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.” 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” 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,” and seeing the other as a “sensemaker.”
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.
 Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnston, Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders, 2016, 70.
 Berger and Johnston, 50, 91, 95, cff.
 Berger and Johnston, 74.
 Berger and Johnston, 65.