In other words, traits and habits present in early childhood (breastfeeding) often persist until someone is elderly. I’m currently leading an English conversation class and the last time we met we were discussing how to discern character. When I shared the English proverb, “A leopard can’t change his spots,” this local gem emerged. I hadn’t heard it before, but it’s a good one to have in the arsenal. We should be able to use it when speaking of the importance of parenting and in discussions about character formation. It could be used to illustrate verses like Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
On a personal level, now that I am in my thirties I am frankly amazed at how much my childhood is still affecting the ways I think, behave, and struggle. It’s as if the frenetic activity of my twenties came to a loud and tumultuous end, only to reveal that little curly haired missionary kid playing in the Melanesian clay, still there, and waving at me. It is strange and encouraging to meditate on the idea that God sees me now while simultaneously seeing me in every season of my life. During one part of my prayer walk this morning I listened to the song, “Future/Past” by John Mark McMillan. I was also meditating on 2nd Peter, including the passage that teaches that God’s relationship to time is different than ours (2 Pet 3:8). I realized that I tend to find it easier to look forward with faith that God will delight in my future self. I wrestle daily to believe that God delights in my present self. It’s even harder to believe that God delights in my past self. Yet surely this is what it means to be known as an adopted child of God. He knows our beginning from our end – and he still delights in us. From our habits of milk ’til our habits of old age.
The LORD your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing. (Zeph 3:17 ESV)
Somewhere along the way, my wife and I developed a decision-making philosophy for costly or risky situations. No matter what, if we moved into that risky situation, we would only do so if we were both on the same page – and if we felt that God had been clear with both of us. That way, whatever costs might come, we could together rest in the knowledge that these were potential costs we had both embraced, and costs which were from our Father’s kind hand.
This knowledge has been practically helpful countless times, such as when a gang of refugee Somali youth tried to break down our back door, when a local leader-in-training turned out to be a divisive wolf, and when our daughter almost died in a Central Asian ICU from new onset type-1 diabetes. What in the world are we doing here?! Oh, that’s right, we came into this together. From everything we could discern, God was clear with us. We obeyed, and that has brought us to this place.
This step keeps us from blaming one another or others when things go sideways. It also serves as another safeguard to make sure we are rightly applying verses like 1st Peter 2:20.
For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.
When suffering because of ministry and lifestyle choices comes, it can make all the difference to be able to fall back on these kinds of thoughts – that we’re not facing this fallout because of sin, foolishness, stubbornness, or self-will. This suffering is simply part of the good (though painful) path we have been asked to walk. It has a thousand good purposes that we may someday see. And yes, we signed up for it.
But as a newer team leader on the mission field, I have at times failed to invite my whole team into this same cost-embracing posture. And that’s where I made my mistake. I stepped into leading a team, knowing that some things would need to change, and by the very nature of where we work, many risky decisions would need to be made. I believe I did a decent job of listening, getting feedback, and pondering. I am a reflective, creative-thinker type. So I’m in my happy place when I’m getting feedback on lots of issues and exploring what possible changes can be made to improve the situation.
Yet I underestimated the importance of having discussions and conversations as a whole team when it came to the actual issues and changes that needed to be made. I would have many one-on-one conversations about issues, chew on things for a while, and then introduce a change – one made very much in response to what team members had been saying for a long time. Surprisingly (to me), I would then get a lot of resistance to these changes. As I tried to figure out why the team was kicking so much against these decisions, I began to see how much change and transition itself was costly. That made sense for our context, where transition can seem never-ending. Sometimes a bad system is preferred over the cost of yet another change. Were I older and wiser, I would have known to ask, “So I hear you saying that this is difficult. Is it the kind of difficult where you think we should take on the costs of changing it?”
I also began to better understand the nature of healthy team decision making in a costly environment. These decisions were in fact resulting in risks and costs to the team as a whole. Sometimes they were big costs, sometimes only more transition. The most heartbreaking one was losing a teammate. Yet my team wasn’t sensing that they had been able to speak into those risky calls enough to have buy-in. Hence much of the pushback.
Just as my wife and I gave one another ample time to discuss, wrestle with, and pray though an issue, turns out my team needed this as well. I began experimenting with discussions in team meetings about difficult things that we might need to change. After a couple hours of everyone getting to say their piece and wrestle with our limited options, we would often arrive at a calm unity. No one was under the illusion that costs weren’t coming. But the team had been able to discuss together which risks they were more or less willing to embrace.
