Resolving Conflict with Cross-cultural Partners

by Mary Lederleitner

How we personally make meaning of situations is a critical component in conflict.

When I was a little girl, my dad often told me a riddle. He would say, “Do you know what kind of ship is most likely to sink?” I would provide the answer he needed to continue, “No dad, what?” He always replied with a grin, “A partnership!” Although we knew his punch line, we would still laugh, because in my family laughter was how we dealt with the painful realities of life.

The sad reality behind this little riddle was that my father had gone into business with a friend and formed a partnership, but it fell apart because of different assumptions and beliefs regarding how financial matters would be handled. Although my dad never said an unkind word about his partner, I knew he was deeply grieved by the experience. My father was a kind and fun-loving soul who truly enjoyed being with people. He had wanted to share his work with someone. He desired the companionship and the camaraderie that partnership, in theory, should embody. Despite the noble aspirations, it did not turn out well.   

I think of my dad frequently as I work in missions. I meet ministry partners who want to work together to fulfill the Great Commission and see mighty things done in the name of Christ for his glory and his kingdom. What aspirations could be nobler? Even so, it is challenging to partner well across cultures. An article in the Harvard Business Review states,

Due to the profound shift of the global Church in recent years, partnership is now the primary strategy most churches, mission agencies, and theological institutions are using to engage in global mission. Yet if we want to partner well, are we willing to begin addressing the often painful realities that need to change within us and our organizations so we might better navigate and resolve conflict? If the answer to that query is a resounding yes, what might such a response entail? There are many levels to this question, but let’s start by looking at two critical facets.

The Personal Component
How we personally make meaning of situations is a critical component in conflict. The process of making meaning is powerful because the meaning we make of a situation—not the situation itself—is what determines if something will be transformative or deformative in our lives (see Mezirow 1991, 145-195). It is in this tricky and frequently uncritically-examined process that profoundly helpful or destructive meanings emerge.

Some of the most helpful insights regarding this process come out of a body of research called attribution literature. From this, Duane Elmer, professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, coined the phrase “Negative Attribution Theory,” and I believe it effectively captures the essence of the process. Here is how it works:  

• I am in a situation where my expectation is not met.
• Instead of categorizing the behavior as neutral, I decide it is bad or wrong.
• I then innately, almost unconsciously, begin to infer negative intent and attributes to the person who did not act in accordance with my expectation (see Lederleitner 2010, 71-76).

Two stories illustrate how this plays out in a global mission context. I have used fictional names and locations to protect anonymity.

Example 1: Mark is the director of a mission agency in Colorado which is partnering with Benjamin’s church in West Africa. The two men studied together in seminary when Benjamin was an international student. They have known and respected one another for years and both sensed a distinct call from God to begin partnering together. The first year of the partnership went well, but things are now becoming tense. Mark has asked for a report from Benjamin outlining how funds raised in the United States have been used in the ministry in West Africa. However, even after several requests, the report has still not been provided. Mark is beginning to think that Benjamin is not the man of integrity he assumed him to be.

Example 2: In the second example the roles are reversed. Joshua is leading a growing church-planting movement in South Asia where large numbers of people are regularly coming to Christ. Two years ago, Joshua formed what appeared to be a Spirit-led partnership with a mega-church in California. However, Joshua is growing more frustrated and annoyed by the day. The mega-church always seems to be sending people to the area who require extensive amounts of his time. It is as though they expect him to drop all his work to act as a type of spiritual tour guide for an endless stream of short-term missionaries coming to the region. Joshua is beginning to feel the church doesn’t really care about missions at all, but only needs an outlet to satisfy their own somewhat self-centered spiritual curiosity. 

Such stories are not uncommon. Learning how to make meaning of situations in fruitful and redemptive ways is one of the most critical competencies for maintaining healthy relationships with partners. But few of us have been taught how to hone and develop this skill. We need to start with asking questions.

• What are the personal components in the above two stories?

• What if Mark and Joshua had chosen to be more aware of the seemingly intuitive mental leaps they were making?

• What if they purposely chose to suspend judgment and not assume negative things about their partners until they had committed to taking additional steps?

• What if they opted instead to first suspend judgment and inquire in culturally appropriate ways?

• What if they set out to listen carefully and thoughtfully, with the primary motivation being to understand their partners’ situations more carefully?

• What if, after following those steps, they carefully shared their own hearts and situations in sensitive and culturally appropriate ways so their partners might better understand what they are facing or incurring because of what is happening in the partnership?

The Managerial Component
The tricky thing about conflict with partners is that even if we personally take all the right steps, action must often be taken at the managerial level as well. Otherwise, even if people demonstrate remorse and ask for and receive forgiveness, if processes do not change, then the same issues will resurface again and again. When this happens, trust is undermined and it becomes increasingly more difficult to feel optimistic or hopeful about future collaboration.

Managerial components are extremely diverse and context-specific. In the above stories, the leaders would have benefitted greatly from taking more time on the front end to discuss how they would manage conflict when it arose instead of assuming collaboration would be relatively easy. Another complexity is that conflict resolution strategies may convey deep respect in one culture and profound disrespect in another. It is necessary to invest time in developing processes that protect relationships and serve the partnership well.

In both scenarios there might also be a need for capacity building. In the first story, the delay might be due to the fact that Benjamin is the only person in his ministry who speaks English. When he is traveling to rural areas, communication gets delayed. Perhaps a report in French would be easier for his staff to complete. If this is the case, the mission agency could recruit a staff member or volunteer who is fluent in French to be the liaison for the partnership.

In the second story, if the mega-church partnered with Joshua with hopes of also having a place to send short-term teams, then Joshua needs funding and time to hire additional staff members to handle the extra workload. Otherwise, Joshua will be so busy working with the church’s short-term teams that he will no longer have time to be effective in his own ministry.

Although it takes time to learn and develop skills to work through conflict with cross-cultural partners, it is worth the effort. Working through conflict in redemptive ways can profoundly deepen and strengthen relationships. It is because collaboration is not easy that I believe if we partner well then the world will truly take notice and begin to see the glory and character of the One we serve!

Lederleitner, Mary. 2010. Cross-Cultural Partnerships: Navigating the Complexities of Money and Mission. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Mezirow, Jack. 1991. Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. Hoboken, N.J.: Jossey-Bass.

Weiss, Jeff and Jonathan Hughes. 2005. “Want Collaboration? Accept and Actively Manage Conflict.” Harvard Business Review. March, 92-101.


Mary Lederleitner is a cross-cultural consultant for Wycliffe International and author of Cross-Cultural Partnerships: Navigating the Complexities of Money and Mission. She also serves on the Resource Team for the Coalition on the Support of Indigenous Ministries (

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 220-223. 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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