Power Dynamics on the Mission Field

Power is a dirty word for Christians who want to follow a life of humility, right? In church, it feels like we’ve been conditioned to not talk about power unless we are talking about the power of the Holy Spirit. To talk about power and how it plays out among mere human beings feels like a risky road to start walking down…almost like the one that James and John stepped on to as soon as they asked Jesus whether they could be granted the seat at the right hand of the Father (Mark 10:35).

But the reality is, we all have power, whether we admit it or not. Power is not just a position, but instead it is the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.

Power comes in many forms and many types. Power can be either visible or invisible and sometimes we are aware of it while other times we are not. Power is associated with many words such as “power over”, “power to,” “power of,” and “power with.” Power can either be used or abused. Power can lift up and power can crush.

Power itself is not inherently evil. Seeking opportunities to influence is not a bad thing. God gives us opportunities to influence and sometimes even places us in positions of influence so that we can direct or point people towards His truths and His ways. Pastors are placed in positions to influence their parishioners, parents influence children, and teachers influence their students. In their healthiest forms, power in these relationships is being used to empower others by influencing and encouraging positive behaviors, but at other times this power can be used to abuse or oppress those with less power. The study of how the use of power plays out in relationships of those with varying degrees of power is called power dynamics.

If power dynamics exist within the church, within the home, and within the workplace, it’s pretty safe to assume that power dynamics exist within our ministry field. And if they exist, then we should probably be talking about them.

When and if we talk about power dynamics and missions, our focus is usually on the relationship between the missionary and host country nationals. The importance of talking about power dynamics and the potential effects on relationships as we live out and share the gospel is generally recognized, given the economic conditions and sometimes colonial heritage of many of the countries we serve in.

How often though do we talk about power dynamics between missionaries who serve alongside each other as part of a team? Are we not also involved in relationships with one another? Even if we are coming from the same country, does that mean power dynamics are not also at play amongst us? What is the likelihood that we are all entering into these relationships with the exact same understandings about what power is, who has it, how it should be regulated, and why it’s important to talk about?

Given that one of the most common reasons cited by missionaries for leaving the field is trouble with their own team members, maybe we ought to begin a conversation about this.

WHY should we talk about power?

  • Creates a unified language about power. We may not all have the same definition or idea of power and how it relates to our relationships, our roles, and our witness so it’s important to establish some commonality in language so as to avoid misunderstandings and hurt.
  • It encourages self-reflection and self-awareness. By first acknowledging and then engaging in open and honest conversations about power and it’s origins and uses, we are able to reflect on our role and our use of power to determine whether we are honoring God with it or not. Power can be an amazing asset when used in the right moment and in the right context. But if we are unaware of the power that we are yielding, we just might end up walking around like a bull in a china shop, hurting and alienating those we love.
  • Helps create efficiency and ownership. Talking about power and who has it can help us identify areas where it needs to be either consolidated or distributed further. Consolidation of power can help when perhaps we are taking too long to make a decision because too many people are involved. Further distribution of power can serve as a tool for more people to feel ownership in decision making and the mission itself.
  • It can help to clarify roles and temper expectations. In talking with many missionaries, I know that one of the big challenges that comes along with saying yes to this job is the fact that often we don’t really fully know what we’re saying yes to! Nonetheless, we each come onto the field with our own expectations of what we will be doing and how we’ll be doing it. Although we may all have a shared mission, we have different ideas about how that will play out and how our power to influence should or shouldn’t be used which can lead to a lot of unmet and unrealistic expectations and bitter or resentful feelings when things don’t necessarily play out that way.

By being afraid or ashamed to talk about power or by denying it exists at all, we may be missing out on opportunities to equip our brothers and sisters in Christ to live out their purposes. Power is not just something to be wielded, nor is it something to be ignored. Christian author Andy Crouch asserts that power is a gift because “power is for flourishing.” Power, or postures of influence, is what allows us to be image bearers for Christ in a world that is looking for hope and a Savior. We can use our power as a gift from the Holy Spirit as God intended it, or we can hand it over to the devil and let ourselves become ensnared within the throngs of jealousy and pride. Because power is a gift, we are called to steward it and use it wisely.

HOW can we leverage the gift of power among our team?

