The American megachurch pastor had the best intentions when he promised a fledgling sister church in Eastern Europe to do "everything in his power" to help them build a sanctuary. After he returned to the U.S., the European church scraped and borrowed to come up with $50,000 and start construction. After all, they were sister churches. In their culture, family members looked after each other. They knew from the American church's website that the Americans were spending $6 million on a café and vestibule, so surely they would come through on their pledge to help pay for the small building.
Unfortunately not. The American pastor stopped returning e-mails and phone calls. Six months later, the European church got an answer: The pastor had been unable to "sell" his congregation on the idea. The European congregation felt deeply betrayed; their leader began to seriously question his faith.
As the body of Christ has thrived in the two-thirds world, cross-cultural partnerships between churches "here" and "there" are increasingly common. As a missionary in Central Asia for several years, I witnessed many times the fruit of such partnerships. But the pitfalls are real, particularly when money is involved.
In Cross-Cultural Partnerships: Navigating the Complexities of Money and Mission (InterVarsity), Mary Lederleitner tackles these issues with her considerable experience and education. Trained as a CPA, Lederleitner has served long-term with ministries in the U.S. and overseas. As a result, her book is eminently practical, filled with eyewitness stories of successes and failures in cross-cultural settings.
For example, Lederleitner suggests that churches adopt accounting practices that make sense in the ministry's context. If the cross-cultural partners serve in a country where receipts are practically nonexistent and utility bills are routinely late, it is unrealistic for Western partners to demand financial reports 15 days after quarter's end.
Regarding conflict management, Lederleitner reminds Americans that in some cultures, confronting people head-on is not the best approach. She describes one indigenous ministry in which a person was ignoring financial controls, increasing the risk of fraud. When Lederleitner spoke to the ministry's board, she simply described best practices used by other nonprofits as well as the purpose of financial controls. The ministry leader thanked her and moved on to other agenda items. No one was personally confronted, and a few weeks later, the situation resolved itself.
Refreshingly, this practical book is grounded in a thorough grasp of two central doctrines: original sin and the grace of God.
Lederleitner does not assume that ministry partners from different cultures will just get along. They need to do their homework and learn about the culture they serve. And she knows that missionaries are not immune to money's temptations. She offers clear-eyed advice about financial controls.
And only an understanding of God's grace can make American Christians—with their money, status, and power—able to humbly approach a Ugandan (or Chinese or Ukrainian or Peruvian) pastor with a willingness to listen and learn. Grace is what breaks Western habits of paternalism and coloni-alism. And God's grace is what will ultimately bring people of every nation together in the worship of Jesus Christ.
Aaron M. G. Zimmerman is a pastor at St. Stephen's Church (Sewickley, Pennsylvania) and a regular contributor to the Mockingbird Blog (Mockingbirdnyc.blogspot.com).
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