumstances is a consequence of your privilege not increased objectivity on your part. Stay humble.”

So now in my leadership I’m trying to do the five following things

  • Changing the mindset

This involves valuing dissent and accepting that conflict is not something to be feared but is inevitable and can be an opportunity to grow. It is also about separating out task conflict from relationship conflict.

  • Changing the vocabulary:

Given how many people I have met within mission organisations who have described themselves as a conflict avoider or told me how much they hate conflict, maybe we need a different word. I can barely begin to describe the looks I used to get when I told people I didn’t mind conflict. But I think when we say conflict we are talking about different ends of a spectrum of disagreement or debate. I’m not quite sure what the word is yet. Disagreement isn’t strong enough; challenge doesn’t allow for the times when emotions are strong or its not about confronting leadership. And I’m not Kiwi enough to appropriate Maori culture so I can’t use whakatete in everyday use. But we need a way to capture the value of diversity, disagreement and dissent; of challenge and robust debate without the connotations of broken relationships that come with the word conflict for so many people.

  • Valuing thought diversity:

As we embrace a diversity of people, that brings with it a diversity of thought, experience and opinion. We need to be ready for two things: the increased potential for conflict and different ways to engage with and potentially heal from that conflict. Erin Meyer introduces us to a wise Bahamian proverb:

“To engage in conflict, one does need to bring a knife that cuts but a needle that sews.” … what sews nicely in one culture may cut in another. But with a little effort and creativity, you can find many ways to encourage and learn from alternative points of view while safeguarding relationships. 

  • Being prepared to be uncomfortable:

As I reflect on these last few reminders. I feel challenged that being a leader the burden is on me to make it possible for others to disagree or dissent, to have opinions or experiences different from mine and still be heard. 

A strong diverse, creative, effective team will require compromise and a willingness to work together but it is also about more than just being nice and getting along. We leaders need to find space for the dissenters and embrace disagreement. We need to not fear conflict but find ways to really hear the diverse voices in the group and to be prepared to rebuild relationships when things do escalate. 


Navigating uncertainty

What an uncertain year. In 2019 I left South-East Asia hoping that God would clear the path to move to a new region within a year. By the end of 2019 we felt certain about a new region and new ministry focus and began making concrete plans to be there mid-2020. Fast forward 18 months and we are still here in Australia, trapped by hard border closures for a still unknown length of time. The situation in our destination changes rapidly and those things that we thought we knew about where we were going or what we were going to do gets a little more fuzzy with each passing month. 

Early last year before we had any idea of the scale of this pandemic, I was interviewing Richard Chin the National Director for Australian Fellowship Evangelical Students. Of all the wisdom he shared with me, one thing really stood out: “Clarity, Clarity, Clarity. Clarity is the most loving thing you can do.”

As the full-scale of the pandemic and its impact on my life and the world around us, became apparent, the more I wanted to understand clarity. 

AFES is a complex organisation but it actually seemed pretty straightforward compared to my own multi-national cross cultural mission organisation. With missionaries being sent from anywhere to everywhere, from every continent often into risky and unpredictable situations with rapidly changing social, economic and political contexts.

Even without COVID and the extreme uncertainty it brought, our lives in cross-cultural organisations are pretty uncertain. As I reflected not just on my own situation of stuckness, but on my whole organisation, on the people we had been leading, the people we had been led by I kept wondering: Do we all crave certainty? And what as leaders should we do with that uncertainty. 

In a chapter titled “Leadership and ambiguity”, James Plueddemann discusses the research on cultural differences in uncertainty avoidance or tolerance for ambiguity. He doesn’t just discuss the cultural differences in tolerance for ambiguity and the way those differences can lead to misunderstandings. He takes it one step further and looks at uncertainty avoidance at the organisational level and says:

“Few things reflect the cultural value of avoiding uncertainty as much as an organizational structure. If an organization has no fear of uncertainty there is little need for structure, while organizations with little tolerance for ambiguity are highly organized. The challenge arises when mission societies or denominations seek to become truly multinational resulting in partnerships between organizations that exhibit both high and low uncertainty avoidance cultures. Suddenly the one-size fits all approach doesn’t work. As world missions move from “everywhere to everywhere”, organizational cultures are likely to become more decentralized and ambiguous.” (Leading Across Cultures)

Uncertainty has fascinated not just missiologists and anthropologists but business schools and organisational researchers for some time. VUCA is an acronym often thrown around in discussions about uncertainty. It stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. This originally came from the military as a way to describe the global world order that was emerging in the post-cold-war period. 9/11 and other events gave it currency. 

It was a convenient way to package all that was unknown or disturbing.

When we look at the impact of COVID, it has a global scale that is unparalleled but this kind of upheaval and uncertainty is a long-term reality for so many of the contexts in which we minister. 

Glenda Eoyang, founder of The Human Systems Dynamics Institute, points out that describing situations as VUCA is really an American perception of a situation.

It doesn’t adequately apply to societies where volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are normal aspects of the world. It is culturally biased in that it attempts to describe a deviation and highlights that western discomfort with ambiguity that Plueddemann was talking about, a discomfort with all those four words. Eoyang worries about the use of VUCA along with phrases like ‘future proofing’ or ‘new normal’ and says “The future is uncertain and uncertainty carries risk. Any notion that the future can be made risk free is a delusion of power and privilege.” (

It got me thinking about an alternative to decrying the volatility, the uncertainty, the complexity, and the ambiguity. Rather than feeling frustrated by uncertainty could I actually learn to appreciate it, embrace it and help those I lead do the same?

I have realised that tolerance for ambiguity is more than just something I need to understand in order to work cross-culturally but that two things would help me as I lead in the face of uncertainty in a complex and ambiguous organisation:

Academics at QUT did research into Tolerance of Ambiguity in the workplace and found that high levels of it contributed positively to job performance, decision making, creativity, critical thinking, risk acceptance, job satisfaction, organisational commitment and health and wellbeing. They focus on individual personality traits and how they might be developed in workers who have a naturally low tolerance but they do highlight the benefits to organisations that have more employees with these traits. We have so much to learn from cultures with a high tolerance for ambiguity and there is a wonderful advantage in cross-cultural organisations where those cultures and cultural values are present, we just need to listen to them. 

We also have so much work to do in understanding how to provide clarity in the face of uncertainty Andy Stanley, mega church pastor and leadership guru, devotes a large part of his book, Next Generation Leader to the need for clarity. He says that uncertainty underscores the need for both leadership and the need for clarity. “The goal of leadership is not to eradicate uncertainty but rather to navigate it.”

What is clarity?

A more clear approach is to create processes by which people can be known or understood, that give them confidence they will be known, that leaders will take time to get to know their backgrounds, gifts, needs and hopes and that those things will inform decisions.

As Susan Kahn says “Leaders have an important role to play in managing the fears and anxieties of those who work for us. Ideally, leaders offer us a bounded space in which to work.” (Bounce Back: How to fail fast and be resilient at work)

It’s not attempting to control every variable or eliminate uncertainty. But it is giving people confidence that someone is there who knows how to navigate the uncertainty or sometimes just prepared to be present in the uncertainty with them.

Four things I’m trying to cultivate as I navigate uncertainty:

Curiosity (About people, about cultures, about situations)

I think getting to know how people and cultures with a high tolerance for ambiguity approach different situations is helping me grow my own tolerance, and could help incorporate more flexibility in our complex and decentralized organization. Part of creating a bounded space should include getting to know people’s stories, their hopes their fears, their preferences then you can help them navigate what is going on around them. So much frustration and burnout in missions comes from unmet expectations, but if I don’t know what they are, I can’t help people on the journey whether towards those expectations to towards finding better ones. 

Knowledge (By which I mean Knowing what I don’t know)

Perhaps more important than doing all the research and being certain about the best course of action is knowing what things I can’t be certain of, knowing that things will change and evolve expecting the unexpected but having a clear idea of how you will figure out the way forward and what resources you have to support you.I also think there is a fundamental biblical truth here. People often quote Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” People quote this with good intentions, to reassure people that things will work out. But maybe it wasn’t designed to be an inspirational post on Instagram. God’s promises were big vague promises. Again and again in the bible we see people trusting in the God who reveals himself rather than a particular plan or a promise of prosperity. We see his people confident that whatever the outcome God will be glorified. 

