It was a steamy, late nineteenth century day in Bombay. The noise on the docks was deafening, shouts of stevedores mixing with the cry of local vendors and the screech of overburdened block and tackle. Two British missionaries, bound for home after years on the field, met that blistering afternoon moments after boarding the ship. Over the next two weeks at sea they discovered a number of things: although they knew each other by name, they had never met in person; although they had worked in sharply different cultures, one in the south and the other in the northwest, there were major areas of common experience. These men were able to encourage each other and share information and experiences. After they returned to India, both committed to experimenting with what they had learned in those welcome conversations. Once on the docks in Southampton, they parted ways, never to meet again.
Each of these men vowed he would share his insights with others and encourage his missionary friends to share their experiences more intentionally and frequently. The truth is that what they had shared in experience and understanding was largely lost to the wider missions community, much less the wider Church community in the United Kingdom. In modern parlance, the hard-won intellectual capital (which in this case could be taken to include objective data and cultural, emotional and spiritual dimensions), born out of living in highly complex, strategic circumstances, was largely lost.
The More Things Are Different, the More They Are the Same
Despite CNN, shorter missionary terms, ease of transportation and communication and the ubiquitous Internet, to the reasonably informed observer there is some question as to whether circumstances have changed all that much in 125 years.
Superficially they no doubt have. Reports can be filed electronically; missionaries travel more frequently at lower cost per mile traveled and prayer support for distant circumstances can be marshaled virtually overnight. But what about the “standing gap” of information among international Christian leaders—is it really much different today than in those circumstances reflected in the lives of the two missionaries on the Bombay dock?
What This Piece Is and Is Not
In this short article no attempt is made to examine the specific communications skills or routine practices of international Christian ministry leadership. How a leader handles email, deals with communications technologies, prioritizes his or her communications with colleagues or handles communications with the Board of Trustees or donors has been covered dozens of times by other authors.
In contrast, this is an effort to (1) raise awareness and questions regarding the current international context and practices of communication between international Christian leaders and (2) ask whether creative, intentional efforts at more effective communications might yield near-term as well as eternal dividends.
In preparation for this article, I sent an informal questionnaire regarding communications practices to seventeen international leaders (roughly evenly divided among Westerners and non-Westerns). I have known all for quite some time. The outbound email communication was marked “priority” with the well-known red exclamation point attached. A response was received from seven (forty-one percent) and the first to respond was the leader of the largest of all the international agencies. The reader may draw his or her own conclusions from this modest exercise.
The responses to the questionnaire, buttressed by a lifetime of mixing with Christian leaders around the world, suggests that consistent, intentional meeting and communicating with other leaders in similar areas of responsibility is, at best, occasional. Anecdotal connections seem to be the order of the day.
Parallels: Secular and Sacred
Having come up in the world of business and commercially-oriented international communications, I am acutely aware of how critical effective communication is among leaders. Sometimes personal and company fortunes rise and fall literally overnight. Effective communication is critical in these circumstances, within their company or direct area responsibility, of course. But with wider industry, real-time information is needed as well.
One response to this essential need in the leaders’ lives would be the links where face-to-face relationships can be built, information exchanged and alliances formed. To this end a wide variety of associations, networks and specifically orchestrated forums exist.
At the highest level, the United Nations and regional expressions like ASEAN provide a political forum. G7 and the World Economic Forum are high-level platforms where leaders can discuss global and regional economic issues. Moving to the business and scientific sectors, literally tens of thousands of specialized associations and networks are intersections where like-minded leaders can meet; some primarily serving technical and professional people, others, primarily senior leadership. (Google currently lists twenty-six trade associations just in the field of polymers. Another site lists seventy-six associations and societies that only deal with setting technical standards!) The world of education has similar entities—points at which like-minded leadership can connect.
The problem these days is if you are a brain surgeon, it is no longer good enough to just be part of the American Medical Association. You will need to be a member of The Neurological Society of America which, in turn, is part of the World Federation of Neurological Societies. In thousands of other professional and business sectors it is the same. It is a big, complicated world today—filled with innovation, competition and changes that affect you—especially if you are a leader in your field.
