by Samuel Escobar
I want to reflect on my experiences and observations concerning leadership styles as they relate to the internationalization of mission.
I want to reflect on my experiences and observations concerning leadership styles as they relate to the internationalization of mission. Because this kind of reflection is valid only if done in the light of God’s word, I will examine the issue using what I see as biblical principles.
From 1959 to 1972 I was actively involved in evangelism, teaching and leadership training, as part of the multi-cultural and multiracial staff team of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. I have worked in Peru, my native country, and I have also lived in Argentina, Brazil, Spain, and Canada.
One of my main tasks was to identify Christian students who had leadership potential, communicate to them the vision of mission in the university, and then leave in their hands the task of starting and organizing indigenous Christian groups on campuses. Afterwards, during three years in Canada, I was the general director of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which at that point had a staff of more than 70 persons. From 1979 to 1985 I served as associate general secretary for IFES in Latin America.
For three years I was part of an international pastoral team in a Baptist church in Lima, Peru. My activity in denominational bodies, or as consultant or member of the board of several missionary organizations, has many times involved interviewing, hiring, or supervising missionaries and sometimes also arbitrating between national and expatriate leaders.
In this reflection I will major on what I see as underlying principles rather than practical advice. I respect the concerns of a more pragmatic nature that would look for "practical" answers. Such is the genius of American culture and especially of the evangelical subculture. However, my experience has convinced me that if the principles are grasped, understood, and accepted, it is less difficult to find contextual ways of applying them in every situation. On the other hand, when practical steps are dismissed as "idealistic" or "impossible" it is usually because deep inside the principle involved has not been accepted.
1. Internationalization. Let me clarify my understanding of the internationalization of mission. I do not understand by that term the translation or adaptation of some ecclesiastical product for export and marketing overseas, with the help of native employees. Though the imagery of marketing is popular and very influential in some missionary circles, it has a negative effect, because it impoverishes the perception of Christian mission. It cannot convey the wonder, the surprise, the paradox, and the excitement of the missionary process.
Internationalization of Christian mission means acknowledging that God has now raised large and thriving churches in nations where sometimes the Bible was not even translated a hundred years ago. In these churches of the Southern Hemisphere, churches of the poor, churches of the Third World, God is raising up a new missionary force.
Internationalization has become necessary because it is in partnership with those young churches that mission will take place in years to come. In other words, internationalization does not mean that North American churches (or parachurch agencies) are saying to churches in other parts of the world, "Come join us in our task; come and learn the way we have devised it."
I’d rather hear North American churches saying, "Let us find out what God is doing in other parts of the world, especially in the frontiers of mission, and how he is doing it, and let us join him with our brothers and sisters in order to finish the unfinished task." Every church, old and new, rich and poor, has something to contribute to mission in the global village of tomorrow. That is true internationalization.
Through the years I have learned that acceptance of this principle is not easy for North Americans, especially for conservative evangelicals from the United States. It goes against a deep-seated American instinct and the general mood of the national ethos. However, the more I come to know this country, the clearer the truth becomes for me that authentic missionary experience is what breaks built-in resistance and opens the minds of people to true internationalism. One of the great cultural by-products of Christian missionary work from the United States is that frequently the missionary who comes back is able to open windows for the narrow parochialism of the average citizen.
2. Basic concepts of leadership. By way of a working definition, I also need to outline my basic concepts of leadership. I would choose two fundamental qualities of leadership that transcend the differences that may come from particular cultural, social, educational, or even theological circumstances. My Swiss colleague, Hans Burki, summarized those qualities in two terms: initiative and initiation. Leaders are:
1. People who take the initiative. Here I see four gifts at work:
- Alertness: the gift of eyes open to the needs;
- Spirit of service: the gift of disposition to step in;
- Energy: the gift of gathering within the strength necessary to step in and remain at the job;
- Discernment of time: the gift of perceiving precisely when to step in.