I think a more helpful passage is probably 1 Corinthians 13. This is probably a passage that is overused in relation to romantic relationships and underused for leadership or organisational matters. What is it that makes a difference in the face of uncertainty? Not necessarily putting all the best brains in the room and trying to figure out the solution but knowing that we do not know. Knowing that this present reality is just a dim reflection of Gods kingdom, of his bigger and more perfect plan for our redemption and that the only way to navigate it all is with love. 


Love for the people, countries and cultures I am serving. Love for the people I am serving with. Love will enable me to seek to understand them, to work towards clarity, to trust God even in the midst of chaos. 

Gianpiero Petriglieri, an Italian psychiatrist turned management professor, has been railing against the war-like language and celebration of leaders he has seen emerge in the pandemic. He proposes instead that what people most need is holding. And here is my caveat about vision. He says chaos and anxiety feed leaderism – a kind of toxic obsession with leaders and their vision. Leaderism needs a threat to rail against. He borrows the phrase holding from child development theory (Good caretakers do not shelter children from distress and turns of fate. But they buffer children enough that they can process distress, and find words to name their experiences, and ways to manage it.) He says the role of leaders and managers is not just to influence people but to hold them both on an institutional and personal level:

“When I ask managers to reflect a bit more on the leaders whose visions they find most compelling and enduring, they usually realize that none of those leaders started from a vision or stopped there. Instead the leader started with a sincere concern for a group of people, and as they held those people and their concerns, a vision emerged. They then held people through the change it took to realize that vision, together. Their vision may be how we remember leaders because it can hold us captive. But it is their hold that truly sets us free.” (

I think that is so much more helpful as we navigate both the extreme uncertainty of covid but also the ongoing reality of working in an ambiguous and complex world. For people to know there are leaders to hold them should make the whole organisation more able to take risks and tolerate ambiguity. This is a really tangible demonstration of 1 Corinthians 13 love. 

The kind of institutional holding that Petriglieri talks about supports people through crises in ways that build their resilience. It’s also building resilient systems. Systems that don’t need to be changed every time something changes, that don’t rely on particular people but that spread and multiply knowledge rather than concentrate it in the hands of a few

The need for clarity is becoming even more necessary with younger workers. Richard Chin’s deputy, Tony, told me, young people expect more structure and process and feel unloved if they don’t get it. This resonated so strongly with my own experiences with interns, short termers and teams. I heard many stories from other leaders also grappling with young workers frustration at unmet expectations. This is the generation that want to read a review or watch a vlog to see what something is like before they commit to anything. These things give the illusion of predictability. But when their experience is not like the cropped and filtered instagram image there is inevitably frustration. I’ve realised they are chasing certainty, an experience that looks exactly like they were sold, rather than being taught to be comfortable in the ambiguity, clear about their hopes but not certain about what the journey will look like. There is a lot of work to do to figure out how to help people be comfortable with the ambiguity involved in serving cross-culturally. Things will change and we will be changed by them. 

In Leading Across Cultures, Plueddemann has this beautiful description of a pilgrim leader: “Pilgrims have a goal and a sense of direction, but they realize that the path often leads through rugged mountains and foggy swamps, bringing unexpected twist and turns. Pilgrims tolerate ambiguity and focus on the unfolding serendipitous opportunities that God brings into view.” As I look into the future that is so unclear, I want to encourage us all to aspire to be that kind of pilgrim leader. With a concern for God’s people and clear on why we keep pushing forward but grateful for the opportunities that even COVID has brought to serve God right where we are. Let’s be prayerful that we will be better able to help others navigate similar uncertainty along the way. 

Rich in diversity, one in belonging (part two)

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Part 2: From Diversity to Belonging

In my previous post, I tried to make a case for why diversity is important. Normally we think about diversity in terms of categories, particularly categories of people who have been underrepresented: women, migrants, indigenous people, old people, young people. Category diversity is important particularly as you think about representation and wellbeing. But it can obscure thought diversity. In general people from different categories will tend to think or reason differently, have different values, bring different experiences so pursuing category diversity can help you get thought diversity. But it doesn’t always work. 

Often as organisations attempt to bring more diversity they start with people who satisfy category diversity without too much thought diversity. This might mean choosing a non-Western leader who was educated or worked in the west, it might be the local leader who is married to a foreigner, the members of a team who all look very different but all come from the same theological college, it might be the woman who can play by rules in a male-dominated environment and relishes being the only woman in the room. Those kinds of people are often great first bridges for organisations seeking to improve diversity. However, what it can expose our desire for consensus and harmony even in the midst of diversity. The endpoint or goal shouldn’t just be the person who ticks the box yet is the most comfortable option. It should be to get people who really represent diverse backgrounds experiences who will bring challenge and dissent. 

Charlan Nemeth in her book No! The power of disagreement in a world that wants to get along is clear on the value of thought diversity and the need for people to be able to freely and safely dissent:

“Consensus, while comforting and harmonius as well as efficient, often leads us to make bad decisions. Dissent while often annoying, is precisely the challenge that we need to reassess our own views and make better choices. It helps us consider alternatives and generate creative solutions. Dissent is a liberator.”

What do we mean by belonging?

Belonging is a buzzword among organisational and leadership researchers, like Daniel Coyle who studied successful groups and wrote The Culture Code. He found that one key thing those groups do is use signals to generate bonds of belonging and identity which build safety. Many of the groups he studied however were naturally or intentionally pretty homogenous. 

Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy in No Hard Feelings: Emotions at work and how they help us succeed, take this idea of belonging further looking at diverse environments. They say: “Belonging is not the same as feeling similar to everyone else (our desire to fit in often compels us to hide who we really are). Belonging is when you feel safe and valued for embracing what makes you different.” Both Liz and Mollie and Daniel Coyle draw heavily on Amy Edmonson’s idea of psychological safety. This is one of the keys to a culture of belonging. “Psychological safety” means a team environment where people feel safe to be themselves, to say what they think and make mistakes. It means an environment where people feel like they can contribute without fearing they might be embarrassed, dismissed, ignored or punished.

Fostering safety is really important in diverse teams with people from different backgrounds. Without safety, people may feel like they need to behave more like the leader or the majority in the team. It’s not the same as just being nice or not disagreeing with each other. In fact it’s the opposite. It’s feeling like it is okay to think differently or disagree.

Without safety a team might miss out on the benefits of having lots of different experiences in the team. 

Are belonging and diversity mutually exclusive?

We can decide we want diversity as a practical, philosophical and biblical good. We know that we also all want to feel like we can belong and be ourselves. We can want the benefits that come from high performing teams with strong purpose and vision. We can get all these different people into a room together but it isn’t automatically going to produce creativity, it isn’t automatically going to be easy to express ourselves. In fact in the short term at least it is going to make it belonging harder. 

If you think about a time when you really felt like you belonged, there is a pretty good chance you had a lot in common with the other people. If you think about a time when you didn’t feel like you belonged, I would guess there some way in which you were different to the group. That was certainly the case when I first moved to Asia. There were no other Australians, no mothers of young kids, no lawyers, no-one from my church denomination – these were all the communities where I’d felt belonging previously.

In 1 Corinthians 12 it’s clear that we are all part of the body and the body works best when all the different parts are present. Belonging is actually stronger and more resilient when it is built in groups of people who are different. When the group identity becomes more important than the other aspects of shared identity. The challenge is that two of the easiest ways to build some sense of belonging are at the expense of diversity: creating an “other” and prioritising “cultural fit”.

The quickest way to create a sense of belonging is to create a sense of other. There are lots of ways that this happens. Companies compare themselves to the competition. IBM compared itself to Apple and that othering of Apple created a sense of belonging among the IBM team. Other kinds of groups do this too; church denominations define themselves by their difference to another denomination. There are lot of other ways that we intentionally or unintentionally use othering that I think we should be aware and perhaps wary of. Commonality in identity or shared experience are powerful ways to quickly build belonging but they can end up excluding or isolating those who come into a group without those points of commonality. In economically diverse groups, access to shared experiences like social outings or conferences may be limited by a discrepancy of resources.

