New Series: Multi Ethnic Learnings

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Multi Ethnic Learnings

Of great interest to organizations and churches these days is the challenge of a multi-ethnic community.  What does it mean to be a multi-ethnic organization? A multi-ethnic church? A multi-ethnic ministry?  I don’t have all the answers for what that means or what it should mean.  But maybe I can offer a few learnings from my own journey that can help catalyze greater development for others.

Prior to moving to the Philippines to teach and serve at the International Graduate School of Leadership, I was serving in an ethnic minority ministry for about five years in the United States.

I am white.  In those years I continued to journey through a couple key things related to what it means to be white.  I had to explore what it means to myself and what it means to others from different cultural backgrounds.

Serving cross-culturally has been a powerful learning journey for me as it relates to multi-ethnic ministry and what it is that God is at work to do in the lives of all of us. Prior to leaving the United States I was encouraged in my transition to write up some of my key learnings learnings from this season of ministry – lessons that were personally transformative for me and that have continued to shape and refine just what servant leadership and transformational leadership truly are in a world full of differences and imbalances of power.

So while I will not try to provide solutions or analysis of what it takes to be “multi-ethnic” as many aspire, I do hope to share some of the realities and the ways people are impacted as I’ve experienced and observed them. The majority of these  posts were written 2 years ago and I never posted them because…moving to different country is hard!

I happen to have been a history major an undergraduate with the Strengthsfinder themes of context, intellection, and learner. The only reason I share those things is that it means I have a strong aversion to repeating mistakes that can be learned from as well as a strong drive to learn in context and pass on that learning to help anyone else’s journey so they don’t have to start at square one!

So if you come upon this series of blogs you may find that some of them may or may not relate to your context. Or maybe you have already learned them. And maybe you have many more insights of your own in addition to those I share here.  If that be the case, please share!

So in the next month or two look out for what I hope to be a 15-20 post series sharing brief summaries of some of what I learned as a white leader and minister in a primarily white organization serving an ethnic minority community and demographic.

These are not comprehensive, but a window into how my views of and vision for ministry and leadership have changed.  I’ve labeled these as learnings from my first season of ministry in an ethnic minority context – because I anticipate several more seasons that no doubt will continue to challenge and sharpen my perspectives, behaviors, and beliefs.

Before diving in I would acknowledge I would not have learned many of these insights without a rich array of input, reading, and most importantly ethnic minority “guides” – kindred spirits, and wise friends and teammates who opened up the doors into many different cultures and perspectives . This learning is the product of relationships first and foremost!  For through learning stories firsthand and serving alongside others day to day in another context, I began to see in new ways.

Hope & the Fragility of Ministry

This entry is part 2 of 6 in the series Multi Ethnic Learnings

To see the background on this new series click here.

There’s a line from the second movie of the Lord of the Rings trilogy that resonates with the reality of ethnic minority ministry in our organization. Things are looking bleak and the voice of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) is providing a mid-movie narration. She’s says with somber urgency,

“The quest stands at the edge of a knife.
Stray but a little and all will fall.”

Obviously a little dramatic, but this captures some of the reality of doing ethnic minority ministry in my experience and from my vantage point (which is in a white dominant context).

The overall ministry and effort so often seems like it is only one conflict, one bad decision (either someone within our immediate context or someone outside of it with power), or one failure away from disaster.  There’s a weariness that comes with doing ministry where the bottom feels like it could fall out at any moment.  And over time it can become a deep weariness.

It takes a depth of character with a strong capacity to stay connected to hope in the face of discouraging realities and to persevere in what feels like a sysyphean challenge. To that end I co-wrote this post for my ministry addressing hope as a key dimension of leadership capacity and development when serving ethnic minority communities in a multi-ethnic context.

I’ve been tested in what my hope is in, where to look for it, and how to look for it amidst discouragement.  At times I’ve wondered why is hope so fleeting serving in these contexts. From a multiethnic standpoint I couldn’t help but think that part of why I struggle with hope is the pioneering nature of what this ministry involves. In a predominantly white ministry context with years of history – like many churches and organizations have – it’s very easy to depend on strategies and resources and find hope in what has worked in the past.  Yet what has worked in the past in an ethnic majority context does not always or even most of the time translate to ethnic minority or multi ethnic pioneering.

