This blog has been discontinued. See Adam Gonnerman for all future posts.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Covenant Relationships and Cross-Cultural Ministry

Enrolling in the Master of Divinity program at Abilene Christian University Graduate School of Theology means reading books by authors I thought I'd never read again. Mind you, I'm not complaining. This is part of what I signed up for when I chose a seminary affiliated with the Churches of Christ. One of these writers is Sherwood G. Lingenfelter, who is considered an expert in the area of cross-cultural ministry. The book in question, one of several on the reading list for my cross-cultural leadership course starting in January 2021, is entitled "Leading Cross-Culturally: Covenant Relationships for Effective Christian Leadership." While it has some strong points, there is one central weakness I've found. 

For as much as he talks about 'covenant communities,' he says nothing about making an explicit team covenant. In everything he has to say about forming the covenant he relies on the practices of worship, learning, training, and debriefing. He refers to some concepts from the Bible and sets covenant community in distinction to other modes of operating, but again, I found no guidance on creating an actual covenant. I can only assume that this is meant to be an implied covenant based on common belief in Jesus. The devil is always in the details, though, and I think that by not making the matter more explicit the underlying challenges he seeks to resolve with this type of community will only persist. Even white North American evangelicals differ among themselves on what it means to be a Christian in community with each other, and so the differences can only be wider among them and different types of Christians in other cultures.

Within Unitarian Universalism we have a resurging interest in the concept of covenant, drawn from our roots in New England congregationalism. While in the days of the Puritans and among the evangelicals of our time the covenant is seen as being between humans and between humans and God, UUs understand it more simply as the terms of the relationship between people. It is fairly common now for us to create a class covenant at the beginning of each year of Religious Education (aka 'Sunday School), when committees form, and in order to bring common understandings to entire congregations.

Recently the congregation where I'm a member, Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit, New Jersey, voted to put the following covenant in place:

Love guides this congregation. Love calls us daily to acts of liberation grounded in antiracism. We affirm that we live in the complexity of intersectionality and that building healthy and loving relationships is a spiritual practice, requiring both inward and outward focus. Thus, we covenant to listen deeply, speak compassionately, express gratitude, and embrace our unique diversity. We endeavor to communicate honestly and with compassion, particularly when we are in conflict. When we hurt one another, we will try to make amends, forgive and reconnect with an intent to repair, change and grow. Our purpose is to be radically inclusive, feed the human spirit and heal the world. In celebration of the common purpose that unites us and with the aspiration of Beloved Community before us, we will do our best to abide by this covenant.

This isn't an easy covenant. There are parts that we're not all entirely sure we know what they'll mean in practice. Certainly the covenants of our smaller groups aren't quite as lengthy or formal. For a cross-cultural ministry team, whether based in the United States or anywhere else around the world, a clear covenant that was formulated and agreed upon by the founding members of such a team, and which is held up on a regular basis for reflection and application, can be a step in the direction of putting everyone on the same page. Cultural expectations can still get in the way, but the covenanting team will have committed to creating their own culture. The same could conceivably be done for a larger group, such as the participants in a community center, with its projects and programs.

That said, there is some genuine wisdom that I deeply appreciate in Dr Lingenfelter's book. This is only to be expected given the decades he's devoted to the subject. The way that he defines cross-cultural leadership is fairly ecumenical, given his otherwise strongly evangelical perspective. This particular sentence he repeats a few times in the book, so I'm not bothering with a page number.

"Leading cross-culturally is inspiring people who come from two or more cultural traditions to participate with you in building a community of trust, and then to follow you and be empowered by you to achieve a compelling vision of faith."

That 'vision of faith' language does not necessitate a specifically Christian outlook, although that's what Dr. Lingenfelter meant based on the wider context. In any case, it's a solid definition for anyone engaging in faith-centered cross-cultural ministry, including a Unitarian Universalist like myself. In fact, holding in in the broader sense as a UU expands the possibilities. If I find my way into community development work in Brazil, for instance, that 'vision of faith' can be expansive enough to include Catholics, mainline Protestants, evangelicals, and others. So long as our shared vision is one of higher ideals aiming towards building beloved community, it should work. Jesus could even be centered as a master teacher without requiring a particular understanding of his divine or human nature. Forming an explicit covenant would help ensure we're all on the same page as to how we will interact with, uphold, and submit to one another.