  • Facilitate a conversation about power dynamics and the ministry. Talk openly together as a team about this reality and both the positive and negative implications it has on your relationships with each other, with host country nationals, with partners, with the board etc. Talk specifically about the factors that influence power dynamics such as differences in roles, age, gender, experience, race, denominational views, education levels, subcultures, personalities, and of course money. How money is spent (ie how this “power” is used to influence others for the sake of the gospel) can be a huge area for tension. Don’t allow the devil to take that and use it to create division. Instead, take hold of the narrative through open and honest communication. Talk about power dynamics if you are just now joining the team and you don’t anticipate any problems or whether you’ve been a team for years and you’re looking for ways to grow stronger. Talk about it with each other, talk about this with board, and talk about it with partners, donors, and funders.
  • Personality tests or spiritual gifting tests. Personality tests and spiritual gifting tests are tools that can better help us to understand not only teammates, but also ourselves. When an organization or a team leader knows the personalities of those on their team, they can better understand the values from which each person operates and the lenses through which they might view a situation. When we understand the strengths and weaknesses of the members of our teams alongside those personalities, we can uniquely position each member of our team into a position where their giftings can flourish and create maximum influence for the Kingdom.
  • Set up an organizational chart for your team. A chart that shows hierarchy or spheres of influence can greatly help to empower each team member in his or her area. This helps to set up clear communication lines and boundaries so that each person knows to whom to talk, defer, or delegate. When there is less confusion as to who should be doing or deciding what, you are limiting the potential for misunderstandings and negative feelings about control. It can feel “icky” to have conversations about control/power because it’s a blurry line between looking like you are in it with selfish pride verses just craving structure that might help you and others to thrive. A (flexible) organizational chart can provide a foundation for those hard conversations.
  • Develop clearly written job descriptions for each team member. This goes in line with the organizational chart as it will help to further clarify the responsibilities (or areas of influence) of each team member. I suggest having these written up before a team is brought together, but as we all know, things never seem to work out quite exactly how we planned so perhaps make a point to revisit these job descriptions together as a team as roles or projects shift.
  • Pray for each other daily. Pray that God would give your teammates opportunities to use the power that God has given them to influence people for His kingdom. When we are continually lifting each other up in prayer, this act will naturally soften our hearts towards our teammates and rather than praying about how we can deal with this other person’s perceived power complex? perhaps we are instead praying about how we can help that person and ourselves grow in self-awareness, wisdom, and love within the unique sphere of influence that God has placed us in?

Let’s start the conversation of power within our ministries and our teams. Maybe you can start by just subtly dropping this blog to their inbox as a hint, but I think it might serve you better to be a little more direct. There are tons of great resources online and books that can help us facilitate these conversations in a healthy and God-honoring way. Talking about power dynamics will not solve anything in and of itself. It can however serve useful as a tool or framework for helping us evaluate our roles on the team and ensuring that each person has opportunities to use the gifts and talents God has given them to glorify God and live out their purpose through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

In the midst of COVID-19, a message to those who stay and those who go

For the past few weeks, our minds have all been collectively spinning. Many of us have spent hours wondering and praying, either out loud as we lay in our beds or silently within our own heads, about what we should do. We’ve turned it over and over again in our minds, examining it from every angle possible, hoping to see something we hadn’t seen before that will finally make it all clear. 

But it’s been difficult. There’s been so many questions with answers that we just can’t predict with any reasonable certainty. In light of what is going on, what is going to happen to us? What will be the potential effects on my health or my family’s health? On our financial situation? On our ministry and those we have felt called to serve? What will people here think of us? What will people there think of us? Where is God calling me to be right now? 

Amidst this COVID19 outbreak around the world, should we stay or should we go? 

For many of us, that has been the biggest and heaviest question on our minds recently. For some, this decision still needs to be made. While most commercial flights are cancelled, situations are rapidly changing and last-minute government-operated evacuation flights are still popping up sporadically and forcing families to constantly re-evaluate. 

For most though, the decision has already been made and you are where you are for the foreseeable future. For some, that decision was yours to make. But for plenty of others, that decision was made for you…whether by your sending agency or home church, by airline cancellations, or by your host or passport country’s government policies that have kept you put where you are. 

Some are happy with the decisions that have been made. Some though are understandably upset that they were never given the chance to make a decision at all. Some are satisfied with where they’ve ended up and others are disappointed. Some consider themselves “stuck” abroad while others consider themselves “stuck” at home. 

Some people feel like others are overreacting, while some people feel like others are underreacting. People are getting angry and disappointed with the “others” for “not getting it.” 

Some people feel that those that are going back are living out of fear rather than faith. Meanwhile some feel that those who stay are ignoring the facts and living out of ignorance or misplaced confidence. 

