Our field leader had come to visit us and would be staying in our home for two nights since we did not live in the same city as he did. The purpose of the visit was to check up on how we were doing in our ministry (ie evaluate usJ) and to encourage us, as we were relatively new to the field at the time. During his visit, and as a means of further evaluating us, our field leader had also asked to spend some time with our French partner—a well-known evangelist and church planter with whom we were doing an internship.
When the four of us (our field leader, our French partner, David, and I) gathered at the church for an informal discussion, the conversation took a sudden detour. Even though we were supposed to be the one who were being evaluated, our field leader couldn’t resist asking the French partner how our mission organization was viewed by French partners. When our field leader asked the question, he seemed pretty confident. It was clear he was anticipating a positive report. Our French partner hesitated, chuckled slightly and said, “Do you want the truth?”
Showing subtle signs of defensiveness, our field leader replied, “Yeah. How are we perceived by the French?”
I remember wishing I could sneak out of the room. I made myself as small as possible, and tried to look disinterested.
Our French partner folded his hands and looked down at the table. He was trying to figure out how to tread lightly. As diplomatically as possible, he said, “Your organization has historically been a theological training institution. It’s what you’re known for…it’s in your DNA. Over the past few years, you’ve shifted your focus to discipleship and church planting. Now we are getting invited to your discipleship and church planting training conferences; however, none of us have seen you excel at discipleship and church planting, so we don’t believe that you have anything to teach us. Europeans like to see that something is working before we invest in it. In short, your organization is known as an organization that talks big and does little. My advice to you would be to just do some discipleship and church planting for a few years, and when you get some momentum and find something that works, then offer to train others.”
Our field leader was visibly taken aback.
“[H]ow leaders respond to critical feedback largely determines how much of it they will receive in the future.”
He responded respectfully to our French partner, but after leaving the church, he began to defend the organization. Soon he started criticizing our French partner, and by the end of the evening he had convinced himself that the feedback simply represented one person’s point of view, and therefore wasn’t valid.
“[T]op leaders have a tendency to overcritique negative feedback, while instantly agreeing with positive feedback.”
We, on the other hand, heard the critique loud and clear. As missionaries who were newer to the field, we believed that we had learned something critically important about how we (as USAmericans) should engage in mission in France.
While our mission organization kept doing what it was doing in France rather than addressing the issues highlighted by our French partner, David and I started doing exactly what our French partner recommended. Our agency kept asking us to bring French friends and partners to their discipleship training conferences, we opted instead to use tools and processes taught to us by our French partners and attempted to make disciples and plant churches.
This was one of many “red flag” experiences I have had as a missionary. It was one of many encounters that made me realize that it was time for the American Church to re-think how we engage in foreign missions. Because truth be told, most American mission agencies have visions and missions that put them (the foreigner) in the driver’s seat. Most mission agencies SAY that they want to support and encourage local efforts, but don’t have a path or model for developing true partnership and collaborations with nationals, and therefore default to do missions TO or FOR the other instead of missions WITH.
The agenda to plant churches and then hand them over to local leadership has been proven faulty in that the majority of missionaries who plant churches fail to hand over leadership, and end up staying as long as 20 to 30 years in their post. The recommendation is that missionaries elect to “equip” or “mentor” or “train” church planters while encouraging nationals to take the lead is a step in the right direction; however the very idea that the nationals need “equipping,” “mentoring,” or “training” conveys the message that missionaries HAVE something that the other NEEDS, and establishes an imbalance of power from the onset.
What if missionaries came expecting to be the ones who needed to be “equipped,” and “mentored” and “trained” by national partners? What if the model was to come humbly as servants, seeking to learn rather than lead? Can we serve God as servant? Or must we always take charge? What makes us think we have all the answers?
Elan helps missionaries transition to the field in France as servants of the living God, who come as he did—not to be served, but to serve. We help missionaries find French mentors and coaches, equipping them to be learners rather than leaders. We believe that the Kingdom of God is built collaboratively, free from power dynamics that place one person over another, with Christ as our head. Crazy? Maybe.
 Dennis Tourish, The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership: A Critical Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2013), 109.
 Tourish, 110.
 Paul Clark, “MISSIONARY CHURCH PLANTING IN GERMANY: A SURVEY OF THREE EVANGELICAL DENOMINATIONS” (2006), http://pmgermany.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/church_planting_in_germany.pdf.