There are some Christian counterparts. In the West, groups like the Evangelical Alliance of Britain and the National Association of Evangelicals in the US often have retreats or conferences for leaders. The same would be true in parts of the non-Western world such as with the Evangelical Fellowship of India. And, the missionary counterparts of these groups, Global Connections in the UK, Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies and Interdenominational Federation of Mission Agencies in the US and the Indian Missions Association in India place an active emphasis on staging regular retreats or conferences for their leaders.
There are, of course, a wide range of more specialized yet regional or global communities. One only has to look at the Anabaptist, Reformed or Pentecostal sectors to see these expressions each providing a place where their respective leadership can meet.
Specialized geographic and functionally focused networks and regular meetings in the global Christian community serve much the same purpose as they do in the secular world. Some of these networks include: AERDO (Association of Relief & Development Organizations), the Forum of International Bible Agencies and The Refugee Highway. In the US, groups like the Mission America Coalition, Christian Management Association, National Religious Broadcasters and Christian Booksellers are examples of the growing number of specialized networks—placed where like-minded Christians can meet.
Regional annual meetings or networks are increasingly connecting practitioners and specialists internationally. COICOM (communications) and COMIBAM (missions) serving Latin America, and MANI (Movement For African National Initiatives) serving all the sub-Saharan African countries are examples. Many more exist and space limits a comprehensive list.
Additionally, more than a dozen regional gatherings, most of them annual, bring together like-minded individuals committed to collaborative approaches to evangelism and church planting. From the Tibetan Buddhist Peoples and Minorities of SW China, through Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa, these consultations regularly see between two people and four hundred people gather to assess developments in the region and to pray and plan together for greater effectiveness.
A troubling question is how many of these venues actually attract the leaders—the decision makers? How many denominational, mission or other essential Christian CEOs or ministry executives are present? And, if and when they are present, is there any encouragement or motivation for them to meet and share around the problems unique to their leadership role?
Internationally, groups like the World Evangelical Alliance, with members in 128 countries, and a resurgent Lausanne Movement have sought with varying degrees of effectiveness to provide the “macro” context where leaders can meet.
The face-to-face options the secular networks and associations provide are augmented by a blinding array of enewsletters, electronic audio and video conferences and other electronic/Internet empowered means for sharing, educating or planning. The numbers of commercial companies providing similar services for these specialized sectors grows daily. Connecting and informing leaders is big business!
In the Christian community a comparatively small number of electronic helps (enewsletters, audio/video based services, etc.) are focused on the leadership community.
In the Christian community a comparatively small number of electronic helps (enewsletters, audio/video based services, etc.) are focused on the leadership community. The largest of these, not surprisingly, seem to be collected around the local church and the pastor’s role in it. This is Christianity’s biggest “business”—dwarfing even Christian broadcasting and publishing—and certainly the missionary sectors.1
Motivation and Standards
There is a historic, biblical, justifiable sense of responsibility and accountability in the Christian leadership community—to God, to the donor, to their own team, to the Board of Trustees and, in some cases, to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA, a “standards” agency in the Christian sector). Motivation born out of kingdom obedience, vision or calling can and does drive leadership to examine their performance and that of their organization. Our view of the Great Commission, the nature of evangelism and God’s plan for redemption drives much of this. Our constituencies’ views on these subjects often drive the perceived standards of performance and communications about that performance. Rarely is it “industry” standards or “market forces” that drive Christian leaders to talk with one another.
In science, business and education, reputations, professional longevity, competitive market position, stockholder satisfaction and personal income are regularly at stake. It is a harsh, unforgiving world. The monthly and annual bottom lines never go away and motivation is frequently highly personal. But, even in this highly competitive climate, the accounts of leaders communicating with and helping other leaders fill textbooks and make up case histories are common.
