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

Side by Side

Written by: on September 15, 2019


Image result for council of elrond

The Council of Elrond

“I will be dead before I see the Ring in the hands of an Elf!”

– Gimli, son of Gloin, The Fellowship of the Ring (movie adaptation)


In 2012, I made my first trip to Hong Kong to serve with a Christian organization that sends Christian teachers to closed nations in Asia to teach English to students.  Through teaching English, the hope was that the teachers would be able to build relationships with their students, to move them along in their spiritual journey, and to share the Gospel with them.  Having finished my sophomore year of university, I was excited to see what would come out of this trip.

Now, I had traveled overseas before.  I had spent time in Jamaica with my church in Kentucky, I had traveled to Mexico for family vacation, and had taken a two-week tour through Europe.  But, being completely honest, never in a million years did I think I would go to Asia (much less leave Kentucky; my parents always said my younger brother would be the one to leave and I would be the one to stay).  I went to Hong Kong with no real expectations other than to observe and see if teaching English would be a way I could use my newly added English major in conjunction with the Religious Studies degree I was working on.

Hong Kong changed my worldview and opened my eyes to major differences in culture.

 The Culture Map walks through many of the major cultural paradigms we look through when working with other people.  There are many aspects of our own culture that we don’t recognize because they are intrinsically written into our lives.  Because of this, it often takes stepping outside of our home context and into another to truly see where we rub against others in the wrong way or where tensions lie.

On our first day of training back in 2012, the trainer was teaching us about what it means to build relationships in an Asian context.  He used the analogy of the peach and coconut (something Meyer hits on in pages 172-176).  The trainer pointed out that Americans are peaches; we have soft, squishy exteriors that’s easy to bite into, but we have a core of stone.  He explained that for Americans, we have no problem divulging information about ourselves – going so far as to give our entire life story at a first meeting – but that we have difficulty letting people know our true selves.  On the other hand, he explained that the Chinese were like coconuts.  Having lived in mainland China for many years, he said that it was hard work breaking through that outer shell, but once you did you would have a friend for life.

As a sophomore in college, this analogy floored me, especially since it was at that time when I learning to be more open and friendly with people (one of those “cherished values” of South and the Christian university ideal of vulnerability).  I remember thinking, “Okay, so I don’t share everything with people right away.  It’s okay to be a coconut.”  This realization was something that helped to develop the way that I build relationships.  It isn’t that either way is a wrong way to build relationships, but rather that there’s a time and place to switch between those different practices.

One of the valuable lessons of The Culture Map is how it sheds light into what working with an international team looks like.  In a world that is increasingly globalized, it’s more likely than ever one will come into contact with or work people from across the world.  Because of this, conflict is going to arise at some point and the way that different cultures deal with conflict can cause tension.

When working through conflict with people, we need to be aware of how their cultures affect this.  And yet, at the same time, even people from the same culture have different means of handling conflict.  Whereas one group may be more direct, another may be more indirect.  Learning to navigate this is essential to being a leader.

If anything encapsulates the tensions that arise through working on cross cultural teams, it is JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  When the Fellowship is forged, the Elf Lord Elrond appoints at least one member from each of the “good races” to accompany Frodo on his quest: Man, Elf, Dwarf, and Hobbit.  What is interesting to note is the inherent conflict the various races bring into the Fellowship with one another, but none sticks out so boldly as the Elves and the Dwarves (see the quote at the beginning of this post).  The two races come from different worlds – one from the forests of the surface and one from the halls under the mountains.  A long history of tension has created bias and mistrust between the two groups.  And yet, throughout the course of the trilogy the need for reconciliation becomes clearer and clearer as they come to understand one another.

The tension between Elves and Dwarves is played out more fully in the movie adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and in The Hobbit trilogy, but there is a very specific moment in The Return of the King that shows the genuine friendship of Legolas the Elf and Gimli the Dwarf (their friendship is defined much earlier in the book adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, but Hollywood gives an almost perfect moment of catharsis for the pair).  This moment comes at the last stand of the goodly races to try and buy Frodo the amount of time he needs.  As Legolas and Gimli stand next to each other staring at the hordes of Orcs charging at them:


Gimli:  Never thought I’d die fighting side by side with an Elf.

Legolas: What about side by side with a friend?

Gimli:  Aye.  I can do that.


Working with people from different cultures can be a challenging experience, but it also life changing.  As I reflect on that moment when the trainer for the summer camp talked about peaches and coconuts and where my life is now, I can affirm his words.  It’s hard work navigating cultural differences.  But when you do, you really do find friends for life.



“Council of Elrond,” retrieved from <>

Jackson, Peter.  Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring.  Film.  Directed by Peter Jackson.  New Line Cinema, 2001.

Jackson, Peter.  Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.  Film.  Directed by Peter Jackson.  New Line Cinema, 2003.

About the Author


Dylan Branson

Small town Kentuckian living and learning in the big city of Hong Kong.

