Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

On the value of Cultural Intelligence or Making Peace with Eating First

Written by: on May 26, 2017

My third Sunday at Good Shepherd was a bit of a whirlwind.  I was still very much learning the ‘ins and outs’ of what a ‘regular’ Sunday and so this ‘special’ Sunday was a complete mystery.  This fact was complicated by the fact that I didn’t know that there was going to be a baptism that Sunday when I showed up to church that morning.

In the transition to a new pastor there had been some miscommunication and this family showed up – with extended family from out of state in tow – expecting a baptism that we hadn’t been planning on & wasn’t in the bulletin.

After a quick talk with the clerk of our session, we made the arrangements to have a baptism that Sunday in worship.  As the couple was Cameroonian, I asked one of our Cameroonian elders if there was anything different or out of the ordinary, hoping to not have any more surprises that morning.  She responded that ‘no, it was just a regular baptism’.

That discussion only increased my surprise as Esther walked up to me, literally in the middle of the baptism, and whispered, ‘When are you going to do the anointing with oil?’.  As you likely guessed, I hadn’t planned on anointing the child with oil, as that was not something I had every done as part of a baptism.  But, as I was finding out, it was an expected part of a ‘normal, regular’ baptism in the Cameroonian tradition.

David Livermore’s practical book, Leading with Cultural Intelligence is designed to help leaders anticipate and avoid these types of situations and, through a four-dimensional model and a four-step cycle allow leaders to function effectively across cultures, whether they are national, ethnic or even organizational.  (Livermore, 24)

Thankfully, because of some quick thinking on the part of an elder, the baptism situation was resolved happily, but it was definitely not an ideal situation and it definitely taught me the value of cultural intelligence.  As the the pastor of a multicultural church, the reality of the situation is that I have been in the middle of a sort of cultural intelligence ‘intensive’ for over seven years.

I can unequivocally say that I wish someone had shared this book with me at the start of my time at Good Shepherd as it would have been immensely helpful to have a plan and a system with which to engage different cultures and grow my cultural intelligence.

It is important to note, as Livermore does, that cultural intelligence – or CQ – is applicable beyond just what we think of as typical cross-cultural situations.  Different organizations can have very distinct and unique cultures that need to be approached with careful CQ analysis.

Because of the business focus of the book a lot of the conclusions and much of the ‘value’ that Livermore places on CQ and it’s application are not direct fits for a church setting, but the process is still incredibly valuable and the conclusions are easily altered to fit faith-based setting.

I particularly enjoyed the Whet your Appetite: CQ Drive step 1 section.  It was with a sense of understanding that I read the stories of unfamiliar food and customs around food, and I appreciated – although they came too late for me in my current context – the practical types for engaging a different culture in eating and social settings.  It has been my experience that these can be some of the most challenging times and places to successfully navigate a different cultural setting and skillfully apply CQ.

Livermore correctly points out that ‘In most cultures, eating together has far more symbolic value than simply ‘grabbing a bite to eat.’  Sharing a meal together can often be viewed as a sacred event. (Livermore, 51).   The is definitely true in Cameroonian culture, and it has been my consistent participation in the sharing of a meal – and the cultural norms that go along with the shared meals and celebrations around food – that, more than any other single thing, have allowed me to form meaningful and important bonds with many of our Cameroonian members and, importantly to gain their trust and respect.

I love the Cameroonian food that I have been exposed too – especially the spicy stuff, less so the bitter greens – so that aspect has been relatively easy for me.  The related customs around food and the culture of honor and respect have been a more difficult challenge for me at times.

I work hard to be a servant leader, and in truth I am very comfortable rolling up my sleeves and helping in the kitchen as a physical demonstration of that.  But this runs very counter to the practice and expectation at Cameroonian gatherings.  The pastor has to eat first.  Different households put this tradition into practice to varying degrees.

At one of the homes, I know that I shouldn’t even try to get up, a plate of food will be brought to me and I should eat – even if they aren’t letting others eat yet.   This is uncomfortable for me, but part of what I have learned is that it isn’t about me.  It is about the culture and the importance of showing honor and respect to the pastor.

