by Linda Chamberlain
How effective is this increasing trend in internationalization?
"List the characteristics of Peter," said the lecturer as he stood before a multicultural group of missionary recruits. When a Korean quickly responded with "tasty" the lecturer was rather puzzled. Light dawned and laughter exploded when the Korean’s wife spoke up, "He said Peter, not pizza!" Sadly, misunderstandings among a multicultural group are not always so amusing. "The moment he looked at his watch, I knew he wasn’t really interested in me. In my culture, people matter more than time." That initial negative encounter was to spoil the relationship of the new worker with his field leader for months to come.
In 1961, after ten years of discussion, WEC (Worldwide Evangelisation for Christ), a predominantly Western-based mission, embarked upon a journey that few missionary societies had taken at that time. Its leaders decided to embrace full internationalization of its workforce. Forty years have passed since that bold decision was made. The decision to add new flavors to the smorgasbord of cultural mix is now an ethos highly valued by many organizations. SIM (Serving in Mission), for example, with ten percent of its members from non-Western backgrounds, in one of its core values states, "We are intentionally international." OMF (Overseas Missionary Fellowship) claims eighteen percent non-Western members with numbers on the increase. In light of Sandra Makin’s (1992, 131-140) observation that the potential for tension, conflicts and resignations increase as the percentage of multi-cultural mix multiplies, how effective is this increasing trend in internationalization?
THERE ARE BATTLES
Many admit that multicultural teams do not always make for smooth sailing. The boat is often rocked by misunderstandings, hurts and failures. Here and there workers do drown in the sea of cross-cultural conflict. Western dominance, clashes between individual and group consensus, miscommunications, increased stress levels and greater strains on team leaders are a few of the many possible negative aspects. The negative, however, does not seem to overshadow the positive and the annual resignation rate in WEC has been amazingly stable with no evidence to show that the risk is higher because of the internationalization policy (Kuhl 1996, 164-66). One deputy field leader in Chad made the following comment. "There are thirteen different nationalities among our team of twenty-nine members. Most conflicts, however, are due to personality clashes, the uncrucified flesh, rather than culture." It would be true to add that disagreements are just as likely to occur between two Germans as they may between one German and one Brazilian, a truth reinforced by an OMF leader, Chris Wigram, who said, "Some of the worst case scenarios in my experience have often occurred between people and families from the same cultural background."
THERE ARE BENEFITS
From his research, Dr. Dietrich Kuhl, former Director of WEC International, unveiled some encouraging statistics. Seventy four percent of WEC leaders affirmed that the advantages of multicultural teams far outweigh the disadvantages. One leader commented, "Though it takes commitment to work at building friendships and relationships in a multicultural team, I count it all worthwhile since it is, after all, what we are working towards for all eternity" (Kuhl 1996, 70). While admitting that there are frustrations and misunderstandings at times, Wigram emphasized that living, working, eating, travelling and sharing with people from other cultures is an unbeatable experience of the Body of Christ in action. In the same tone, Dorothy Haile, International Personnel Coordinator of SIM, said, "We do struggle with problems but I believe we are richer for our diversity." What then are some of the benefits of multicultural teams?
A dynamic visual aid. As ethnic clashes increase worldwide, an effective multicultural team can be a powerful demonstration to the gospel message. It speaks of the international nature of the church declaring the relevancy of the gospel for all peoples in all times. It emphasises the biblical principle of unity in diversity and can help eliminate hostility towards Christianity with its colonial history.
Increased potential for recruitment. In 1975 only one percent of WEC’s active members were from non-Western countries. Ten years later the percentage increased to 6.6 percent. In 1995 non-Westerners within the ranks rose to 13 percent. Today, 20 percent of its work force of 2000 members comes from non-Western countries. The scope for global recruitment has enlarged. Other organizations, like OMF, are also broadening their opportunities for recruitment, not only for the organization itself but also for mission in general through developing and partnering with indigenous non-Western mission agencies.
Wider prayer platform. As the spectrum for recruitment widens so does the potential to raise up more prayer support for the ministries. Through e-mail and fax, regular or urgent prayer news is rapidly disseminated across the globe.
Synergy in action. Brazilians are bold and enthusiastic to share the gospel, the Dutch quick to develop language learning skills, Germans often precise and orderly, and Koreans quick to establish new projects. Though these generalizations may not always be true, a variety of strengths are injected into a team that is cross-culturally mixed. When a leader identifies these qualities and exploits the differences in a positive sense it can have a dynamic effect. One field leader said, "Our different viewpoints and different personalities enabled us to reach a wide cross-section of the targeted population in friendship building. It also helped us in brain-storming and strategizing." An Australian team member, working in Central Asia, expressed appreciation for her co-worker from Hong Kong. "Our target people worship at the tombs of saints, bowing, praying, kissing the tombs, lighting candles and offering sacrifices in exchange for favors. As a team, we needed to address this issue of saint veneration. Our team worker from Hong Kong, whose family was once involved in such practices, was able to share from her own personal experience that this practice is wrong and contrary to God’s commandments. Her personal testimony was far more influential than our theoretical teaching."
Sharpens cultural awareness and spiritual qualities. All workers tend to bring a degree of cultural "baggage" on board when joining a multinational team. The exposure one to another sharpens cultural awareness. Flexibility, tolerance and humility are among the many Christ-like qualities team members need to develop if the team is to be effective. A Swiss worker in Africa struggled with the African’s concept of time. His Brazilian co-worker was able to explain and show the importance of relationships taking priority over work. In this situation it was important for the Swiss worker to ask himself, "What can I learn from my fellow worker?" Likewise a Western team member speaking of his Asian colleague said, "He is a real visionary. He has achieved a lot by going ahead in faith where Westerners might have been hesitant and ‘more realistic.’ Through the ministry of this brother the church has grown. It now has a Bible school and a big youth center that reaches a lot of young people in this area."
