Spiritual leaders and the multicultural mosaic

Fasten your seat belts-but whatever you do, don't close your eyes. The prognosticators of a future pluralistic society have been proved to be true prophetic voices heralding a rapidly altering world in the supercharged information age. Change is taking place with such speed that our theology and ethics are being outpaced, struggling to keep up with the exploding proliferation of innovation and technology, and the massive social evolution that sweeps in behind it.

Roscoe J. Howard III, D.Min., is secretary of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.

Fasten your seat belts—but whatever you do, don't close your eyes. The prognosticators of a future pluralistic society have been proved to be true prophetic voices heralding a rapidly altering world in the supercharged information age. Change is taking place with such speed that our theology and ethics are being outpaced, struggling to keep up with the exploding proliferation of innovation and technology, and the massive social revolution that sweeps in behind it.

Max De Free, in Leadership Is an Art, states, "The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality."1 The globalization of technology, communication, and travel have made our reality a culturally diverse environment that begs the question that Spencer Johnson asked in the title of his book Who Moved My Cheese?2 How did I wake up one morning and suddenly there were more women in my workplace, minorities in my neighborhood, immigrants and people with accents all over our societies, and silver-haired people in the pews of my church?

These new demographic realities are changing the way we think, act, and lead. The rapid compression of time and our ability to process events and the way they leave nothing unaltered has taken its toll on spiritual leaders. Answers to complex problems are demanded at the touch of a key stroke. The information age is juxtaposed against the "relationship desire." We've become a society that finds itself more and more isolated, treading water in the wake of a species of technological novelty that makes us more efficient and twice as lonely.

When these proliferating solitary travelers find their way to our churches on any given weekend, what will they find? A church that is gender inclusive and ethnically sensitive? Will they see the oneness they crave, which Jesus described in the seventeenth chapter of John? Will the church reflect the demographic reality that they encounter in the workplace without the sense of hostility and competitiveness of cultural clamoring?

A lot of what the church will mirror will depend on the leader. Henry and Richard Blackaby in Spiritual Leadership define such leadership: "Spiritual leadership is moving people on to God's agenda."3 They list five elements behind this straightforward definition: (1) "The spiritual leader's task is to move people from where they are to where God wants them to be"; (2) "Spiritual leaders depend on the Holy Spirit"; (3) "Spiritual leaders are accountable to God"; (4) "Spiritual leaders can influence all people, not just God's people"; and (5) "Spiritual leaders work from God's agenda."

If we believe this is a reasonable assumption of what God wants, then there are certain areas of focus that leaders need to comprehend if they wish to meet the challenges of this rapidly changing mosaic of a society.

Cultural competency

Every spiritual leader must first examine his or her own cultural programming. This introspective gaze must ask questions such as: Do I see myself as superior to other ethnic groups? Do I make assumptions that stereo type and pigeonhole people into self-fulfilling prophecies? Do I see individuals with little education as less valuable than others? Are people from other denominations not as close to God as I see myself to be? Is race an issue when it comes to my personal worship, my dating preferences, and how I feel about such diversity within my neighborhood?

Questions like these get at the ethnocentrism that sabotages our ability to allow Christ to lead others through us. "Challenging leaders to connect the culture that has formed them with the culture that confronts them, without shutting down" is the heart's task for leaders in relation to culture.4

Besides knowing one's own cultural programming, it is important to under stand the values, norms, and beliefs of other cultures. Trips to the library, long talks with individuals who are open to vulnerably discussing their worldview, group sharing, and other creative activities can foster dialogue in diversity and interpersonal discernment. This is the task of today's spiritual leader.

This kind of interaction must be a part of every agenda. People must sense that they are valuable and needed in the community of Christ. Constant and purposeful communication must take place.