11 responses to “Side by Side”

  1. mm Steve Wingate says:

    There are many aspects of our own culture that we don’t recognize because they are intrinsically written into our lives.
    Dylan this reminds of the tension I allowed to foster in me when working with Youth With a Mission. We planted a new Base in San Francisco with people from different cultures in the USofA and a few from other countries. The frustration I felt seemed like a clash or head on collision that could have been prevented, at least softened, if we had a bit more orientation.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      I’d be interested to hear more about your experience with that. What were the biggest challenges? What nations were represented? Was there any resolution to it?

  2. mm Darcy Hansen says:

    I so love the eventual friendship between Legolas and Gimli. Your analogy is such a good reminder that over time, with a willingness to both give and take, life long friends are found. In your current context, which of the 8 scales measured and analyzed by Meyer has been most challenging to navigate?

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      I think the one I see play out most often is when handling conflict and communication. My school operates in a higher context communication setting to where many things are implied or it is just assumed that my Canadian colleague and I know what’s going on. There have been several times where we show up to work and are informed we have a school function that evening and weren’t told about it. For me, I’m very easy going and adaptable in that sense (and often find it humorous), but it frustrates my colleague to no end.

      In the same way, when working through conflict I typically fall in line with a more indirect way in order to save face for the people I’m confronting, whereas my colleague (who chalks it up to her Greek heritage) is very direct. In the past, this has caused tensions among our local colleagues, but both sides are learning to adapt to these different styles.

      • mm Darcy Hansen says:

        The level of messy in relationships is difficult in a homogenous population, add in the diversity and the level of self and other-awareness goes off the chart. I found taking deep breaths and whispering prayers is helpful. Thank you for giving a snapshot of your context!

  3. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Dylan, it would probably be most appropriate to discuss this post at the Eagle and Child next week, don’t you say? I latched onto the peach/coconut metaphor as well. Ministering in Asia for 3 years heightened my personal experience of the reality. I experienced those in East Asia as initially very friendly and overjoyed to meet an American (often their first). Like a peach, the softness was welcomed and we would joke that ministry is as simple as saying, “Hi. I’m an American. Do you want to be my friend?” However, as time progressed and the novelty of our English and nationality wore off, we found the hard pit – “Oh, no, we East Asians don’t believe what you do.” I saw my Asian-American colaborers have a different experience: more coconut-like. They didn’t possess any of the novelty that our caucasian staff had, but they were more quickly let into the middle, past the barrier. To add some nuance to Meyer’s metaphor, some people can be both a peach and a coconut depending on who is trying to approach them.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      If there’s something I’ve learned the last four years in Hong Kong working at a secondary school, it’s that teenagers are teenagers regardless of where they live. Some of the issues they face may be different, but at their core they’re still struggling to find their identity. When I first started working here, my kids went crazy every time I walked in the room. After a year or two, I don’t get the same reaction (I always joke that it’s because I’m old news in their life), but that’s what I prefer. By the time the novelty wears off, there’s a measure of trust and relationship that’s been built. It’s no longer the sensationalized “Mr. Dylan”, but simply “Dylan” to the ones I’m closest to.

      Did you ever find that some of your closest relationships came once the novelty wore off?

  4. mm Greg Reich says:

    Loved the Lord of the Rings analogy. I appreciate the insight, it explains a lot with some of my clients. When working with clients I often use the analogy of an onion and that as people we are multi layered individuals. Some of us expose more layers quickly where others take a bit more time. I explain that once we are beyond the surface layer we are on holy ground. How we respond and treat the privilege of having someone allowing us into the deeper parts of who they are will dictate whether we are invited back in. If we miss use that privilege and stomp around we cause scars and wounds. If we take the mindset of a surgeon we can often be invited in the deep recesses of a persons life without causing damage and we may actually bring healing to an area someone else damaged.

    • mm Dylan Branson says:

      I’d agree with you that once you’re under the surface, you’ve reached holy ground. I don’t think we realize how special it is to break past that outer layer, though maybe at times we aren’t aware that we’ve actually broken through? I shudder to think of the times I’ve inadvertently stomped around without realizing I was in someone’s inner world. I think that’s why it’s important that we actually take the time to know people’s stories. A lot of miscommunication and conflict can be solved if we listen well.

  5. mm John McLarty says:

    I’m still amazed at how different people can be, even when they have lived together in the same cultural context. I think Meyer is right on many levels, but she side steps the issue that people have unique personality types that are formed by more factors than just geography. You’re experiencing that first-hand your setting. On some levels, kids are kids. On other levels, they’re distinctly Asian. And on another level entirely, each one is unique and will have his/her own way of making connections and dealing with conflict. Not much in this world is simple- a reality that both excites and frustrates me!

  6. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Thanks for pulling out the peach and coconut illustration and embedding it in Lord of the Rings. What an excellent illustration. Makes me wonder, though, if the peach pit and the exterior can be softened (rather than cracked) and what it is that truly accomplishes the softening. Could it be that conflict, when navigated well, is the most effective softener?

Leave a Reply