“I want to raise a leader from the minority culture and I’m ready to yield my power to a new leader so that that person can step up. I’m also willing to just get out of his/her way but it’s just hard to find and empower them.”
It may not be the exact wording but occasionally I hear similar frustrations from white Christian leaders who are eager to empower leaders of color. Most of the time the intention of these white leaders is sincere and they mean what they say. Anglo leaders from the USA who share their passion and frustration with me in this area are eager to build a diverse team of committed followers of Jesus for their community and organizations. They have no intention nor desire to be in control forever as they recognize the Lordship of Christ over His church. Yet, why is it so hard for these North American ministries to raise the leaders of color coming from minority culture?
With my genuine motivation to help them in what they are passionate about I usually ask this question. “How does one become a leader in your context?”
Whenever we talk about culture, we can’t help but to generalize. So here comes an overly simplified and generalized assumption that I risk to make. I think generally in westernized Christian organizations, people have to step up to be a leader. This is in contrast to non-western contexts where leaders are found to be a leader.
Whether it’s a church, para-church, or an academic institution in pursuit of diverse communities in the United States, I’ve noticed again and again how the individualistic culture here plays a dominant role in recruiting and empowering leaders.
Generally speaking, in my diverse community, most non-white members are from collective cultures whether they are from Asia, Africa, Arab world or from Central & South Amerca. In a collective culture, you don’t become a leader by stepping up but you are recognized, validated, and empowered by others. This is how leaders emerge.
I often hear leaders saying, “please sign up”, “please speak up”, and “let me know if you need anything”. What do these imply? It assumes individual space, privacy, rights and choices are important and to be respected. It’s meant to respect boundaries and assumes that you can’t assume others will want what you want until they sign up, speak up, and step up.
In my culture, people rarely sign up but are pursued to be asked to do something by leaders. People don’t speak up during the meeting unless they feel they have permission or feel they have something important to contribute. People don’t say what they need due to the shame, so we just assume what others need in the moment and try to fill the needs even when they don’t ask for anything. How risky!
Imagine your organization has a system of signing up to be a volunteer, signing up to be an intern; and one is solely and individually responsible to raise funds to join the team. Then one has to demonstrate a high level of self-confidence to be placed into a high level leadership position.
These are not bad at all but these are simply cultural systems designed to respect individual space, choice and rights. People coming from collective cultures where one’s identity is deeply woven into a group and decisions are rarely made as an individual will be hard pressed to flourish in this environment. If your organizational system is designed to help recruit and empower people coming from individualistic cultures, people from collective cultures will have to learn to breathe in a different air and learn to swim in new water.
Of course, I can’t provide easy solutions to this simplified assessment of such a complicated issue and I don’t have all the answers. But I see leaders with sincere desires to raise people of color not being aware of their own cultural limitations or actually pushing away the very people they want to empower.
My first suggestion is to ask. Ask honest questions to multiple non-white leaders serving in leadrship roles in your organization and others. Ask how you can grow in this area and what needs to change. Ask them how they came to be a leader. Ask them how leaders are found and empowered in their ministry context. Share with them fears you might have as a leader learning to walk in uncharted territory. Minority leaders on your team are usually the ones who’ve learned to swim in individualistic cultural systems so they may see more. They may have wisdom and ways to navigate this with you.
Then, I urge after asking these types of questions to listen well and wisely. I want to tell white leaders… “We don’t want you to get out. We need you because every people and culture is valuable in God’s kingdom. We want you to demonstrate true humility by listening. Listen without defending or correcting.
And we want to demonstrate true humility by learning. Learn to pursue us instead of just waiting until we sign up, speak up or step up, and stay with us. Without micromanaging nor leaving us alone, learn to walk with us. Learn to walk alongside so in the end, we won’t be accomplished individuals, but an interdependent community, the beautiful and diverse body of Christ.