As I reflected on this and back on many team conflicts from the past, the light bulbs started flickering on. Much of the resistance came from costly decisions being suddenly announced, without proper time for contributing, processing, praying, and buy-in from those affected by the changes. Just a little bit of this quickly leads to team conflict. A lot of this can make people leave the team or the organization.
Now, organizationally, I am free to make the decision as the team leader. I am fully within my rights and authority to make most calls without consulting the team or having a lengthy discussion. This might be more efficient on the front end. However, for my team – and many teams made up of millennials (or just humans?) – it has proved to be much less efficient on the back end as we continually had to rehash decisions team members thought should have been made differently. As I grew to know my team more, I understood my mistake more clearly. These discussions, though very time-consuming, were key for us being able to embrace the possible implications – together.
Going forward, as much as possible, I hope to embrace this principle of wise leadership: If a decision is likely risky or costly for my team, I need to lead a team discussion about it before that decision is made. Just having a voice into that potential cost honors my team members. And yes, even the new folks should be encouraged to speak up. But in addition to having a say (or even a vote) in the matter, this kind of conversation enables a team to embrace possible costs together, and with a good conscience – and when things go sideways, that can make all the difference.
Other leaders may feel differently, but I need the teams I lead to have the freedom to fail. We are seeking to plant healthy local churches in the hard soil of Central Asia. We need to take big risks. Our very living here is a big risk. But to do this well, we must find practical ways to embrace these costs in ways that don’t divide us. So I hope to learn from my mistakes, and thereby do a better job of honoring my team in costly decisions.
Time is like a sword; if you don’t cut it, it will cut you.
Local Oral Tradition
This is a surprisingly time-oriented proverb among our focus people group, which is typically event-oriented. Things are changing because of globalization and urbanization, but most locals here still consider time as more like a lazy river that must be traveled. It is linear, yes, but not something to be dominated. But then comes this sharp proverb out of nowhere, perhaps functioning as a warning against those who might get a little too relaxed when it comes to the use of time. I guess no matter how a culture is oriented to time, there is always some kind of lifestyle that represents a failure to make use of the potential that time affords.
Were I to teach on the biblical truth of “making the best use of the time, because the days are evil,” (Eph 5:16) I would likely reference this local proverb by way of illustration.
I’m not one of those people who likes to dunk on seminaries. By this point I’ve heard the publically-spoken question, “Why didn’t they teach me this in seminary?” to the point of nausea. Come on, brother, you really expected the seminary to have specialized classes in your niche ministry and specific problem-people? There’s a reason I never had a class in how to draw on a Melanesian MK upbringing to deal with a Central Asian wolf in sheep’s clothing in whose house we had just planted a church together with our Mexican partners (true story). There is no seminary professor who could or should teach that kind of specific material. Rather, professors should teach the theology and principles that equip diverse ministers of the gospel to apply God’s truth to infinitely varied ministry contexts around the globe.
My pro-seminary posture is also because I live in a part of the world where there is no access to theological training in the languages of people groups that are millions strong. It’s easy to take pot-shots at seminaries when they’ve been around forever and are taken for granted among your people group. I also don’t buy the whole “they’re not reproducible” line so popular in missiology. If they’re not reproducible, why have thousands of them taken root all around the world, even in ancient times and places like Sassanian Gondishapur where Christians were a persecuted minority? Perhaps there is a bit of a hidden and arbitrary definition to that term “reproducible” that so often functions as a trump card in discussions of methodology.
But it’s also easy to forget their weaknesses with the rose-tinted glasses that can come with distance. Some of the critiques do stick. God has given humans a remarkable ability to find patterns in things. And one of those unfortunate but true patterns is represented by the awkward and out-of-touch seminarian who struggles to notice the real people around him. There is a great need for those studying at seminary to accompany their classroom training with down-to-earth mentoring in people skills. Local church relationships that model for seminary students wise and practical ministry intuition and care are crucial for keeping these students effective in the real and messy world of actual people.
I’ll never forget the time I took my wife on a date during a particularly exhausting period of our newborn days. We were broke, had an infant with sleep issues, and were trying to mentor new believers and share the gospel with refugees. And we were desperately in need of an affordable date. I had the idea of going out to a discounted dinner and then making use of our free alumni access to the seminary pool and hot tub. My wife agreed to the plan and we were off in our beat up ’95 Honda Civic our Iraqi friends hadchristened Baby Camel because of its fantastic gas mileage and minuscule size.
Things were going swimmingly. We made it to the seminary, the pool area was nice and quiet, and the hot tub was empty – perfect! So we got in and began to have a good conversation, sharing our hearts with each other. But before long, a student and acquaintance from church entered the pool area. We waved and said a friendly hello, and strategically mentioned that we were on a date together. I turned back to my wife to continue our conversation. But the man plopped down in the hot tub next to me, eager for discussion.
