Currently, I am sitting in the Moscow airport. There are two children watching a movie with the sound turned to the highest decibel level possible, and a man has been systematically hammering at the tile floor for close to two hours. This all comes after a 12-hour transatlantic flight. I am tired. My words do not make much sense. And, of all times, I am choosing to write about two articles about adapting to change and transition in leadership. (Can someone get me some cheese with my whine?)
Last night, I could not sleep at all on the flight, and I pulled out my Kindle to read the articles of the week. Even in my silly tired state, light bulbs of “Ah Ha!” moments went off in my head. Simply by reading the titles, I didn’t know if I’d find much significance in “Leadership in a Chaordic Age” and “Broken Futures – Adaptive Challenge and the Church in Transition” by Len Hjalmarson. I live and minister in my own bubble of global missions, and tend to flee from any traditional church woes of membership, budgets, etc. But Len seemed to have been reading my academic essays and honed in on several of my challenges.
For the past two years, I have been studying the concept of cross-cultural partnership in Haiti. I have focused on how Westerners need to improve their skills at creating relationships and participating in community, rather than emphasizing tangible brick and mortar projects that may or may not have lasting significance. They rarely consult their counter-partners, and often lead with the phrase “You know what Haiti needs…?” After being in the country for five minutes, they are experts because in their minds they are superior to the poverty-stricken people of Haiti. They immediately revert to what they know has worked in their small sphere of life experiences and feel certain this experience will translate.
In “Leadership in Chaordic Age,” Len wrote, “Those immersed in the eastern world much more quickly perceive the meaning of relationships. They are far more sensitive to context, and they will thrive in this connected world in ways that westerners will not. The current shift to connected and networked reality, and the primacy of relationships, and contexts, will remain a huge challenge for those of us raised in the analog world.” I had been looking for some research for months to concur with my theory that westerners do not value relationships and community to the same degree as non-westerners, and as a result, this inhibits our ability to participate in a mutually responsible cross-cultural partnership. Westerners, without giving it a second thought, take the week’s mission-vacation, do a project, give our teammates high fives, and move on our way. More often than not, the time together does not include fellowshipping with the larger body of Christ, nor utilizing our “partners” skills and capabilities.
Len wrote, “The ‘best capacities’ of people are engaged when they participate: when they have a voice, when they are valued as partners, and when they see that their work has meaning.” (“Leadership,” 3) In too many of my observations, I only see the one side doing work while ignoring the gifts, talents and opinions of those with whom they seek to be in partnership.
I loved the distinction Len made between map readers and navigators. Map readers know how to get from point A to B with objective steps. They can build a house, paint a building, and install a water system like clock-work. But too often I have observed how westerners and their mission teams prefer to follow a mapped out plan instead of surveying the context and situation and then navigating the bumpy roads. I have learned over the past several years that location and context matter. Partnership in Ecuador is nothing like partnership in Uganda. Even more specifically, partnership in one village in Haiti with an Episcopal church may be completely opposite of partnership with an secular orphanage one village over.
That’s not to say commonalities will not exist. But if we begin with the attitude of “been there, done that,” and “what worked here will naturally work there,” cross-cultural mission partnerships will continue to fail. I’ve learned through this week’s reading, and that of the last four semesters, that as leaders, whether mission or pastoral, we must prepare ourselves with the tools and resources to navigate any situation, or any culture. There will never be a “one size fits all” solution, and we should not try to fit a square peg into a round hole. Children respond to teaching and parenting in different ways, and such are all relationships. As Len challenged his readers, we simply must learn to work together, learn together, trust together, and then we can deal together with whatever the future may hold. (“Broken Futures,” 12)