The Problem of Power in Ministry Relationships

by Larry Jones

Compensating for power differentials in ministry by using space and symbols can lead to strong relationships between Western missionary organizations and Majority World partners.

A few years ago a Japanese colleague introduced me to the concept of “hard power” in the context of Christian ministry partnerships. He described a country’s hard power (Nye 2004; 2008, 29) as its capacity in military or economic terms to coerce other states to cooperate or comply with their will. Then he said, “Your organization has a lot of hard power….”

Despite some consternation, I could see what he meant. The organization I was leading, like many Christian intercultural ministries founded in the West, had large economic resources in comparison to smaller Asian ministries. We had a far larger staff, many with high academic credentials. We were officially recognized by governments in many countries and by agencies like UNESCO. This was an intimidating reservoir of organizational hard power. It dawned on me how much power differentials, where one party is far more powerful than the other, complicate intercultural Christian ministry relationships—between individuals and also between organizations. This article looks at power differentials encountered in Christian missionary endeavor and suggests ways we can mitigate their negative effects.
The Power of Nationality
A number of years ago I witnessed a Japanese colleague address an assembly of several hundred Christian leaders:

Now that my government has apologized for our acts during the Second World War, I need to apologize to my brothers and sisters from the countries which were occupied by Japan during that war. We made a terrible mess of things, and caused much suffering. I am truly sorry. Please forgive me.

This man was born after the end of WWII, and he comes from a shame-sensitive culture. For him to make this confession in front of hundreds of his colleagues was a profound step of humility. Colleagues from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Korea came forward and extended their forgiveness to their Japanese brother. For me, it was an unforgettable example of people representing their nation in both owning guilt and extending forgiveness.

Our personae are intimately connected with our nationalities. National identity is a force which radiates into relationships, distorting or even poisoning them. Think of the legacy we bring into relationships as white Americans. A few years ago I had the privilege of preaching at a large church in Manila. After the service, a Filipino man passed by me in the greeting line. He gave no eye contact, and declined to shake my hand or address me in any way. That same young man returned later on. He approached me and shook my hand. He explained, “I was so angry when I saw there was an American in our pulpit, but that is not an excuse for me to have been rude. I am sorry. You had some good things to say.”

It reminds me of numerous encounters I have had with Melanesian people over the years around the island of New Guinea. Millenarian, or “cargo cult” thinking, runs through nearly all Melanesian cultures. Millenarian movements use traditional spiritual terms to explain the staggering disparity in wealth (“cargo”) between the affluent West and Melanesia. The essential proposition is that the ancestor of the Western peoples tricked the ancestor of the Melanesian peoples to gain a spiritual secret for how to get wealth. The millenarian expectation is that someone from the West will come and share the secret of getting cargo. I can frequently tell when I encounter someone particularly gripped by millenarian thinking. He or she has a slightly glassy look in his or her eyes and a tone in his or her voice that communicates, “I know you have the Secret, and I am waiting for you to tell it to me…” The point here is that my identity as a powerful white American exerts a distorting influence on my relationship with some of my Melanesian friends.

Western Dominance, Colonialism, and a Painful Reminder
Americans of European ancestry unknowingly radiate a historic legacy of colonialism that profoundly influences their relationships with people from Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, and Latin America. The historic European domination of the world economic system for hundreds of years has left an indelible imprint on the hearts and minds of those peoples who were subjugated. Today’s disparities in wealth, power, and education between the global South and North are at least in part the fruit of the unjust colonial domination of the past. White American Christian workers rarely realize that when we interact with people from the South, our words and actions are interpreted in the context of the deafening roar of the colonial past. Whether the United States itself was involved in a particular country’s colonial experience is beside the point. The mere color of our faces reminds our colleagues of a painful history.

Further, the global spread of Christian missions in the last three hundred years is inextricably tied to the spread of Western colonialism around the world. A Nigerian pastor commented recently that he is often accused by Muslims of being “a stooge of the colonizing West” merely because he has embraced Christianity. A Muslim imam was preaching in Jakarta several years ago. “Christianity has always been the religion of colonialism!” he shouted. “Why would any self-respecting, patriotic Indonesian ever want to be a Christian?!”

Obstacles to Clear Communication

When I sought to develop partnerships with groups in Indonesia, a key question was, “Who is setting the agenda?” If I, as an American, was the one coming to the table with ideas or suggestions, I sometimes ran into red lights or passive acquiescence. What these partners really wanted was for them to set the agenda and for foreigners, especially those from the West, to support their efforts. When we take the initiative, it reminds our Asian, African, and Latin American partners of those painful colonial relationships when the Western colonists were in charge and their forefathers were forced to comply. Further, Western organizations often bring so much wherewithal to the table in a partnership discussion that our potential partners from Asia, Africa, or Latin America feel they have little to contribute, making respectful, equitable partnerships difficult to achieve. Unintentionally, relatively well-resourced Western missions can plow over a local partner, even when we share the same overall goals and Christian motivation.