Some people think it is selfish to stay (potentially putting extra burden on what is already an exhausted health care system in a developing country and extra burden on your donors if you do get sick) and others think it is selfish to go (placing your own well-being over that of another).

Missionaries who go back to their passport countries or are already stuck in their passport countries might wrestle with regret or guilt of feeling like they are leaving certain people behind or abandoning them. Meanwhile, missionaries who stay in their host countries, might also wrestle with regret or guilt from those who might want or need them to come “home.”  

What are we to do?? 

As always, let us all who hope in the Lord, first be strong and take heart (Psalm 31:24). There is no universal “right” answer here. In these types of situations, there is no choice but to respect one another’s decisions and extend grace to our fellow missionaries. Because either way, the decision was most assuredly not an easy one…no matter how it might have appeared outwardly. We can’t ever truly know anyone else’s entire situation (medical, financial, emotional, spiritual) and it is not our place to judge. We don’t know what God has laid on their hearts or what He has called them to do. We don’t know if they are obeying or disobeying the Holy Spirit’s stirrings in their hearts. We can’t see the future to know what was right for this family versus that one. Only God will ever know that. 

As Christians, we believe in the sovereignty of God’s Will and we can trust that God will use and work good in whatever decision that was made. Just as God calls some to literally “go” abroad into the mission field, He calls and also needs some to stay. Likewise, God has called some people to stay and some people to go. 

So to those who stay and to those who go…

Rest assured, that the same everlasting truths still hold true for us all. Remember that God is still the one in control. Remember that we are not prisoners of fear, shame, guilt, or regret. Remember that you are no less or no better than anyone else, we are all human. Remember that you are still called to serve and give generously, no matter your geographical location. Remember, now more than ever with our minds and worlds shaken and turned upside down and inside out, that we are called to show grace to one another and be patient in love. Remember to be kind. Remember to pray for and check in on each other, many of our friends are struggling. Remember that this is not the end, He is still bigger than it all.

Know that you are worthy and that you are loved by your Heavenly Father, no matter what and no matter where you ended up. Have confidence that He is still working in and around you, through you and in spite of you. No matter how you feel about where you are, your calling is still the same. Continue to lay your life down as a daily offering upon the alter and keep striving to use your words and actions to share the hope, peace, love, and joy that you have found in Christ. 

Most of all, remember that whether you stay or go, you still have a purpose right where He has you. 

The Hardest Thing About Living Overseas

People often ask me what the hardest thing about living in West Africa is.

Is it being away from family and friends? Is it the “strange” food, specifically the lack of cheese and bacon? Is it the bad roads? The unstable electricity? The lack of clean drinking water in your faucet? The lack of healthcare? The different languages? The snakes or the mosquitoes?

The truth is, it is none of those things. Don’t get me wrong, those are very real challenges (even the one about the cheese) but if you want to know the one thing that makes living in Liberia hard…the one thing that keeps me up at night and makes me question whether I belong here or not and makes me feel so tired and weary and like I just want to give up and go home…it is the gray.

Learning to navigate all the gray.

Growing up I used to be so confident in my view of the world, my opinions, my beliefs, the way things were and that was because I so clearly saw a lot of my world around me as black and white. There was right and wrong and there was good and bad and there was nothing, absolutely nothing in between for a rigid and “holier-than-thou” youth-group-going rule-follower teenager like me.  Everything had an explanation and everyone and everything about the world could be categorized, organized, explained, even God Himself.

Viewing the world as black and white is comfortable, isn’t it? It makes it so easy to understand things and so much simpler to process our experiences, to quickly and efficiently judge our actions and the actions of others (though I know this isn’t my business), to categorize people into little boxes, and organize our ideas and responses to certain situations … “if this is the problem, then this is the only option” or “if a person does this, then they are that” and so on and so forth. It allows us to escape thinking about how our outlook on the world may possibly be…incomplete…or dare I say, wrong!

As I grew up in the US, one of the most diverse countries in the world, there were obviously plenty of things to challenge my mindset and my understanding of the world every day, thrusting me into the land of the gray. But at the end of the day, I could always look around and find plenty of people who looked, believed, behaved, or thought just like me and if I tried hard enough, I could always use this bubble to escape the gray….entering back into the land of crisp lines and black and white. 