The other easy way to build belonging is the thing called “cultural fit”.  For a while leadership and recruitment experts talked a lot about cultural fit, but I am pretty uncomfortable with it for a number of reasons. On the positive side it ensures that people who join the team have an alignment of values or vision. Every mission agency has a set of doctrinal principles that people have to align with in order to join. In my organisation I had to write thousands of words on a doctrinal assessment which was then checked and commented on by an expert.  Lots of organisations have other ways of looking for this ideological alignment and it is important to avoid unnecessary friction and keep the team focused on the vision. The danger is that cultural fit becomes code for people who look the same, think the same or have the same background. People end up going beyond ideological alignment to looking for people they would want to get a coffee with, or take a family holiday with. 

Creating an “other” or prioritising “cultural fit” raises two questions for two different groups. For the people who might be in the majority, that group for whom cultural fit is easy: What do they miss out on? For the group for whom it’s much harder work to fit in: What is the cost to them of trying to belong?

When you belong you should feel like you are able to “bring your whole self to work”. But even authenticity, something that feels like a universal good or maybe even a right, something that leadership gurus harp on about is something that looks different in different cultures. This is true for both national cultures and for other subcultures like generational or professional subcultures. I found in my cross-cultural team that my colleagues all had different ideas, often influenced by their national culture but also influenced by other parts of their identity or background. For my Asian colleagues steeped in an honour-shame culture, vulnerability, admitting ways they had messed up, was really hard. They were so accustomed to gossip and harsh judgment even within their Christian contexts that they were not sure how to take or respond to my upfrontness and honesty, my desire to conduct post mortems and dissect failure. And while their honour-shame culture presented challenges to my ideas about discipleship and Christian accountability, I learned so much about the gospel from the way they read the Bible, from the way that they wrestled with grace and understood the gospel’s power to free them from shame. 

On the other hand a lot of the younger American interns I worked with were all about authenticity, but hadn’t really experienced it from older leaders and so were confused and probably a little bit overwhelmed when I was honest about the realities of living and raising kids across cultures. They didn’t expect leaders to show vulnerability and, at least initially, it didn’t break down barriers like I thought it would.

If we had gone down the road of othering or prioritising cultural fit, we would have almost certainly had less friction in our team but we would have missed out on these deep moments of learning that actually tied us together in belonging. 

How you create safety and belonging?

“Be the leader you wish you had” isn’t enough. It’s something, it’s better than nothing but it’s not enough. It doesn’t take into account that people with different cultural or other backgrounds might not want or need the same things from a team environment that you want or need. 

I have three key principles and a few practical suggestions for building a culture of belonging in teams of diverse people.  

  1. Pursue Humility 

The description we find of Jesus in Philippians 2 should be the place we start. This passage should be the model for all of our relationships. When I was conducting interviews last year someone said to me all the leaders talk about servant leadership and claim to be a servant leader but of the people being led not many feel like they are actually being served. It got me thinking about whether fundamentally we misunderstand humility. It’s not how we think about ourselves, whether we think of ourselves as better but how we choose to treat other people. 

As John Dickson says in his little but important book Humilitas: “Humility is the noble choice to redirect your power in the service of others”.  It is a social thing. Humility is looking at people who are different than you, who hold different values, are steeped in different worldviews and seeing in them dignity and value, seeing the image of God and choosing to use any power you may have to serve them.

All the ways that people differ, their practices, values, worldviews, expectations, personalities, those differences will probably drive you crazy as you try and work together. However, approaching those people with humility, trying to learn from the way they do things and the way they see the world, giving up your rights, your need to be in control will demonstrate Christ’s love and actually grow your understanding of the richness of God’s kingdom.

2. Cultivate curiosity

As you try to work out what kind of culture you want to build in your team, the first thing you need to understand is your own cultural values and the cultural values of others. Self-awareness is the first step in curiosity and interpersonal and intercultural awareness is the second. Formal leader or not you can set the tone in your group or team by being curious about people, the experiences they bring, the stories they carry and the values embedded deep in themselves.  Amy Edmonson says “Curiosity creates the necessity for voice”. Creating space for everyone to have a voice is the first step toward belonging. 

3. Embrace discomfort

Getting curious about other people is inevitably going to lead to some moments and conversations that take you out of your comfort zone. Each of those moments is a decision-tree moment. When someone shares something hard and you don’t know how to respond there are different forks in the tree you could take. You could offer a platitude in the hope that it would reassure but probably mostly so you can move on with whatever it was you were planning on getting done in that moment.  You could try a bit of empathy and tell your own story. Which might make them feel like you get it and they are not alone or just as likely will make them feel like you don’t really want to understand. Or maybe you could rush into fix-it mode and try and suggest a solution for them. 

All of those options are the fork of the tree that is less uncomfortable. The better alternative is to choose to go deeper into the discomfort, inviting the other person to tell you more, asking questions to clarify and understand the impact. It is these moments where you choose to sit in discomfort with people that will do the most to build belonging.

Practical strategies 

Curiosity will move you closer to understanding and to knowing people, humility and discomfort will allow you to choose to do things in ways that serve other people’s needs and will deepen bonds. There are a few practical strategies that will help as you strive to build a team culture that is rich in diversity and one in belonging:

1. Promote awareness: Self-awareness and interpersonal awareness and intercultural awareness are all critical in diverse team. Read widely and ask a lot of questions. There tools to help like personality assessments, strengths finders and cultural maps, but be aware that there might be one that you love that others feel alienated by. Use them lightly not expecting they will do all the work of figuring people out. 

2. Invite stories: Making space for people to tell and hear each others stories will make a huge difference for both self-awareness and interpersonal awareness. Stories are a part of every culture and there is nothing that builds belonging like your story being known. It doesn’t mean hearing everyone’s entire life story the first time you get together but building regular space for personal experience into the life of your group.

3. Go deeper in listening: The less people have in common with you the more important it is to listen, to be slower to respond and more willing to check your understanding. In decision tree moments choose to listen more deeply and to invite others to keep speaking in order to build understanding and belonging.

4. Use microactions: People from underrepresented groups will be all too familiar with microagressions. Counter them with microactions, small visible moments that invite connection and signal belonging. Notice when people are not speaking and take active steps to invite participation. 

5. Strive for clarity: Take the time to understand what makes each member of the group feel psychologically safe.  Maybe you love an all-in group discussion, but it might not work for the introvert, or the non-native English speaker, the person from a hierarchical culture who thinks it’s rude for them to disagree with their boss, or the person from a different educational background who doesn’t have all the right vocabulary. In really diverse groups it can be a good idea to be really explicit about the team norms. For example when you have people who have different ideas about decision-making, spelling out how decisions will be made is important. Even if you are in a group that has been together for quite some time, spending some time compiling a list of “How we do things here” can be really helpful. 

6. Do it all in love: 1 Corinthians 12 presents a compelling picture of unity in diversity. The chapter ends with the verse “And now I will show you a more excellent way”. That more excellent way is the focus of Chapter 13 – the way of love. Love both requires and enables us to be uncomfortable. Let us not be resounding gongs or clanging cymbals who know all there is to know about diversity and different cultures, who have read all the tips in the Harvard Business Review about how to build a good team culture, but aren’t prepared, in love, to sit in the discomfort with people who challenge us, baffle us, disagree with us. Let us patient and kind, not boastful or proud, not easily angered, keeping no records of wrongs, always persevering. 

Rich in diversity, one in belonging (a two part series)

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Part 1: Why diversity?

When I first moved to Asia I didn’t belong, but not for the obvious reasons you may think of. Of course my grasp of the language wasn’t very good, I didn’t understand a lot of the cultural issues and I didn’t look like a local. Most locals I met didn’t understand why I was there. In that realm I expected not to belong. I knew it was going to be a hard road of language and culture learning. I was lucky to have a handful of local Christian friends who took small actions to welcome me and help me navigate the world around me. This really helped me feel like I could belong. The bigger issue I found myself facing was the team of cross-cultural workers I was serving with. There I was supposed to belong. We were all passionately on mission together. My immediate team was comprised of Americans, Brits, Singaporeans and a South African. My wider team had Koreans and Indians and Canadians and Kiwis. I had been well prepared for this moment. Pre-field training had detailed modules and in-depth readings on cultural differences and working in cross-cultural teams. Yet, I still felt baffled by many of the ways my co-workers thought and acted. I longed for my Aussie corporate world where I knew how things worked. I missed my atheistic, libertarian boss who I knew how to work with. I suddenly felt like I didn’t know how to speak my mind, how to share ideas, how to give feedback. It turns out this is not an uncommon experience among cross-cultural workers. Often there are more conflicts and misunderstandings between fellow missionaries than between missionaries and locals.