2. People who initiate others. Four gifts are exercised.
- a) Discernment of people: the gift to discover people with leadership potential;
- Gift of attraction: the gift to inspire love and/or respect in followers;
- Care for people: the gift to believe in others and guide them by self-giving example rather than manipulation;
- Articulation: the gift of being able to articulate a vision and communicate it effectively.
The distinctive notes of this concept of leadership probably show the biases that come from my own cultural background, but I think some of them come also from experience at several levels and in different places.
PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICES
In this section I would like to outline some of my principles and practices in national and international leadership teams, and the more frequent problems and questions I have faced.
1. Selection and trust.In any form of missionary work leaders are those who take initiatives in mission and initiate others to engage in mission. They are people who in turn have been initiated and followed others. An able leader has been a good follower at some point. The selection process by which you identify such people involves a complex set of personal relationships and also a well-devised process of observation.
This is more operative in younger churches and pioneer situations, in which missionary organizations are still not affected by a process of institutionalization to the same degree as their counterparts in the United States. The latter, in my view, have become increasingly shaped by the bureaucratic patterns and practices of business and government corporations.
I cannot always select the people with whom I would like to work in a leadership team. More frequently I become part of a team where I have to adapt to the group. However, I share here my ideal in terms of principles for selection of leaders. By the time I was given a position to select and train leaders I had learned to reflect about my own experience in a self-critical manner. I came to the conclusion that the way I had been selected to be a leader myself had much to do with the quality of relationships I came to have with my missionary colleagues, both the senior ones who were my own leaders and the younger ones who were my co-workers. That quality of relationships was a key element for the fulfillment of our missionary task. The key elements right at the start of the process were first careful selection and then complete trust.
How do I measure the leadership quality of a person in a given circumstance? I observe this person in his or her context. This means that I am able to first immerse myself in that context with this person. The way he receives me in the station or the airport, the way she speaks to her associates, the way he is aquainted with his community, the way she relates to other Christian leaders in the city and the country, the way he responds to unexpected demands that interrupt our conversation, the way she handles telephone calls in her office, the way he describes and defines the difficulties he is experiencing in the work, the way she handles disagreements, and so on.
I prefer to observe and to talk rather than send a written questionnaire, because I know that there are courses and handbooks that teach you correct answers to these kinds of questions. I want more than correct answers, of course. Observation has to be extended in time. Endurance is essential to leadership and it cannot be measured in one day or one week. Initial perceptions may be deceiving and misleading. In many instances I have had to prefer a somewhat dull and timid but faithful leader over a bright, impressive, but superficial one.
Selection along these lines is a good foundation in order to develop trust, which is a key element in relationships between leaders and their people, and among leaders themselves. In my observation trust in local and national leaders is essential for the development of indigeneity. Missions, denominations, and organizations that have not developed trust in the local indigenous leaders have tended to erect long-lasting structures of control over younger churches using for it their resources of personnel, expertise, and money. Frequently, the lack of trust reflects the weaknesses of the selection process, but also the insecurity of the person unable to trust. Lack of trust breeds paternalism.
The internationalization of mission requires also trust at the level of inter-church relationships. To accept national leaders as co-workers in international teams demands a measure of confidence in the process by which these leaders have been selected by their respective churches and mission organizations in their own communities. It is difficult to move ahead as a team with insecure leaders who have to check every one of their movements for fear of censorship and control of national or foreign leaders above them.
Theological position is an example of how this principle operates. A leader in mission is a person who has assumed for himself or herself a theological stance, a way of understanding the gospel and the missionary task itself. This means personal conviction. It is different from mere formal or external assent for the sake of acceptance. Personal conviction comes through a process of grappling constantly with the content and the consequences of truth, and many times it is a painful struggle.
But I can trust a leader who has personal convictions like that. I can trust the Holy Spirit to guide such a leader in theological growth through deeper understanding of God’s Word, in his or her own context, as he or she moves forward in service. If I have to constantly police the orthodoxy of leaders, it means that deep inside I am not so sure that they have personal convictions. It may betray awareness that theology has been imposed upon them through coercion. It is insulting for a mature national leader anywhere to have his or her orthodoxy constantly policed by foreign leaders who have never grappled with the deep issues involved in articulating a theological conviction in their own context.
