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

The Elan of Elan

Written by: on February 28, 2019

I spent last weekend facilitating the second annual Elan retreat—which was actually two parallel retreats for two cohorts of missionaries. Cohort 2 has just begun the first year of the Elan program, which is focused on spiritual formation. Their retreat was a time for learning new ways to connect with God and was aimed at giving them time and space to practice new spiritual disciplines. Cohort 1 began the Elan program over a year ago, and having just completed the spiritual formation year, they have now entered into year two of the program which is focused on cultural adaptation. Their retreat was aimed at building relationships with French partners who will be acting as their mentors throughout the second year of the program. The two cohorts came together for times of worship and reflection each morning and for all the meals, but were separated for the remainder of the time. As those who are just beginning the program are newer to the field and still in language school, the spiritual formation retreat is in English. But as missionaries move into year two of their program, we expect their French skills to be stronger, as so the second and third years of the Elan program are all in French. This is especially important as we are connecting the missionaries with French partners, many of whom do not speak English.

This retreat was profoundly encouraging for me, particularly as I observed French and non-French followers of Jesus coming together in love and mutual appreciation. This is particularly meaningful to me because Elan does not propose to have all the answers; but rather, Elan was birthed out of question. That question was, “How can foreign missionaries be better equipped to work collaboratively with French partners?”

That question was born out of my own personal observations, coupled with the conviction that my observations were only telling part of the story. As Berger and Johnston write in Simple Habits for Complex Times, “you have to believe that what you’ve observed (the particulars of it and what it meant to you) is important. At the same time, you have to believe that what you know and think, no matter how much that feels like the truth, is only part of the story.”[1] Instead of believing that I knew both the challenges to and the solutions for creating genuine Kingdom collaborations, I built the association on a question.

There is a fine balance here, because while the American culture is one that rewards risk-takers and does not see failure as fatal (cf. Berger and Johnson’s encouragement to create “safe-to-fail”[2] experiments), the French culture is one where those who stick out their necks get their heads cut off. In France, failure IS fatal, or at least a much bigger setback that it would be in the States. Therefore building an association on a question is a recipe for disaster in France.

In order to navigate this process, I invited key stakeholders to a one-day learning community, where we would come together around this question and discern the way forward. We had six French and six non-French participants; seven male, five female; aged 22 to 70. We spent the first half of the day discussing the barriers to collaboration and the second half of the day imagining ways to overcome those barriers. In French tradition, we also stopped for a two-hour lunch break, where we spent time getting to know one-another. It was a day of closing the “feed-back loop,”[3] and seeing the other as a “sensemaker.”[4]

At the end of the learning community, after a time of silence and listening to God (another “feed-back loop” to which we as Christian must attend!), the twelve of us together officially established Elan as a French association. In order to protect the multi-cultural integrity of the organization, the statutes require that the board of directors always consist of equal French and non-French members. AT the end of the day, the answer to the question was love.

The experienced French ministers said that they did not like feeling “projects” for missionaries, nor did they like being asked to join into missionary-led projects when they (the French) were already engaged in ministries of their own. But they said that they did appreciate the friendship, enthusiasm, and energy that foreign missionaries offered, and they what they wanted most was love. Similarly, the missionaries said that they did not like feeling “tolerated” by their national partners, nor did they like working on parallel projects that the French did not support. The missionaries appreciated the thoughtfulness, perseverance, and commitment of their French partners, but what they wanted most was love. The missionaries admitted that they needed to arrive with greater humility and deeper respect for their French partners. The French admitted that they were not very good at welcoming and including foreign missionaries. Elan was established to train missionaries to arrive well and French partners to receive well.

And Elan is finally getting some momentum (wordplay here: Elan means “momentum” in French).

This past weekend, we were simply building on the shared wisdom that came from the learning community, helping missionaries and French partners to learn to use their “feedback-loop” and to see the other as a “sensemaker,” so that we grow in our love for one another. If that I happens, I believe collaboration will be the inevitable result.

[1] Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston, Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders, 2016, 70.

[2] Berger and Johnston, 50, 91, 95, cff.

[3] Berger and Johnston, 74.

[4] Berger and Johnston, 65.

About the Author

Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

11 responses to “The Elan of Elan”

  1. M Webb says:

    Hi Jennifer and thanks for sharing the Elan program and how your facilitation and engagement with the cohorts “profoundly” encouraged you. PTL. Are you using this seminar as part of your field research report?
    I really liked the book and while it is not openly Christian in theme, I see a lot of “love thy neighbor” principles in the narrative and practice of the authors.
    I agree with viewing people with problems as “sensemakers” in the context of working on organizational-ministry strategies and solutions together. However, there are a lot of people with problems that are just personal problems who need people like Jake to help them co-create solutions outside of the organizational setting.
    I like the author’s feedback loop too. I have adapted a simple tool called the OODA feedback loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act…) to group problem-solving situations. Once started the OODA keeps looping back to the beginning as an easy acronym that helps members of the group remember and participate in the process. It encourages each member to engage in the process, which seems to be more effective in facilitated group settings. Participation is the key and I have seen success in cross-cultural contexts too.
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

  2. Dan Kreiss says:


    Fantastic connection of the text and your own work. You are well ahead of the curve and implementing the book in a manner largely untested in Christian leadership. (Perhaps you should be writing your own book!! OK – wait till you finish your dissertation.)

    Your willingness to see what was not working and the freedom you felt to ask different questions and accept whatever answers may percolate up is exactly the type of leadership necessary in this complex age. Keep it up and keep us posted.

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Dan. I am learning so much from my French partners, and the learning is rich. But it did take putting me in a foreign culture, where I struggled speak, to teach me to shut up and listen. I believe I have now discovered the riches of asking questions and listening so that I can use that skill in any language. But I’m not sure I would’ve gotten there on my own. Perhaps that’s exactly why God moved me to France 🙂

  3. Trisha Welstad says:

    Jenn! This is so exciting! I love getting to hear about Elan and how it is materializing and how encouraged you are. Also, hearing the feedback (and of course your integration of this week’s text) of both missionaries and French partners is invaluable. It seems like perhaps love was the obvious answer but who would know that until you asked and it’s wonderful to have it be the mutual response of both parties. I am celebrating with you and am encouraged to read your blog. Can’t wait to hear more about how the partnerships continue!

    • Thanks, Trish. I was so encouraged by the retreat. There is still so much work to do, and I cen feel overwhelmed at times. And since most of the program is online–and doesn’t involve me (missionaries are connected with spiritual directors, mentors and coaches–so I don’t interact with them directly, except for the rare occassions when I facilitate the online forums), the annual retreat is the one time when I get to experience the program for myself.

  4. Jean Ollis says:

    I’m so inspired! Is this your artifact work? I’m so excited that you had the opportunity to roll it out in the last year. While your blog was very formal in your feedback, I’m curious about your informal feedback on the progression of ELAN? All that you hoped for/expected? Needing to be tweaked? Congrats to you!

    • Yes, Jean. The program is my artifact. The participants have a reading list and weekly forum using a Moodle site, so that, along with the retreat materials and website, will be what I actually submit as my artifact. I do ask for particpants to evaluate the program pieces (retreat, forum, reading lists, interactions with spiritual directors, mentors, coaches, etc), and that feedback is encouraging, but of course we are finding things we need to tweak. The online forum is a perfect venue for some, but challenging for others, so we are adding some zoom chats and other ways of interacting.

  5. Chris Pritchett says:

    Thanks for sharing about the Elan retreat. The concepts of feedback looping and sensemaking are interesting and I’d like to look into those more. I was also interested to learn that the French see failure as fatal. And it sounds like you found the commonality of love that we all need. Very inspiring!

  6. Shawn Hart says:

    Jenn, one of your comments really struck a note with me: “In France, failure IS fatal, or at least a much bigger setback that it would be in the States.” I wonder if this is part of the reason this country is so adept at giving up; we have not fully understood the compromises of failure. If I try to teach a lesson regarding the consequences of eternal punishment; and yet, the audience is always equipped with “a way out” mentality of thinking, then the lesson is hard to enforce. It ties to every apocalyptic movie that has ever come out; sooner or later, humans always triumph rather than fail.

    I am curious though; does the idea of the benefits of success in France help in spreading the concept of obtaining the eternal, ultimate prize?

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