Building Multicultural Ministry Teams
The ideal of multiculturalism is precious to all those who serve in and attend international churches. As the old hymn proclaims, “In Christ there is no east or west,” and it is a precious biblical truth that God has only one true church comprised of the redeemed in Christ of nations around the world.
Yet the reality of working together can often be challenging. People from different nations have different perspectives of life, and churches formed in different nations have worked out ways to do church in their nations that make sense to them. And when we are put together in a multicultural church, we discover many challenges of building multicultural ministry teams. As a pastor with more than 25 years of leading international churches overseas, I am keenly aware of these challenges and have the scars to prove it.
Every church deals with diversity to some degree, but multicultural congregations do it to a much larger degree. All churches must deal with personality differences, and there is good training available today to help leaders do this. Personality is how God made us, and culture is how society taught us to value and act. Culture is a system of values and perspectives of a certain people group, the secrets of survival that are passed down from one generation to the next. Culture is shaped by geography, climate, history, epidemics, wars, tragedies, dynamic personalities, religion, and everything that has happened to a certain people, and it is still morphing and changing as times change. Each culture is always based on the past, what things worked and what didn’t, and is conveyed by parents, teachers, neighbors, songs, stories, and wise sayings.
All Christians and all churches are to seek to follow Christ. For the Christian and for the church, the ethics and the culture of the kingdom of God, to be transformed into the image of Christ, are to be our ideal. Committees or ministry teams in multicultural churches should all strive to live and serve by the power and in the fullness of the Spirit. Yet different cultures will prioritize these matters differently. The churches of all nations work out their faith in their own cultural context, and it makes sense to them. Of course, even within the same nation, there are differences between the old and the young, the urban and the rural, the rich and the poor, and the educated and the uneducated, making churches in these diverse cultural settings function slightly differently from each other.
In the international church multicultural setting, cultural differences are even more pronounced. We all assume our cultural values and perspectives are normal and right, and everyone else’s are strange and maybe even wrong. We each tend to think that “back home” we did church right and often do not understand why people see things differently. For example, all would agree that we need both harmony and progress, but which of these is more important to us? Westerners tend to value progress over harmony and are quite willing to jeopardize peaceful co-existence or to ruffle some feathers for the right cause. Non-westerners, however, tend to value harmony over progress and are willing to jeopardize progress for the sake of unity and group peace.
Often leaders of international churches are blind-sided by concerns raised by a certain group in the church – concerns that they had no idea anyone would even have. Here are some of the cultural differences that I have experienced over the years. (You may have seen others.)
- Is the ministry-team-based form of church organization something that they are familiar with? Or does the national church they come from use a different form of organization, such as simply appoint leaders to make decisions?
- Respect for leaders: do we follow the leaders unquestionably, or do we expect regular updates and question-and-answer times? Do ministry teams outrank the senior pastor, or do they pass along their decisions merely as recommendations? Do leaders retire and pass the baton to others (western Europeans), or do they maintain control behind the scenes as long as they live, even if they give up their official positions (eastern Europeans)?
- Self-confidence: do people feel empowered to speak up and give their opinions in a committee setting? Some cultures encourage individual speaking up (the USA for example) and others encourage being quiet. Remember the Japanese proverb: “The nail that sticks up gets pounded.”
- Is planning wise, necessary, and helpful (Germans for example)? Or should we remain flexible and do less planning (Latinos for example)?
- Are there some church practices that some ethnic groups insist are mandatory?
- Do team members come to meetings ready to listen and to share with other team members and make decisions? Or do the members meet first with the members of their own ethnic background and come with a message from them for the ministry team or the church leadership?
- Do we speak directly, say what we mean and mean what we say? Or do we speak indirectly, or remain non-committal, vague, or quiet? (Sometimes language is a problem, that people are not confident in speaking English, for example.)
- Are the goals of the ministry team measurable, specific, and clear? Or do some members consider them immeasurable or perhaps unspoken?
- Do some team members feel insecure and unaccepted by other nationalities in the group?
The more empowered people of a certain culture feel they are, the more they emphasize perseverance and direct communication. The less empowered a people feel they are, the more they emphasize endurance and indirect communication. Cultures that have been traditionally marginalized and disenfranchised are often hesitant to speak up. Here are some practical suggestions that have worked in my own churches, that might work in yours.
