Why would they not? They live there, we don’t. It seems so straightforward doesn’t it? Yet, to understand why we would even have to write this is to explain, and perhaps expose, why this so often is not the case.
There’s a saying in cross-cultural missions: What’s the golden rule? He or she who has the gold gets to rule. The financial imbalance, particularly between ministries with American offices and African field work often creates a power imbalance.
Next is paternalism. This is when the Western worker views his or her African counterpart as somehow lesser, although it’s couched in terms like, less educated, less strategic, disorganized, and sometimes it’s implied, untrustworthy. The environment we operate in would appear to reinforce that. Things like missing or poor infrastructure, poverty, governmental corruption, and so forth.
The conclusion is we, the westerner, must not cede too much control or our work will devolve into chaos, theft, and failure.
Third is cultural. The parts of Africa E1 operates in are Eastern. The contrast between Eastern and Western cultures is significant. Just google, “contrast Eastern Western culture” and you’ll get a feel for this gap. This results in the one with the gold and the power imbalance in his or her favor wanting to see Western values in an Eastern culture. This gets compounded because, in our African context, the local populations place a high value on relationship and will try hard to meet Western expectations. Conversely, when a Westerner observes the process of how a local leader completes a task, they often only see inefficiency.
The conclusion is we, the Westerner, must retain control. The irony of a Christian ministry forgetting that we’re all made in God’s image and our equal position at the cross is not lost upon us.
At Empower One, we have tried, and are actively trying, to choose a different path. The word empower in our name means a lot to us. If you access Webster’s, we’re shooting for definition 3, “to promote the self-actualization or influence of.” Years ago, we also decided that we liked the word interdependence. To fulfill the vision and calling God has placed upon us, we need each other.
Here’s how we approach this issue of local African leaders, leading the field ministry. First, you get the big rocks out of the way. We’re working together because we want people who’ve either never heard of Jesus or have little-to-no access to a church where they could hear of Him to get that chance. We agree we want to train local, African church leaders to reach unreached tribes, make disciples, and start new churches among them, and we want all this to reproduce.
Okay, we agree on that. That takes care of vision and mission. That’s actually easy. It’s the next layers of execution where the rubber meets the road.
Who gets to decide where we work?
Who hires the African staff?
Who decides the training curriculum (this one is HUGE)?
Who decides salaries?
Who decides where, or if, you have an office?
Who finalizes the design of anything you build?
At Empower One, the local African team has the final decision on all this. Shooting for interdependence, of course we give input. But on the flip side, our African partners give input on who we hire in America, what churches we partner with, and so forth. Again, this may sound painfully obvious. I assure you, it is not that common in the missions community. Some will dispute that, but ask when the Western partners aren’t around.
We sound prideful.
Two responses to that. One, in the best sense we are deeply proud of our conviction to have our local African leaders lead the field ministry. It’s a distinctive that is baked into our foundation.
Second, our confession is we arrived here because we felt (feel) so inadequate. Have you met our African team? Who would we be to attempt to exercise authority over men and women like that?!
I defy you to compare yourself with their knowledge of God’s word. At this point in our ministry, they are deeply experienced and sophisticated in both church planting and maintaining that church to stay healthy over the long haul. Their doctrine is strong, and we’ll never know the subtleties of the various cultures no matter how long we partner together.
We have our share of failures this space. There are plenty of times we’ve not fully empowered. We’ll never perfect this approach, and there are real trade offs with our conviction, but we’ll hold to it. Empower One.