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

Walk This Way: Cross-Cultural Servant Leadership

Written by: on September 7, 2019

On the first Sunday of July, we entered into our new church home in the heart of the college town of Berkely, California ready to serve as the Discipleship/Young Adults (Professionals) Pastors. As we worked through the sanctuary door, we could see the Sunday teams preparing and setting up for church service, and that day they appeared to be short-handed. Like any other time, when we saw a ministry need, we put down our bags and headed to the front of the sanctuary to assist where we could. However, the response was, “No, pastor; we have it.” We were a little puzzled and did not quite understand because the need was there, yet they did not desire our help.

After this happened on several different occasions with different ministries over about three weeks, we discovered the presence of a high power distance culture, a traditional hierarchical culture in which the pastors were not to serve, but the members were to serve. Hence, we could not assist with set up because it was not the pastors’ position to do so.

We have seen this type of culture before, and we have seen the positive and negative effects of this culture in the church. Perplexed, we were not sure if this was communicated through leadership or if it is due to cultural background. However, we were sure we wanted to be different; for we believe in servant-leadership, that “we are here to serve and not to be served.” We want to always lead like Jesus.

Immediately, the thought came to mind, How do we help shift the culture? How can we understand and respect the culture, maintain honor while bringing life to the way of servant leadership? Simple enough…Lead by example.

Honor Those Who Lead

The concept of honor is biblical and applies to both leaders and followers. According to Romans 12:10, it is two-directional, “Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another.” One also shows honor with submission to those in authority, according to Hebrews 13:17. There is a thin line; however, between giving honor where honor is due and instilling fear to demand honor. Though it is one of reverence and not fear in our current context, we have seen fear prevalent in previous contexts. Unfortunately, the scriptures are even used to support their claims. One scripture, in particular, Romans 13:1-3, often found itself at the forefront.

Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you.

Ministry is collective work which each member of the body doing its part to help build the kingdom of God. We all have different positions in the body some apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors, and some teachers.[1] We are called together to build up people for the work of the Lord.

In cultures established with the superior and inferior statuses, it makes ministry through a servant-leadership paradigm more difficult.[2] However, a leader that possesses a heart dedicated to commitment to growth, empathy, listening, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, and belonging to community[3] has the potential to change the dynamics of said culture.

Research on servant leadership and power distance seems to confirm that Jesus’ form of leadership is appropriate to use in cultures across the world, contributing to outstanding leadership that is desirable to people all over the world.[4]

Follow the Leader

Jesus, the epitome of a servant leader, performed two vital functions of leadership; 1) became a servant to minister and redeem man, and 2)equipped and trained His disciples as servant leaders.[5] He chose to serve, to witness to, and train up and empowered people to complete the work He began. Jesus built relationships with the people and taught them the spirit of duplication in Servant leadership. He did not lead from a hierarchical position but walked and lived among the disciples and the disciples honored His position.

Following the lives of Peter and Paul, we find the same servant-leadership Jesus proposed to the disciples that cut through many cultural expectations and challenge the cultural norms of leadership in most cultural contexts.[6] Their stories provide examples and teaching on how to lead the way of servant-leadership cross-culturally. Therefore, follow the prototype set of “Leading and Walking Out God’s Way” of leadership.

Servant leadership focuses on three practices:1) the humility and ethical use in power, 2) establishments of genuine leader-follower relationships and 3)creation of a positive and creative work environment conducive to camaraderie.[7] Within ministry these practices properly placed can produce an abundance of innovative thinkers and future servant leaders of honor.

We have found a shifting taking place within the last month. We are leading freely alongside others and living life with them. The culture is becoming a low power distance in regards to leadership. However, we had to adjust and get into the uncomfortable position of going against the cultural norms. Though we are processing through some other cultural norms, we are hopeful because thus far the responses are favorable. It may be favorable because it is how God designed us the lead from the beginning.

As Christians, we are to boldly confront socially acceptable forms of power usage and leadership and to learn to lead as a servant.[8] Jesus reminds us that the kingdom is real, that we will have a place in the kingdom, but for now we are to live as leaders who serve.[9]

 

[1] Ephesian 4:11

[2] Debby Thomas, “Jesus’ Cross-Cultural Model of Leader as Servant in Luke 22: 24-30,” Theology of Leadership 1, no. 1 (2018): 72.

[3] Larry C. Spears, “The Understanding and Practice of Servant- Leadership,” Servant Leadership Roundtable (August 2005):1

[4] Ibid. Thomas. 68

[5] Dean Davey and Paul T Wong, “Best Practices in Servant Leadership – Regent University,” Servant Leadership Roundtable (July 2007): 3.

[6] Ibid. Thomas. 76

[7] Ibid. Davey.

[8] Ibid. Thomas. 77

[9] Ibid.

About the Author

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Shermika Harvey

6 responses to “Walk This Way: Cross-Cultural Servant Leadership”

  1. mm Tammy Dunahoo says:

    Shermika, thank you for this post. This is a necessary culture shift indeed as much abuse has taken place in the church using the passage in Romans you quoted. Thank you for modeling and stepping into the uncomfortable place of loving confrontation. People do want low power culture and breathe a sigh of relief when pastors lead as servants. I find people actually serve more fervently when alongside rather than underneath.

  2. Lots of good stuff to reflect on here Shermika. Thanks for your post. The Lord is definitely in this since culture is a difficult thing to change and it looks like things are heading in the right direction is such a short amount of time.

    May God continue to bless you and your family as you settle into new roles, new home and new church family.

  3. mm Mary Mims says:

    Great post, Shermika. I think that the position you are in can be difficult, wanting to be a servant leader, and the church needing to honor you as their leader. I do think letting them honor you can also be a part of servant leadership because even Jesus let Mary wash His feet with her hair! I think it is better that they honor you than not.

  4. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Thank you for this! I have prayed for you all and was hoping you’d write something about your transition. 🙂 I definitely connect over the tension with honor – it is really tricky for every church culture I think. How much authority does senior leadership hold? I have found that it usually can be seen by whether they have people close to them that can honestly question a decision or direction. Tough stuff. Are there limits to honoring in a way that is unhealthy? I think so and I believe Scripture shows that. Appreciate what you are doing there – it’s going to mean so much to that church!

  5. mm Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Shermika,
    So good to read your post and hear your thoughts. As others have replied, I commend your desire to lead the local church culture towards collaborative servant leadership. As Andrea has mentioned, it is really tricky in each church culture, perhaps especially as new associate pastors. May the Lord bless you and guide you with his wisdom as you desire to model how Jesus would lead to your new church family. Again, so good to read your well-presented thoughts and hear a bit about your new ministry assignment. Many blessings and see you in the UK!

  6. mm John Muhanji says:

    Thank you very much Shermika for sharing this real cultural shift you went through from the previous place you had known and understood the culture to a new and completely new culture shift. I love the way to have titled your paper as cross-cultural servant leadership. You actually demonstrated it well in your paper and not just in writing but you have started practicing that at your new place to create a shift from what they are used to to a new servant leadership approach. Thanks for sharing this with us.

    I like the question “How can we understand and respect the culture, maintain honor while bringing life to the way of servant leadership?” This is superb.

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