Hope has to come from somewhere else.  I had to learn that – sometimes I had to learn the hard way.

A helpful resource for me in my journey of sustaining hope was a short ebook entitled Deepening the Soul for Justice by Bethany Hoang.  I shared some thoughts a couple years ago on the book here.

The fragility is real.  The potential for internal or external sabotage lingers. But there’s a hope in Christ and God’s Kingdom only to be found on the other side of the fragility and discouragement.

How do you stay connected to hope?

How do you help others stay connected to hope when the ground feels like it could give at any moment?

Nothing May Be Better Than Something

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Multi Ethnic Learnings


In a multi-ethnic context,

“Nothing May Be Better Than Something”

In a pragmatic world, this statement is anathema.  But in the absence of knowing how to truly serve a different community, demographic, or group of people, I’ve learned over the last decade that sometimes it is better to wait until you have done your homework before doing something that may do more damage than good.  And by “better” I mean more loving, more honoring, more wise, and more humble.  And sometimes doing nothing requires greater faith than taking action.

By doing nothing I’m not talking about being controlled by fear.  I’m talking about having a healthy capacity of self-control and restraint both personally and organizationally in order to ensure truly serving actions.  The alternative is jumping in blind assuming that something is better than nothing. That’s the justification I’ve heard more than a few times before launching in unprepared to a different type of context and ministry.  I’ve had that justification myself when I’ve anxiously wanted to feel “useful” or want to see things happen.  When this is our defense for our action, we should take a breath and think twice. Maybe something is better than nothing.  Often it is and that’s what pioneering is all about! But sometimes it’s not when attitudes and methodology aren’t appropriate to the situation.

It’s worth making a distinction here between grass roots ministry and organizational functioning.  While humility and learning is necessary in all contexts, failure in grass roots situations is necessary to a risk taking, faith-filled, and innovative growth. This learning point relates primarily to organizational life, functioning, and partnerships. There are times where it would be better if we just listened and learned and didn’t take action – for trying to do something frequently undermines the listening and learning.  “Doing something” needs just as much listening and learning as doing.  If that posture isn’t there, best holster the ambition for impact until it is.

There was a blog I read over a year ago, shortly after I first wrote this, on this general idea that I thought captured exactly what I have learned here and it was called “The Grace to Do Nothing” by David Fitch. It’s worth reading at some point:

Do you have the grace to do nothing sometimes?

How do you resist the temptation to act too fast when it can lead to damaging others and trust building efforts in community?

The Problem of Paternalism

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Multi Ethnic Learnings

Prior to serving cross-culturally in ethnic minority ministry, I never thought much about paternalism. Now after a decade of ethnic minority and cross-cultural experience, I think about it and talk about it almost daily.

As a student of servant leadership and now a professor who teaches servant leadership, it became clear many years ago that many Christians and ministry leaders often articulate and live out their leadership approach in ways that are actually paternalistic in contrast to truly empowering.  I’ve come across many who seem to think that the main choice in leadership styles is the choice between the authoritarian or dictatorial leader on one hand and the “nice” leader on the other hand – the “nice” and serving leader that in reality better fits paternalism than any notion of empowering leadership.

Paternalism tends to look and feel “good” to those seeking to help or influence, yet it often is not “good” in the ways we are tempted to think it is.  That’s why we need to learn what it is.  Paternalism is a dynamic that demands attention. Ethical leadership requires that we identify it and cultivate awareness of it. Courage is required because paternalism remains one of the greatest barriers to empowering others and raising up leaders in a different context.

Paternalism shows up frequently in partnering scenarios with majority culture as well in majority culture decision making. Well-meaning efforts that are executed outside of deep learning and mutuality usually end up reinforcing dependence on one hand or just a reinforcement of the status quo power dynamics.

Paternalism often involves decisions related to significant resources (money, people) that can put leaders in ethnic communities in hard spots given that resources and money often come with inherent or implicit expectations or “strings” attached.   It’s a frequent occurrence that majority leaders with positions and power will make decisions “for” ethnic minority leaders or strategies without really being in ongoing dialogue with those people or listening to a broad sampling of their voices.