I can’t imagine our church without it’s multicultural character and I know that maintaining that character, nurturing it, and ensuring that it has the opportunity to flourish will require that I use all the CQ I have developed thus far.  This book will help me to develop more and apply it more successfully and I am thankful for it.

About the Author

Chip Stapleton

Follower of Jesus Christ. Husband to Traci. Dad to Charlie, Jack, Ian and Henry. Preacher of Sermons, eater of ice cream, supporter of Arsenal. I love to talk about what God is doing in the world & in and through us & create space and opportunity for others to use their gifts to serve God and God's people.

8 responses to “On the value of Cultural Intelligence or Making Peace with Eating First”

  1. Geoff Lee says:

    Yes we have maybe 30 different nationalities in our church, so the potential for cultural misunderstandings and crossed lines is vast! As an English pastor, I would expect to “muck in” and help serve, but many of the Africans in our church want to seat the pastor in the place of honor. In my efforts to develop cultural sensitivity, I am happy to do this and to be the first person to get to the food – it’s the least I can do!

  2. Mary says:

    Great story, Chip! I have similar experiences with the Hispanics who work on our farm. At first they would not speak to me at all. I wasn’t sure if I had done something wrong – maybe I insulted them somehow. But the foreman said, “It is because you are the padrone’s wife.” I learned to speak through my husband after that. After 18 years now more of them are at ease with me. They need to learn the cultural rules too!!!

  3. Stu Cocanougher says:

    This book made me reflect on my recent trip to Africa. In America, the rule of thumb is always “Ladies First.” Or, “Kids and their families first.” Or, as a good servant leader, I usually drop back to the back of the line.

    In Africa, I had to eat first. All of the men in our group were to eat next. The women in our group were next. Then the African’s ate.

    From an American perspective, this triggered some red flags in my psyche. Yet, I was not there to change their hospitality mores. I simply need to be a good guest.

  4. Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Interesting post Chip. I enjoyed hearing about the meal where you had to be served and eat first. Rough. Serious though, I can appreciate this is so countercultural to the servant leader of a pastor. Your church sounds fascinating. I’d be interested in hearing more about it. How many cultures do you have represented in your church?

  5. Lynda Gittens says:

    HI Chip,
    Great story. Eating styles can really trip you up. When my ex-husband and I were dating, his mother came into town fro Trinidad. She cooks this dish called ‘Callaloo’. Everyone was waiting to see my reaction. I was horrible because it was bitter. I hated it but I could not insult his mother and family. I’m quite sure my face told the story even though I tried to cover it. They asked how was it? and I said very bitterly. They said yes it is and they laughed. That made me feel much better.

  6. Jim Sabella says:

    Great story and examples Chip. Food is such an important part of culture. It’s such a powerful conveyor that people actually formulate an opinion about a culture based on its food. When you hear, “gross, I’d never eat that!” you get one message. On the other hand when you hear, “that was wonderful! Can’t wait to eat that again,” you get another opinion. Wherever I go people ask me why is McDonald’s America’s food? I tell them it’s not, but it’s hard for them to get past the idea. In reference to the photos: That settles it! I’m coming to your church next week! Great post Chip.

  7. Kristin Hamilton says:

    I’m totally fascinated by your church, Chip. I struggle to imagine this vibrant Cameroonian society in the middle of Massachusetts but your descriptions and stories make it come alive and remind me of how awesome and awkward it can be to live in community with different cultures. My grandparents hosted a brother and sister who were Vietnamese “boat people” and I have cherished the way that culture was sifted into our family. I’m sure your boys will cherish their Cameroonian neighbors as well.

  8. Katy Drage Lines says:

    Yes! Language and culture learning don’t simply take place outside of the US, as you delightfully discovered. And whether you recognized it or not, you seem to have been learning the language and culture of the new ministry and were able to improvise quickly on your feet to respectfully accommodate an unexpected situation. That, it seems to me, is one of the fun parts of ministry. Have I shared with you about the time Kip & I unexpectedly led a Bhutanese funeral? If not, remind me & we’ll sit over some South African food and wine and swap stories.

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