July 13, 2023

3 Tips for Navigating Cultural Differences in Mentoring/Supervision

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A year ago, I was working with a pastor in Fiji. So, I began our time together by asking my usual questions to gauge their well-being, like “How are your relationships?” “What about your emotional tank?” and “Can you keep running at this pace?” At this last question, the pastor looked at me and said “I don’t run, I walk.”  Then, I realized that this wasn’t the right question for this pastor or the environment we were in. I had spent time in Fiji before and I knew that the culture is much more relaxed and the people move at their own pace. I needed to rephrase my question to fit the context. 

Culture and context can include many aspects of a person’s life; their hometown, their nationality, their ethnicity, their family, their economic background. These shape a person’s outlook, priorities, and relationships. When you engage with someone, it is essential to ask questions to understand them and their world, and to understand what is important to them. What do they value? How attuned are they to their surrounding culture? What context did they grow up with? Without this knowledge you risk causing unnecessary confusion, or worse, disrespect and offense. 

Meet the community where they are at

As a leader, it’s important to know and understand the people in the community you are working with. A leader respects the community and cares about what they care about. When working with a community with a vastly different context from your own, you will inevitably have to work harder to understand and know what they need and what they find important. A lot of leaders have made the mistake of trying to carry in their own context and enforce their ideals on the new community; this only shows that you do not care about what makes them unique. Instead, meet this new community where they are, rather than trying to force them to come to you. Once you can understand and respect each other, it is easier to gently challenge each other and find the right path forward for everyone. 

St. Patrick spent his childhood years in Ireland before he went there to spread the good news. He grew to love and understand the people and their culture. When he returned years later, he already had deep respect for their culture. He made the effort to belong to the community before he shared his perspective. 

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:20-22 (NIV) says: 

“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means, I might save some.”

This shows Paul’s dedication to his work. He had decided to take on some of the cultural aspects of his new community, in order to better understand them. 

Know when to compromise

It may also be essential to make some small compromises when working with vastly different groups of people: the trick is knowing what is truly important. For example, there may be times where you can make cultural compromises; like taking off your shoes before entering someone’s house even though it makes you feel a little uncomfortable, or eating something you dislike to be polite. However, you might need to draw a line if to compromise would go against your morals. If you are unsure about how to react to a new experience or idea, it is often worth reserving your judgment, and instead, try to understand their point of view through asking meaningful questions. If you let them know that you are open, this will encourage them to be open as well. 

Being Faithful

In 1990, I was a guest of the United Methodist Church in America for their new world mission. There were ministers from twenty-six nations: Estonia, China, Fiji, Germany… We were all there to conduct missions. Several ministers, myself included, decided to go to the local tavern to talk with the students there about faith. However, this started an argument between several ministers. The ministers from Norway and Germany loved the idea, but the Brits didn’t think a pub was an appropriate place. While some of us went to the tavern, they stayed and debated whether it was alright to start conversations at a pub. They were still arguing when we returned, having missed the chance to have some wonderful conversations. Drinking alcohol is a part of culture they disagreed on… but it was not the essence of what we were trying to accomplish.  If either group had made a compromise (To either go to the pub, or find another location), they would have succeeded in their mission to have some open and honest conversations about God. 

Ultimately, their cultural difference caused this disruption, and with some deeper understanding and open-mindedness, they might have reached a point where they could have come to mutual respect and moved the mission forward. 

When in doubt, ask questions

I was once having dinner with some non-Christian friends. I wasn’t sure if prayer would be appropriate, so I asked if it would be alright with everyone if I said a blessing. They agreed, and afterwards, were excited and moved by what I said. They appreciated that I had been respectful and asked. In return, they were open to this new experience. 

Reflection Questions:

  • Could any of my questions or ideas be culturally loaded? 
  • What do I need to ask to better understand this person (or community)? 
  • What is an example of a cultural compromise vs. a moral compromise? 
  • Who can I speak to about developing my understanding of cultural differences? 

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