2. The incarnational principle.A principle of leadership style closely related to the previous point is one for which we can use the New Testament language of incarnation. The Great Commission in its Johannine form points to this principle. Jesus gave not only a command to go to the world in mission, "I am sending you," but also a model, "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you" (John 20:21). The apostolic testimony then refers to an experience that is holistic: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched-this we proclaim concerning the Word of life" (1 John 1:1). Paul’s apostolic style was an example of how the pattern set up by Jesus could be applied in the multi-cultural Mediterranean world of the first century. Paul could write, for instance, to the Thessalonians: "You are witnesses and so is God of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you"(l Thess.2:10).Paul practiced the incarnational missionary style. So he could build his argument in this chapter around his style, how he lived among the people. Every aspect of it- motivation, sacrifice, authenticity, ways of handling finance, pastoral alertness, motherly warmth, and fatherly rigor- was incarnate among them.
Mission can never be achieved from a distance, from the safety of a detached bureaucratic style. The clue to move from one culture to another with the gospel is the kenotic experience of incarnation. It is costly and painful, but it is the only one that produces lasting results. If the sowing of the seed of the gospel demands that kind of incarnational style in the missionary, it gives birth to a form of Christian life that is also incarnate in a given culture. There are perspectives about mission that do not come from either books or computers, but from incarnation in grassroots situations. I have come to have great respect for them and I try to keep my eyes and ears open and attentive to every kind of practitioner of mission who comes across my path.
Leadership patterns in younger churches usually come from an experience of incarnation. Leaders recognized and loved by the people are those who have come from among them, made of the same kind of stuff, able to communicate in the language and cultural patterns that the followers recognize. Because these leaders are close to their people and identify with them, they may be sometimes stubborn in their positions and protective of their people, to the point of being ready to fight for them.
One of the problems of the outsider is that he or she sometimes prefers to deal with leaders who may be more "objective" and open to negotiation, to the point of making concessions that eventually may hurt their people. Internationalization of mission demands a disposition to deal with authentic leaders incarnate among the people rather than with obsequious mercenaries.
Ways of cooperation, negotiation, and joint ventures in mission can develop around the validity and relevance of this principle of incarnation. In order to foster an incamational spirit, in the training of leaders I would stress three principles that have to be taught as we create situations in which they can also be practiced.
a) Proximity: crossing barriers and filling gaps that may come from culture, status, financial ability, social class, technological advance, or intellectual sophistication.
b) Sacrifice: You can only achieve proximity by a measure of vulnerability and sacrifice, of letting Christ in the other person grow greater as you become less.
c) Solidarity: an intentional effort to side with those among whom you are incarnating the gospel, of taking their point of view, of walking miles in their shoes, of spending what you have and what you are for their sake (2 Cor. 12:15).
3. Relationship and function. Leadership teams accomplish more and better when there is a warm, deep, person-to-person relationship as the basis for the common work. In this sense, fellowship is interrelated with mission, relationship precedes function, friendship precedes efficiency. My study of mission history confirms my experience. In several influential movements of our century, as varied as the Student Volunteer Movement, Evangelism-in-Depth, the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, the Ecumenical Movement, you can find generational clusters of people who shared a common vision and implemented it through a common task in which they were linked by a warm, close friendship. I would dare to say that friendship and fellowship provided the basis for mutual trust. The internationalization of mission will require similar teams or generational clusters.
Leaders are people who have the ability to generate and enrich this kind of relationship among those they lead. Trust and friendship presuppose acceptance of the other person as an equal partner, and acceptance of his or her humanity and dignity. The history of missions since the New Testament days shows that ethnocentrism is characteristic of every culture and nation, and it is accentuated by imperialism. One issue debated by Spanish theologians in the 16th century was whether the native inhabitants of the Americas were human or not. No wonder it would be so difficult to consider the ordination of native priests. No wonder 45 percent of North American Catholic missionaries still go to Latin America.
