Diversity and Leadership: The Challenge of Leadership in Multicultural Missions

by James E. Plueddemann

One of the greatest challenges in my ten years as international director of SIM (Serving In Mission) was to find ways for missionaries with radically different assumptions about leadership to work together in harmony.

The Challenge
One of the greatest challenges in my ten years as international director of SIM (Serving In Mission) was to find ways for missionaries with radically different assumptions about leadership to work together in harmony. Here is one real-life example with slight changes to protect the identity of the missionaries.

As a silent observer, I sat in the back corner of the living room in northern Liberia and listened as missionaries discussed strategy. Tensions grew as Canadians, Koreans, New Zealanders, and Nigerians debated what it meant to be a team. The Nigerian missionary suggested that the team do everything together, the Korean missionary urged a daily 5 a.m. prayer meeting, and the New Zealand family suggested that a once-a-month reporting session would be enough. The Canadian was miffed at the Korean for intruding into morning family time, and the Nigerian was peeved at the New Zealander for being uncooperative. The conversation grew more strained.

The Lord of the Harvest is calling missionaries from the ends of the earth to minister to the ends of the earth. One of the most exciting developments in the history of the Church in the last two thousand years is the reality of cross-cultural missionaries being sent from every country in the world.

In order for missionaries from everywhere to everywhere to be effective, there is a need for cooperation and partnerships. This requires leadership. A diverse team of missionaries from Ethiopia, Japan, Guatemala, and Australia come with different perspectives of leadership, but as they learn to work together, they are much more effective than a monocultural team. It is difficult for a Muslim from North India to object to Christianity as a Western religion when he or she is hearing the gospel from Ethiopian and Japanese missionaries.

The globalization of the Church has led to unprecedented interconnectedness. In order for the worldwide Church to work together effectively, we must learn to work with and under people with diverse leadership values. Here is a list of unfolding developments with ramifications for leadership diversity confusion:

• Millions of short-term missionaries travel from scores of countries, exposing many to stress from diversity in leadership styles.

• The rapid growth of international church-to-church partnerships has the potential of generating misunderstanding over cultural perceptions of the concept of “partnership.”

• Thousands of missionaries from Africa, Latin America, and Asia work side by side in teams with missionaries from North America and Europe, each with preconceived cultural expectations for what it means to be a team.

• Urban churches minister in multicultural settings with conflicting assumptions about the role of the pastor and church government.

• International business is gaining credibility as an opportunity for missions, yet often there is little understanding of leadership differences in individualistic versus collectivistic societies.

• Missionaries from Europe and North America now serve under the leadership of church leaders from traditional “mission field” countries, leading to misunderstandings over the specificity of job descriptions, accounting practice, and long-range planning.  

Diversity is challenging, yet it also holds great promise. An old joke goes like this: When the subordinate approaches his boss with a problem, she proclaims, “In this company, we don’t have problems, we have opportunities!” To which the shy subordinate meekly replies, “Then Madam, we have an insurmountable opportunity!” Diversity can cease to be a problem and be turned into an opportunity as we move from intolerance to tolerance to appreciation.

Stages of Diversity Development
There seems to be a qualitative difference in how people understand diversity. Ideally, these differences progress through stages. All of us likely begin at stage one with naïve intolerance and then progress toward tolerance. The ideal would be learning not only to tolerate, but also to appreciate and even celebrate differences.

Stage 1: Intolerant of diversity. Egocentric individuals assume that people who are not like them are strange or backward. At times, adolescents on short-term mission trips complain about the horrible food and unimaginable smells. They comment that the people don’t use “real” money and drive on the wrong side of the road. Missionaries functioning at stage one assume that excellent leaders will be just like the proficient leaders they know in their home country, and anything less is a sign of incompetence. Diversity is understood as deficiency.  

Stage 2: Tolerant of diversity. Tolerating leadership differences is a second stage of diversity development. In this stage, we might hear, “It’s okay for cultures to be different; it’s not really their fault. In fact, I like to experience exotic cultures occasionally.” Or, “At first, church services drove me crazy, starting and stopping late. The worship service was chaotic, but I didn’t mind going to a church where they didn’t follow a bulletin once in a while.” Or, “I find it disconcerting but interesting that leaders in this culture require the best parking space and don’t tolerate disagreement in decision making.” Tolerance of different leadership styles means that even though a person feels uncomfortable with the style, he or she is willing to live with differences.

Stage 3: Appreciative of diversity. While still acknowledging biblical principles that transcend culture, people in the third stage begin not just to tolerate, but to see the benefit of cultural diversity in leadership. God intended diversity so that we may more completely glimpse his creativity. Could it be that when God confused human languages at the Tower of Babel he divided the cultures of the world into pieces so that none would be complete without the others?  He gave each people group a small part of the whole, and each culture is incomplete without the others.

Stage 4: Celebration of diversity. God intended diversity. The teaching on spiritual gifts illustrates the absurdity of uniformity. God’s people are one body, made up of many parts. The problem in Corinth seemed to be that some of the parts had an inferiority complex, while others felt superior. The foot felt inferior to the hand and the ear to the eye (1 Cor. 12:12-31). The eye felt superior to the hand. The key point is that the body has many parts, yet it is one body. Likewise, the Body of Christ is made up of people with differing cultural values about leadership, yet we are one body. Although diverse, we celebrate the whole body (12:27).

Moving from Tension to Harmony
I would like to suggest three things that mission agencies can do to move from tension-filled to harmonious diversity.

1. Expect misunderstanding. Until we get to heaven, even the most godly leader will be influenced by forces of evil. The Apostle Paul groaned in his struggle with his sinful nature. He saw himself at war with the sin at work in him. This great leader admitted that he was a wretched man longing for life in the Spirit. When diversity results in conflict, we must be suspicious of the remnants of the old nature tucked away in our inner being.

2. Understand leadership values from the perspective of the other person. Missionaries from high and low-context cultures can begin to understand leadership style from the perspective of the other person. While mere understanding of the other won’t solve all problems of multicultural leadership, it will be a step in the right direction. Understanding can promote patience and can help us avoid assumptions of ulterior motives.  

3. Focus on team vision. Nothing fragments a team more than conflict of vision. No matter how culturally sensitive the team, if members are pulling in opposite directions, the team will fall apart. Teams fail when their vision is to merely have a good team. Research demonstrates that it is better to focus on visionary outcomes rather than on being a perfect team.  

Summing Up
Last Christmas, our family began to assemble a complex picture puzzle. Grandparents, children, and grandchildren rejoiced when two or three pieces fit together. But imagine the celebration when days later we finally slipped in the last piece and for the first time saw the beauty of the whole puzzle. We all danced around the table. I wonder if God will dance when he sees the diverse cultural pieces reassembled into a splendid complete picture.

Even though all individuals and cultures are tainted by the Fall, all partially reflect the glorious image of God. In this world, we may never fully perceive culture from God’s perspective, but we can begin to catch a glimpse of the beauty of the whole mosaic. Diversity is a sign of incompleteness—a paradox that will only be fully remedied when all people, nations, and languages are reunited in heaven at the great celebration of the wedding feast of the Lamb.

Until then we struggle with hope. Learning to celebrate diversity demands supernatural strength. But even today, missionaries from North America are teaming up with families from China, Ecuador, Ethiopia, and Korea in planting and nurturing churches where Christ is not yet known. Let’s celebrate!


James E. Plueddemann is professor of intercultural leadership and education and chair of the Department of Missions, Evangelism, and Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is author of Leading across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church (InterVarsity Press, 2009).

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 100-103. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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