In another part of the book, Lingenfelter addresses a key challenge that faces many leaders: letting go.

"The risk of letting go is great. Some may judge us to be inept because we have not controlled outcomes that seem essential to process and progress. We ourselves will feel anxiety and stress because the things that we believe are important may not happen in the way that we desire. The disciplines we think are essential to success may not be followed. The outcomes may be disastrous for the group and for the individuals involved." (p 129)

In preparing for mission work in my youth I heard about this repeatedly. Professors and ministers talked about letting go of a sense of full ownership, allowing people to take control, do things we don't like, and either fail or succeed. And sometimes the toughest part for our pride can be when the people we lead make a choice to which we object, and then it turns out to succeed. Many a missionary has founded a church only to make it into a mini-U.S. embassy. The church culture is American, growth can be limited, and an overdependence on the missionary(ies) can create havoc when they're no longer there. 

Although I don't intend to do church-planting work, I have come to realize that if I were to do so, the range of possibilities for one in the Unitarian Universalist tradition on foreign soil would would be wider than those of any Christian church. The thought serves at times as a method for me to analyze what matters most to UUism, making it the faith it is, and what is adiaphora. My role as UU clergy in that situation would be, I think, to offer the gifts and perspectives of the living tradition, lead within covenant, and provide pastoral care, accepting that how the community develops could be quite different from what I'm familiar with, or else resemble too strongly for my comfort another style (like evangelicalism or Pentecostalism). 

Lingenfelter goes on in another place to describe the difference between 'responsible-for' and 'responsible-to' leadership.

"Responsible-for leaders demonstrate emotional attachment to their role and results, and they exercise power and control to achieve results and assure quality. In contrast, responsible-to leaders demonstrate emotional detachment from their roe and results, and they grant authority, responsibility, and freedom to other people, whom they then counsel and hold accountable to achieve results and quality." (p 133)

He illustrates this from an experience he had with his daughter in her teen years. He saw himself as responsible for her, when in fact she had to be responsible for herself. His role was to be responsible to her, meaning that he would provide guidelines and guidance, but that she would have to be responsible for her own conduct. This is a very common problem for parents transitioning from being correctly responsible for their small children to those same children becoming responsible for themselves as they proceed through their teens and into their 20s. Some never make that transition, and others only poorly and with great difficulty. This is something I know only too well, from first-hand experience as a parent.

"Westerners, educated to trust the power of reason and rationality, assume that people will act responsibly and rationally. This is a false assumption. Most of us, if we are honest in our self-assessment, will recognize that we often act first from our emotional being. The natural consequences of this attribute of human experience and response is that leading a multicultural team always involves irrational and emotional relationships." (p. 157)

As I write this in late November 2020, I still feel very raw about a situation in which I faced the irrationality of another person. Just a few days ago my landlord, with whom I thought I had a great relationship, berated me for asking him to cover up my appliances and dishes in the kitchen while he did some repainting. This was a project he had undertaken on his own, and that I had welcomed. He covered my living room furniture while scraping and priming the walls, but didn't do the same in the kitchen, leaving a thick layer of paint dust over everything on the counter. I only discovered it as I went to make dinner, and would gladly have moved things or covered everything up myself had I known he wouldn't do prep work there. His explosive reaction to me pointing out the dust and asking that he cover things or let me know ahead of time so I could do it was shocking, and he became so belligerent that I had to tell him to leave. I'll be moving when the lease runs out at the end of January.

This unfortunate experience has reminded me that it's difficult to know what's really going on in other people's minds and hearts, and that even with a seemingly good relationship something completely unexpected can come forth from others. Reason simply doesn't apply to all aspects of human existence. If this is the reality when people live in essentially the same national culture, you can imagine how much more explosive the differences can be between people of different cultures. Explain as you might the perspective you're coming from, and no matter how well you think you know the other cultures involved, nothing will erase the radical variable of human emotion and irrationality.

Overall I enjoyed this book, although as I indicated above, I do wish that Dr. Lingenfelter had tied it together with a clearer description of covenant formation. In case you're interested in the UU approach, here's a link to some more information: