Westerners and Middle Easterners Serving Together

by Perry W. H. Shaw

https://emqonline.com/store/reprints-Westerners%20and%20Middle%20Easterners%20Serving%20TogetherThe author shares seven common struggles in ministry partnerships in the Middle East.

In Jesus’ great High Priestly prayer he asked the Father that those who would be his followers would be one, that the world may believe in him (John 17:20-24). Similarly, the Apostle Paul encouraged the Philippian believers (and us with them) to seek as much as possible to be of the same mind, serving one another in love (Phil. 2:1-4). Theologically, the growing desire for believers from around the globe to see themselves as co-workers in the service of the gospel is a sign of maturity. This has multiple manifestations: westerners serving under Majority World leadership; organizational boards with Western, African, Asian, and/or Latin membership; and mission organizations seeking to globalize their membership, including leadership that embraces people from both traditional “sending” and “receiving” countries.

While easy in theory, the biblical call to love and unity in Christ is difficult in practice—especially where cultural perspectives differ. Part of the process of striving toward unity is discussion of cultural differences. My family and I have been privileged to serve with a variety of Middle Eastern churches and organizations, and have seen our own Western sending organization embrace Middle Eastern members—sometimes  successfully, sometimes (sadly) in failure. The observations which follow describe some common struggles westerners and Middle Easterners may face as they partner with one another as brothers and sisters in service for the kingdom. From discussions with leaders in Asia and Africa, it is clear that many of these features are also common in other Majority World regions. These and other possible points of tension need to be taken into account as organizations increasingly seek to embrace a global membership.

At the outset I need to say that these observations are generalizations, and there are numerous exceptions on both sides. However, I have observed these realities frequently enough to merit recording them as amber lights to consider as we seek mutual understanding and service together.

Observation 1: Financial Accountability
The norm in much of Middle Eastern society is to do receipting only upon request: the draconic bureaucracy and the level of bribery and corruption among public officials has led most Middle Easterners to recognize that they will receive far less hassle if no one knows exactly how much money they have. It is common practice in the Middle Eastern marketplace to resist any sort of receipting, even to the point where the trader will simply pull a wad of notes out of the pocket to pay bills as they come. A shake of the hand is a matter of honor, and in many places a request for a receipt can be perceived as an insult—a questioning of the trader’s integrity. Numerous times in my years in the Middle East I have returned a faulty product to a trader who issued no receipt, and the trader has responded with great concern to solve the problem as quickly and smoothly as possible, replacing the product if necessary without question.

The general prevalence of this practice in the wider society has led to similar practices in many parts of the Church: many Middle Eastern Christian leaders avoid receipting, and money may be placed where the Middle Eastern leader feels it is needed—not necessarily where the donor intended for it to go. For Western agencies, such lack of accountability is seen as poor stewardship and an open door to temptation. Experience says that such temptation is a real problem, and there have certainly been instances in which Middle Easterners have channeled designated funds into their own pockets. The danger is real. However, many church leaders take it as a matter of honor to practice good stewardship and use donor finances wisely and carefully (if not always as originally intended). In such cases, a demand for careful receipting and bookkeeping may be perceived as an insulting statement that he or she is untrustworthy.

In light of increasing economic pressures and tighter legal regulations in the major donor countries, the financial accountability westerners take for granted inevitably will need to be embraced by those in the Middle East who seek to work in partnership. Tensions can be reduced through building accountability. This is done through strong relationships and affirmation to Middle Eastern partners of our respect and trust. Many Middle Easterners find record-keeping tedious and unnecessary, and may need encouragement, administrative support, and training to help them provide the sort of reporting that is needed.   

Observation 2: Salary for Ministry
It is common practice for those in ministry in the Middle East to have three or more ministries from which they receive a salary. However, the salary is paid only through one source. For example, a minister may receive his actual salary as the CEO of some Christian institution, but in reality he only works there part time. The bulk of his time will be as pastor of a church (which pays nothing) and in evangelistic ministries (which pay nothing).

This phenomenon may not be immediately visible: his office will be at the institution, but most of his time at the office is spent in sermon preparation and Bible study, rather than doing the work of the institution, and the bulk of the phone calls will be related to his outside ministries—billed to the institution.

When Western agencies employ someone to do a job, they generally expect the person employed to keep regular office hours—and for the time at the office to be devoted one hundred percent to the job for which he or she is being paid. Middle Easterners generally see their lives in a more holistic way. Their whole lives are in service to the Lord. They cannot separate the work in the institution from the service as pastor or from the evangelistic ministries. Some (particularly Western agencies) can afford to pay more than others, and so it is only right that they should support the Lord’s ministries and ease the burden on those who cannot afford it. This is an area where there is potential for significant mutual learning. I sometimes wonder whether Majority World partners may have a better understanding of the meaning of Christian life and ministry as a holistic endeavor entwining who we are and what we do. Careful communication, which discusses expectations, and perceived needs and ministry burdens, is a first step toward working through different understandings of ministry boundaries.

