How Convictions Catalyze Fruitful Cross-cultural Partnerships
by Mary Mallon Lederleitner
An inside look at fruitful cross-cultural partnerships in Latin America as seen through the eyes of David Brooks and Jōse de Dios, former and current Americas area directors for Wycliffe International.
As a researcher for Wycliffe Bible Translators in the area of cross-cultural partnerships, I have the incredible privilege of hearing peoples’ stories in many parts of the world. Once in a while I hear a story that is simply so good it must to be shared with more people. That is the case with how God used David Brooks when he stepped into the role as Americas area director for Wycliffe. If you are a leader and you desire to glean concepts that will truly help you to be a blessing in your ministry, read closely. However, there is something in this article for everyone who wants to be more effective in cross-cultural ministry. To provide balance and validity, the first section is comprised of the core convictions held by David and his leadership team. The second section outlines how each of these convictions has been catalytic in changing how Wycliffe International works in Latin America. The third section explains the outcomes as expressed by Jōse de Dios, Wycliffe’s new Americas area director. I have used David and Jōse’s actual wording as much as possible to tell the story. Read and enjoy!
Core Convictions for Fruitful Cross-cultural Partnerships
1. Focus on the big picture and stay the course. Our leadership team believed it was important to keep first things first. It was critical to keep priorities straight and to keep coming back to the bigger picture and the true goal of our work. In our case, we were in this ministry to see lives changed by the use of translated scriptures in the language of the heart. We believed that overarching goal should be used to guide and direct every decision.
2. Walk in humility and resist defensiveness. I expected that I would make mistakes. There was no way I could understand all the cues in a culture, no matter how long I had spoken the language. Even if I had been in a country for many years, I knew I would still make mistakes. Resist defensiveness—it will only hinder partnerships. If we can accept truth about our errors and inadequacies, and apologize when we fall short, we can move on.
3. Show respect and honor to everyone. The measure of a person is not how tall he or she is, but how he or she treats people. We must show honor and respect to all people, at all levels. We must work in community. If we do not have processes that work in community, then we will not be effective.
4. Talk and consult with everyone affected by changes. We tried to talk with every colleague and partner who would be impacted by the changes. We wanted to know what everyone was thinking—their hopes and dreams and how they felt things should go. We knew if we did that, we would be able to make better leadership decisions for everyone. I felt we owed them that, since we were going to make decisions that would be impacting their lives and ministries.
5. Listen to partners’ fears and respect their concerns. Many Latin American partners were concerned that Wycliffe would move in and steal their best and brightest leaders. They were afraid we would just replicate ourselves throughout the continent, at the expense of developing a diverse and more effective indigenous movement. We tried to truly listen and understand their perspective.
6. Maintain personal relationships and make time for others. It is important to get to know people. That cannot be done in business meetings alone. We need to know about their lives, families, and kids. People need to know that we care about them on a personal level if a partnership is going to weather future obstacles and strains.
7. Let go of control so the Church can truly own the work. Wycliffe International and many organizations worldwide have embraced Vision 2025. This is a shared vision to have a language project in place by the year 2025 in every people group that still needs scripture. The timetable is shorter for the Americas. It is our hope that by 2010 there will be a language project in place in every people group so we can finish the work needed in Latin America. To accomplish these desired outcomes, we knew it could no longer be Wycliffe’s “baby.” The Church needed to own the Bible translation movement not only in Latin America, but throughout the world—and the Church needed to determine what it would look like in each country. It was not for outsiders to make that decision.
8. Make unity and reconciliation a priority. Unity and reconciliation are critical to effective ministry. The Bible translation movement pulls together incredibly diverse groups of people who typically would never work together. However, if we want scripture to be available to change lives, cooperation on a much greater level is required. In Mark 9:38-40, the disciples got upset that someone not with them was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus replied, “He who is not against us is for us.” That passage reminds me that Jesus wants us to be willing to work with other people, even when it can be uncomfortable or threatening.
9. Develop a team and promote Latinos as leaders at the highest levels. These convictions grew as the result of my interaction with a team of exceptional colleagues and partners. It was never my plan to step into this role long term. It was understood from the beginning to be a short-term position to reach specified goals and to develop Latin American leaders at the highest levels within the organization. Not only do they have the ability to lead, but we, as an organization, need their leadership if we are going to effectively meet current and future challenges throughout the world.