Milton J. Bennett, a cross-cultural specialist, states, "Intercultural sensitivity is not natural... nor has it characterized most of human history. Cross-cultural contact often has been accompanied by bloodshed, oppression, or genocide. Clearly this pattern cannot continue. Today, the failure to exercise intercultural sensitivity is not simply bad business or bad morality— it is self-destructive. So we face a choice: overcome the legacy of our history, or lose history itself for all time."5

As a secularist, Bennett does not have much hope in the church, but spiritual leaders, of all people, must prove that unity in diversity not only can exist but can flourish and thrive in God's family.


Ideas of self-reliance, individual ism, and independence, admired so much in many of the traditions of significant segments of today's societies, will not dwell easily in a church where we are trying to focus on collaboration, team work, and unity. It is the continued task of the spiritual leader to remind the flock that the ground is level at the foot of the cross.

In the book Leading Congregational Change, the authors point out that "when we see others as equals, we are more willing to embrace the spirit of unity. The apostle Paul clearly states, 'Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace' (Eph. 4:3)."6 The denial of equality is at the heart of all racism. Leaders must have the courage to overcome their own cultivated tendencies that tend to thwart the practice of egalitarianism in the local church setting.

The leader must design his or her program and vision to include the concept that all of God's children are equal inheritors of the will and revelation of God. Writes J. Oswald Sanders: "We can lead others only as far along the road as we ourselves have traveled. Merely pointing the way is not enough. If we are not walking, then no one can be following, and we are not leading anyone."7

The idea of intentionality means that the concern for diversity issues is always on the agenda of the leader.

What the leader sees as important becomes important for the organization and the community. That's why intentionality, focus, and a clear sense of direction must come from the leader when negotiating the waters of multicultural complexity. Waves of complexity and conflict will swell from time to time in a pluralistic community. The leader must be intentional in weaving a collective consciousness and of himself or her self embracing diversity to minimize the potential struggle that comes with the challenges of a multicultural church community.

Conflict mediation skills Every leader's mettle is tested when facing conflict in the congregation. It is especially important for leaders of multicultural congregations to understand the need for basic conflict resolution skills across cultures. I recommend seven books for starters (see list below).


  • Conflict Resolution: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, by Kevin Avruch, Peter W. Black, and Joseph A. Scimecca8
  • Preparing for Peace: Conflict Transformation /Across Cultures, by John Paul Lederach9
  • Interpersonal Conflict, by William W. Wilmot and Joyce L. Hocker10
  • Managing Church Conflict, by Hugh F. Halverstadt11
  • Cross-Cultural Conflict: Building Relationships for Effective Ministry, by Duane Elmer12
  • Culture and Conflict Resolution, by Kevin Avruch 13
  • Church Conflict: The Hidden Systems Behind the Fights, by Charles H. Cosgrove and Dennis D. Hatfield 14


Such books are able to jump-start our understanding of the issues of conflict and how they relate to a particular local context.

In Becoming a Healthy Church, Stephen A. Macchia says, "Conflict is cancerous to relationships if left unattended. Resolving our conflicts begins with an honest assessment of our heart in line with Scripture." He also says that "We need to meditate on passages like Romans 12:9-18; 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a; Ephesians 4:22-32; Colossians 3:12-17; Hebrews 12:1-3; and James 3:13-18. Then our hearts will be prepared to address lovingly the conflict at hand."15

As a young pastor, just out of college, I recall sitting for seven hours with two saints who were in conflict over relationship issues that spanned 25 years. One of the women pulled out a tablet that chronicled 25 years of transgressions on the part of the woman sitting across from her in my office. We went line by line, entry by entry, day by day over each event, and when it was all over, they still could not come to any resolution.

If I had known then what I know now I could have cut the length of that meeting by at least 50 percent! Conflict across cultures and even basic interpersonal conflict is draining, time consuming, and painful. It does help to have a few skills to facilitate the mediation. The Holy Spirit can better assist us in our differences if we ourselves are sharpened tools in the Master's hand.

Value added to the church

Every church will be benefited when the needs of the members are regularly addressed. Although the church is not a business, and customer satisfaction is not the bottom line, people will know when they are actually valued and when priority is given to their concerns. It is the leader's role to help shape and create a safe place and a sense of belonging for all members.