As I have been researching the unique characteristics of multi-national, cross-cultural and support-raised mission organisations and the impact those characteristics have on team dynamics, I realised that challenges of complex, diverse teams in mission was becoming more and more the reality for all kinds of teams regardless of organisational context. Being a cross-cultural worker currently stuck back in Australia, I’ve had an opportunity to look at my own culture as a bit of an outsider. As I’ve talked with people about their work teams, their church or volunteer groups, many seem to be struggling with the same challenge: wanting to welcome and work with people who are different. 

Why is diversity important?

In Leading Across Cultures, James Plueddemann says, “You don’t have to travel from Australia to Afghanistan to bump into cultural leadership differences. Remarkable variations exist in the same country, even a few blocks from each other.” Given the rapidly changing and diversifying nature of the world, intercultural intelligence is becoming more and more necessary everywhere not just in the lives of missionaries and expat workers. There are a lot of ways we are diverse: gender, religion, ideology, age, education and abilities. Culture is the probably the biggest and most deeply ingrained category of diversity. Cultural practices, cultural values and worldviews make for differences that are sometimes stark and sometimes subtle but almost always baffling. 

In the mainstream or secular world diversity is either an ideal to pursue or reality to accommodate. We seek diversity and create policies to encourage it. It’s seen as a philosophical good in pursuit of humanistic goals of equity and equality. It’s also been shown to have immense pragmatic and practical value. More equitable representation in politics, workplaces and other public spaces creates better wellbeing in underrepresented groups. Charlan Nemeth, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, has done research that shows that a lack of diversity actual leads to poorer decision-making and less creativity or innovation. 

As Christians we can look to the Bible and see that diversity is more than just a lofty philosophical ideal or a practical good that will make your company more effective and profitable. In 1 Corinthians, Paul wrote to a church facing many difficulties. In Chapter 12:12-27, he focuses in on diversity, drawing out what it means for all the different parts of the body of Christ to be unified and diverse. When I was growing up in very white churches I always heard this passage taught as a way to encourage people that their contribution – maybe it was stacking chairs or washing up or sitting in crèche – was as important as the person who preached or led worship. While this is part of what Paul was trying to teach about spiritual gifts, I think there is a much deeper truth here that got missed. It is who we are, not just what we do, the ways in which we contribute, that is needed. It is our very diverse beings that are needed, not just our different skill-sets. 

Very early on in the grand biblical narrative in Genesis 11 we see God respond to the arrogance and pride of the people trying to build the Tower of Babel by creating division and confusion. Shortly after Jesus ascends to heaven however we get Pentecost where the exact opposite happens and the Holy Spirit enables every to understand the message. This was a powerful symbol that the gospel was indeed for everyone. God didn’t erase the language differences but made unity possible despite the divides. Yet still the early church struggled with diversity; Jews and Gentiles, language, status, culture diversity was everywhere. You can see it very clearly in some of the disagreements Paul mentions in Chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians as well as in a number of Paul’s other letters. But in Chapter 12, Paul makes it very clear that we don’t just have to tolerate one another or accommodate diversity for diversity’s sake. We need each other as the eye needs the hand and the head needs the feet.

All the many ways in which we differ are beneficial and necessary in the global Christian community. As Plueddemann says:

“The worldwide body of Christ will move beyond conflict and compromise towards beautiful harmony as we understand the weaknesses of our own culture and seek out the strengths of the other. The more we move toward becoming like Christ, the further we move away from the limitations of both high context and low context cultures while incorporating the strengths of both. The closer we come to being transformed into the image of Christ the more we develop as individuals while also becoming more deeply embedded in the richness of the global family of God. 

The business world is zealous about learning to function in a globalizing society. “The global leader is open and flexible in approaching others can cope with situations and people disparate from his or her background and is willing to re-examine and alter personal attitudes and perceptions. How much more should the church be passionate about working together as the worldwide body of Christ in a culture of grace.”

Plueddemann talks about many different cultural variants, one of which is cultures that have a high or low tolerance for ambiguity. I personally grew so much in my capacity to tolerate ambiguity through the example of my Asian colleagues and in turn it taught me so much about God. This has been so helpful during this pandemic year where our plans to go overseas are on hold and we have had to wrestle with what it looks like to serve God right here in this situation. One of the beautiful things I experienced in our team was watching those colleagues help other western workers learn to let go of the need to know everything, plan everything, predict everything, but also watching those Western workers help them appreciate how and when to provide clarity. 

As Christians we pursue the richness of diversity, not just because it’s a good idea but because it also reflects a deeper reality. That is the coming reality of the Kingdom of heaven, that is hinted at in John’s vision in Revelation 7, where he sees the great multitude, some from every tribe, tongue and nation all together worshipping together. That is not something reserved for the future but something we can and should strive for right now. 

I think it helps us live out the new commandment Jesus gives in John 13:34-35 “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” This is what we are to be known by.

Read Part Two about getting from diversity to belonging here

Is this the exit? Building better off-ramps

Photo by Manki Kim on Unsplash

Kath and her husband had been preparing to serve cross-culturally for most of their adult lives. So much study, planning, preparation and training had gone into getting themselves and their little kids overseas and into an environment where they were using their gifts and passions. After a few short years they found themselves back at the airport, preparing to move back to their passport country. Kath told me when she was first sent out she felt like her sending church had put her on a pedestal. She had done her best to live up to that, learning language and culture, throwing herself into ministry and trying to build something that would have an impact for Christ. Yet standing at those airport gates, uncertainty lay ahead. She was anxious about what it meant to go home. She was unsure what it would look like to come off that pedestal, to no longer be a face on the fridge but just another face in the pew, to live again in a culture she was not sure she understood anymore. As she walked through the gates, three people waved her goodbye: the dear friend she had not just studied language with but cried and laughed and raised her children with; the young teammate she had recruited and mentored who was now taking on a lot more responsibility; and the coworker who would keep serving with the dysfunctional team that had been one of the many complex reasons for leaving. 

Most mission organisations bear the legacy of founders who literally packed their coffins onto a boat when they were sent out into the great unknown. Today’s world is very different. The norm is now to serve overseas for a couple of terms not life. The missionaries I have been interviewing about leadership this year are mostly the people who have been in the organisations for a long time; the stayers that in so many ways make organisations what they are. Many have been through significant transitions and they are paradigms of resilience, having endured changes, conflicts and crises. The reality of the people they lead is often different. So many are just getting really comfortable in the language and culture they are serving when life calls them onward.

There has been a lot of investigation of missionary attrition and theories about what might be done to reduce it. There are also countless articles about the impact on individuals of transitions and the grief associated with reentry. I’ve yet to find much discussion on the impact of the way missionaries leave on those who stay and on the whole organisation. More so than most jobs, joining a mission organisation is like joining a family. A lot of effort goes into getting the right people onto the field and orienting them well. Any missionary will know just how high the bar and how long the process is. The way people join and are integrated into a team can have a huge impact on the culture of the team, just like adding a new member of a family. What does it mean to leave that family? 

Endings can colour the way we evaluate and remember entire experiences. As Daniel Pink writes in When “Endings helps us encode – to register, rate and recall experiences. But in so doing they can distort our perceptions and obscure the bigger picture.” The way a term of missionary service ends affects how the worker transitions into what’s next and how likely they are to encourage others down a similar path.  A good off-ramp isn’t just the farewell party and the goodbye book, nor is it just the welcome home party at the other end. A good off-ramp serves both the needs of the leavers and those who are left behind. 

I’ve written a little about the impact of the stories missionaries tell on the identity of workers and the functioning of organisations. Those stories loom large as people contemplate leaving and as they descend the off-ramp, particularly if mission service has felt like the ultimate culmination of a lifetime of calling and preparation. Leaving entails grief and loss, unmet expectations, unresolved conflicts and often a sense of failure involved in “going home”. 

Talking about off-ramps means acknowledging that people will eventually leave. There is a growing body of research on the benefit of good off-ramps in corporate environments, but in ministry, particularly cross-cultural mission the issue is even more complex. The reasons for leaving are rarely singular or straightforward, there will likely be a web of factors; financial, health, children, ageing parents, visas, civil unrest, career opportunities, conflict, frustrations and burnout. To navigate this complexity, there are three things off-ramps should be in order to help teams write a good ending to the chapter when one character leaves the story.