Paternalism also shows up especially within different ethnic communities as it can be more embedded in the relational fabric of leaders and staff members or followers.  Paternalism still resides in cultures that still experience the historical influence of patron-client dynamics and the honor – shame systems that drive them.  But paternalism can flow from individual character dynamics – one example being the “sugar daddy leader” who uses their abundant resources or budget to appease or keep people happy with an unspoken expectation for loyalty (essentially a modern version of patron-client relationship).

It takes great clarity of vision and character organizationally to relate in non-paternalistic, but empowering ways. Likewise, the same type of leadership is needed within multi-ethnic and ethnic minority ministry to empower leaders as well as lead collectively towards a new and different future.

If you’ve ever read the book When Helping Hurts, then you have some framework for some of how good intentions can reinforce dependence rather than empower others. See here some of my overall thoughts on that book that pertain to paternalism.  The authors highlight multiple dimensions of paternalism ranging from resource driven paternalism, to spiritual paternalism, to managerial.  All of these are constant threats to empowering leaders from other ethnic communities and to cultivating an empowering multi-ethnic ministry environment.

Another series here that explores the same themes related to leadership ethics and paternalism jumped off from the book that inspired the movie the Green Zone.  There are several posts that explore the American occupation of Iraq through the lens of resource, knowledge, and managerial paternalism and the resultant failures that such perspectives led to.

What is easier is not always what is better.

There are many today who love to read and talk about ministry leadership with a focus on how to get things done, but fewer who spend time thinking about leadership ethics.  Yet, for every multi-ethnic context or cross-cultural ministry situation there are corresponding ethical tensions that must be wrestled over with humility and integrity for the sake of truly serving and empowering results.

Will we be leaders who demand trust and focus only on our own perceived “good” intentions?  Or will we choose the harder path of working for what is truly good for another community?

In multi-ethnic contexts, I’ve learned that there are often only so many chances to build trust and succeed because of the complexity, history, and pain involved. Paternalism can undermine the precious few chances or only chance you may have to establish a partnering dynamic of mutuality, respect, dignity, and love. 

Identity & Holistic Coaching

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Multi Ethnic Learnings

As I continue to share some of the things I learned through my experience serving cross-culturally and in multi-ethnic contexts, many of the posts I share will directly or indirectly point to a theme that really is central to effective ministry and leadership development – identity.

Similar to what I shared in my previous post on the problem of paternalism, prior to my experiences doing leadership development in an ethnic minority ministry context I didn’t think much about identity.  Prior to that I had only really thought about identity through the lens of what some call “positional truths.”  These are those truths in the Bible about a believer’s identity in Christ.  My experience cross-culturally took me deeper into those positional truths and their significance for cross-cultural peace and reconciliation and unity.  However, my experience also took me to a broader and more holistic understanding of identity and its significance in discipleship, leadership development, and culture shaping.

My previously narrow understanding of identity I believe stems in part from the dynamics of being part of the majority culture. As I mostly have fit in culturally and have not often been in environments that raised the question for me about whether I belong culturally or not, this arena  existed for quite a while outside of my consciousness.  But some of that also stems from being exposed to perhaps overly propositional approaches to meaning making by my faith tradition.  But through my multi-ethnic and cross-cultural journey, identity has grown to become a central component of my leadership development philosophy and theology. Identity is always being lived out and formed. It’s dynamic. Some things are fixed, some things are dynamically changing.

Several years ago this espn cover really powerfully communicated the complex nature of identity – both in terms of how we see ourselves and how others may perceive us.


Leadership and community ethics really get to the heart of identity – it’s how we express and treat the image of God in ourselves and one another. It includes how we shape others and how others have shaped us. It’s how we understand what distinguishes us from others as well as what binds us together.

But while many like me minimize or are ignorant to the importance of identity in life, leadership, and ministry – identity is a larger or more central journey for people who have straddled multiple cultures or worlds. A word for living in this type of cultural reality is liminality – living in between when you don’t fully belong to one side or another but much of your identity and meaning lies in the tension and the in between.  We have raised our family the last couple of years in the Philippines and have watched first hand the identity journey our kids are on. They are already asking more questions related to identity than I ever did at their ages.

