Leading Diverse Teams on Mission

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“We look like the United Nations. But we’re not as dysfunctional as the United Nations.” That was my standard line explaining the multicultural church I once pastored in Brooklyn. We were “a diverse family on mission,” a Southern Baptist church plant that was from the nations and for the nations. Like the UN, we were diverse. Like the UN, that diversity created complexity and, occasionally, conflict.

Our leadership team was comprised of people who traced their roots back to four continents: North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. Our church (and its leadership team) had a unique West Indian vibe, as we were situated in a majority West Indian neighborhood. If you walked into one of our worship services, you might have heard the Scriptures read in Italian, praise songs that sounded Jamaican, and a sermon offered by a Taiwanese preacher. Not every church will look like this, because contexts vary wildly. However, for those who wish to engage in cross-cultural missions, learning how to lead in a multicultural environment is essential. International missionaries will need to lead teams that look like the United Nations, but hopefully are not as dysfunctional as the United Nations.

Imagine you are a new missionary, deployed overseas to a major city like London, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Nairobi, Tokyo, or Mexico City. You will cross cultural lines in multiple directions. First, you will need to cross cultures merely to function in society. Second, you will need to cross cultural lines as you make disciples. Third (and most importantly), you will need to cross cultural lines to develop a trans-national mission team.

The trans-national mission team could consist of American professional missionaries, translators, global humanitarian experts, and local pastors-in-training. This is what I call a diverse team on mission, and I know from experience that leading such a team is rich and rewarding. It is also hard.

During my time as a Southern Baptist church planter in Brooklyn, I learned valuable lessons about leadership, especially in multicultural settings. These leadership lessons can be summarized in three statements.

First, leaders should pursue cultural equity on their teams.

Cultural equity refers to the just treatment of the diverse members of the team. It is not enough to simply assemble a diverse team; we ought to strive for a healthy, functioning diverse team that prizes cultural equity. To diagnose this, we can ask ourselves questions about the team power dynamics. Is all the power concentrated in the hands of the American missionary? Or do emerging, local leaders have opportunities to shape the vision and strategy of the missionary enterprise? Our answers will illustrate the degree of equity present in our teams.

There is a biblical precedent for prioritizing cultural equity on teams. In Acts 6, a controversy arose because the Greek-cultured widows believed that they were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. The Hebrew-cultured Apostles did not dispute this claim, but instead led the nascent church to appoint Greek-cultured leaders (some see these as the first deacons) who would serve the Church by overseeing this distribution. Hebraic Apostles and Hellenistic proto-deacons functioned as the first multicultural team in church history. The existence of this diverse team is evidence that cultural equity matters in the Kingdom of God.

Second, leaders should develop cultural intelligence (CQ).

Scholars in the business world have developed a framework for measuring cultural intelligence (CQ). Management experts teach classes on CQ because they know that many modern businesses operate in a transnational context. Consequently, executives are looking for employees who can step off a plane in Beijing and negotiate a deal, and then fly to Tel Aviv to sign a business contract. Globalization has changed business, hence the need for culturally intelligent employees. If this is true in the world of business, how much more so in the world of missions? David Livermore has argued that CQ is comprised of four capabilities: drive, knowledge, strategy, and action. Missionaries must become perpetual students of culture. If they are in a diverse setting (like a modern city), they will need to be students of multiple cultures. If we are going to successfully lead diverse teams, we should embrace the insights from the business world pertaining to cultural intelligence. As we do, we will add the missing ingredient that is provided by the Christian faith: love. Missionaries are not trying to be culturally intelligent so they can make a sale. They are pursuing cultural intelligence because they love their neighbors.

Third, leaders should embrace cultural tension.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected President, he hired many of his political rivals to fill his cabinet. He did not want a team of “Yes Men” who would do whatever he said. He valued multiple perspectives, even as he recognized the buck stopped with him. Many of us (probably most of us) do not like tension on a team. We usually prefer to eliminate tension. Yet in a healthy team, I believe that tension will always surface because of the presence of a multiplicity of perspectives. This is especially true of a culturally diverse team.

Instead of eliminating tension, I believe leaders of diverse teams should embrace the tension. They should lean into it, inviting dialogue and even respectful, charitable debate. Teams that can disagree and still love across the differences are stronger and healthier because of the process. Unity is not synonymous with uniformity.

Leading a diverse team on mission is an exhilarating experience, but one that will require the best of you. If you embark upon such a venture, you should pursue cultural equity, develop cultural intelligence, and embrace cultural tension. When you do, you might discover that, although your team looks like the United Nations, it is not as dysfunctional as the United Nations.

  • Discipleship
Stephen Stallard

Stephen Stallard is the Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He served in NYC for eight years, where he planted a multicultural church. Stephen earned a PhD in Applied Theology from SEBTS. Trained as a missiologist, he enjoys exploring a rich diversity of cultures. Stephen is married to Sonya, the love of his life. They have four children: one girl and three boys. Stephen's hobby is making hot sauce.

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