Being in Liberia, that’s just not the case. For starters, 99.9% of the people I see or meet every day are very different from myself in terms of looks, culture, beliefs, etc. I meet so many people here whose way of life and thinking are so different from my own. Their childhoods are wildly different from my own, their pain/suffering is much deeper than I can comprehend, and their values systems about family, money, community, gender, education, truth, and spirituality/faith are more complex than I can still explain. Every day I feel like I’m walking deeper into the gray. Everyday my mind is swirling and I am overwhelmed with questions like:

  • Am I missing something here because I am looking at this only through my cultural lens? How does their culture, religion, race, poverty, beliefs, pain/trauma, personality, background shape their values and thus affect their actions? How does my wealth and privilege and nationality affect my own?
  • Are my thoughts being influenced by underlying prejudices? Am I making assumptions about or devaluing someone because of their race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, or education level? If I am, why? And how do I stop?
  • How do I know when the tension we are facing/feeling is simply related to cultural and individual differences and not a matter of right or wrong (as defined through scripture)? 
  • Is what I’m doing truly out of compassion or my desire to control situations and produce tangible results? 
  • Should I give money to this person/situation? If I am giving money, why am I doing it? Because I trust God or because I don’t? Is there another way?
  • How many times do I watch someone fail rather than stepping in myself to help? Am I creating dependency by doing or giving too much? Am I becoming lazy/jaded by doing or giving too little? When should I say “no” and when should I say “yes”? 
  • How do I know when to adjust my behaviors/action to fit into and show respect for the culture when it’s ok to just be myself? At what point do I lose myself and my own identity for the sake of respecting culture, a culture that often undervalues my own voice as a woman?
  • Where’s the line between grace and justice? Where is the line between letting someone’s past experiences or poverty become a crutch and holding them to unrealistic expectations and setting them up for failure? How can I even know if I’ve never walked in their shoes?

Maybe you can relate? Maybe you’ve asked yourself some of these questions before in your own everyday cross-cultural experiences? Maybe you’ve even had to ask these questions as you navigate conversations with someone who on the outside may look just like you, but who comes from an entirely different cultural background? 

It can be so exhausting to enter into this gray area, the area where answers don’t always come or aren’t clear immediately. It can be mentally draining spending so much time turning these thoughts over and over again in my head, especially because more often than not it is during these times that I am also confronted with my own sins and misunderstandings of who God is and who I am in His Kingdom. 

The world is not what I thought it was, people are not always who society told me they would be, I’m a much bigger sinner than I had feared, and God’s love is so much deeper than I could have ever dreamed.

What someone does doesn’t always define who someone is. Just because someone’s opinions, ideas, or feelings are different than my own, does not mean that they are automatically wrong or that they as human beings are any less valid or valued by Our Father in Heaven. 

The more we get out of our comfort zones and intentionally engage, listen to, and get to know people who come from different backgrounds than ourselves, the more opportunities we will have to screw up…yes, that much is definitely true. BUT ALSO the more we will learn about ourselves, each other, and God…and that’s a good thing…a really good thing.

The world is so much grayer than I originally understood and I’m learning I learning to be ok with that. 

You see, I’m beginning to understand and even believe that the gray is ultimately where the sweetest parts of life happen. The gray is where we are stretched, molded, pulled, squished, smoothed, shaped, and changed. The gray is hard and painful, but it is where healing happens, where relationships form, and where barriers are broken down and prejudices torn apart. The gray is where the threads of our common humanity and our oneness is made clear and tangible, if even for the briefest of moments. The gray is where questioning/doubts/fears have the room to breathe.

The gray is messy, but the gray is exactly what Jesus entered into when He stepped down from Heaven to live among us in this fallen world. The gray is the area where God invites us in and promises to walk with us, revealing to us both the brokenness and beauty of His creation. The gray is where we are emptied of everything we thought we knew. It is where we realize our inability as created beings to know all the answers, thereby forcing us into the arms of the One who does. 

These days, rather than trying to run away from it, ignore it, or control it, I’m learning more about what it means to actually enter into the gray and embrace it for all that it is. 

May God grant us patience, grace, wisdom, and courage as we enter into and traverse the gray of life together.

Why Do You Keep Going Back?

When we joined AgriCorps, we said that we would be going to Liberia for one year. One year later we were packing our bags for a flight back to Liberia.

When we joined Hope in the Harvest, we said that we would be going to Liberia for two years. Two years later we are once again packing our bags for a flight back to Liberia.

This year as we join Hope in the Harvest again, we aren’t saying when we’ll be coming back to the US (for good) because it’s kinda starting to look like we are liars anyways….

“Why do you keep extending? Why do you keep going back?”