Recognizing different diversity issues, such as making all facilities throughout the church accessible to those who are physically challenged, makes a huge statement to everyone. This type of sensitivity heightens the awareness of all members and takes their mind-set off of themselves and turns it toward service.

Starting a class that teaches English to newly arrived immigrants or making sure that the leadership configuration of the church reflects the changing demographics in the congregation signals that leaders embrace diversity, consider it a priority, and are setting the tone for the congregation.

Isn't that a large part of what Christian diversity management is all about, preferring others before your self? The benefits that the church receives through diversity-sensitive leadership are inestimable. Members themselves come to have a deeper appreciation for fairness, justice, social responsibility, and improving economic opportunities for the underachieving members of society.

The realization of the importance of diversity education in bringing about parity comes to penetrate the heart of every believer. The innovation, creativity, problem solving, cohesiveness, and brain trust in a heterogeneous membership will be blessed in many measurable ways. Spiritual, mental, and physical growth; financial health; a sense of oneness in the body of Christ; a witness to the world; and stability in creating a safe place are just a few of the benefits that the diversity-sensitive leader will constantly be promoting, preaching, teaching, and sharing with his or her congregation.

In his book The Connecting Church, Randy Frazee writes "I have a son who was born without a left hand. One day in Sunday school the teacher was talking with the children about the church. To illustrate her point she folded her hands together and said, 'Here's the church, here's the steeple; open the doors and see all the people.' She asked the class to do it along with her—obviously not thinking about my son's inability to pull this exercise off. Yet in the next moment it dawned on her that my son could not join in. Before she could do anything about it, the little boy next to my son, a friend of his from the time they were babies, reached out his left hand and said, 'Let's do it together.' The two boys proceeded to join their hands together to make the church and the steeple." 16

I long for the day when my church reaches out to all of humanity across cultures and says, "we are all one in Christ," and when that phrase be comes more than a politically correct expression printed in a policy book, but when it has instead become the essence of who we actually are as the followers of Jesus Christ.

1 Max De Free, Leadership Is an Art (A Dell Trade Paperback, 1989), 11.

2 Spencer Johnson, M.D., Who Moved My Cheese? (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1998)

3 Henry and Richard Blackaby, Spiritual Leadership (Nashville. Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 21.

4 Reggie McN'eal, A Work of Heart (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000), 75.

5 Milton J. Bennett, quoted in Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe, Managing Diversity: A Complete Desk Reference and Planning Guide
(Business One Irwm/Pfeiffer & Company, 1993), 4

6 Jim Herrington, Mike Bonem, James Furr, Leading Congre gational Change (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000), 19.

7 }. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership: Principles of Excellence for Every Believer (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 28.

8 Kevin Avruch, Peter W. Black, and Joseph A Scimeca, eds., Conflict Resolution- Cross-Cultural Perspectives (Westport, Conn.:
Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc., 1991).

9 John Paul Lederach, Preparing for Peace Conflict Transformation Across Cultures (Syracuse, X.Y.. University Press, 1995).

10 William W, Wilmot and Joyce L. Hocker, Interpersonal Conflict (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001).

11 Hugh F. Halverstadl, Managing Church Conflict (Louisville, Ky. Westminster John Knox Press, 1991).

12 Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Conflict- Building Relationships for Effective Ministry (Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity Press, 1993).

13 Kevin Avruch, Culture and Conflict Resolution (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1998).

14 Charles H , Cosgrove and Dennis D. Hatheld, Church Conflict. The Hidden Systems Behind the Fights (Nashville, Tenn.:
Abmgdon Press, 1994).

15 Stephen A. Macchia, Becoming a Healthy Church (Grand Rapids, Midi.: Baker Books, 1999), 106.

16 Randy Frazee, The Connecting Church (Grand Rapids, Midi.. Zondervan, 2001), 242.



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Roscoe J. Howard III, D.Min., is secretary of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.

July/August 2005

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