Internally, I winced. How did he not pick up on the dynamics of this situation? But, resolving to be kind and hospitable, I turned and engaged him in friendly conversation. My wife had a not-so-subtle expression on her face, but held her tongue. The man didn’t seem to notice. Were I older and wiser, I would have said something direct about my wife and I needing this time so that we could connect in our sleep-deprived state and care for each other. Instead, I kept trying to drop hints in the conversation and with my body language to get the brother to move along to splashing in the pool or something.
But my talkative friend was not going anywhere. Instead, he stretched out his arms and relaxed and considered this the ideal moment to get into the depths of why he was actually a Thomist when it came to philosophy instead of a Van Tilian Preuppositionalist. I had only had one or two philosophy classes, so I knew just enough of this topic to drop a semi-informed comment here and there. But eventually I just stopped speaking to see how long the monologue would go. It kept going, and going, for quite an impressive length of time. I was perplexed. Why oh why did he feel like this particular conversation was at all fitting for this context? I shot a look back at my wife whose face conveyed a look of incredulity at what was going on in front of her.
“Can we go?” She mouthed in my direction. I nodded. Things had finally gotten awkwardly silent. It was time for a tactical retreat. We said our goodbyes to the hot tub philosopher and made our way back to the locker rooms.
I thought of my seminary – and of myself. The dangers of getting lost in the world of the mind and losing touch with practical kindness and social skills are real. I’ve felt the pull of these things when I get a little too excited about sharing about something I’m learning, only to realize those I’m sitting with have gone quiet and are fidgeting a bit. My brain can run away from me and I can stop tracking with the emotional state of those I’m supposedly conversing with. At that point I’m not really conversing with them in a loving way at all. I’m merely on a monologue.
While not neglecting the life of the mind, we must learn to ground it with an understanding of our flesh and blood neighbor. Yes, we must study the books. But we must also be students of people. We must be those who can get taken in by the beauty of an idea while still being conscious enough of the present to sense the body language of our hearers. What if, like me, the life of the mind comes more naturally than people intuition? How do we learn to study people? We can start by praying regularly that we will grow in this area. We can make a careful effort to study what God’s word says about the way people act and think. We can read great literature – after all, it’s great because it has been proven to be a window into human nature across many generations. We can read up on ways that hard-to-see things like cultures and personalities have been mapped and categorized by others. Finally, we can get some good feedback and tools on our particular God-given wiring. After all, if we don’t really understand ourselves, we won’t be great at understanding others either.
I would be remiss not to also mention what can be learned by shadowing those who are pastors in the truest sense of that term. Much skill in this area must be caught, rather than taught. And catching it often means accompanying those older and more experienced than we are, observing how they wisely interact with these wonderfully complex and broken beings called humans. Watching how and when an experienced pastor says, “I’m so sorry” can be a powerful lesson in what effective empathy actually looks like.
Plus, mentors like this also tell us when something is simply awkward or weird – like climbing in the hot tub with a couple on a date in order to talk Thomist philosophy. We all need someone in our life who will put their arm around us and simply say, “Brother, that’s weird. Don’t do that.”
This is a proverb very appropriate for a culture like this one that prioritizes the group over the individual. In contrast to the English proverb “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” this local proverb tells you that it’s better to relinquish or hide your advantage and handicap yourself for the sake of not bringing shame to the community. This is the logic I’ve often heard in this culture for married couples being discouraged from showing affection in public. “Think of how badly the singles must feel when they see that,” is how my local friends put it. Similarly, I’ve read of cultures where it’s shameful for a runner in a race to win by too great an advantage, because that would make the other runners feel too embarrassed. Cultures or individuals who are more individualistic might be fine with displaying an advantage that others don’t have. “What about my rights and being true to myself?” But in group-oriented cultures, this can be considered immodest and even shameful.
You don’t know how to line dance, so you say the ground is uneven.
Local Oral Tradition
Humans tend to blame shift when they are actually the ones coming up short. Apparently we have an English equivalent that goes, “A bad workman blames his tools.” However, I had never heard of this English-language proverb until I came to Central Asia. That could mean it’s from a different part of the English-speaking world, or it could just represent another TCK gap in my American cultural knowledge – these still emerge occasionally. Yes, I’ve still never seen Mary Poppins and I know precious little about professional sports. But no, that is no one else’s fault. I take full responsibility!
When committing to something new with a local believer, always check with that person’s primary discipler first.