Observation 3: Western Agencies Are Awash with Money
Many Middle Easterners assume that all Western agencies have plenty of money, and consequently cannot understand such things as the need to raise one’s own personal support or to keep expenditure down to a minimum. There are several factors that lie behind this phenomenon. One is the historic fault of mission agencies that have poured thousands of dollars into Middle Eastern projects—often with little or no accountability (but see #1 above!). Another factor is the extravagant lifestyle of many missionaries on the field and/or the perceived wealth reflected in missionary lifestyles—after all, who but the very wealthy do so much overseas travel?

I recall a Lebanese pastor who joined a Western agency and immediately expected the agency to purchase an expensive car for him (and cover the fuel and maintenance charges), rent a large well-appointed apartment for him, and arrange for his children to be educated in a private school. The agency was able to point to Western workers who had simpler cars and apartments, and this helped defuse the situation.

Observation 4: A Rule Book?
Many Middle Easterners cannot understand the meaning and significance of rule books. Written job descriptions are only now beginning to be used in the workplace, and they are virtually unheard of in Middle Eastern churches. Generally, work parameters are developed in broad terms through an oral agreement. To a large extent this approach emerges naturally out of the highly relational basis of Middle Eastern life. There are several reasons for the resistance to rule books and job descriptions: not only is there lack of experience in Middle Eastern society, but in many places there is also a high level of functional illiteracy—even among the highly educated. Perhaps even more significantly, a written agreement can be interpreted to imply a lack of trust. Another factor is the absurd Middle Eastern bureaucracy, and a legal system which is contradictory and impossible to comprehend. Many Middle Easterners spend their lives working around the system and/or seeking loopholes that will enable them to do the best of a bad lot. Survival can depend upon it. Often instinctually, Middle Easterners can view any form of rule book (particularly if established by a “foreign” organization) with the same attitude—as a document to be worked around rather than as healthy guidelines for practice. In some cases, fear can be an issue. In many Middle Eastern countries the security police are everywhere, and written material is particularly dangerous, hence a general reluctance to put anything in writing.

Agencies that seek partnership can generally succeed only by reducing regulations to the simplest, clearest, and most important issues, preferably through dialogue that involves both the Western and Middle Eastern partners in the regulatory process. What has been agreed upon then needs to be reinforced regularly through oral communication. Even when these precautions are taken, it is not uncommon for regulations to be ignored. In such circumstances, whatever disciplinary actions are done must take place in an environment that affirms the person of the “offender,” while remaining doubly firm on the need to abide by shared procedural understandings.

Observation 5: Communication
There are a large number of potential oral communication problems. Experts speak of societies that use high or low-context communication—high context being where the bulk of the communication comes through the non-verbal domain, low context where the bulk of the communication is embedded in the actual words (Gudykunst 1998). Arabs have been found to be among the highest of high-context communicators in the world. Most Western societies predominantly employ low-context communication. Middle Easterners frequently say what they think you want to hear rather than speaking their minds. From their perspective, this is not deceit, but a desire to have a good relationship and honor the other person. For westerners not attuned to Middle Eastern communication subtleties, it can often be surprising—even horrifying—to later discover that the Middle Easterner has not meant what he or she said.

It is not uncommon for Middle Easterners to talk as though they know something when they don’t have any idea. They do not do this to deceive, but out of a desire for a good relationship. More than once I have asked a Middle Eastern policeman for directions, only to discover that he does not have a clue! I have learned to observe closely the non-verbal communication (the confused pause before the confident statement) through which the Middle Easterner communicates that he or she does not know.

Middle Easterners will rarely admit verbally that they are wrong. Preserving honor—both one’s own and that of significant others—is very important in the Middle East, and Middle Easterners will often communicate acknowledgement of wrongdoing through a kind act rather than an apology. In the same vein, a work or ministry evaluation is frequently taken personally, seen as a criticism, and viewed as a dishonor to one’s “face.”

A related issue is the reluctance to say “no.” Saying this is generally seen as an insulting statement that “I don’t care about you enough to want the thing to happen.” I have rarely heard a Middle Easterner refuse outright any request. Refusals are usually given through terms such as, “It would be difficult” or “Tomorrow, God willing.” Some will say “Yes, I will do it,” while their face and tone communicate that they never will. “Tomorrow” needs to be understood as a general term for some time in the future. “God willing” is a statement that, “I would like this to happen, but since God is sovereign, only he knows.” I have found that in reality, “Tomorrow, God willing” has meant as quickly as half an hour (rare indeed, but it has happened) to four months later—and frequently “never.” If they throw their arms in the air while saying it, you can usually be guaranteed that they have no intention of facilitating the process: “If God makes it happen, then that’s fine, but I have neither the time nor the interest in being a part of that process.”

