Making Teams Work in Missions

We just finished a webinar for Missio Nexus on “Making Teams Work in Missions.” If you missed it, a recording will be posted on the Missio Nexus website here within the next week.  I spoke about the challenges teams face, and what we can do to help teams succeed:

  1. Deploy real teams.
  2. Get the right people on our teams.
  3. Build healthy teams.

These are topics that I covered on our old website, Building Healthy Teams.  One new tool that is almost finished is a Team Health Check– a self-assessment for cross-cultural ministry teams.  It’s designed to be easy to use yet have a powerful impact on your team.  If you’re interested in using this with your team or for teams in your organization, let me know.

Now it’s at The Exchange

Surprise! My article in EMQ was posted by Ed Stetzer at The Exchange on Christianity Today. Time to write something new . . .

He taught us to love one another

I’ve heard/sung “O Holy Night” four times in the last week. Some Christmas songs get tiresome during the holidays, but not this one. This song of hope, and faith, and awe towards the One who came to earth has always been one of my favorites. Since Sunday night, when I sang the hymn for the fourth time in a space of five days, the first line of the third stanza has been reverberating in my soul:

Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace.

I want to live and lead like Jesus. Jesus followed the law of love, and asked his followers (who would become leaders) to do the same. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Jesus was a peacemaker; He proclaimed blessing upon all who would be the same. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.”

May this week give you many opportunities to love those around you, and to make peace in Christ’s name.

Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever, His power and glory evermore proclaim.

for the fascinating history of “O Holy Night”, look here.

Fake it ’til you make it?

Today, my sons are were flying home for Christmas.  Their flight was just cancelled, and we will wait at least another 24 hours to see them.  One airport story begets another . . . a brief encounter with a magazine headline at a gift shop in the Frankfurt airport a couple of years ago.  It was the Harvard Business Review, with these words enticing readers to open their magazine: “The Problem of Authenticity: When It’s Okay to Fake it Until You Make It.”

I had just finished my dissertation, which included a long section on authentic leadership. On seeing the arresting headline, several thoughts simultaneously passed through my mind.  I wrote them down as soon as I sat down at the gate, but they’ve stayed on my computer ever since.  So today, in honor of my sons who are spending an extra day in Chicago, here’s my gut reaction to “The Problem of Authenticity: When It’s Okay to Fake it Until You Make It.”

1. It’s NEVER okay to fake it.

2. It’s NOT that important to “make it.”

3. Or, maybe we would should recognize that every day is an opportunity to “make it” with the important things in life.

4. There are many problems with authenticity.  For example, the many temptations to give it up.

5. It IS important to step out of one’s comfort zone (that’s one of the things advocated by the article).

What happened next

After the scolding, I took a few days to reflect on the underlying causes and the environment of our conflict.  And I developed a few actions steps.  So I did what I decided to do: I made a greater effort to listen to both of my colleagues, I apologized to Z____ for making a significant decision without him, I called the pastor of the mother church and asked for his advice and mediation, and I bathed it all in prayer.

By listening to my younger teammate, I was able to gain additional perspective on what was happening and I learned that this was not primarily a problem of what I had done or said.  I still needed to apologize for the thing that I had done, but I knew we needed external support.  I spoke with the pastor of our mother church.  We had launched a church plant with the agreement that our leadership team of three was under the spiritual authority of the elders of the mother church.  So going to the mother church was a clear call to help us move forward.

I explained to the pastor what had happened, and he also heard from the other two members of the team.  I asked him to lead us in a meeting of reconciliation: an opportunity for each of us to lay our grievances before each other, to listen to those grievances, and to decide how to move forward in our relationship.  The pastor agreed, and he scheduled a meeting for the three of us, plus him and one other leader from the mother church.  I knew this wouldn’t be an easy conversation, but it was an opportunity for us to honor one another and also an essential step in the life of our small church plant.

At this point, no one in the church outside of our spouses new that there was a conflict in our team.  But the three of us could not continue to lead the church unless we found healing in our relationship.  Beyond relational healing, the conflict revealed that we also had some significant differences of opinion about how to be a church.  We obviously needed to work through these differences and re-establish a shared vision for the church.  It was not a given that we could do so, but in any case the first priority was a restored relationship.

