by Andy Opie
As I reflect on pastoring a church cross-culturally, I realize that the biggest lesson came in understanding that living in another culture is not the same as leading in another culture.
Photo courtesy Andy Opie
ONE FALL AFTERNOON, my wife and I were asked to take over the leadership of a church in crisis in an Asian country. The church went through a great deal of turmoil when their local pastor stepped down due to indiscretions. As more of the story emerged, we realized local leaders were not being trained up in the church. An unhealthy leader left behind a broken church without leaders ready to fill the void. Furthermore, the church found itself in a financial crisis.
Into this chaos, the founding missionary pastor intervened. The future of the church was bleak and restructuring was necessary. That pastor closed down failing church-run businesses and was preparing to sell the church’s building, which had extensive debt. With his other responsibilities, this missionary pastor couldn’t give the church what it needed to recover. He asked me to take over pastoring with the express purpose of discipling a national to take over the church. At this point, we were one year into planting a church in another part of the city. Even so, everything felt right to us and to the Holy Spirit, so we accepted the offer.
As I reflect on pastoring a church cross-culturally, I realize that the biggest lesson came in understanding that living in another culture is not the same as leading in another culture. When we assumed this role, we had lived in the country for more than four years. We had adapted to the culture and language as well as could be expected. In planting a church, we had grown in leading in this culture, but growing while nurturing a new and healthy fellowship is much easier than growing while working in a hurting and pre-established church.
The Honeymoon Phase
When we intervened as pastors in October 2011, an excitement began circulating through the church. Many of the people knew my wife and I well and were glad to have us back with them full time. Our arrival coincided with a national disaster that bound up much of the city and the church with panic and anxiety. The crisis allowed the church to bond with us quickly. Nevertheless, sadness hovered over the church like a thick blanket of despair.
The church was reeling from learning that the building must be sold to pay off debt. At the same time, a vacuum of leadership set in as the previous leadership team left with the former pastor. What was once a place of activity and excitement with local businesses was now at a standstill.
A rule of thumb in missions dictates that foreign workers
do not do work that locals can do.
A rule of thumb in missions dictates that foreign workers do not do work that locals can do. Therefore, a missionary never wants to take over a church formerly led by a national. Yet every rule has its exceptions, and where intervention is necessary, careful thought must be given to how to lead through the change and recovery process.
If we declined to step in, the church would have no choice but to close down; therefore, God laid it upon us to humbly serve this hurting community of faith. With all that had happened, I knew that healing needed to happen before an indigenous leader would be ready to step in and pastor.
With fresh energy and vision, we were ready to step in. We knew several holidays and celebrations were coming, which offered us opportunities to enter into the lives of the church members. During these parties, many previous members returned while new people visited. We saw some people get baptized and relationships begin to be restored. Even some of those who walked out with the former leaders began returning.
But we were in a honeymoon period and cautioned ourselves that it wouldn’t last. Nonetheless, it was exciting as the Christmas party filled to standing room only. The people smiled and went along happily for a few months and we were overjoyed that the church had life in it.
In this season of new hope, many in the church pitched in to help both the church and us. One young professional named Belle advised us to have a Christmas party for everyone who helps in the church. We had done this only a week before at our home (and this woman was even there!); however, Belle explained that we missed two important things at the party: (1) people would rather go out to dinner since it feels more fun than to go to someone’s home and (2) we did not invite enough people. We needed to be more inclusive.
Belle helped make phone calls, and soon we were taking thirty volunteers out to say thank you for their service over the last year. During dinner, we encouraged each person and then each person said something encouraging to me as pastor. One of our council members asked, “If not you, then who?” He knew better than anyone the state of affairs in the church when they asked me to step in. He couldn’t believe how well it was going and knew God was in it.
However, the honeymoon quickly turned into a stormy period in late January. In this very indirect culture, people are raised to submerge their feelings, so the fact that everyone ignored the underlying problems in the church while we celebrated the holidays came as no surprise. People wanted the church to return to its former glory and to pretend that nothing went wrong.
But when the fun passed, the church was left with a mess. Since the building did not sell quickly, people started questioning if God wanted us to sell the building. Some members even began having dreams in which the building was fully rented and thriving with vitality. We sought to point them in a new direction forward rather than seeing them hold onto the past. We learned that leading people forward who want to stay stuck comes with great challenges, especially across cultural divides. The church began experiencing conflict both internally and externally.
In February, one woman said that she had seen demons in the women’s bathroom, and in fact others had seen them throughout the other floors of the building. As we gathered for the Friday night worship service, I called the church to pray and cast the demons out of the building. We started with repentance, followed by walking through the building in fervent prayer. After that, relationships became stronger among many in the church. However, for each step forward, we took two steps back.
In our first few months as leaders, we simply aimed to love the people and bring a breath of life into the church. During this second phase, we felt like we were still getting our arms around the problems. We needed to fully understand where we were before we could move the church forward. Now, several factors slowed that process.
The Problem with the Council
First, I had an inexperienced council afraid to make decisions with me. They were ready to criticize on the spot, but they no longer wanted to take any heat for what was broken. I made it my aim to develop the council in culturally appropriate ways through talking with our leading church officer and another local pastor whom I met with monthly.
In fact, the local pastor (who was a cultural advocate in pastoral leadership) told me that I cannot lead the church forward if the council does not stand with me. He and his wife explained that leadership in the culture happens through consensus and support. If the council is not strong, then the church will not follow. One example was in how the council should help lead meetings. In the church, the pastor gives the vision for a few minutes, but then the council walks through all the details. This is so that people will know the pastor is not working unilaterally.