Acceptance of the "barbarian" as "one of us" is never easy, and one of the glories of the gospel is its transforming power to make human beings able to accept the other, to change hostility into hospitality. To accept that a barbarian (and not just we the civilized) be a leader of the barbarians may be one great step ahead for some missionaries. But to accept that a barbarian may become one of our leaders, a leader of the civilized, is probably very difficult.
The internationalization of mission will require a disposition to accept partnerships in which leaders come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. The partners in these new schemes will be contributing to mission in different ways. One of the most important principles of interaction will be that those who contribute the most financially may not happen to be the ones who will provide the leadership in terms of spiritual maturity, theology, methods, and strategies.
I have found that this is the most difficult principle for North Americans to accept. Partly because in missionary practice usually money has had strings attached, and partly because here we are dealing with a deeply ingrained characteristic of their national ethos. True fellowship, friendship, arid trust are the kind of spiritual infrastructure that makes international partnerships possible.
4. Grasping and communicating a vision. Without a clear vision there is no mission. This principle operates at the local level in a village and at the international level of a leadership team. A good leader can articulate and communicate a vision to his followers and to coming generations. International mission teams will need a clear vision of the segment of God’s mission in which they will engage. Some questions are raised precisely at the point of articulating and communicating it I have had to face questions of both method and substance.
Most Latin Americans and Europeans, and to some degree Africans, will articulate a vision on the basis of a clear, consistent theory and historical background. North Americans and some Asians will articulate a vision more in terms of a task-oriented sequence of steps to be followed in order to achieve a goal. If an international team is going to work, the common vision has to be formulated and grasped in a way that takes all these cultural patterns into account. This involves a serious, intentional process of communication which does not happen easily.
In the last two decades I have taken part in many events geared to promote evangelism, by people equally convinced about its importance. However, I have seen groups split apart, for instance, as they try to define the "evangelistic task" in which they want to work together. Communication is blocked when these approaches are presented as mutually exclusive, and when one of them is sanctioned as "orthodox" (evangelical) and the other is labeled "heretical" (liberal). It seems to me that a document like the Lausanne Covenant demonstrates that both approaches can be included, arriving at a consensus.
However, sometimes the questions are more substantial than methodological. At Lausanne in 1974, some leaders (especially from North America) wanted a "task-oriented" statement around which evangelicals of the world could rally to carry on what these leaders had defined as "evangelism." However, other leaders (especially, but not only, from the Third World) wanted to have a say in the definition of "evangelism" itself, before rallying around a vision. I think that some among the former leaders never came to see the legitimacy of this concern of the latter to have a say in the very articulation of the vision that was being offered to them.
Internationalization will involve a commitment to acknowledge the validity of the efforts of Christians elsewhere to understand and apply evangelical faith in their own context, and to let these partners take part in the defining what missionary action is supposed to be in the coming decade.
The predominant missiological trend in North America is what I call "managerial missiology," an approach to mission as "a manageable task" for which technology and the social sciences can provide the necessary methodology. This trend represents the epitome of the task-oriented type of a vision to which I referred above. It finds resistance and criticism among many evangelicals in different parts of the world who would like more a vision that includes clear, theologically grounded, and historically aware concepts. We have the suspicion that if such a vision is grasped, the vision provided by managerial missiology would be radically changed.
One decisive change will come as we consider the importance of factors that cannot be quantified and reduced to manageable information schemes. The quality and the transformative power of the missionary presence cannot be reduced to figures. For us, that is a prior question, more important than the great number of missionaries we can count. The previous questions as to the truthfulness and relevance of the message are for us more important than the number of printed copies of the message we can count. True internationalization demands better communication, and disposition to change among all parts concerned in this important debate.