How Core Convictions Were Catalytic for Working Differently
1. Every structure and process became open to examination. Everything needs to be open to examination and to serve the larger purpose and vision. If it doesn’t, it needs to change. People cling to their structures and processes, often because they have lost the larger picture of what we joined the organization to accomplish. For instance, recently I was fighting a battle over a copyright. Another large mission agency wanted to translate one of our books into Spanish and use it to train thousands of young missionaries. However, a smaller department in another state was earning a small amount of revenue selling this book. When we looked at the big picture, we asked which was of greater benefit to our overall purpose? Additionally, as leaders we should not be quick to build or require structures or processes in other cultures unless it is also deemed by our partners to be appropriate.
2. I tried to never attend meetings without being accompanied by a Latin colleague. I made it a practice to never go to a meeting without a colleague from the majority Church present. By doing this, many objectives were served. After each meeting I could debrief with him or her and we could learn together. I also needed to understand if there were cultural cues I had missed or if I should go back and apologize for anything. It also enabled me to form closer relationships with these colleagues, and they too were able to learn and build relationships with our partners as I worked in different contexts.
3. We respected and tried to honor our partners and their positions. COMIBAM International is one example of a partner that was with us through good times and bad. They helped us form our strategy and provided encouragement and exhortation as needed. We tried to work with leaders at all levels of their organization. LETRA Argentina was another key partner whose advice and input influenced us substantially. FEDEMEC was a partner who also weathered many storms with us. Because of this, a trust relationship developed that helped to guide us. Instead of rushing ahead, at times we slowed processes to work more in sync with the desires of elders and leaders in local churches. God blessed us—and continues to bless us—with many excellent partners.
4. We sought to remove language as a barrier in meetings. We spent the money necessary to provide simultaneous translation services at our meetings. It is impossible to convey equality and mutuality if only one or two languages are used to communicate in a group of diverse leaders. This change showed that we truly wanted to hear their voices and know their thoughts. One leader said it was the first time he felt like a true equal in international meetings. The other thing we did was to change our email distribution lists to include all of our partners. Also, on the area level we no longer scheduled meetings with just Wycliffe colleagues, but we also included our partners. If we are working together, everyone needs to have a voice at the table.
5. We chose strategies that would lessen the fears of our partners. Because of the way many companies and organizations from the USA have worked in Latin America over the years, many partners were fearful that our presence would hurt their ministries. In an effort to begin building trust, we promised to not set up any new Wycliffe organizations. We explained our vision was to see changed lives through the use of translated scripture. We agreed that any new workers would be sent through indigenous organizations or churches. It was important to model that we were not seeking control, only a desire to work alongside.
6. We made it a priority to allow time and funding to build friendships. We shared meals with people whenever possible, thus allowing time for fellowship and hospitality. We wanted to “know” our partners. Depth of care and relationship building often happen in the unofficial times, so we tried to build that into our schedules and into the agendas of our meetings. We set aside the funding in our budgets to allow for this as well.
7. We allowed our meeting agenda to be scrapped for the Church’s agenda. An enormous turning point for the work in Latin America happened in 2002. We had planned to bring together a small number of participants from half a dozen countries to begin building a future strategy. However, when word got out about the meeting, we had forty-five participants from fifteen countries who wanted to come. We scrambled to find funding because it was obvious that God was at work. Once we got to the meeting, we had sessions and PowerPoints planned; however, participants wanted to go in a different direction. We realized that if we wanted the Church to have ownership, this was the place to start. Participants formed a working group that drafted “The Brasilia Declaration.” This was a pivotal moment, as it was the first time they declared it to be a “Bible translation movement” for which they were responsible. These participants are now in leadership roles throughout the continent, and many countries are beginning to develop their own unique strategy for meeting the need for scriptures in their own contexts and throughout the world. Had we tried to control the meeting and not allowed for this spontaneous work of God, we would not be where we are today.