Beyond liminality – any oppressed people group will be aware of and wrestle more with identity because that’s part of the journey we must take to make sense of our experience.  The question of who we are for some is a more complicated one because their identity in the context of their ethnicity and uniqueness has not always been celebrated or affirmed. Most conscientious people today  will ask the questions at some point – why is this happening and what does it say about who I am? Some are forced to grow up asking these questions very early on while some, as a result of their circumstances, may not ask those questions until later in life, if ever.

It’s also important to highlight here that identity is important because ethnic minority stories are very different and people are on different journeys at different paces in different contexts. There has to be a commitment to learning who individuals are within their communities to free us up from unhelpful assumptions and stereotyping. When I paint groups of people with a broad brush I tend to get myself into trouble. Generalizations aren’t always bad, but when they become labels and things that we are projecting onto people, when they might not be true or representative of them then we have crossed a line.

One of the most valuable lessons I learned in this season of ministry was about the importance of listening to and paying attention to how people see and express themselves as a window into their identity journey.  Only through learning and listening can one truly come alongside in an affirming and empowering way – and when we see and affirm people’s identity, who God has made them, I’ve seen how incredibly empowering that can be.

As a practical note – this is why ministry efforts anchored in transferability of methodology has limits to its effectiveness.  What can be effective in one context can be ineffective somewhere else and furthermore it could even be unethical!  The degree to which we can see the difference is a reflection of our capacity to see and understand the power of identity in an individual and culture.

A few years ago I co-wrote this brief post on identity with my friend Adrian as a cornerstone of our philosophy of leadership development for Epic Movement.  As an additional resource, here is a team building exercise designed by friends of mine to surface themes of identity and stimulate conversation.

Triumphalism: The Lost Art of Honesty

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Multi Ethnic Learnings

As I continue posting this series on some of my multi-ethnic learnings, this post focuses on positivity gone wrong.

It took only a year or two in this context to understand that perhaps nothing hinders the empowerment of ethnic minority ministry, ethnic leaders, and movement towards great systemic change like militant positivity and the inability to have and navigate honest communication.


In ethnic ministry as well as cross-cultural situations, there are emotional realities and perspectives often kept quiet and silenced because of leadership tendencies to want to keep things orderly, structured, and “clean.” Failure to cultivate honesty, even with all its rawness in cross-cultural contexts, is to assure the preservation of the status quo.

Change cannot happen without the ability to navigate honesty.

Triumphalism I’ll describe here as the over-celebration of what Jesus has done and maybe the overconfidence that comes when we primarily focus on the positive and celebration and to the neglect of seeking out and facing with integrity those things that still need to die, be grieved, or be named as part of reality. This is very subtle but can be very deep. Before redemptive conflict can take place that can move us forward in healthy directions for all, different stories and painful feedback must be allowed into the conversation without it being ignored, silenced, spun, or hi-jacked by majority narratives.

Triumphalistic leadership positivity in this sense usually flows from anxiety.  It could be personal anxiety driven by fear. It could be insecurity or even a sense of inadequacy trying to lead or manage tension or conflict. Whatever it is – unchecked anxiety leads to control behavior and self-preservation.  That posture is a conversation killer, a door closer, a silencer of voice. Positive people are great. What we’re talking about are people I would call “Hopemongers.” They’re so desperate for a happy ending, they subvert the process that can produce redemptive fruit.

The picture above comes from the kids movie, Horton Hears a Who. The Mayor of Whoville speaks the truth to a community fearful of what new knowledge will do and they press “the happy button” for self-preservation.  We’re all tempted to press the happy button, but real conversation requires entering relationships and responding appropriately to pain.

If you’re interested in diving in on this one and you would like a more scholarly or theological resource than Horton Hears a Who 🙂  I would recommend Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination. It does not specifically relate to cross-cultural ministry, but he presents a theology of power and voice that is worth really engaging. I’m very grateful I came across this resource when I was beginning to immerse myself in ethnic minority leadership development and ministry.