Off-ramps should be visible

Craig Hamilton in Wisdom in Leadership exhorts us to not be afraid of off-ramps. He says “leaders might try to hide the off-ramp by not ever mentioning it so that people might forget it exists”. Hiding the off-ramps doesn’t make for healthy teams, it just makes leaving feel like more of a failure, like something that was not supposed to happen. Hamilton encourages leaders: “Give people regular and systematic opportunities to leave gracefully. And when they do leave thank them, honour them and let them leave without guilt, shame or embarrassment.” He goes on to say “The healthier your team is and the clearer the off-ramps are, the less people will use them.”

Off-ramps should be a celebration 

The best way to make off-ramps a key positive moment for team culture setting is to make them celebratory. If it doesn’t feel normal and natural to move on, there will inevitably be a toxic impact on the morale of the people left behind. The annual exodus, the constant farewells can and does have a huge impact on the culture of missionary teams. Managed well people are grateful for the time with coworkers and excited to see where God will lead the people who leave and how He will work through the people who will come to replace them. Managed badly it makes people tired and cynical and encourages then to focus on smaller and smaller circles of relationships.

Being intentional about telling celebratory stories as people leave makes the whole team feel like the work being done is valuable and significant, that everyone matters and that God is honoured by our service no matter how or when it ends. 

Of course there will always be situations when things can’t end well. If you have ever worked in the corporate world or even read a few Harvard Business Review articles about off-ramping you will be familiar with the experience of a dismissed employee escorted out of the building by security to prevent retaliation or information loss. This is mostly unimaginable in a mission context, but there will still be times when a celebration won’t be possible or wise. These off-ramps will be painful and disruptive, but the team will appreciate a leader who is open and vulnerable, prepared to be present in the pain and to create space to process the complex and messy emotions. Even in such situations, always remember God is still at work in both the leaver and the stayers.

Off-ramps should be planned ahead

A period of cross-cultural service should be understood in the context of a lifetime of serving God, whether in support-raised vocational ministry or not. It should also be understood as one part in the long history of an organisation, and in the movement of God through his people in a nation. Understanding this will help people intentionally plan for the possibility of leaving. 

This is where the multiple layers of accountability and care in mission agencies come into their own; the sending office, the field leadership, the ministry team and the sending church can all play a role in helping people contemplate the end right from the beginning in both theoretical and practical ways. It will mean helping workers plan for succession. They should think through who will continue what they are building and care for the people they are discipling, both in an ideal leaving situation and in the event of an unexpected crisis. This might also mean practical things like supporting workers to keep up professional qualifications or to work towards new ones so that a worker has employable skills once they return to their home country. 

A good off-ramp should be focused on helping with the practical parts of transition: packing up, handing over, saying goodbye and landing well into new locations, jobs and communities. It should also provide a way to navigate the complicated emotions for everyone as team members finishing their period of serving together. It should remind us that our efforts in planting or watering seeds are but one small part of God making his kingdom grow. 

What has been your experience of off-ramps? Have people left feeling celebrated or discouraged? Have you seen them strengthen rather than weaken the team left behind?

Four things to think about as you read The Culture Map

The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead and Get Things Done Across Cultures by Erin Meyer has become the go-to reference for organisations with multicultural teams. It is backed by extensive research based on thousands of interviews across the globe and years of personal experience working cross-culturally. The Culture Map breaks down cultural differences into eight scales: Communicating, Evaluating, Persuading, Leading, Deciding, Trusting, Disagreeing and Scheduling. It takes a neutral, non-judgmental approach to different cultures, which is an invaluable reminder in cultural conflict.

While it might be tempting to teach the eight scales in a short seminar (possibly to avoid putting yet another thing on pre-field reading lists), there is a danger in this as so much of the value in the book comes from the nuanced and insightful stories and examples. As a training tool in a global mission context, The Culture Map is limited by the fact that the norms for each country are based on interviews with people involved in global business. This means a resource like this should be contextualised for other kinds of organisations. Unlike in business where it can be tempting to take a transactional approach to relationships, multinational Christian organisations value mutual relationships and want to love and serve with all cultures. Here are four things workers should know as they read The Culture Map:

1. The US is a big and diverse place

As Australians raised in inner-city Sydney, we were familiar with cultural difference. We attended schools with more students from Arab or Asian backgrounds than Anglo and have been involved in football communities aligned with different migrant groups. We felt prepared before going overseas, and coped reasonably well. We worked out how to lead meetings with fun-loving, story-telling Thai colleagues, how to approach the cautious Korean leader, how to get advice from the relational Brazilian and how to build a friendship with the gruff French parents at our kids’ school. What most confounded us was the Americans.

As James Plueddemann learned “some of the trickiest cross-cultural challenges can occur within what we think is our own culture but is in reality a unique subculture” (Leading Across Cultures). In The Culture Map countries are presented as a spot on each scale, but Meyer is very explicit that this reflects the hump where the majority of responses fall and there will be outliers. There will be entire regions, subcultures and organisations to which individuals belong that will not necessarily align with the normative point for a country. When it comes to understanding US missionaries, looking at a norm based on what Meyer describes as a “range of acceptable business behaviours in a given culture” could easily lead to misunderstandings.

Many Australians have commented that they roll their eyes when the “where are you from” question elicits a state rather than a country response from Americans. The assumption that the rest of the world knows one state from another seems insufferably arrogant or parochial to non-Americans. However, recently we’ve begun to discover that the answers people give to that question are a key to understanding those Americans we work with. Mark Abadi in Business Insider hypothesises that the US actually has 11 separate “nations” with entirely different cultures. While the article is brief, we suspect further research would reveal interesting divergence in some of the “nations” from the US norms outlined in The Culture Map. When our co-workers mention their state, they are often giving an insight into their own cultural identification. The way Americans describe where they are “from” is often quite complex. It was interesting to hear colleagues say they were “from” a state they had only lived in for a few years or to hear them describe themselves as “living in … but from …”. Perhaps, consciously or subconsciously, they were aligning themselves with a subculture and indicating the norms they prefer. 

Religious cultures also create divergence from dominant norms. Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor, has led teams across the world but was raised in the Southern US. When trying to understand the bluntness of Israeli colleagues she realised that “the religious cultures of our youth had an impact on our willingness to challenge each other at work”. She argues that in the Southern US challenging religious tradition is discouraged and that this has a flow-on effect where “people will do almost anything to avoid conflict or argument”. The Culture Map alludes to the impact of religious traditions. It emphasises very strongly the impact of Confucian thinking on Chinese culture but gives little thought to the impact of particular kinds of cultural Christianity on pockets of US culture. 

In a mission organisation we are much less likely to meet people with experience in a US global business culture than we are to meet people steeped in the culture of the Southern states or cultural Christianity (though we are not suggesting that these are all or even the majority of American missionaries). But it is important to help non-Americans understand the range of cultures present in the US and the relative position these subcultures may have on the culture scales. Above all remember that empathy and curiosity will help us figure out and relate to individuals.

2. Organisational culture is a whole other thing to understand

When we first moved overseas we experienced the expected culture shock within our multicultural team. We also experienced almost as much organisational culture shock. Plueddemann recognises that radical differences exist between the leadership cultures in different kinds of organisations. One of the distinctive features of a multi-national mission organisation is that it is a patchwork of national organisations formed into a fellowship under the influence but not authority of an international leadership team. Unlike a global business, we don’t just take a job, we join the fellowship as couples or whole families and often expect it to operate more like a family. An organisation’s culture is influenced as much by the history and the nature of the work it does as it is by all the national cultures that make it up. Organisational culture is not monolithic and can vary from team to team depending on the national and professional backgrounds of the members. Multicultural teams often establish a separate culture – a set of norms and rules that govern engagement. Sometimes this is set by the leader’s culture but ideally, as Meyer recommends, it is low context – explicitly agreed upon to ensure a smooth functioning team. Things like preference for hierarchy and methods for handling conflict will inevitably vary across different pockets of an organisation. It is crucial that workers understand organisational culture, whether it aligns with the organisation’s expressed values or not. To fail to do so risks sending new workers out guaranteed of energy sapping conflict and learning things the hard way. 

3. Sometimes leaders behave unbiblically

Knowing how different cultures think forces members of multicultural teams to question their own assumptions about the ‘correct’ way to do things. They help people move away from the assumption that how they think or behave is universal or preferable. As Christians we have an even better way of seeing people. Timothy Keller explains in Every Good Endeavour that all people, Christian or not, are image bearers of Christ and worthy to be “treated with honour and love, regardless of whether they culturally, morally, and personally appeal to or offend us”.