5. Reciprocity. The New Testament principle for cooperation and fellowship in mission in a cross-cultural international situation is the principle of reciprocity. It was developed by the apostle Paul as he elaborated a rationale to explain some aspects of the financial side of his missionary practice. This is especially clear in Romans 15 and 2 Corinthians 8 and 9.
The principle worked in his famous collection among the Gentile churches of Macedonia and Achaia for the poor in Judea, on the basis that "if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings" (Rom. 15:27). Each had contributed something to the life of the church in mission. It is as if Paul were to put all contributions on the table in order to establish a pattern of relationships that developed from the recognition of each other’s gifts, a pattern that can be described with the words mutuality and reciprocity.
When we look at the context (Rom. 15:14-29) we see that it is the promotion of mission. Paul wants to get the believers in Rome involved in his missionary enterprise to Spain: "I hope to visit you while passing through and to have you assist me on my journey there…" (v. 24). So he explains that he is now engaged in a very important missionary task of holistic ministry, before he starts his pioneer apostolic task in Spain.
But he also encourages his Roman readers to consider involvement in mission by pointing to the good example of generosity from the churches in Macedonia and Achaia. Within that context he establishes the principle of mutuality and reciprocity. He also used the example of the Macedonians to challenge the Corinthians (2 Cor. 8:1 -7; 9:1 -5) and praised the former for doing their part joyfully and sacrificially. Paul highlights the fact that the Macedonians "gave themselves to the Lord and to us," and encourages the Corinthians to "also excel in this grace of giving."
For Paul, the Corinthians’ participation in this aspect of mission did not involve only an economic transaction "supplying the needs of God’s people," but it also had a eucharistic dimension: "Men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the Gospel of Christ."
Three important facts emerge from this principle: (1) recognition of the others within the body of Christ and the particular contribution they bring. It is possible to take Paul’s image of the body (1 Cor. 12) and understand it at an international scale. (2) respect for the particular gifts that each one brings to the common cause. (3) a holistic approach in which the material and the spiritual gifts are perceived as concrete, comparable realities that play their roles in the common cause.
I have referred above to incarnation and a quality of relationships among leaders which imply acceptance, solidarity, and mutuality. This can only happen if there are structures of mission that facilitate them. Incarnation is not possible when lifestyles are abysmally different and there are few or no chances to cultivate proximity. Incarnation demands a shared life and practical steps have to be taken to close the gaps between us.
My own experience of being part of international teams is that there was equality and proportionality in financial matters. This is a sore spot in international relations in mission and usually the source of serious problems.
The contemporary evangelical missionary agency is usually a group of very different individuals, with a common vision of a specialized ministry, but very little more in common. There is no common spirituality and many times theological stance is not adequately ventilated or discussed. The missionary organization provides a channel for support that comes on a very individualistic, personalized basis, but usually fails to provide spirituality, a mature fellowship, and an adequate sense of discipline that will allow concerted work.
I see a great need to create a new instrument for mission that will be somewhere between the Catholic orders- with their classic vows of poverty and discipline, and their own tradition of spiruality-on one extreme and the typical evangelical mission agency on the other. I am familiar with the models of international mission that we have tried to develop in the student world, in which there has been financial equality, a well-cultivated common spirituality, and a concerted effort to practice a servant hood leadership style. I know that movements like Operation Mobilization, Youth With A Mission, and the Mennonite Central Committee are also experimenting with the components of a new model of missionary action.
As we internationalize mission and face the disparities in income and patterns of support due to the different national origin of the missionaries, this new instrument could become an evangelical version of the monastic orders. This would demand from leaders in the North a disposition to accept incarnation, mutuality, and a final characteristic, equality or justice, which is one step ahead of the other two.
Our times of internationalization of mission pose many new questions. We will find answers to some of them in the simple but radical novelty of apostolic practice, if we dare to distance ourselves from our presuppositions and the accepted wisdom of our own societies.
Samuel Escobar teaches missions at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, Pa. His article is based on a paper he gave at the 1991 meeting of the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies.
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