Multicultural mission teams can also be affected by nationality power dynamics. The existence of a cultural majority on a ministry team can disturb the team’s capacity for fellowship and effective cooperation. In my experience, the majority in a multicultural team is normally oblivious to these tensions, but the minority has a strong “us vs. them” awareness.1 For example, I have often observed Asian colleagues sitting silent in meetings conducted on the pattern of American town meetings. Their English fluency limits their capacity to listen, process, and formulate a public contribution on the fly, and their cultural background inclines them not to put themselves forward in a public context. Ironically, a mechanism the majority uses to involve everyone in an important decision actually serves to leave the minority out of the decision altogether. When the majority decides their mother tongue will be the language of team communication, minority teammates can feel at a perpetual disadvantage.

Leadership also carries with it power that can distort relationships with those we are called to lead (Goleman, McKee, and Boyatzis 2002, 92ff; Nye 2008). In my experience, these influences are exacerbated in multicultural teams, where teammates are coming from different countries with different expectations of a leader’s role.2 When I worked in Southeast Asia, I had to assiduously encourage our local staff to be honest with me. Their tendency would be to silently go along with whatever I wanted to do, even when they knew I was making a mistake. It is extremely difficult for many Southeast Asians to tell an American that he or she is wrong.

As American individualists, our hearts instinctively cry out, “It isn’t fair! Why should I bear guilt for things I didn’t do?” The very phrasing of the question reflects our cultural bias toward the individual and our reticence to see ourselves inextricably tied to others in a corporate identity. Individual attitudes and actions do matter—there can be no meaningful progress in building genuine fellowship across cultures without having right attitudes in our hearts, faithfully lived out in our deeds. However, these individual choices often only partially mitigate the interference that comes from a larger history of pain between cultures. Many other cultures around the world place a priority on corporate identity over the individual. Thus we almost never start an intercultural relationship with a clean slate—our identification with various groups carries with it interpersonal baggage whether we know it or not. We will be more effective leaders if we are aware of these things, and let them inform our choices.

Space and Symbol as Expressions of Humility
In the waning months of his presidency, Jimmy Carter advocated for a measure of self-restraint (“timidity” was the term Carter used) in the use of American power in foreign relations. Although Carter was castigated by the media for the comment, his sentiment has a telling application for us in intercultural Christian ministry. As leaders of Western mission efforts, we need to be conscious of the overwhelming power we bring into intercultural relationships, and mitigate its distortional effects through a posture of humility. The fruitfulness of our ministries will hinge on our ability to do so. I have used two ways to compensate for power differentials in ministry—space and symbols.

Space. As leaders, it is crucial that we create safe space for truth to flow. Truth, particularly unpleasant truth, is not our enemy. As leaders, we desperately need it; we depend upon our colleagues to share it with us. However, as mentioned above, when there is a significant power differential, the tendency is to fearfully shield the more powerful one from bad news. In an intercultural context, this tendency is exacerbated. We need to bend over backwards in our efforts to elicit the truth from our subordinates and our partners. More importantly, we need to explicitly affirm honest, unpleasant feedback. One failure to do so will send a louder, longer-lasting message than months of telling people we want to hear the truth.

Sometimes, an intermediary is helpful in creating relational space for truth to flow. When I realized that my position as country director of Indonesia inhibited my hearing of problems in a timely fashion, I assigned one of our most respected members to be my liaison with our Indonesian staff. She built a level of trust that gave our staff the freedom to talk with her about problems at home and at the office. She was a safe person who had my confidence and with whom they could be totally honest. The surge of appreciation I sensed among our Indonesian staff and the increase of understanding and insight I gained as a director were invaluable.

Occasionally, I have needed to be personally absent if I am to have any hope of hearing the truth. At a conference several years ago, we were divided into table groups to discuss a list of questions. I sat at a table with colleagues from Thailand, Nepal, the Philippines, and Indonesia. After a few moments of rather desultory discussion, I realized that everyone at the table was waiting for me, as vice president for Asia operations, to state the “right” answer to the question! I later told the facilitator I needed to be unassigned to a table group so the discussion could flow more freely. That table, in my absence, contributed powerful insights for the rest of us which might not have been shared had I stifled the discussion by the power of my position.

Symbols. We also need to be aware of the importance of symbols. More than most people, leaders are dealers in symbols. We are watched more closely, and our actions are interpreted more carefully than our peers. The effective mission leader will use symbolic actions and gestures to reinforce his or her desired message. Skillfully used, symbols communicate more loudly than words. In the context of imbalanced partnerships, we need to learn symbols that communicate humility. The phrase “humble American” is regarded as an oxymoron in many parts of the world. When those of us on the powerful side of an imbalanced intercultural relationship communicate personal humility, doors open for mature, productive cooperation.