- See ministry teams not merely as tools to achieve something for the church. See them also as the church achieving important goals of fellowship and understanding when they meet, as well.
- Teach and follow the biblical qualifications for church leadership.
- Teach and follow the ethics, values, and culture of the kingdom of God.
- Personally model a humble servant spirit. Be ready to listen to and to forgive others.
- Seek to build culturally balanced ministry teams, but avoid putting spiritually unqualified people on ministry teams.
- Seek to create atmospheres in ministry teams where honest discussions can be held. Encourage teams to pray together, talk together, listen to one another, be honest with their ideas and their concerns. Be sensitive to the team member who is quiet. He may have valid opinions and concerns but feels insecure about sharing them with the whole ministry team.
- If ministry teams are making major decisions that have a large impact on the church, survey the whole congregation for their input and preferences.
- Seek to have both unity and progress. Teach and practice patience and grace.
- Build good relationships with the influencers in your church from different cultural and national groups. Seek out their perspectives and opinions and concerns.
- Do not let problems or conflicts between leaders fester, rather seek to make peace quickly. Do the work of a peacemaker.
- Be careful about rushing things that might cause problems. On major decisions it might be better to make small unified steps than taking big divisive leaps in church programming.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate with the church body.
I have introduced to international churches that I have pastored a servant’s pledge that we have asked all our volunteer workers to abide by. In addition, the pastors and elders also have a pledge to our volunteers (see sidebar).
There should be a seamless sameness for all spiritual leadership, flowing from Christ’s example, through the apostles, through the pastors, and to and through all church leadership. John Stott in his book Calling Christian Leaders emphasized that Christ should always win out over the culture.
“Our model of leadership is often shaped more by culture than by Christ. Yet many cultural models of leadership are incompatible with the servant imagery taught and exhibited by the Lord Jesus. Nevertheless, these alien cultural models are often transplanted uncritically into the church and its hierarchy. In Africa it is the tribal chief, in Latin America the machismo (exaggerated masculinity) of the Spanish male, in south Asia the religious guru fawned on by his disciples, in East Asia the Confucian legacy of the teacher’s unchallengeable authority, and in Britain the British Raj mentality, the overbearing pride associated with the period of British rule until Indian independence in 1947. It is easy for Christian leaders to assimilate one or other of these models without realizing it. But we need to determine that there is no place in the Christian community for the guru or the Confucian teacher, for the African chief, the British Raj mentality or Spanish machismo. These models are not congruous with the spirit of love and gentleness.”[i]
The final thing that I have sought to put before all our volunteers and ministers is the prayer of Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console,
To be understood, as to understand,
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
[i] John Stott, Calling Christian Leaders: Biblical Models of Church, Gospel and Ministry, (Leicester, England, Inter-varsity press, 2002), pp. 129-30.
by David Packer
A Servant’s Commitment
International Baptist Church
Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body… grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4:15-16
I am partnering with others in my service for Christ. I am making a formal confession of my faith in Christ Jesus and a pledge to my fellow servants at International Baptist Church. Confession of Faith: I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who has come into the world to redeem sinners. I believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead. I have personally repented of my sins and trusted in Christ for my salvation.
In my service I will endeavor…
- To serve the Lord Jesus faithfully in my position or responsibility
- To maintain my personal spiritual growth through private devotions
- To pray for the leadership of the church and to work cooperatively with them
- To work in accordance with and not contrary to the doctrinal stances of the church
- To be an example of Christian love and church unity in the church family
- To serve cooperatively with others who are also serving
- To financially support the church and its programs
- To be quick to seek and offer forgiveness when necessary
- To regularly attend worship at IBC
Pastor and Elders’ Commitment
We will endeavor…
- To provide volunteers with adequate training and orientation.
- To support each team member in prayer and by providing adequate supervision and assistance.
- To remain actively informed and engaged with the ministry teams as they meet, discuss, and perform their tasks.
- To hear suggestions and recommendations from ministry teams and support their decisions.
- To be quick to correct misunderstandings and to forgive and ask for forgiveness when necessary.