Understanding culture helps us avoid assuming our co-worker is incompetent or trying to make our life difficult. However, read any news source and it is hard not to realise there are plenty of terrible leaders in Christian organisations. A proper understanding of both sin and common grace should lead us to understand that just because our organisation or our partners are Christian doesn’t mean they are more immune to sinful behaviour. Understanding cultural differences stops us tarring a whole culture with negative stereotypes. However, there are narcissistic Americans, rebellious Australians, personal-kingdom-building Koreans, or classist Brits just as there are in all cultures. We must be careful to not excuse damaging behaviours as just cultural differences or we may enable long term bullying, allow team members to suffer serious long-term hurt, or be slow to act on concerns raised. 

We sat in on a session on The Culture Map for new workers, where one participant raised the issue of narcissism in leadership. The presenter’s response was “see you prove my point that’s your Australianness seeing the behaviour as narcissistic”. However, narcissism is a real and potent danger within Christian organisations as Chuck De Groat unpacks in When Narcissism Comes to the Church. Of course, egalitarian and consensual Australians with our love of flat structures and collaborative decision-making may unnecessarily assume leaders from hierarchical, top-down cultures are power hungry or narcissistic. However, that does not mean a particular leader isn’t narcissistic, even if where their culture sits on the evaluating, deciding or disagreeing scales can make them harder to spot to an outsider. It is dangerous to excuse all behaviours as cultural and miss warning signs for pathological or sinful behaviours. In so doing, we may encourage people to persist in toxic situations or miss opportunities to give them support. 

Having a cultural advisor can really help. When struggling with a colleague, find someone from the same culture who can better judge or explain the behaviour in context. This was true for us during a time when we were nervous in a cross-cultural work relationship about speaking directly about what seemed neglectful and bullying behaviour. An older pastor, acting as a cultural advisor, was able to call out the behaviour as unacceptable in a Christian leader without fearing that he was misunderstanding culture. It is possible to express humble, cruciform leadership in any culture and we need to be continually looking to form leaders in Christ’s image.

4. The Bible speaks to culture

Meyer speaks of learning to be polite in all contexts. As Christians however, called to love God and love neighbour, we should be seeking to be more than polite. Culture is not sacred; the word of God is. It is not enough to understand another culture as we are called to also ask what the Bible says into that culture. It has been a privilege to sit with local pastors from at least seven different countries and hear them share what the Bible is saying to their culture. God is calling people from all nations to repentance and to witness through and to their culture. In the cultures of which those pastors spoke, each of them were far better equipped to bring change. The spread of the early church brought change to the cultures it came in contact with and we can expect the same as the gospel spreads through the communities we work in. However, we also know that culture has seeped back into the church shaping and corrupting it. We cannot assume our Western culture is any more biblical than other cultures and should not assume Western standards are more biblical. We know how the pressures of our own culture shapes, challenges and sometimes outright attacks our faith. The Bible has very little to say about how to conduct a performance review or structure a meeting agenda. It does, however, say a lot about humility and who we are to be in Christ. In a multicultural work environment, we should be calling on the Holy Spirit to be at work changing us, the culture we are working in, and the lives of our co-workers. We need to be open to being challenged on those parts of life where culture has dulled us to the Word’s call on our life and we need to be willing to call others we serve alongside to similarly give their lives completely to Christ, not simply formed by culture, but truly transformed. 

Rebecca and Andrew

A framework for leadership resources

Having answered the question of why bother with secular resources at all as Christian leader, the question remains of how to engage with them well. I believe a proper framework starts with an examination of the Bible and of your context. It also involves reflecting on the context, values and worldviews of the author. Here are six steps that make a framework to critically and helpfully engage with a wide range of leadership resources.

1. Know the Bible

I remember listening to Kim Scott, author of Radical Candor being interviewed by Molly Fletcher who asked her what one book she would recommend leaders read and her answer was the great novel, Middlemarch, because she thinks great leadership is understanding people. I completely agree that good fiction (not just classic literature) is a great way to understand the human condition and Middlemarch particularly presents a compelling case for kindness over ambition. Christian leaders would obviously say the one book you need to read is the Bible. The Bible is absolutely where we should go first to understand God’s grand narrative, our own brokenness, and God’s infinite grace to us. 

As Plueddemann warns in Leading across Cultures it’s easy to proof-text, finding Bible verses to support your preferred style of leadership: “Both authoritarian and egalitarian cultures can find biblical evidence for their opposing leadership values. Biblical principles of leadership need to come from the whole of scripture.” The ultimate aim for our leadership character should be Christlikeness, acknowledging that we are but weak jars of clay. Our character is formed by God, not our own efforts. Perhaps we should be careful of Christian leadership literature that uses Old Testament characters a guide-map for leadership. Don’t read about David or Solomon or Moses to adopt their strategies, read them in light of the model of Jesus to understand how God can work through leaders who hunger after God despite their sinfulness, their failures and their limits. Joshua Bogunjoko, SIM International Director, explained that he loves reading stories of Old Testament leaders because the one thing they were judged on was whether they led the people further from or closer to God. The arrival of the true King, who didn’t look like a King, whose Kingdom was not a nation but eternal, radically changes what leadership looks like for us this side of the cross. 

While culture, context and leadership trends change, the Bible doesn’t so it should stand as the sole lens through which to view all other knowledge. This is not to say that other knowledge is unnecessary, but that the Bible alone is the source of infallible truth. As Craig Hamilton in Wisdom in Leadership puts it “Bible alone, not Bible only”. There is no biblical model for how to run a meeting or conduct a performance review but we can view every piece of leadership advice through a lens that sees people as image bearers of God; sees our role as leaders to be servants, shepherds and stewards; and sees our ultimate calling as to redemption and right relationship with God. Immerse yourself in those images and in God’s grand narrative. 

2. Know your own context

One of the reasons I started this project interviewing leaders from a range of different organisations is a conviction that we don’t do a good enough job of articulating the uniqueness of the context in organisations where members raise their own support. The main summary of the interviews is here but the three main things I found are: formative stories of workers; organisational complexity owing to the fellowship and partnership models; and accountability to the senders – the churches and individual who partner financially. In cross-cultural organisations you have the additional complexity of incredibly diverse teams – multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-skilled.

There are lots of different ways your own context might affect what you do with an idea. For example:

  • Advice on building a followership among employees might not work as well with independently minded people who have spent months raising support and feel the need to honour a narrative about themselves and their place in the world.
  • Advice on management processes designed for a business context with very clear hierarchy and structures will not necessarily work well in a fellowship organisation. 
  • Advice for creating and cascading vision won’t be straightforward to apply in an organisation where each member brings not just their own vision for ministry but the expectations of their sending churches and financial partners.
  • Advice for developing new leaders within the context of a large corporation will hit a limit with leaders who took on the role reluctantly or are doing it part-time on top of their visa-platform role. 
  • Advice for building trust in an organisation where people share cultural and professional backgrounds or have been hired for “cultural-fit” will hit challenges if applied in a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-skilled environments that are aiming to reflect both the diversity of the global church and our oneness in Christ. 

There will be times however, when advice from a very different context can be just what is needed to challenge accepted ways of doing things or reorient the organisation and help leaders serve with humility, clarity and flexibility.

3. Know the worldview and the idols

Everything has a worldview. This is something cross-cultural workers should know well with our understanding of missiology and anthropology. Sometimes this is really clear. Susan Kahn for example has written a book called Bounce Back: How to Fail Fast and be Resilient at Work. So much of the advice is relevant and timely for support-raised organisations. It recommends a model of agile working, based on trust and self-compassion, that is so needed for a world full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The world of support-raised ministry organisations is a prime example of those four things. However one response she advocates to change, disruptions and loss is to look to the Stoics as a model of resilience and self-control. Stoicism and Christianity are not particularly compatible. Justine Toh reflecting on the modern Stoicism trend within self-help literature acknowledges that it offers: “good, practical guidance for remaining calm in a crisis — and not by shielding yourself from the grim realities of life either.” However she claims the crucifixion and resurrection story “offers us a striking critique of the Stoic account of life … pictures instead an ordered and loving cosmos, guided by a recklessly loving and thoroughly engaged God.” As Christian leaders we don’t want to switch off our emotions but take our anxiety and the anxieties of those we lead to God. 

The character of God and the model of cruciform leadership we see in Jesus present an even better way to embrace failure and resilience while not shutting off our emotions, while recklessly loving the people we serve with compassion. Should we not read Susan Kahn because of her worldview that celebrates Stoicism? I don’t think so, but read it carefully and thoughtfully through a Christ-shaped lens. Don’t proof-text it and look for a bible verse here and there that might align with a more Stoic way of viewing the world. Subjugate it, taking the good and making it better with our Christian knowledge of the way we were really designed. 

Kahn is a straightforward example because the worldview is clearly there in a subheading. Other examples may be harder to discern. Sometimes they may at face value be quite anti-Christian but deep down reflect an understanding of humanity that is quite well aligned with a biblical understanding. Simon Sinek for example examines human emotions in a compelling and very non-stoic way but he is deeply humanist and puts it down to chemical and biological impulses. Just because he doesn’t understand the source of our created natures, doesn’t mean he doesn’t have wisdom to share. When I listen to Sinek I hear him wired towards service and endlessly optimistic about our potential for growth and good. I can’t help but feel that he understands the image we bear even if he doesn’t understand whose image it is. This is common grace, God doesn’t just give those within the community of faith the capacity to understand and formulate responses to the needs of the human condition.

It is important to remember that “even explicitly Christian work will have idolatrous discourse” (Timothy Keller, Every Good Endeavour, p. 197). I worry about the tendency to recommend any business literature from any context as long as it is written by a church-goer. Patrick Lencioni is open and explicit about his faith and the influence it has had on him. However, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, for all its wisdom and insight isn’t devoid of a very western worldview and idols of material success. 

4. Know the context

Some books are written to address particular issues in a given context or culture. I loved Radical Candor and Kim Scott’s encouragement to care personally and challenge directly. It felt really easy to apply within a Christ-like model that demonstrates love first but doesn’t shy away from helpful rebuke. However, the more I reflect on what I am learning about American culture and how they do feedback, I realise Scott is trying to address some of the limitations she sees to the cultural dislike of direct negative feedback. Coming from an Australian culture where we are much more comfortable with negative feedback and actually struggle more with giving specific positive feedback, reading Radical Candor and trying to apply it unthinkingly with American colleagues might create friction or misunderstanding. Being direct in a culturally Australian way may actually look like being overly negative to some other cultures. 

The best way to understand both worldview and context is to read a lot, read widely, read competing views, read literature from different cultural and professional backgrounds. Only then will you notice the subtle differences. Reading Larry Persons’ The Way Thais Lead: Face as Social Capital dramatically changed the way I viewed the relationships and leadership behaviours of people I worked alongside and partnered with in Thailand. His description of the Thai concept of barami, a form of face or honour built on humility, kindness, generosity and pure motives is definitely something western leaders could learn from. I am still working on learning from traditionally underrepresented views that will challenge and grow my thinking.

No one will be able to keep up with every new resource or theory out there. There are plenty of shorter articles, podcasts, TED talks and twitter threads. Embrace these as a way to get introduced to new ideas before committing to a 300-page book and as a way to take in a diversity of views.

5. Adapt for your context

Once you have got to know the worldview and context of a resource, and you have sifted it through what you know of the bible and your own context, you should be well equipped to really critically engage with the ideas, adapting them in ways that grow your leadership. 

There are a number of possible limitations that might affect the way an idea might be implemented. Are there time limitations? If you have a team that all have visa-platform day jobs, convincing them to set aside a lot of time for planning and vision meetings might be really challenging. Similarly you might struggle to get add a lot of extra meetings if there is low commitment to your team because they all have other primary teams and see the sending organisation as primarily a place for support rather than direction and collaboration. 

There will be other practical limitations like budget for travel, consultants or retreats. Virtual teams or teams which are a mix of virtual and co-located will mean you need to think about how to conduct something remotely or bridge the virtual divide. Mixed-language teams will present challenges for strategies like brainstorming. This is just a sample of the things you might need to think about as you ponder the application of ideas in your particular context. There will be solutions if you are intentional about crafting something that works in your context rather than adopting a strategy wholesale. 

A biblical lens should always bring something better or deeper. If a secular resource talks about servant leadership, think about what it would mean to be a servant like Christ, giving up everything – our rights and even our life. If it talks about vulnerability and authenticity, what do we learn from the kind of relationships we see in the early church?

6. Involve your community

The final question I believe we need to be asking ourselves as we seek to grow as leaders is not what but who do we turn to in our quest to find and understand resources. 

So many of the leaders I interviewed pointed to people or communities of people who had been effective resources in their leadership development. The most quoted passage about the usefulness of scripture is 2 Timothy 3:16. The things it says scripture is useful for, teaching, correcting, rebuking and training in righteousness, are entirely relational. The Bible is designed to be read in community. Doing so can help us get past our confirmation bias; the tendency we have to look for and agree with ideas that confirm what we already thought or felt. I believe we should be seeking this in both our spiritual formation and in the formation of our leadership character. 

People are a resource, you can learn from their experience, they can help you understand resources and can prompt you to look at ideas you might not have otherwise. Don’t just look for people who will agree with you. Look for relational opportunities to see things in a different way or to refine and clarify your thinking.

Many organisations are prioritising mentoring and learning cohorts as part of leadership development training. This should provide a great place to start but as formal programs conclude, leaders should be looking to continue to develop a community. The concept of a Community of Practice is a framework that can be helpful for building this more intentionally. Communities of practice have the potential to get outside of formal programs and structures, crossing geographic and organisational boundaries. Above all look for people who bring a diversity of view points, who will challenge you, encourage you, consider different ideas and help guide you towards self-awareness, growth and change. “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10: 23-25)

Why is there a debate over secular resources in Christian leadership?

Over the last six months I have interviewed a lot of leaders of missionary and support-raised ministry organisations and when I asked them whether they used secular resources for leadership development they fell into three loose categories. The first said they didn’t bother with anything out of a secular or business context, only reading things with a biblical or theological basis. The second occasionally dipped their toe into the business world reading things that came recommended by other Christian leaders, the kind of things you might find on the shelves of a Christian bookstore even if not explicitly Christian. The third group would look for inspiration more widely watching TED talks, reading the Harvard Business Review and scanning the shelves of the airport bookstore for recent releases. 

It got me thinking about why there would be such divergent opinions and whether there was a way to embrace the best aspects of all three approaches. When I read Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (by far the most frequently recommended secular book in my interviews) I saw a lot of wisdom and compassion. His writing was full of ideas I could apply as I built trust in my teams. I also had a nagging sense that there were limits to some of the particular strategies in my own context, that some of the suggestions might actually be counterproductive to building trust in the very unique environment of a multi-national, cross-cultural mission organisation. But, I confess to have some of the same reservations reading books written for pastors leading in a church context. The small staff team, larger group of volunteers and even larger set of members in the pews are not a particularly comparable organisational context, even if the biblical principles are helpful. I understand people’s reservations. One of the most thought provoking articles I have read on humanising management theory has the F word in the title. I love Simon Sinek in all his endless optimism even if he thinks the reason we should be better is chemicals like dopamine rather than any higher purpose or belief. Should I be recommending these to my colleagues in ministry? What reservations and advice should I offer with them? As I began to formulate a framework for secular resources I realised I first needed to answer the question of why bother at all. 

Christian leaders have been grappling with the place of secular business resources for some time. A post by C. Kavin Rowebegins: “It is stunning that books that present Jesus as a model for a CEO, lead pastor or community organizer ever leave the shelves. After all, Jesus was killed. Moreover, his best workers abandoned him in his hour of need, left the project incomplete and ran for the hills. What CEO wants that?”

Another post by L. Gregory Jones  reads: “Too often, we Christians, troubled by the malaise that afflicts many of our congregations and institutions, have turned uncritically to secular business and leadership literature desperately searching for quick fixes and one-size-fits-all techniques. As a result, we have found ourselves swirling in intra-Christian polemics: some leaders loudly commending the latest books on effective leadership, with others equally loudly claiming that Christians are called to be faithful and prophetic rather than selling out to popular notions of success. The polemics are tearing us apart rather than building up the Body. Adopting an either-or position will not equip our institutions to act as incubators of transformative leadership and cultivators of thriving communities.” 