True internationalization is more than just receiving members from all and any ethnic groups into an organization. Just staying together is not enough. Experience of several years has taught WEC leaders to open their eyes wide and see that the process of internationalization is not only delicate, it takes time. Neither does it happen by itself, it has to be worked at. Principles, policies, structures and practices have to be adapted to achieve and protect equality and mutuality within the multicultural teams. A wise Chinese lawyer, helping a multicultural team in Fiji, explained that unity is like a creature with two legs; identity and equality. Chop off one and you have a cripple. Unity cannot be legislated but grows out of relationships where these two elements are present. Members of a multicultural team therefore need to be themselves (identity) and be on the same footing (equality).
Choosing the pathway of developing multicultural teams is forcing missions like WEC to take their Western blinders off and examine screening and orientation processes. Most organizations require members to be competent in English. Though some initially complain that this is "imperialistic, " it is considered essential for communication. It also levels the playing field in freeing up leadership possibilities from any ethnic constraints.
Other areas which require scrutiny are field administration, personnel handling, leadership concepts and expectations, pastoral care and conflict management. Regional and international seminars which focus on the topic of "Handling Multicultural Teams" are a good way to equip leaders for the task. Such times would also give opportunity to assess progress of the internationalization process within the organization.
Can a mission like WEC lose some of its Western-ness? In time, with hard work and a willingness to change we believe it is possible. True, the cost of change is often greater for the non-Westerner joining the ranks than for someone from a Western background, but the challenge is for all members to be willing to change. "The issue is not, however, the replacement of Western ways and patterns with non-Western ones as such or out of principle. The core issue is equality of choice and openness to look together for the best solution to specific problems and the best approach to specific ministry challenges …there needs to be a paradigm shift in the mind of all members, especially its leaders and senior workers. A new awareness and mind-set need to be taught and cultivated" (Kuhl 1996, 253). Multicultural teams therefore should strive not for a distinction between Western or non-Western ways, but rather openness, respect and synergy.
KNOW YOURSELF. KNOW YOUR COLLEAGUES. KNOW CHRIST!
Pre-field cultural awareness helps in the development of effective multicultural teams. WEC has a four-month residential candidate orientation course. In most sending bases this has become increasingly multicultural thus forging a multicultural attitude among new recruits. The candidates eat together, learn together and undertake practical and outreach ministries together. "Rubbing shoulders" in this way generally exposes any candidate who seems unlikely to make appropriate adaptations on the field. Interactive discussions on multiculturalism are also part of the program, proving a beneficial pre-field experience. An English candidate on a recent course recognized afresh how upset she was when candidates from other cultures were not polite enough to use "please" and "thank you." Before the course was over she recognized it was a question of culture, not impoliteness. A Korean candidate on the same course felt offended when children or younger people called him by name without using the appropriate honorary title used in Korea. He and his family therefore adopted nicknames to be used outside of Korea so the sting of offensiveness was removed. These candidates felt that the pre-field orientation course was a "safe place" to discover one’s own cultural blind spots.
Field workers should also be encouraged to know themselves better. Honest assessment of one’s own cultural values and prejudices is an ongoing process. Multicultural activities can take place during a field conference to help individuals better understand themselves and others. For this purpose the international office of WEC has produced two brief manuals and a series of cultural profiles to guide its members into greater cultural awareness not only of themselves but also of their fellow workers (see reference list).
A degree of mutual understanding in how and why we do things the way we do sets the stage for good relationships in multicultural teams. Listening, learning and laughing together about cultural differences can help develop a growing appreciation of those differences. Team members can discuss why the Australians appear laid back, the British reserved and the Brazilians love hugs! Chris Wigram of OMF recommends that multicultural teams sensitively study the scriptures together from a cultural viewpoint encouraging all members to participate.
When all is said and done, however, it’s knowing Christ that makes the difference in multicultural teams. The process of internationalization can only work if individual team members demonstrate a Christ-likeness in attitudes and actions: broken-ness, humility, dying to self, letting go of rights, a willingness to suffer silently, an ability to esteem others better than oneself. Speaking on the subject a worker said, "Working in a multicultural team has shown me my strengths and weaknesses. It has also been a source of amazement about God’s condescension in Christ. It opened my eyes to what it cost Christ to identify with mankind."
Doubtless, missions such as WEC have a long way to go in the process of developing effective multicultural teams but the choice to go multicultural, though ever challenging, does not appear to be regretted. A recent recruit said, "I think it’s a foretaste of heaven! Jesus came to break down the barriers. After 2000 years we find the I barriers becoming thicker and thicker. We need to be saying that the gospel is valid today, relevant today. We need to show that Jesus breaks down barriers, and makes people one. That’s what makes me excited about the process of internationalization."
Chamberlain, Linda. 1999. United We Serve. London: WEC International.
Kuhl, Dietrich. 1996. "Internationalisation of an Interdenominational Faith Mission: How Acceptable and Effective are Multicultural Teams in WEC International?" Unpublished MA Thesis.
Mackin, Sandra. "Multicultural Teams: Smooth as Silk or Rough as Rawhide?" EMQ 28, April 1992: 134-140.
Myers, Glenn. 1997. Serving Together without Falling Apart. London: WEC International.
Woodford, Brian and Stewart Dinnen. 1987. Serving Together. London: WEC International.
Linda Chamberlain served as deputy international director for WEC in the U.K. She served in Indonesia training potential church leaders through Theological Education by Extension programs and in Singapore recruiting for WEC and developing a sending base.
Copyright © 2001 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.