Without clear expectations and ideas of their roles, the council became more confused and frustrated with me. The church was now doubting my leadership ability.
The Problem with Culture
Second, I was afraid of making cultural mistakes as a leader. I became somewhat paralyzed in making decisions, because more than anything I did not want to make the church feel foreign.
The learning curve became steep. The church expected my wife and me to lead according to their culture since we had lived and functioned in the culture for four and a half years. They even asked my wife to teach culture to new team members. There was no space to fail, especially in the current climate. Through several small cultural blunders, we caused some of our people to question our leadership abilities. The hope they had in us diminished through these small mistakes in a backdrop of crisis.
Oh, and One More Thing…
Like a cool evening breeze blowing across the porch, in late April the church started to turn from an all-out rejection to a slow acceptance. The church still had its trials, but it was ready to go with me as pastor. I had no idea what had changed until our children’s director approached me. Since she did not know how to discuss this with me, she talked to my wife. She explained that the church did not know how a blind person could be their pastor (yes, I am blind). They loved me as a part of the church, but as leader, I caused a clash of worldview.
In this culture, religious leaders cannot have defects. This includes being blind.
Yet Christianity is different. Christians understand that God uses
the weak things of the world to confound the wise.
In this culture, religious leaders cannot have defects. This includes being blind. Yet Christianity is different. Christians understand that God uses the weak things of the world to confound the wise.
Still, a worldview is difficult to change. The combination of deep sadness for the place the church was in and a flawed leader led the church to more passive resistance. They did not want to move forward.
One day, however, the children’s director explained that many of the church members talked together. Because they did not know what to do with me, when I called them to go forward with God and stick close to the Holy Spirit, they said, “Okay go, but we’ll stay here.” Then, one day in this woman’s prayer time, God convicted her. God told her he established me to be the pastor and to stop fighting it. She repented and started working behind the scenes so that others would repent as well. The culture in the church began shifting even as major hurdles still loomed.
Letting Go of the Past
Yet another elephant in the room kept looming. The people were either in denial or angry that the building needed to be sold. We could not settle into a rhythm while the current reality was being ignored. The property had been on the market for eight months. Property in this country can sell slowly and at varying costs of appreciation, depending upon the agreement between buyer and seller. The building had become a status symbol, and a definition of who the church was. This was preventing the church from assessing the situation and moving forward.
One day in June a buyer put in an offer. The offer happened to come in just as our overseer, who was in charge of selling the building, began his furlough. This left me to handle things on the ground while he negotiated from abroad.
We knew that we needed to have many meetings with the church to process change, even if the meetings were not enjoyable. Prior to this point, communicating building issues and the sale of the property were not my responsibility. Now, however, it was my duty. Our first meeting with the church went well, or so I thought. After they processed what was happening for a few weeks, the questions came fast and furious in the second meeting.
Their anger turned to deep sadness and many began weeping. I gave a low-context answer in a high-context culture, causing pent-up feelings to emerge, first as silent tears and then in quiet sobs. After the meeting, one girl asked me, “If we ask God for forgiveness, will he forgive us?” It was then that I realized that the sadness came from both the shock of the reality and the shame of the prior leadership’s actions. I told the church we needed time to cry since there had not yet been sufficient time to process what was happening. I told them we would talk again soon.
After that second meeting one of the young women in the church wanted to explain to my wife why everyone was so upset. My wife was then able to clear up the misconceptions and explain the current situation. A second usage of mediation came after a difficult council meeting. Afterwards, my wife was talking with the two ladies on the council while I talked more with another council member.
She answered some of the questions they did not want to ask me. They did not want me to lose face if I did not know the answer or to make me uncomfortable if the answers were not positive. One of the ladies said to my wife that the church had lost face before God. We knew that the church had the same understanding we had. The current reality was becoming clear and soon we could make a path forward.
A Transitional Period
The Friday night after our challenging second meeting, we changed our service into a night of prayer. Several of the members stood up (particularly the mediator who talked to my wife) in order to draw people back to God. They wanted people to focus on God alone and ask him to cleanse us from our sin. The church wanted to get right with God. There was an immediate turning point and I felt like God began to smile on us again.
The building sold, and we could see God’s hand of grace on the process. In this new climate the young man who we knew was gifted and called to be a pastor came forward, telling us he was ready to pastor along with a young woman who would help him as co-pastor. In September, not quite a year from when we came in, we began a training process in preparation for them to lead the church.
Through an informal mentoring and apprenticeship plan, we helped guide them and give them opportunities for the church to receive them. We followed an adjusted description of establishing leaders from David Hesselgrave and Tom Steffen’s books on cross-cultural church planting. In January, we formally handed over the church to these two passionate leaders, who were ready to lead the church forward with God.
Intervention came fraught with landmines and cultural blind spots, but we found that if we showed humility and a quickness to ask for forgiveness, then the church responded. We continually showed our vulnerability and worked to gain the trust of the people. We worked to illuminate the current realities and allow the influencers in the church to seek culturally appropriate means to resolutions.
Church-wide repentance was led as much as possible by those from within the church and we supported it in the background. Intervention took a balance of firm optimism, openness, and gentle but facilitating leadership. We did not always strike a perfect balance, but with God’s grace, the church is going forward, now led by local pastors.
Andy Opie and his wife, Christina, served six years in Bangkok with Foursquare Missions (2007-2013). Their daughter, Ellie, was born there. Currently, Andy teaches multicultural evangelism at Life Pacific College in San Dimas, California.