On the day before our meeting, I received a call from the mother church pastor.  He said that Z____ had cancelled the meeting.  I asked him when we would reschedule.  He said, “David, I’m not sure we will reschedule.”  I said, “But, we must!”  I believed it was absolutely necessary that we at least have a meeting to attempt reconciliation.  But the pastor said that it probably wasn’t realistic.

I knew  this meant that we had lost a teammate. Indeed, it was so.  Z____ never returned to our team or worshiped with our church again.  We never had a meeting for reconciliation.  Our church leadership was now a team of two, and we worked closely together for several more years.  The church continued to grow.  I think I became a little more quick to listen and a little more quick to offer and to seek forgiveness.

Reflecting upon what happened

Last week, I shared a story about a conflict between myself and my teammate. One day after the worship service, he commanded me to sit down and began a litany of complaints against my leadership over the past few years of working together. I argued a little, but mostly I listened.  I was stunned to see him step out of character, and out of the cultural norms I had learned from Japanese culture.

Over the following days, I reflected upon what had happened:  How long had I been causing offense to my colleague? Why hadn’t I noticed signals of tension in our relationship?  What was at the core of this conflict?  What should I do now?

How long was I causing offense?
By listening to my colleague that day, I learned that my words and behaviors had caused him consternation for at least a year.  He brought up things I had said or decisions I had made months before the current conflict over how seats were to be arranged during our worship service.  As I considered this, I realized that the tensions had escalated after a third person joined our leadership team.  It was not just about him and me.

Why didn’t I notice signals of tension in our relationship?
I felt so dense.  I had no idea that he was growing more and more frustrated with me. As he spoke about some of the specific issues, I began to see how some of my actions had made him to feel this way.  I thought I had been working hard to show him respect and appreciation, but I realized I had been taking him for granted.  I expected him to speak up when there were problems between us, but he was following cultural norms by not pointing out my mistakes or bringing up complaints to my leadership – until this fateful day when he couldn’t hold it in any longer.

What is at the core of the conflict?
As I thought about why my colleague was so upset, and how my own behaviors contributed to the problem, I gained a stronger framework from which to view the situation.  I determined that the primary conflict wasn’t between him and me, but between him and the third member of our leadership team.  There were a host of assumptions, communication patterns, and a culture clash at the root of this to which I had been oblivious.  Of the three of us, I was the only non-Japanese.  But this time it wasn’t primarily about the brash American who couldn’t fit in.

What should I do now?
In the knowledge that I was not in control of the outcome and I was not in control of how others would act, I identified several action steps:
-make a greater effort to listen to both of my colleagues
-apologize for some specific wrongs I had done
-call in help from outside our team.
-forgive my teammate for ways that he had wronged me, whether or not he ask for me to.
-ask & expect Christ to use my actions and the actions of each member of His body of this glory.

And that is what I did.  If you want to know the rest of the story, please post a comment!


Anyone who has joined a short-term missions project is told early and often that flexibility is essential to success in another culture.  You can count on things being different than what you expect.  I’ve taught the importance of adaptability to every short-term volunteer that ever came to work with us, and we taught it again last week at orientation for long-term appointees with our mission organization who are preparing for deployment overseas.

The ability to adapt is all the more important for those who have been serving across cultures for several years.  After working hard to learn a language and understand how a culture operates, we tend to get lazy and assume that we understand how things work – until we get surprised by a new twist in the culture.

After several years of ministry in Japan, I came to understand the value of harmony and the practice of talking around a controversial issue rather than confronting disagreements head on. So imagine my surprise one day after our worship service, when my teammate sharply commanded me to sit down and proceeded with a a long list of complaints against me and my leadership.

After this uncomfortable conversation, I had to step back and process what was happening.  How long had I been doing things to offend him, and why didn’t I see the signals earlier?  Was this a natural cultural behavior – to pretend things were harmonious through years of working, but slowly let the grievances pile up until it was time to unleash them all in one apocalyptic conflict?  Was he even acting according to the norms of his culture, or was there something particular going on in my teammate’s heart that caused him to act outside those norms?

