Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Book Review - "Leading Cross-Culturally: Covenant Relationships for Effective Christian Leadership

Leading Cross-Culturally is the third book in a series “that addresses the issues of culture and the practice of cross-cultural ministry” (7). The first book, Ministering Cross-Culturally, was written for those called to serve Jesus and others in a culture different than their own. The second book, Teaching Cross-Culturally, was written for those teaching in a culture other than their own or a culturally diverse context at home. This third book was written for “Western and non-Western leaders who are working or planning to work with and lead people in multicultural teams and ministry contexts” (8). Lingenfelter has five goals for the book. 

First, the book aims “to help leaders to understand their personal culture of leadership” that they might lead more effectively (8). Second, the book aims “to equip the reader to become an effective learner in another cultural context, with specific focus on learning to build communities of trust” (8). Third, the book aims “to reflect on how the human propensity to seek power and control pervades all persons and cultures and infects leaders of every kind” (9). Fourth, the book aims “to define pathways for biblically-based, Christ-centered, power-giving leadership in single-culture and multicultural contexts” (9). Finally, the book aims to help leaders “give joyful service as servants of the Master, inviting others to follow Christ as we follow Christ” (9). 

In the introductory chapter, Lingenfelter defines cross-cultural leadership as follows: “Leading cross-culturally, then, is inspiring people who come from two or more cultural traditions to participate with you (a leader or leadership team) in building a community of trust and then to follow you and be empowered by you to achieve a compelling vision of faith” (21). Building on this definition, he devotes the first part of the book (chapters 2-3) to exploring how leaders “inspire people to achieve a compelling vision of faith” (25). He asserts that cross-cultural ministry begins with a God-given vision that flows from God’s vision of the Kingdom, that is discovered through a process of prayer and conversation, and that is empowered by the Holy Spirit. Such visions always combine, in some measure, proclaiming the goods news of Christ and offering the healing touch of Christ, and the leader’s (or leaders’) job is to instigate and shepherd the process. In order for the process to work, however, the leaders and key participants must put the highest priority on loving God and one another, always being willing to take up their crosses and die that they might press into God’s vision together. Without this prayerful, humble disposition, successful cross-cultural ministry is at best untenable. 

In the second part of the book (chapters 4-7), Lingenfelter explores “the leadership challenge of building a community of trust when people come from different cultural traditions” (26). Drawing on some of his earlier work, he suggests that culture is a palace and a prison. That is, while culture provides us with the material and non-material necessities of human existence, it also tends to be the only grid through which we can process our experiences. Culture can thus hinder us from entering into variant cultures and working with others to build the covenant community Christ desires. Indeed, every person possesses what Lingenfelter calls “a default culture” (the one in which we grew up), but Christ calls us to take up our crosses and embrace the culture of the Kingdom. Therefore, the creation of such community, and the trust implied therein, is more important than any task we are called to accomplish. Put another way, covenant community in Christ is the root of the Kingdom; all external ministry is the fruit of the Kingdom and should therefore nourish and prosper the root. Creating such community requires “extraordinary leadership that builds trust through covenant relationships, inclusiveness, and commitment to obey Christ and to communication among team members until we achieve the unity of the Spirit and love that leads to forgiveness and oneness of purpose and action” (102). This brings the issue of leadership to the fore and leads to part three of the book. 

In the third part of Leading Cross-Culturaly (chapters 8-11), Lingenfelter develops “the concept of power-giving leadership and define[s] pathways to empower others to achieve a compelling vision of faith” (26). He asserts that in order for us to be power-giving rather than power-grabbing leaders, “Jesus must become the center of who we are and replace our quest for power” (110). That is, we must repent of idolatry and learn what it means to love God and one another. As we do, all of our relationships will be transformed, including those in which we are leaders. Further, as we learn to use the power God has given us to empower others, we must focus on developing leaders who are able to discern and carry out God’s agenda rather than managers who are appointed to carry out our agenda. The body of Christ needs both leaders and managers, but effective cross-cultural leadership seeks to develop leaders who in turn develop leaders and managers alike. In a Christian context, leadership development is at heart part of the discipleship process, and releasing leaders to lead, and to fail, is always a matter of faith in God and trust of others. As we grow in faith and trust, we learn to be responsible to those we are training without feeling responsible for all the results of their lives and ministries. And we learn to model humble, God-glorifying, other-edifying, Christlike leadership. 

In the fourth and final part of the book (chapters 12-13), Lingenfelter reflects “upon the challenges of leading cross-culturally by reviewing case studies from earlier chapters in light of the responsibility and challenge every leader faces when exercising power associated with his or her social and spiritual authority” (26). He begins this section by asking: Why is it so difficult to lead? He answers: because we fail to see our team, in all their weakness, as God’s sufficient gift to us; because we struggle with issue of “fit” with some team members and with how to confront others; because we are all broken human beings and any way you slice it life together is challenging. Therefore, in order to go forward and make Kingdom progress together, cross-cultural leaders must begin by looking at themselves and embracing the pain of leadership as God’s tool to effect change in our lives and ministries. If we will have eyes to see, God will show us that the hope of cross-cultural leadership is the cross of Christ. That is, learning to die to ourselves and living for him alone paves the path by which we can work with others, learn from others, and serve others for the glory of God and the advancement of his purposes. 

Sherwood Lingenfelter is a seasoned leader who has served Christ for decades in academic and missional contexts. He therefore writes with a kind of wisdom, balance and authority that can actually help those engaged in the complex work of cross-cultural leadership. The numerous case studies cited in the book are neither idealistic nor contrived but are rather drawn from his personal experience, the experience of those familiar to him, or credible sources vetted by him. And while his responses to these case studies are sometimes idealistic, he acknowledges that he finds it easier to write about leadership than to lead. His heartfelt humility makes it easy to grant him grace and learn from what he has to say. 

Theologically, the book is very solid. His basic starting point is that Christ is building his church from among every tribe, tongue, and nation, and that though we each have our part, only Christ is responsible for the whole. We should therefore engage our roles with passion, while learning the art of faith in Christ that allows us to trust others also. Theologically astute readers will no doubt encounter minor theological issues here and there, but again the core is solid. 

Lingenfelter strikes a wonderful balance between the difficulties inherent in cross-cultural leadership and the hope we have in Christ for engaging in it. If you are looking for sage counsel that can actually augment the effectiveness of your cross-cultural ministry, this book is for you. I would further recommend it for team study, especially for teams made up of three or more cultural backgrounds.

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