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Review of Sherwood G. Lingenfelter, Leading Cross-Culturally

Author: Chris Flanders
Published: August 2010

MD 1

Article Type: Review Article

Sherwood G. Lingenfelter. Leading Cross-Culturally: Covenant Relationships for Effective Christian Leadership. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008. 175 pp. $16.99.

Sherwood Lingenfelter, Provost and Senior Vice President and Professor of Anthropology, School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, has provided us with an important work. This book, the third in a series that addresses Christian service in cross-cultural contexts (Ministering Cross-Culturally and Teaching Cross-Culturally are the earlier two volumes) continues the discussion of various types of Christian service in cross-cultural contexts but focuses on the important area of leadership.

The book is a series of case studies, with most chapters centering discussions of important topics by using a specific case study as a centerpiece. Topics that Lingenfelter addresses include a wide variety of leadership-related issues: vision and inspiration, partnership and priority setting, building trust, teamwork and covenant community, and empowerment through power-giving leadership. Interwoven through each chapter is the fundamental theme of empowering for effective leadership in cross-cultural contexts. Lingenfelter defines this theme as “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” (155).

He states outright that his first task is to help readers understand their “personal culture of leadership” (8) and how this impacts every aspect of ministry. That is, those engaged in cross-cultural leadership must understand their own “default” culture vis-à-vis the cultures in which they work. Such self-awareness, Lingenfelter contends, opens up the possibilities of understanding critical areas of weakness and blindness. By doing so, God’s servants are better prepared to create understanding and to find greater opportunities for faithful and effective ministry. Conversely, leaders who do not grasp how default cultures pervade every ministry move and decision are seriously disadvantaged to carry out leadership and partnership goals. The book, to a large degree, is designed to do just that—to bring to light the tacit cultural assumptions of (primarily) Western leaders who interact with others from non-Western cultures.

Those familiar with Lingenfelter’s work will find much familiar material here. Notable is his consistent reminder that, at its core, the calling to Christian leadership and service is about submission to Christ. Everything ultimately stands or falls on this critical spiritual orientation. Also typical of Lingenfelter’s work is how he fluently interacts with and utilizes critical anthropological and leadership theory while drawing such theoretical discussions into tangible challenges and provocative insights. One primary way Lingenfelter accomplishes this is his use of grid and group theory (in Lingenfelter’s terms, “social game theory”) from British anthropologist Mary Douglas. Lingenfelter distills this theoretical framework in an easy-to-use fashion in order to frame issues involving cultural differences, especially as these differences affect leadership and partnering.

A significant portion of the book centers on the topic of power; namely, how missionaries and local leaders see power issues differently, how they configure their respective power-goals in often significantly different modes, and how power seeking is at the root of much leadership and partnership failure. Lest the reader think this is mere academic, theoretical rambling, Lingenfelter demonstrates in tangible ways how power inheres in all social relations, particularly those types of relationships to which we refer when using the terms leader and partner. In opposition to “power-seeking” forms of leadership, Lingenfelter advocates “power-giving.” This type of leadership challenges much of what most (I would think) take for granted as “leadership.” Among the important qualities of a power-giving leader are a commitment to relationality over against position, personalistic concerns over against authority and control, and use of trust and character influence over against “powering outcomes.” Ultimately, power-giving leadership is about placing Jesus at the center of our wills and leadership goals. This commitment to power-giving expresses itself forcefully in Lingenfelter’s notion of being responsible to rather than for, a critical distinction for those engaged in leadership of any kind. The careful attention to and elaboration upon the hidden, mostly tacit ways power is in play in leaders’ relationships constitute one of the great merits of this book.

Personally, I found the concluding chapter entitled “The Hope of Cross-Cultural Leadership” both challenging and encouraging. Here Lingenfelter reminds us all of the critically important point that our values, vision, and sense of mission are always eroding. The real challenge is to become intentional in renewing these in an ongoing way. Such renewal work “must be intentional, it must become part of our regular work, and it must continue over a substantive period” (165). One cannot merely read a book or simply gain a new level of understanding. Rather, the more difficult and essential leadership capacity is that of reminding and renewing ourselves of what it means to lead and serve.

Lingenfelter’s challenging and helpful volume is precisely the type of resource that can assist us all in the ongoing work of auditing and renewing our vision and values as they relate to our calling of leadership. The case studies would be ideal for any teacher of missions or missionaries-in-preparation to use in guiding reflection on culture, power, and leadership. All involved in or preparing to work in a different cultural context simply must read this book. Though Lingenfelter writes specifically to those ministering in cultures other than their own, what he describes increasingly represents important issues for leaders in North American churches who find, due to shifting demographics, that they too lead a cross-cultural community. Thus, this is an important book for all who engage in the work of Christian service and leadership. I recommend it highly.

Chris Flanders

Professor of Mission

Abilene Christian University

Abilene, Texas, USA

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