8. We exhorted and continue to exhort people to work together. As “The Brasilia Declaration” was being drafted, young leaders felt empowered, and their first instinct was to form a separate organization with a new name to set themselves apart. We never told them they could not do this, but we implored them not to. The vision was too large and we knew we could only accomplish it if we worked together. We felt in each context there would most likely need to be an indigenous structure or organization. However, in this instance the intent to form a new organization for the continent seemed to be coming out of a desire to be separate instead of a desire to work together. We weathered that storm and now some of these same young people are our strongest leaders of the Bible translation movement on the continent. We also created a department called “Unity and Reconciliation.” Since Bible translation brings such diverse groups together, it is not uncommon to have conflict. This ministry is serving a real need within partnerships in Latin America.
9. I made sure my job was short term and that a Latin leader replaced me. From the earliest days in my role as Americas area director, I began mentoring and training young leaders. Although I was in the role a little longer than I desired to be, when I left, I was replaced by an excellent and well-qualified Latin American by the name of Jōse de Dios. He is a talented and effective leader who is doing a great job.
What Have Been the Outcomes of Working this Way?
After discussing all of this at length with David Brooks, it seemed best to compare notes with Jōse de Dios. I wanted to see if he too felt these were the key issues that helped to create fruitful partnerships in Latin America. As we spoke, Jōse confirmed the validity of David’s comments. He explained that although the team is not perfect at doing all of these things, these are the core values and convictions that shape how they work, and they are always striving to grow in these areas. The following are his comments about what transpired.
When David first shared his vision with me, I was grateful that, as an organization, we were finally going in this direction. I believed it was the right way to work in Latin America. There is a profound difference between trying to get the Church to help “us” with “our” ministry as opposed to a vision that says we are here to serve the local church. The first approach is a closed system, the second is an open one. As a whole, the outcomes of this have been very positive. Instead of assuming we will be a blessing and instruct others, in actuality we have been profoundly blessed and have learned so much.
We now have over a dozen partnerships with formal agreements. We have over thirty-five partnerships without formal, written agreements, but partners with whom we have great relationships. They are making incredible contributions to the Bible translation movement. There is an increased awareness of Bible translation in Latin churches in both local and regional areas. Many of our partners have stronger Bible translation programs. Recently I met with my leadership team via Skype. We have leaders from Colombia, Bolivia, Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Brazil, and the USA. Half are men and half are women. Most of us are in our thirties. Only three people on the team are “members” of Wycliffe. The rest are from partnering organizations, yet they have an equal say as to how the ministry will be done. We are still in the process of building the team and seeking even greater levels of collaboration.
I believe these changes are bearing good fruit, but the transition has not always been easy. Some members left because they felt Wycliffe was giving up too much. They felt the Church should be listening to us instead of the other way around. There are still organizational structures that need to change. At times, Wycliffe International builds systems that function well for USA members but do not work well for Latin members or our partnering organizations. Thankfully, our partners are patient with us. I have been told some crazy things by people over the years about what Latinos are not capable of doing. However, to partner effectively, leaders need to relinquish control and trust others. An unwillingness to do that is often the greatest obstacle. The confusion seems to be centered upon who “owns” the work. I believe God owns the work and it is his will for all of his people to have the opportunity and privilege to engage and participate in it.
David frequently apologized and felt embarrassed that he did not speak Spanish—although he had learned another language when he served for a longer period of time in Asia. In retrospect, I think his lack of confidence was quite possibly his greatest asset. Because he had not lived in Latin America for years and did not know the language, he listened. He did not make assumptions. He was humble. It was not uncommon for him to take the advice of Latin colleagues, even when he felt strongly about handling a situation differently. David never seemed to be driven by ego or a desire to prove something or to make his mark. Instead, he worked humbly out of a conviction that this was God’s will and the right approach to follow in ministry.
Modeling humility, listening to partners’ fears and concerns, talking and collaborating broadly, mentoring new leaders—these are the types of things that make a lasting difference in cross-cultural partnerships. As I now lead in this role, I am focusing on these same areas as well. It is very exciting to see what God is doing in Latin America!
Mary Mallon Lederleitner is a researcher for Wycliffe Bible Translators International studying best practices and issues related to cross-cultural partnerships. She is pursuing a doctorate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. She also serves on the steering committee of COSIM (The Coalition on the Support of Indigenous Ministries). For further help and resources about partnering cross-culturally, visit http://www.cosimnet.org.
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