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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

From “Learning About” to “Learning From” :: An Essential Shift for Global Leaders

Written by: on September 5, 2019

I do my best to approach travel within our global village as a learner. Utilizing books, documentaries, and curious conversation, my education frequently begins by learning “about” the place (and its people) that I’m set to immerse within.  My intention is to crawl inside the history, politics, culture, customs, and current events of my host country so that my learning curve isn’t quite so high when I’m on the ground. I want to have the “google-able” questions answered so that I can be more present in a foreign-to-me context and free to wonder with the locals about their cultural values and landmines, unarticulated nuances, past pain, and dreamed-of futures.  For, I’ve found, it’s within these conversations that the relationships are forged that expand my learning from “learning about” to “learning from.”

Located firmly in the “learning about” phase, Hargraves and Tan provoked wonderings in me about three realities that seem consistent, regardless of where we find ourselves on the planet: (1) every grouping within humanity generalizes itself and is generalized by others, yet the benefit of generalizations vary depending on one’s proximity to power; (2) the responsibility for cultural intelligence and hospitality is on the newcomer as well as the local; and (3) stepping off the manicured trail of tourism and into everyday reality with humility, generosity, and curiosity shifts learning into transformation.

On Generalizations

Both Hargraves and Tan offered and affirmed the generalization of British locals as a people who are prompt, proper, and reserved.  Yet as each reflected on London as a global city, the differences in cultural expressions found between those of diverse origins began to emerge.  So too did the nuances and subtleties between the various boroughs that form the city. As each reflected on the diversity found within London, specifically, and England more generally, a far more colorful tapestry emerged than the gray tones that were initially suggested.

When I speak to anglo friends from London, each affirm the “prompt, proper, reserved” generalization of Londoners, yet are quick to point out that the label is like a gray raincoat that they populate while in public spaces and that they quickly discard while with those of their own tribe.  I get the impression that the “raincoat” is beneficial in that it offers them the opportunity to blend in, helps them maintain a relatively uninterruptible demeanor, and, therefore, increases their ability to be as efficient as possible.

When I speak to immigrant friends to London, they too affirm the accuracy of the generalization, yet experience it as a barrier to relationship and as a direct non-verbal instructive to remain with their own kind.  Thus I get the impression that migrants and refugees from more colorful, relational origins learn to embody the “raincoat,” often against their own cultural values, as a tool of protection and in an attempt toward assimilation.  At least in public, embodying the generalization seems to cost non-dominant culture Londoners a part of themselves.

My observations here make me wonder about my own haphazard use of generalizations to describe people from particular creeds, origins, orientations, and neighborhoods and how, in the use of generalizations, I am minimizing the more colorful truth about those I am less familiar with.  As we immerse into London, I’ll be watching for splashes of color through the landscape of gray in an effort to tune my eye to a broader more beautiful truth about those we come in contact with.

On Cultural Intelligence & Hospitality 

There’s a misconception about international travel, whether as tourists, volunteers, students, soldiers, or missionaries, that I’ve discovered largely among dominant culture US Americans.  It suggests that our global village is our playground that we can drop in on at any time.  Once there, our actions often reveal that we believe these places and people to be consumables that we can benefit off, consult, and/or destroy at our whim.  Rarely, it seems, are US American travelers required to consider, much less learn from, the real people with distinct cultures, diverse languages, and beautiful customs that live there.  Thus, we tend to enter and navigate our global village as inarticulate hero-consumers rather than thoughtful, humble learners.

As I read the breadth of knowledge that Hargraves and Tan demonstrated, I found myself pondering the importance of cultural intelligence (CQ) which I would define as one’s ability to grasp the commonalities and differences of those from backgrounds different than my own and leverage them, collaboratively, for the common good.  I’m left to wonder how a commitment to increasing CQ deepens one’s experience, not only of foreign-to-me contexts, but also of one’s own neighborhood, city, and state. I’m convinced that it is my responsibility to live as a learner who does my homework, listens to the experiences and perspectives of another, and allows myself to be changed by what I’ve heard. Put another way, I must commit to understanding another’s perspective first.  In order to do so, I must distance myself from the need to be understood. It is also my responsibility, as a guest of another, to receive hospitality graciously and, in creating space for their contributions to impact me, demonstrate hospitality in return.

As we navigate our time in London, I’ll be watching for the moments when cultural realities and preferences embodied by our hosts collide with my own, noting how my body responds to and mind absorbs the moment, and choosing curiosity over premature conclusions.

On Stepping into Reality

As both texts read as manuals for those considering a move to England or London, I was struck by their invitation to step off the paved trials of tourism and into the life-flow of the place.  With the turn of each page, I consistently heard in Hargraves and Tan the invitation to shift from outside observers to real-time participants in a place brimming with beauty, diversity, history, and opportunity.

Considering their invitation to do so, I began to wonder about the obstacles that keep us enshrined as observers rather than participants within our own contexts that, too, are brimming with beauty, diversity, history, and opportunity.  Busyness, platform-building, image-management, and fear immediately come to mind as four primary obstacles that are both real and entirely surmountable. These are obstacles that seek to lock us into the “learning about” space and keep us from expanding to the “learning from” space. My conviction is growing that so long as we remain imprisoned by fear, we will perpetually exist in the “learning about” space and distant from others who’s lived experiences differ from our own.  The result is that, while we will become smarter, we will not become better, more connected and generous versions of ourselves.

As we navigate our time together in London, I will be watching for these and other obstacles to surface in me and will be curious to learn how others are overcoming similar obstacles.

About the Author

mm

Jer Swigart

16 responses to “From “Learning About” to “Learning From” :: An Essential Shift for Global Leaders”

  1. mm Steve Wingate says:

    Indeed! I think the point about the world being our playground is a limiting factor to our learning. It was an interesting experience when we moved from southern Oregon to central Ohio. A group of employees of WalMart refused to do what the shift manager wanted them to do (identifiers withheld). I overheard one of the employees mention that they did not have to because they would not dare fire them. This sense of being a silo or the director of a cultural experience will not be as helpful as seeking to understand. One of our colleagues said in response to my post to not thinking questioning was a bad posture. Loved your post

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Hey Steve.

      Posture is so important, is it not? In your illustration, your depict what appears to be an arrogance by the employee. It’s like I can hear the words: “I am who I am. What do I have to learn? I have no reason to change!” in a posture like that. I resonate with and, even resemble that posture (& those statements) from time to time. Again…I’m eager for this next chapter in which I/we get to demand our own ongoing formation.

      • mm Steve Wingate says:

        Today I had to confess that I am growing in loving others unconditionally. It seems to be both a static and dynamic state that requires my allowing the fullness of my experiences (success and failure). When I confessed to people I worship Jesus Christ with they were astonished. Being honest with Scripture as it speaks to us and the Spirit of God seeks to speak to us through a variety of experiences has to be met with a learner’s heart as you so kindly state.

  2. mm John McLarty says:

    “…watching for splashes of color in the landscape of grey…” Loved the imagery here. Very few things in life are exactly as they appear in an image or in our imagination. Yet, how often do we presume to know something (or someone,) just because we might know a little about it (or them)? I think you’re right to think that we’ll find more answers on the side roads and in the personal interactions than we get from the broad generalizations. Looking forward to the journey. Thanks for your post.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Hey John,

      I agree. I’m stunned by how often I convince myself that my own premature conclusions (unfair generalizations) are a truer truth than the lived experience & perspective of another. Together, let’s allow our lenses to be transformed such that we see the world and those who inhabit it in HD.

  3. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer profound insight. I found some of Tans generalization of American influence a bit disconcerting, This may be due to my sense that we have much more to offer as Americans than fast food or sitcom TV shows. It is hard to get past generalization of any culture until it is experienced first hand. Sadly masks are a part of any culture until safety is earned. Your desire to learn from every aspect of life is refreshing. By your post you obviously have experience in the Great Britain arena. Do you find this past experience has grown your willingness to embrace and learn from other cultures? Did you always have the willingness to see peoples differences as learning opportunities? In my case the learning often comes after the experience as I reflect and appreciate the journey. Thanks for the wisdom.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      “Safety is earned.” I really like that idea. So is relationship and trust. It really changes how I approach another if I live like I believe that these things are earned and not a given. Thanks for that insight.

      I actually haven’t been to England and very much look forward to this new experience. Generally speaking, I have always been deeply curious and a fearless friend maker, but my approach to humble immersion has been and continues to become refined and I’ve made it a life practice. It’s required intentionality and a LOT of humility.

  4. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Jer, you certainly set the bar for thoughtful critique with this post. Wow. There’s a lot to appreciate about your challenges to us, but I’m most grateful for the reminder at the outset of the program to consider knowledge that doesn’t lead to transformation, particularly the generosity and connectedness you mention, as vain accoutrements.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Shawn,

      I really think you’re right. I’ve been shaped as a learner and a leader to believe that my responsibility is to master content and stand firmly, with confidence, in what I know.