The first chapter in Craig Hamilton’s Wisdom in Leadership is called ‘The biblical model of leadership’ which he claims is “a really stupid title”. He discusses the fact that the Bible doesn’t use the word “leadership” much at all. The Bible talks about authority, responsibility, ruling, wisdom, godliness and obedience. He says “The Bible doesn’t talk that much about leadership in the sense of the package of skills and knowledge needed to lead effectively.” There are lots of images we can draw on to inform our picture of a good leader. The Bible repeatedly refers to people in leadership positions as shepherds. It mentions leaders being servants and stewards. It doesn’t provide any real guidance on how to cascade vision through an organisation, how to encourage input from a diverse range of voices, how to integrate new workers.

The doctrine of common grace helps us remember that Christians aren’t the only ones capable of understanding the human condition and producing good in the world. In Timothy Keller’s words “Ironically Christians who understand biblical doctrine ought to appreciate the work of non-Christians the most because we are saved by grace alone – we are not better fathers, mothers, artists or business people” (Every Good Endeavour). We as Christian leaders can be blessed by the rigorous peer-reviewed studies coming out of business and management schools in the same way a Christian doctor benefits from the research being done into new methods for diagnosis and treatment. 

There is so much research being done every year that can help us understand how to motivate and engage our people, understand different cultural perspectives on leadership, provide workers with clarity and safety and build an organisation where people flourish. As Hamilton reminds us “As long as our trust in the Bible as God’s very word is secure and unassailed, we should seek to learn from as many sources as we can.” During the COVID pandemic, the avalanche of tips on remote working, many of them backed up by research and experience, were invaluable for ministry teams navigating the Zoom life for the first time. There are so many examples like this where it would be foolish to ignore the people around us who are trying coming to grips with a rapidly changing world. 

The trend towards evidence-based management is growing and is calling into question guru-driven or purely experience-based ideas that have dominated a lot of management and leadership literature. For decades a successful leader would share his personal insights, but the value of this would vary wildly depending on the context and his values. We would tend to choose whichever author we felt most personal affinity with and reject resources from authors who looked most different than us. 

Copying the gurus might create successful companies for a time, but it doesn’t necessarily contribute to human flourishing or the promotion of diversity. These are two things we care deeply about in ministry and cross-cultural work. I understand the reluctance to spend precious time engaging with something with a very different worldview and with incompatible idols but there are two times when this is exactly where we should be looking. The first is where the theories are based on rigorous research and peer reviewed process. The second is where the author may not look like us but may look more like the people we are trying to lead or trying win. Engaging doesn’t always mean accepting but our leadership will be richer for it. 

To get past the polemics we need to embrace true wisdom from a variety of sources. But this should not be done uncritically or haphazardly. Ever since Robert Greenleaf’s essay in 1970, servant leadership has become more and more mainstream in leadership thinking. The roll call of thought leaders contributing to the 2018 book Servant Leadership in Action only confirms this. The idea that a leader could be a servant is a deeply biblical idea rooted in the picture of Christ we see in Phillippians 2. It makes sense that given what we know about common grace, the secular world would realise the benefits of humility in leaders. However, I saw some comments on Twitter by leaders of colour who felt uncomfortable with the use of servant leadership language in corporate training because their ancestors had been once enslaved or colonised. It made me reflect on how deeply countercultural and disruptive it would have been for Jesus and the early church to use this language. Is the kind of servant leadership that is being espoused by secular business schools the same as Jesus’ humility, the same as the cruciformity we see in the Bible? Has the idea lost its power by being coopted, as a means to an end, like increased employee satisfaction and higher profits. Even if it is, what does that mean for us who know, really know the person of Christ on whom it is modeled? 

What is needed is a framework that embraces our biblical knowledge, a comprehension of different worldviews and secular idols and a deep understanding of our own context. 

3 questions about servant leadership

“Every leader in my organisation says they are being a servant leader, but not many people feel like they are being served.” This is what one missionary told me when we started discussing leadership development in her organisation. This was not an easy thing for her to say but it got me thinking about all my own leadership failures, about the times people may not have thought me a servant leader. Chuck De Groat puts it pretty clearly in When Narcissism Comes to the Church “The kenosis passage from Philippians 2 presents a vision Christians long to live into but which we sabotage time and again.”

Servant leadership has been growing in popularity in the secular business world since Robert K Greenleaf published his essay The Servant as Leader decades ago in 1970. In this era of YouTube and Twitter, people like Simon Sinek have taken it viral. In Servant Leadership in Action Sinek goes so far as to claim that “All good leaders practice servant leadership”. Before I became a missionary, I saw plenty of examples of servant leadership in my corporate business life. My boss cared deeply about seeing each member of his team flourish and did everything he could to help them succeed. Yet knowing what I knew about his private life and beliefs he could hardly be said to be intentionally modeling his behavior on Jesus. As I have reflected on the leaders I have met in both the business and mission worlds, read both Christian and secular leadership theory and thought about my own leadership, I realize that because true servant leadership is loving people like God loves us we will never not fail at it this side of heaven. Yet as I venture on this lifelong journey of trying to live and lead like Christ, I am asking myself three questions.

For whose sake am I leading?

In the last few years before leaving Thailand, I supervised several young short-termers. My husband and I had been young short-termers ourselves who struggled through an experience that left us saying “Anywhere but Thailand God” (which like so many missionary stories of course means that was exactly where we ended up). We desperately wanted their experience to be different. I wanted to answer Simon Sinek’s final rallying call in Leaders Eat Last to “Let us all be the leaders we wish we had”. I tried to treat them the way I wish I had been treated. I gave them lots of ideas and encouragement and then the freedom to go and out try it, to make mistakes and see what worked. It didn’t go well. In fact they resisted every step of the way. They didn’t want the chance to try and fail, they wanted more direction, even hand-holding. What was the servant leader answer in this case? I suspect it was neither treating them the way I wished I’d been treated or treating them the way they wanted to be treated. It should have been trying treating them the way God would – with love and curiosity trying to lead them into the unknown. Jesus didn’t cede to his disciples’ pleas not to leave them and go to the cross because he knew they needed something they didn’t think they wanted. I absolutely could have done more to give those young people clarity, safety and support but I don’t think I would have stopped pushing them to find their place in God’s great story. Prayerfully and humbly I want to be able to say as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 11:1 “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ”. That is leading neither for my sake nor theirs but for God.

Am I prepared to be wounded?

Andy Crouch in Strong and Weak claims “flourishing requires us to embrace both authority and vulnerability”. He defines vulnerability as being woundable and opening ourselves up to meaningful risk. I think so many people fail to see their leaders as servants because they haven’t built trust based on weakness and relational risk-taking. They haven’t seen leaders freely admit their mistakes, be open to criticism and quick to accept blame and apologise. Our broken, sinful natures make that hard. Brene Brown in Dare to Lead recognizes that you can’t get wholehearted engagement without creating spaces where we can take off our armour. There is a lot of discussion in secular literature about creating boundaries around our vulnerability, being selectively authentic. There is nothing wrong with sometimes putting our own emotions aside for the sake of a greater goal but sometimes being honest about the messy parts of life helps our leadership. The real question to ask is: am I being vulnerable in a way that helps my discipling of others, am I pointing them to Christ by being real about my struggles and failings in my own attempts at living like Christ?

Do I understand the role of weakness in authority?

Jesus exercised his power and authority by laying down his life and giving up his rights. “These two roles aren’t in tension, and he isn’t one and then the other. The way he is the conquering and ruling Messiah is by being the servant. Servanthood is greatness.” (Craig Hamilton, Wisdom in Leadership) Jesus didn’t give up his authority or power in order to become a servant, he made his authority complete by becoming weak, through death. Sometimes servant leadership fails to achieve the results and relationships you hoped it would. But true servant leadership as modeled by Christ only fails in the world’s eyes. Command and control might work in some contexts, but it definitely doesn’t work with support-raised mission workers. The power of our influence comes more from our care and willingness to take meaningful risk than our vision. 

A leader once told me the mark of a leader is when you look behind and see who is following. These days I’m not so sure. Jesus was and is rejected by many. Yes, sometimes servant leadership “fails” but not if it’s truly cruciform. Maybe we are asking the wrong question by looking behind to see who is following. Maybe we should look ahead to Jesus the shepherd and pray everyday for the courage to follow him into the unknown.