It may not be the culture that surprises us. We forget that every individual in every culture is unique; not everyone acts the way we expect them to. So no matter how well we learn the culture where we are sent, we need to see each person as an individual.  That’s why adaptability is an essential skill for effective cross-cultural leadership.

Adaptability requires a “willingness to practice behaviors that are universally acceptable, learning behaviors that are culturally specific, and minimizing behaviors that are ineffective” (Wilson, 2003).*  Some leadership skills seem to effective everywhere you go, but some are only effective in specific cultures, and some that may be effective in one culture are counterproductive in another culture.

How do we develop our ability to adapt? It starts with humility, a determination to listen well to those we serve, a heart of openness to what others are thinking and doing. If we are quick to judge, we will be slow to adapt.  Keep asking questions; keep listening to the answers.  Assume you don’t understand all that needs to be understood. Lead with your ears.


*Wilson, Meena Surie (2003). “Effective cross-cultural leadership: Tips and techniques for developing capacity.” In Boyacigiller, Goodman, & Phillips, Eds., Crossing Cultures: Insights from master teachers. New York, NY: Routledge. Pp. 269-280.

the core competency of cross-cultural leadership

“Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches,
but let him who boasts boast about this:  that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness,   justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,”    declares the LORD.  – Jeremiah 9:23-24

Last week, I wrote about our tendency to equate confidence with competence.  But there is one form of confidence that makes anyone a more effective leader: confidence in our understanding of our Creator.  Knowing the One who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness is the core competence of leadership. Knowing God is Leadership 101.

Now, Leadership 101 is a class we never graduate from. The leader who stops pursuing the knowledge of God is a leader who works from his own wisdom and her own strength. That kind of leadership doesn’t have staying power. And, as any new disciple of Jesus soon learns, we never come to a precise or complete understanding of God.

But the more we know Him, the better we understand His love and grace and power, the keener our sense of His kindness, justice and righteousness toward all peoples of this earth, the more/better/keener our capacity to serve and to lead across cultures will be.


confidence = competence?

Someone who read my post last week sent me a provocative article that observes the tendency of many people in my culture to confuse confidence with competence. Those with the most passionate voices and most compelling vision are not necessarily those with the ideal leadership profile. In fact, this author notes that “most of the character traits that are truly advantageous for effective leadership are predominantly found in those who fail to impress others about their talent for management.”

In case you are wondering, this is not some outrageous claim nor a random comment from the edge of the internet.  This is the Harvard Business Review, and it’s substantiated by a significant body of social science research. There is a strong consensus among leadership scholars that humility is a core quality of effective leadership.

Of course, we don’t need social scientists to prove this to us.  2,000 years ago, Jesus taught and modeled how to lead effectively: The meek shall inherit the earth . . . I have come not to be served, but to serve . . . The greatest among you should be like the youngest . . . Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.  His disciples echoed these teachings over and over again: Be completely humble and gentle . . . Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others . . . All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another . . . Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.

So I don’t need scientific research or modern case studies to convince me that leaders need to clothe themselves with humility and make every effort to be good listeners of those they serve.  But scholarship, empirical studies and even modern management publications can open our eyes to our blind spots.  They are just one more thing that we need to listen to.

Question: In the past few days, who or what have you listened to?  How is it helping you to become a better leader?

Lead with your ears

Post this at all intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. — James 1:19 (The Message)

I used to believe leaders were the ones with strong voices, firm convictions and inspiring visions. They were the charismatic ones who brought a crowd to its feet and galvanized a group into action. They awakened aspirations, quieted doubts, and instilled confidence and commitment.

I’ve come to realize there is another side to leadership.  It’s something that is glossed over in most of what people say, read & think about leading. It’s something that we desperately need in our leaders. It’s something that we desperately need in our churches, our teams, and our ministries.

We need to listen well.  We need to be leaders who receive others into our presence.  We need to put ourselves into a posture of openness to what others think, say & do.  We need to lead with our ears.

When leading across cultures, a listening and learning posture is indispensable.  With people of your own culture, you can make assumptions about where people are coming from and sometimes get away with it.  That doesn’t work in multicultural contexts! Effective cross-cultural leaders diligently and persistently work to understand the perspectives, values, doubts and aspirations of those around them.