The Trust Factor in Multicultural Teams

by Erik Plantenga

Building and maintaining trust is an essential—though often difficult—component of building healthy international teams.

I just don’t trust her anymore and I don’t know how we can continue working together!” Julie explained to her husband in frustration. It had been a year of trying to work things out in the newly-formed multicultural team (MCT), which was comprised of European, Asian, North, and South American members. It seemed to be getting nowhere, even when much team-building, training, and focus had been invested to get the group off to a new start. “We’ve been in MCTs before, but never like this! What’s wrong and what more can we do?”

This is not a unique case. The issue of trust that Julie expressed is one of the foundational elements to a healthy ministry environment. The Oxford Dictionary defines trust as a “firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.” The word “firm” is key here. The opposite of firm is weak, soft, or slippery, and ultimately untrustworthy. So how and what does trust entail when we think of it in our global mission to serve Christ? More specifically, how does trust impact the complex and complicated atmosphere of MCTs? This article speaks to the importance of establishing and building trust in our teams and how we have experienced it in our ministry.

Two Examples of Crisis
On my first MCT we faced two very large, potentially devastating experiences. We were two teams serving together as one, with members coming from South and Central America, Europe, Africa, and North America (plus the local Asian staff). Both experiences could have easily split the team, impacting both the development projects and the newly-forming churches in our city.

Event #1: A Theft. The first event was a theft by the local manager in the development office. He claimed he hadn’t done it, but there was much evidence to prove he had. Was he lying to avoid shame? Half of the team thought he should be immediately fired. Their reasoning was that he stole, needed to face punishment, and there needed to be an example set so this didn’t happen again. Neither was he acknowledging what he had done, nor was there restitution for the stolen money. Therefore, showing grace in this situation was not right.

The other half of the team felt he needed to be punished since money was lost under his management, but that he should be forgiven, experience grace, and continue to work with the team. They saw in him a friend and a person whom we could still trust. Through this, however, many of us wondered if he could be trusted again, and how we could agree and move forward.

Event #2: A Firing. The second event happened in the office only a short time later, thus heightening its impact on the team. It was summer and most of the foreign staff was gone. Two singles and a couple from our team remained to work and run the development office. The couple had been in the country for about eight years, but the husband still struggled with the language, thereby limiting his cultural adaptation and understanding. He stood in as interim director while the director was gone.

Within a couple weeks, there was a misunderstanding and he fired three local staff. It was done in front of everyone in the office. One of the single workers, also having been around for eight years, was fluent and had adapted well to the culture. Appalled at the manner in which this was done, and seeing the misunderstanding of the situation, she suddenly jumped into the confrontation. This shamed the interim director. The two foreign staff squared off, publicly and privately.

Following these events, the team went through great tension, struggling to regain its composure. The office also went into a time of struggle as the local staff silently (at least around us foreigners) watched how we worked together.

Trust was broken in both situations, with each side looking at the other as wrong. It was a crossroads for the team. We were all following God and standing on biblical principles, but one side had to be wrong. Trust in the team, one would think, would inevitably fall apart. In actuality, the difficulty drew us closer together. What was it that gave us an edge to defeat such difficult circumstances? Was it great leadership? Was it the written memo of understanding by which we lived? Was it our vision statement? Was it faith?

A Foundation which Cannot Be Broken
These were part of it, but I believe the fundamental aspect was a combination of love and trust. Despite our great differences culturally and linguistically (we communicated together in the local language), a trusting relationship was built, forming a special team culture. It was a unifying subculture, respecting our own cultural richness, while emphasizing the local culture. The leadership held the team together tightly, modeling what they spoke and believed; this, too, was a key to the team’s success. James Kouzes and Barry Posner start their book with, “Credibility is the foundation of leadership … [and] Credibility is about how leaders earn the trust and confidence of their constituents” (2011, xi). They themselves modeled trust and unity for us, meeting regularly to talk and pray. They also met with other team leaders for prayer and encouragement. This bred trust and success.

Another MCT with which we were recently a part began out of a team that had broken up due to hurt relationships, differing focuses, and lack of trust. With new excitement, a vision statement emerged, a similar memorandum of understanding was formed, and a team routine (with many team-building exercises) started. It didn’t take long, however, for things to drift into conflict, disappointment, and confusion. Relationships seemed superficial and trust lessoned. Everybody seemed to want to do their own thing, and despite much effort, there was little improvement. Prayer and spoken vision were the only factors holding us together, but eventually team members dispersed for various reasons. One major difference between the two teams was the trust factor.

No matter what ministry or method we are partaking in, in a team culture there is no avoiding the need for some form of relationship to be present. Naturally, it is the leader who will set the tone for the team culture, but it is both the leader and the individuals making up the team who will choose unity or walk their own way. In looking at the first team example above, the leadership’s consistent intentionality and the team’s attitude established the environment of trust.

In Relational Leadership, Walter Wright points out that “Trust is an important component of team unity. The team must trust the leader, and they must know that the leader trusts them. And they must trust each other” (2009, 81).

This environment of trust is foundational. In fact, Patrick Lencioni mentions it as the second “dysfunction” in a team when it is absent (2002, 43). The first team made slight shifts in focus throughout the year, depending upon the felt need of the team. Sometimes, there was greater focus on our local friends, and at other times we spent extra time with each other as a team family. The fact that the team discussed these things openly and that the leadership willingly made adjustments shows they were sensitive and desired to deliberately adjust for the health of both the team and ministry. This could only occur through much communication and deliberate action.

Below are some of the key areas of deliberate action and a discussion of how both the leader and the team’s intentionality built up trust and unity in our team sub-culture.

Worship and Prayer
The first area that set the foundation of the team was worship and prayer. Our context required pioneer church planting since there was no church in the local language. Our spiritual health simply could not be overlooked. This meant the team meetings had to go deeper than just social fellowship or strategy. There was great freedom in our diversity as we came from many nations, denominations, and expressions of worship.

Rather than being a point of contention or conflict, the diversity became a great blessing. E.M. Bounds speaks about this: “Walking with God down the avenues of prayer we acquire something of His likeness, and unconsciously we become witnesses to others of His beauty and His grace” (1997, 18). That was our worship and prayer time. Through prayer, we acquired a likeness of his and became a beautiful witness to each other and our community.

Prayer flourished in our team life and was the greatest example of our trust of each other. We met together monthly for a day of prayer. We had focused prayer in our weekly fellowship times and a separate meeting each week for prayer, accountability, and strategy. Worship and prayer were often conducted in the local language, with a welcoming inclusion of our mother tongues in song and prayer: English, Spanish, Korean, and German, all pouring off our lips.

While one person prayed formally, hands folded and seated, the next person was on his feet, pacing the large room, praying with the fire of the Holy Spirit coming out, hands raised to the window outstretched to the city. Another brother was on his knees with his head pressed to the floor. Next to him a sister, seated with hands held open, as if the answered prayers were to be placed into her hands and washed over her face. As she finished, another danced across the room in joyful prayer, followed by another who prayed in a calm, relaxed manner, which resonated deeply from his soul. The man on his knees, a Latino brother, followed this with a loud “SENYORRRRR”, the “R” rolling long enough for us all to gain our composure again as he poured out a passionate tear-filled prayer.

These prayer meetings were the highlight of our month. We trusted each other that we could pray to God in our own way, as our hearts felt, as our cultural backgrounds and life experience had formed, and as the Holy Spirit led. God led those times, forming and uniting us.

Fellowship Together
Trust in our prayer life extended into our fellowship time. This was always purposeful when it was official, with a structured time of worship, prayer, and reading the word together. Fellowship was followed by feasting together. Each person brought something different, the host only having to cook. The team helped clean up. We were a community and we counted on each other.

Fellowship time flowed from the serious to the fun. Birthdays were always a highlight, often with a barbecue, singing, and much joy shared. Every team member was seen as an important person in team life and ministry from the beginning.

Outside team times, we would get together to play sports, have dinner, attend cultural events, or walk in the park. First Thessalonians 2:8 demonstrates Paul’s great love for the church, highlighting that he not only shared the gospel with them, but also shared his life. Following this example, fellowship time was a major way we shared our lives together.

Open Dialogue
Prayer, worship, and fellowship opened the doors to allow us to have open dialogue with each other. Over the years, there were mistakes, hurts, and struggles that occurred on the team. Some of our cultures were direct speakers, while others spoke indirectly. Some sought justice, while others were more honor based. Miscommunication did happen, as the two crises above clearly demonstrate.

However, through the team’s sub-culture of mimicking as closely as possible the local culture, we learned to respond differently. This helped facilitate open communication and open dialogue. The team trusted each other no matter the cost. When there were disagreements, we could debate them, sometimes vigorously. During one meeting, a quiet, newer member became very concerned over what had happened in the meeting. “Is everything alright?” she asked, not understanding much of the language yet. The team had been in a hot debate, appearing to be angry with each other. Those having been on the team for some time could understand the appearance of the discussion, but knew it was a great meeting with important decisions made. Everyone was being heard and we trusted the result that would come, even if it wasn’t what some personally had hoped for.

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, we see this principle explained: “By building trust, a team makes conflict possible because team members do not hesitate to engage in passionate and sometimes emotional debate, knowing that they will not be punished for saying something…” (Lencioni 2002, 201). People could be vulnerable with each other; there was no hiding from each other because we were so close. We held each other accountable and shared our lives together.

Vulnerability & Accountability
Trust and love grows through being vulnerable and accountable to each other. Ironically, this vulnerability and accountability happens only when there is trust. This was probably the hardest aspect for many on the team to adjust to, but the leadership was the first to display it. Kevin Leman and William Pentak say it this way: “People long to follow a leader who is a person of integrity, authenticity, and compassion. That person will have the loyal following and trust of his people” (2004, 49). For this reason, “the most important action that a leader must take to encourage the building of trust on a team is to demonstrate vulnerability first” (Lencioni 2002, 201). Our leaders modeled this and the rest of the team followed, even when some team members’ culture naturally saw vulnerability as a weakness.

Holding each other accountable is intimidating, but each month the team took one two-hour meeting which started in prayer and quickly moved into accountability. Some of this was for the whole team: Who did you meet with this week? How did it go? At other times, men and women met separately and we asked more personal questions. God often used those times in our walk with him. It kept us healthier emotionally and spiritually. Dudley Woodberry states that “Genuine accountability requires trust within the bonds of personal relation-ships among believers” (2008, 154). Occasionally, there was superficial accountability, but this was more often when the team was either needing more time together in fellowship, or a new member had joined the group and trust was building. Some accountability is better than none, and opens the door to deepen or heal relationships.
Forgiveness & Grace
The final key area that brought trust was forgiveness and grace. This naturally stemmed out of our united faith in Jesus and what he had been and was doing for us. When hurts occurred, people were willing to ask for forgiveness, give grace, and move on.

One conflict my wife and I faced shortly after becoming team leaders was very hurtful. A team member reacted very strongly toward us, attacking us verbally, and causing great hurt. We did not know what to do. How could we move forward? After prayer, we went to this person’s house and over tea we talked it out. Humbly, this man asked our forgiveness for his emotional outburst. We were ready to pour forth grace on each other. It was what both our team and we needed to move on.

Wright explains, “Organizations [and teams] must create a context of forgiveness if they expect to have quality leadership. And leaders must embrace their own vulnerability and offer forgiveness to followers if they want to contribute to that context of forgiveness…” (2009, 270). In our attitudes and unspoken values, we knew that our actions toward each other were a direct model to both the fledgling church being planted and to our dear friends in the office who didn’t know Jesus. If we couldn’t model forgiveness and grace, it was highly unlikely the new church would live it out, either.

The keys above intertwined themselves in a way that our relationships were forged and strengthened with time. Living in that isolated location, with very few believers around us, not only required this in order for us to stay healthy, but was the model for the new church. If we did not model and live a life of unity and trust, what good news were we there to teach?

Trust was not formed by some formula, structure, or step-by-step scheme. It was an attitude that the team took and formed through the grace of God and the Holy Spirit’s working in our hearts. Trust comes through relationship, through conflict and struggle, humility, and time. Max DePree reminds us that “Structures do not have anything to do with trust. People build trust” (2004, 28).

This is a strong reminder to newly-forming teams that order, structure, and calendars are important, but that these are not the foundations in a healthy team. Instead, “Trust is the lifeblood of relationships and thus the fuel for teams” (Wright 2009, 86-87). It was this that fueled us forward. Without it, ours would most likely not have been such a successful example of a multi-cultural team or show the way to how we could see God raise up multiple churches in our region.

Bounds, E.M. 1997. Purpose in Prayer. Accessed August 3, 2013, from

DePree, Max. 2004. Leadership is an Art. New York: Doubleday.

Kouzes, James M. and Barry Z. Posner. 2011. Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lencioni, Patrick. 2002. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lemen, Kevin and William Pentak. 2004. The Way of the Shepherd. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan.

Woodberry, J. Dudley, ed. 2008. From Seed to Fruit: Global Trends, Fruitful Practices, and Emerging Issues among Muslims. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

Wright, Walter C. 2009. Relational Leadership: A Biblical Model for Influence and Service. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Paternoster Publishing.


Erik Plantenga (pseudonym) and his family have served with an international mission organization in Central and Western Asia since 2002.

EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 1, pp. 84-91. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.


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