When Western agencies employ a Middle Easterner, they need to be aware that a verbal agreement to do something by a set date should not necessarily be understood as binding. In the same way, any agreement made by a predecessor may not be seen as binding—or then again it might (when the agency feels it is no longer binding)! Westerners who repeatedly say “no” to Middle Easterners may be perceived as rude or insulting.

Successful partnerships between Western and Middle Eastern members need interpreters—westerners who have extensive knowledge and experience of the Middle Eastern language and culture and/or Middle Easterners who have lived and come to understand the West. Such interpreters can help all parties to “read” the intercultural communication taking place.

Observation 6: Tribal Loyalty
Middle Eastern society is overwhelmingly tribal (cf. Shaw 2005), and there is a great concern to look after one’s own and trust only one’s own. Consequently, in general one could expect that Middle Easterners who join Western agencies will see no obligation to seek tenders or shop around for the best deal. They will probably go to someone they know—preferably a member of their extended family—even if the family member asks two to three times the price and/or is incompetent. Coming from contexts where the evangelical Protestant community is a minority within a minority, there is also the tendency to employ Protestants (even if incompetent and/or expensive), rather than people from other traditions (irrespective of whether they are more competent and/or cheaper than the Protestants). Middle Easterners in the West tend to trust Middle Eastern Christians before Western Christians.

Also, related to #2 above, it is probable that any Western agency will take second place to “tribal” commitments. Western workers may well feel used, and the Middle Easterner cannot understand why. After all, there are no blood ties and the Western organization does not make relationship-building a priority. For those who have been loyal, there will be expectations on a Western organization which westerners would not expect: care in retirement and old age is basic, but there may equally be the expectation to overlook mistakes or incompetence and to employ friends and family. On the positive side, there will be the willingness to make extraordinary sacrifices for members within the Western organization (but not necessarily for the organization as an organization).

My experience has been that it is nearly impossible in the Middle East to fully break out of the tribal mentality. However, it is almost always a positive experience for Middle Easterners to be stretched through being introduced to highly competent people from other “tribes.” Often, westerners are in a better position to cross tribal boundaries and facilitate “multi-tribal” cooperation that better serves the broad interests and concerns of the Kingdom of God.

Observation 7: “Mr. Big” Syndrome
In the Middle East nothing moves without the signature of the “responsible one” (al-masoul)—in many cases, a “Mr. Big.” Stated simply, Middle Easterners frequently find themselves caught between being either Mr. Big (accountable to no one), one of Mr. Big’s friends or lackeys (with only as much authority as they can get out of Mr. Big), nobody (with no authority for anything—providing little incentive to take initiative), or usurper (playing a political game to establish a power base). I recently had a Middle Eastern leader explain it in the following crass way: “It’s like being on a ladder: you kiss the feet of the person above you and kick the head of the person below you.” Another leader then gave me the expression titmaskin lihatta titmakkin (“grovel all you need until you can take control of the position”).

Decision-making in the Middle East tends to be hierarchical and centralized. Many Middle Easterners have difficulty understanding decentralized decision-making. A matrix approach to leadership is incomprehensible to most Middle Easterners, who may fail to understand the modus operandi of a Western executive committee as a decision-making body. While in name executive committees are standard in the Middle East, in reality many tend to be rubber stamp operations in which the decision has already been made by the major powerbroker, and the committee has no choice but to affirm this decision. When dealing with westerners, most Middle Easterners want one person to whom they can address all issues. A statement such as, “This seems reasonable, but I will need to pass it by the executive committee,” when received from a Western person perceived as the decision-maker, is generally understood by a Middle Easterner as a fait accompli upon which action can be made—even before the question is brought to the committee.

Western agencies that value shared leadership will need to patiently explain to Middle Easterners the decision-making processes used in the organizations. I have seen that it is also valuable to have something like a “Middle East director” who is the prime interface with the Middle Eastern leadership; however, this person must have patience and wisdom to ensure that the Middle Easterners understand the director’s role and level of authority.

The glocalization of mission is one of the most exciting developments in the contemporary world Christian movement. Such international cooperation in the service of the Kingdom of God is a sign of maturity and growth. But such cooperation cannot be effective without mutual understanding and a desire to benefit from one another’s cultural perspectives. May God strengthen all of us in this process.

Gudykunst, William B. 1998. “Individualistic and Collectivistic Perspectives on Communication.” Journal of Intercultural Relations 22(2): 107-134.

Shaw, Perry W. H. 2005. “Entrepreneurs and Tribal Leaders: A Phenomenological Approach to Leadership and Teamwork in the Middle East.” MEATE Journal 2(1): 2-17.


Perry W. H. Shaw is chair of the department of ministerial studies at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut, Lebanon. He has been serving as a missionary with MECO in the Middle East since 1990, and is involved in educating leaders from throughout the Middle East.

Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ.  Published: EMQ Jan 2010 Vol 46-1 pgs.14-20. For Reprint Permissions beyond personal use please use our STORE (here).

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