I haven’t always done this. And I’ve been hurt and hurt others by not following this wise practice. It’s quite easy to justify bypassing the discipler, especially when there are theological and methodological differences. “Why should I run this by that other foreigner? He doesn’t understand healthy church. He doesn’t know the language and culture well. Or he isn’t reformed. Clearly this local has approached me because he has seen our work is more solid.”
We might have the opportunity to start studying the Bible with a local, to invite them into a training program, to hire them, or to invite them to our church plant or discipleship group. But these wonderful opportunities can become hidden landmines if we ignore that other believer who has invested so much in this local.
Not that there are never times to bypass someone’s mentor. If that mentor teaches a false gospel, then that would be a different situation. But I’m referring here to mentors or disciplers who are evangelicals in the sense that they agree on the fundamentals of orthodoxy and the gospel.
What do we accomplish when we run a certain new plan or idea with a local believer by their primary discipler? First, we honor that person and the spiritual investment they have made in that local. This is very important for modeling how believing leaders should relate to one another. Second, we have the opportunity to get buy-in from that discipler, meaning they will be supporting this new plan from their position of relational weight. It’s more likely to succeed if the local’s first Christian friend and mentor isn’t taking potshots at your efforts when visiting with that local, but is instead increasing their trust in you. Third, this gives us an opportunity to be aware of hidden issues that might be going on underneath this local’s excitement about us and our new opportunity.
What might those hidden issues be? Perhaps that discipler called the local out on some sin, and the local was unwilling to repent – and that’s why they’ve excitedly sought you out to be their new discipler. Maybe there are longstanding issues with sin or weakness that provide helpful context or a wise change in direction. Or the local is upset about his discipler not turning into a patron for him in financial terms and so he’s moving on – hoping that you will be the one who bankrolls him. It could also be because of some real issue with the discipler himself, something that can come out more clearly if we actually meet with them instead of sidestepping them.
During a season where my family was the only one from our previous team on the field, a neighboring country had a devastating earthquake. I was asked by my organization if I would help lead a relief project. The only problem was I couldn’t get into this country as an American, so I would have to send locals in to do the work. I planned to send in some local believers, because of the deeper level of trustworthiness that is supposed to be there among those of the household of faith. Our initial plan was to send in supplies that we bought ourselves. But there were issues at the border. And friends in the relief and development world pushed back, saying that it hurt the local economy of the area affected if we flooded it with supplies from the outside. Better to send in workers with cash who can buy the needed supplies locally.
100,000 were homeless. It was winter. I had my parameters – hire a couple local believers who speak the right language, send them in with tens of thousands of dollars to buy relief supplies and distribute them, and just make sure there are receipts and photos to document everything. I knew only a few local believers who spoke the right language, and one of them turned me down. Another agreed to do it. So I reached out to a new English student of mine, *Tony, knowing that he was a new believer and knew the right language. Tony was thrilled to do the work and committed to the project right away.
We were already far along in the planning process when it dawned on me to inform Tony’s discipler, his best friend of ten years, another American missionary. I called him up and let him know, and as we talked I began to wonder if I had gone about things in the wrong order. He was gracious, but clearly concerned about the whole setup. Apparently, Tony had some deep money issues, and some issues with honesty. His discipler was worried that this would be a bad situation for him and provide some strong temptation. But it was too late at this point to back out, or so I felt. Plus, I had some concerns about this foreigner’s methodology and theology – and those concerns didn’t leave me as open to his experienced counsel as I should have been. I proceeded as planned, trusting that everything would work out.
The earthquake relief project initially looked to be a smashing success. But after only a few months, things began to unravel. $4,000 of the project cash was “stolen,” likely an inside job. There was evidence of inappropriate use of the funds when they were on the other side of the border. Tony and the other man’s love of money was stirred up, and they began deceitfully scheming to get funding from other Christian groups for their ministry efforts, which ultimately led to a heartbreaking church split. It had all started so well, but ultimately proved to be kind of a disaster.
In hindsight, before I even called Tony to float the idea to him of doing this project, I should have called his mentor and gotten his counsel and his blessing. He probably would have told me not to send a new believer with money issues across an international border with tens of thousands of dollars. But in my haste and presumption I was only focused on helping those in need as quickly as possible. And I bypassed the discipler.
Sadly, my tale is not that uncommon. In contexts where missionaries from different organizations are working, relationships with local believers often overlap. And in our suspicion of one another and excitement to agree to new plans with locals (especially when they affirm us so warmly), we often end up hurting other missionaries, getting hurt ourselves, and undermining the spiritual growth of our local friends.
When committing to something new with a local believer, always check with that person’s primary discipler first. In this is wisdom.