On standards of performance, the pace of the Christian sector seems considerably more leisurely than business. The demands made by dozens if not hundreds of market or industry analysts talking and writing about your company, your industry and where you stand are just not there. There is no pressure like “stockholder return on equity.” Or trying to explain why your stock is down when your profits are up. There is no Forbes or Business Week ranking your university’s MBA program. In business, science and education, you have to know what is going on within your industry—ready at a moment’s notice to compare and defend your performance with that of others. To do this, you need to be talking with and listening to others in the industry. The constant pressure for profits and the associated issues never go away.
Timelines and Vocabularies
This raises an interesting, less often discussed aspect of assumptions and standards that, in turn, motivates communication between leaders. What is the “horizon” or timeline by which you must accomplish your goals? There is often discussion if not debate on the short-term demand for profits in Western business vs. the longer-term perspective of the Japanese. Not a week goes by when some leader does not take over a troubled company and pundits predict how much time “the market” will give him or her to turn the company around. All the while, of course, the market will use those ever-present industry standards to judge the leader’s performance.
On the Christian front, debate erupts when movements like AD2000 and Beyond suggest specific dates and sponsor and share analytical data on the unfinished task to motivate and inform high levels of engagement and performance in world evangelization. They then convene working meetings to encourage new, bold strategies and goals. God’s people working to some objective standard of performance by itself is inadequate. Those objectives must always be accompanied by a timeline. The timelines themselves create further motivation for dialogue and discussion among leaders.
If in business stockholders motivate performance and industry standards allow leaders to judge their performance, it is a standard vocabulary about those matters that makes communications possible among the leaders.
When comparing secular and Christian leadership, one quickly finds that a big part of the problem Christian leaders face is that they lack the highly developed vocabularies found in business, science, technology and education. There are general and very specific business terms, reference points for each industry. Each specialization has its own additional, more technical language. Leaders in each sector are to be conversant in both the general and the specialized language. That is what allows them to communicate both within their own company or enterprise and across the industry and with the investors and analysts. That is what allows them to lead and to meet and communicate with other leaders. It allows them to compare how well they are doing. It makes the analysts’ reports meaningful.
Yet, what are the comparables in Christian ministry? In a local church, the number of membership, size of staff and budget are most often quoted. In missions, it may be the number of missionaries, countries in which you are operating and maybe your budget. In both cases, once you get past those numbers, the conversation between leaders suddenly goes “soft”—no standard vocabulary powers the conversation. Complicating the problem further is that, internationally, today’s truly global Church meets in the field—East, West, North and South. Southern and eastern leaders are crying to be heard. They want to contribute meaningfully to the discussion about the direction and mission of the Church. But often, here, the lack of common vocabulary dealing with assumptions, performance standards and historical contexts are even more diverse, making effective communication among leaders even more difficult.
Where Do We Go and What Do We Do?
So, what do we do about the Bombay dock syndrome? How do we capture the richness of the “intellectual capital” God is giving his global Church each day? Then, how do we share it, learn from it and do better because of more effective sharing among leaders? What will it take?
More and different kinds of meetings?
More essential information passing through varied, alternative communications channels?
Who will work on the vocabulary we need?
Once we assume faithfulness, who will candidly explore the question of performance standards that empower comparison and communication?
Is there a forum where these issues could be explored and new directions charted?
Who sees this as a priority and will take the initiative?
Who will put up the money and what will be “the business plan?”
What happens today in the Muslim communities of the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan has high relevance and learning potential for those working five thousand miles west in Islamic West Africa. What is being learned in efforts to “re-evangelize Europe” has high relevance to America’s secular cities. What God’s people are doing in the slums of Manila could be very important to those working to hold up the light in the favelas of Rio.
The ability to share information about God’s work across these boundaries is no longer a question of communications capacity. The Internet has forever put an end to that excuse. It really is not a question of money. The vast discretionary money held back by Christians and their declining giving percentages in the West make that clear. No. It is a question of will—and leadership: leaders committed to strengthening the way we communicate and work with other leaders for change. As that occurs, the kingdom will advance with greater energy and effectiveness.
1. For more on this, see Moreau, Scott and Mike O’Rear. 2007. “Missions-related News On The Web.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly. 43(2); 244-248.