Appropriate body posture and gestures are powerful communicators of deference and humility. Several years ago, an American friend was in Japan to network with Japanese Christian leaders. After the first couple of meetings, my friend’s Japanese colleague gently put his hand on my friend’s back as he greeted the next leader on his appointment schedule and whispered, “Bow lower. Bow lower.” Every time I go to Thailand, I greet an immigration official by placing my palms together and touching my fingertips to my bowed forehead. What a warm response I get! We need to learn the cultural gestures that communicate honor and use them profusely.3 Language, and particularly forms of address, can powerfully communicate respect. When I began working closely with a Japanese colleague a few years ago, I always used the respectful suffix—san with his last name, even though we worked in a predominantly Western, egalitarian organizational context. Some time later, he commented appreciatively, “When I first joined our organization, it took me a long time to get used to westerners addressing me by my given name. Before that, the only person to ever address me that way was my mother when she was angry with me!” Using the respectful form of address—san—was a small thing to me, but it carried a symbolic message of respect to my coworker.4

In discussing the prospects for ministry with a large Western ministry, an Indonesian leader said,

I think Indonesians always feel inferior when they interact with Western people. We need social interaction to feel comfortable. It’s not easy for us to feel like we can work as partners. In the future, it’s important to build relationships by sharing and having fun together.

Personal friendships are a richly symbolic approach to mitigating power distortions in intercultural relationships.5 We from the West tend to be goal-oriented and compartmentalized. Our ministry relationships tend to be separate from our social lives. Yet the work domain is where our power radiates the strongest. Informal social settings make us more approachable to our colleagues from the South, offsetting the effects of power in our relationships.

Apologies, especially apologies by a leader, can serve as symbols of humility and build powerful relational bridges across cultures. Western-led ministries have inadvertently wounded many of our non-Western colleagues over the years. When we take the lead in expressing regret for those wounds and asking forgiveness on behalf of our organizations, it drains off tensions and opens up opportunities for genuine fellowship and collegial collaboration.

Humility in Partnership
Our yokefellows in the Church of the South long for Western colleagues who know how to be humble. Leadership qualities like vision, analytical thinking, and proactive strategic planning are admirable; however, in my experience, humility trumps them all. In this vein, I meditate often on Paul’s sentiments in Philippians 2:5-11. Christ’s relationship with us represents the ultimate power differential. He is the Powerful One, and we are weak, sinful creatures. Yet in his incarnation, Christ humbled himself, made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant before us. Paul says, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus…” This is God’s call for us who are the powerful in the global mission enterprise. It is his call for us as individuals and for our Western mission organizations. May we have ears to hear.

1. Jan Dormer (2007, 464) documents sources of tension between native English speaking and non-native English speaking staff in mission schools teaching English as a foreign language.

2. Geert Hofstede (UTD 2008) describes the influence of culture on behavior and expectations in the workplace in a  multi-dimensional Power Distance Index.

3. Allan Pease’s (1981) popular work on body language makes a convincing case for the communicative efficacy of posture and body attitudes.

4. Roger Brown and Albert Gilman (1960, reprinted 2003) wrote a ground-breaking study of the intersections of human relationships and language forms in their article, “The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity.”

5. Chaiyun Ukosakul (2007) describes the power of personal relationships in his account of the ministry of Norma Brainerd in Thailand. Dormer (2007, 464) observed that expat English teachers who socialized with their local colleagues outside of the school setting had the best relationships in the school setting as well.

Brown, Roger and Albert Gilman. 1960. “The Pronouns of Power and Solidarity.” In Style in Language. Ed. Thomas Sebeok. New York: John Wiley and Sons. Reprinted in 2003 in Sociolinguistics: The Essential Readings. Eds. Christine Bratt Paulston and G. Richard Tucker, 156-176. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing.

Dormer, Jan Edwards. 2007. “Relationships between Native and Non-native English Speaking  Teachers for Missions.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 43(4): 458-465.

Goleman, Daniel, Annie McKee, and Richard E. Boyatzis. 2002. Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

Nye, Joseph. 2004. Soft Power—The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public  Affairs.

_______. 2008. The Powers to Lead. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pease, Allan. 1981. Body Language. London: Sheldon Press.

Ukosakul, Chaiyun. 2007. “The Effectiveness of Defectiveness.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 43(4): 452-456.

University of Texas, Dallas School of Management (UTD). 2008. “Geert Hofstede Analysis.” Accessed July 31, 2008 from


Larry Jones served for twenty-seven years with SIL International in Asia, in both linguistic fieldwork and administrative leadership. He currently works with The Seed Company, a Wycliffe Bible Translators affiliate, as senior vice president for field programs.

Copyright  © 2009 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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