      It’s not working…and, I’m convinced, it’s not helpful.

      The redesign that’s happening in me is that I’m learning to understand myself as the project to be undone and remade…and the classroom for this kind of transformation involves a fusion of reading/reflection, intentional displacement, uncommon friendships, and the Spirit who transforms.

      That said, I’m also recognizing that transformation is not the end. Joining God in the work of restoration & liberation likely is. My conviction is growing that we’re transformed for a purpose…thus, we must demand our own ongoing transformation. Eager to walk this journey with you.

      • mm Jer Swigart says:

        Hey Shawn.

        Thanks for the affirmation and for provoking expanded learning today during our call. I just wanted to drop your thought here as a placeholder:

        If we don’t do our homework (learning about) and get the “google-able” research under our belts, then we’ll be in danger of treating others as google. The danger here is that to “googlize” (did we just create a new verb there?) someone is to dehumanize them and to miss the opportunity to learn from them and, therefore, to miss the chance for a relationship that transforms.

        Feel free to weigh in here if you get a minute.

        • mm Shawn Cramer says:

          I might just turn your double negative into a positive: when we treat people as image bearers with a story of hurts and hopes (as opposed to a commodity, even as simple as asking a question), we acknowledge their dignity and this sets the stage for relational connection, the divine presence and ministry.

  5. Darcy Hansen says:

    Jer, your words are filled with such wisdom and grace. I really look forward to learning from and alongside you in this new adventure. Fear of new places and unknown situations often paralyzes me to embrace all the new that surrounds. Your reminder to slow and take in the scenes filled with the richness of diversity for the senses is one I will take to heart. I hope in doing so I am able to more fully learn from rather than just about the magnificent city and people we will encounter.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Hey Darcy. The anticipation to walk together is mutual.

      Re: obstacles (of fear & so many others) I’m struck by the moments in Jesus’ life where and when he found himself in an uncommon position and how we see him take a minute. It’s as though whenever something destabilizes him, his practice is not to retreat…but to be more fully there.

      I hope that we, together, can learn to imitate Jesus in this regard and find ourselves fully wherever we are.

  6. mm Dylan Branson says:

    Your third main point bears a heavy weight of truth (“stepping off the manicured trail of tourism and into everyday reality with humility, generosity, and curiosity shifts learning into transformation”). As a tourist, one sees the glam of whatever location they are visiting. But there is so much more to a place than what we see on the surface. This past February, my housemate and I did a trip through several countries in Europe. While we got to experience some of the touristy things, we all agreed that the highlight of our trip was in Germany. One of our friends from Hong Kong (who was born and raised in Germany) was visiting his family and he invited us to stay with him at his mom’s house for a few days. He comes from a smaller village that, from a tourist perspective, may not have been that special. But getting to walk through the small village and getting the opportunity for our friend to show off his home was an unforgettable experience.

    When you have a personal connection to a place, it makes the transition from tourist to guest much easier. Holding back from building relationships with the people of the host culture is a detriment to embracing the transformation that can come from being in a new culture.

  7. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Dylan.

    Great to see you this morning. Looking forward to walking this road together.

    You’re right. The personal connection gives entrance to a more real, comprehensive, alive, vivid experience. You know this so well based on your transition from newcomer to Hong Kong to a longterm resident of the space. I wonder what would change if our commitment was not to simply observe but to truly experience a new place. How might that mindset invite us to draw proximate to the people? The world seems to need this kind of shift/commitment.

  8. mm Chris Pollock says:

    ‘Inarticulate hero-consumers’ to ‘being a humble learner.’ Love the way you put that!

    Due diligent information gathering about a place (its culture and history) beforehand begins the humble learning and can help with best engagement with a place. At least, for this time!

    Is the difference something like soaking up a starry night camp-out with family and friends. Quite beautiful as is for sure with the ‘OOO’s and AAAH’s’ as meteorites fly by and wondering ‘what stars are where?’ and ‘what just goes on up there?’ Then, there’s the story of the stars, the constellations, the history that we’ve learned of astronomy throughout the ages, the supernovas, LIGHT. Could the stories we have learned enhance the starry night campout experience? Sometimes, it’s nice to just be there, though. Silence is a good story in the midst of all the lights and action too!

    So sweet to know some of the story and then, to have the chance to share it a bit and to learn from what others have learned. To be humbled by how much we don’t know and how much more there must be to learn. And, so the story grows!

    Thanks Jer! Appreciate your thought-provoking insights.

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