This is the question that I hear at least 2-3 times a week, so by now you would think that I would have myself a perfectly cultivated answer, short and sweet, clear and to the point, easy to deliver, something that summarizes it all up. That’s what they tell me I should have by now….that most people I encounter will mostly likely only have an attention span of 2-3 minutes to dedicate to hearing about life/ministry in Liberia and that I need to have my “elevator speech” prepared and ready to go at a moment’s notice.

That’s what they say at least. However, I can’t seem to do it….I mean I can… and I guess I have…you may have even heard me do it….but every time I boil it down to those few simple words (“agricultural and spiritual transformation”) I feel like I’m tying a pretty red ribbon up on the outside of a shiny white box that is filled with an absolutely colorful mess inside, about to burst open and explode everywhere!

How do I explain why I am going back in just a few simple sentences? How do I explain in just a few simple sentences all the things that God has laid on my heart and all the ways that God has broken my heart? Good, bad, beautiful, ugly, messy, clean, tangible, intangible, real, fake, and everything in between? How do I explain it all at once? How do I summarize things that I myself don’t even understand? That I can’t even explain? Things that seem like they make no sense?

I’m going back because Liberia feels like home, but also Liberia is nothing like home and that’s why I love it, but that’s also why I miss home.

I am going back because Liberia is so far out of my comfort zone, and yet I am going back because Liberia is exactly inside of my comfort zone.

I am going back to Liberia because in Liberia I feel joy more fully than I ever knew possible, and yet I am going back to Liberia because it is there that I feel sorrow deeper than my heart could hold on its own.

I am going back because I love some of these people more than I can put into words, and yet I am also going back because I want to understand what love really is because it feels like I still don’t know.

I am going back to teach, and yet I am going back because there is so much left to learn.

I am going back to finish what I started, and yet I know that there is no finishing this thing here on earth.

I am going back because I am not afraid of the things people think I should be afraid of, but I am going back because I am afraid of the other things.

I’m going back because I love the work that we get to do there, but also the work that we are called to do there scares me and I don’t love things that scare me.

I’m going back because I’ve found immense purpose there in the work, but also I’m struggling to understand my purpose on a daily basis when it comes to other things.

I’m going back because I have skills/knowledge that I believe are worth sharing and can make a difference there, and yet I know that every good thing that is done and every change that I see happening is all from the Lord’s doing.

I am going back because I want to share with people about how they can have eternal life because I believe eternity with God is what all of us are living for, but also I see people with real needs in front of me now…with whom I cannot talk about eternity if we cannot address the very real hunger that is in their stomachs right now, the very real fears that keep them up at night, the very real diseases that keep taking their children away from them too soon.

I am going back to Liberia because I love agriculture, and yet I am going back to Liberia because agriculture means nothing to me at all in comparison.

I am going back because I feel like I should, and yet I am not at all going back because I feel like I should because I have lots of people telling me I shouldn’t.

I am going back because I feel like I am needed, but I am going back because they don’t need me at all.

I am going back to Liberia because in some ways it is simpler, but I am going back to Liberia knowing that I am leaving the simplicity behind.

I am going back because I have hope for Liberia, but also, I am going back because some days I don’t have hope, but others do and they draw me towards them like light to the darkness and darkness cannot hide from the light.

I am going back because I am selfish and I like to feel good about helping others, but also, I am going back so that I don’t succumb to my own selfishness.

I am going back to be with my family, and yet as I go back, I am missing my family intensely.

I am going back to Liberia because I feel called to go back, but I’m also going back because it is my desire to go back.  God has given me a desire to serve the poor, to teach agriculture, and to share the good news of His salvation. He has placed those desires on my heart as I have sought to delight myself in Him and His presence. He has and is giving me the desires of my heart; they are fully His and yet they are fully mine all at the same time. Finally, there is no juxtaposition here.

Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Psalm 37:4

You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. Psalm 16:11

And that is why I’m going back, because the desire of my heart is simply that I want to walk with the Lord on this specific path for a little while longer…to fulfill the desires of my heart. This is not the only path for me, I know that there a number of paths that I could take and serve the Lord anywhere in the world doing a number of different jobs.  I know now that it is not necessarily about the specific path that I take, but rather The One who holds my hand and guide me as I walk along that path. And somehow that’s what makes the freedom to choose this path….this rugged, winding, wide, confusing, long, beautiful, joyous, painful, fulfilling path of ministry abroad…even sweeter. My husband and I don’t know exactly how long we will be on this path, but we know that if we cling tightly to the Hand of God, that He will be with us along the way…and that’s all any of us really want or need out of this life…isn’t it?

So once again, we are packing our bags for a flight back to Liberia.