Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

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Managing Leadership Anxiety
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

Managing Leadership Anxiety: a review

I would not have readily chosen “anxiety” as the word to characterize my low experiences in leadership. Frustration, yes. Loneliness, yes. Overwhelmed, yes. Disappointment, yes. But I have not often thought of myself as suffering with anxiety. That is, I had not identified my struggles in leadership as anxiety until I read (listened to) Steve Cuss’ book, Managing Leadership Anxiety: Yours and Theirs. I now realize that anxiety has often been at the root of many of these struggles.

In this blog post, I want to continue the theme of the last couple of blog posts – reviewing helpful books on leadership. As was true of both previous blog posts, these books are not only for those in formal leadership roles. All of us in cross-cultural missions are leaders if we are seeking to lead people to change their thinking, beliefs and lifestyle. “Managing Leadership Anxiety” therefore applies to all of us who sense a call to disciple the nations to become followers of Jesus.

Leaders need to manage their own anxiety first

Besides being an author, Steve Cuss is a pastor who began his ministry as a trauma and hospice chaplain. In helping families deal with grief and loss, he learned that he needed to first of all manage his own anxiety. He needed to understand what was going inside of himself before he could truly connect with others. When he became a lead pastor of a rapidly growing church, he realized that anxiety came with that role as well. Cuss needed to develop ways of thinking and behaving that allowed him to manage that anxiety.

The goal of managing anxiety is not simply for relief, it is to connect more fully with God and to raise awareness of what God is doing. Anxiety blocks our awareness of God because it takes our subconscious attention. This means that anxiety can be an early detection system that we’re depending on something other than God for our well-being.

Cuss, Steve. Managing Leadership Anxiety (p. 17).

Not knowing what to do

Cuss defines leadership as knowing what to do. But as leaders, we often don’t know what to do. Yet we have to do something, because we are leaders. This makes us very uncomfortable and leads to anxiety. We worry because we can’t control what is going to happen. We are not sure that we have adequate information, wisdom, or training to tackle the task before us. As leaders, we wish that someone would tell us what to do or that we could be certain of a particular outcome. As Cuss says:

leadership paradoxes

The paradoxes of leadership

Is leadership harder today that it was in the past? I think so. A few weeks ago, I led a leadership training for four new field leaders. As I surveyed the challenges they face and the expectations we have today of our field leaders, I noted that what they are being asked to do is significantly more difficult now than it has been in the past.

Technology raises expectations of leadership

Yes, today leaders have a host of technological tools available to help them communicate and organize and collaborate. But those same tools have also raised expectations of them. Those expectations are about how quickly and creatively they will communicate, how neatly and completely they will organize their work, and how broadly and fully they were collaborate with others. Ironically, that which should make leadership easier has also made it more challenging. This is a paradox of leadership today.

When I first took on a major field leadership role more than 30 years ago, I had neither email, Microsoft Teams nor even a cell phone for communication purposes. I did not even have a landline in my home. In some senses, maybe this should should have made leadership more difficult. But no one expected quick responses, regular check-ins or even monthly communication from me. Most of our decisions were made after months of deliberation and extensive discussion with several other mission leaders. The sending offices back in North America had no expectations that I would be involved in communicating with or facilitating vision trips for new missionary candidates before they arrived. It is hard to even imagine such limited communication from a mission leader today.

The demands of leadership today

Tim Elmore, author and founder / CEO of Growing Leaders, very much agrees that leadership is more difficult today than in the past. In his latest book, The Eight Paradoxes of Great Leadership: Embracing the Conflicting Demands of Today’s Workplace, he describes why great leadership today is so demanding. The book was published in November 2021. So, it was written in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID has definitely added to the challenges that mission leaders face today. But the challenges of leadership today are not only due to the pandemic.

Leadership is seldom easy, but today it affords us the challenge of collaborating with a more educated, more entitled, more savvy population that has greater expectations of satisfaction and rewards than in past generations. Uncommon leaders stand out because they are able to juggle seemingly contradictory traits to lead such people.

Elmore, Tim. The Eight Paradoxes of Great Leadership (pp. 9-10).
making decisions
Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

Making better decisions

At the end of January earlier this year, my wife and I as well as my colleagues in Ukraine had to make some important decisions. Were we going to stay in Ukraine? Our embassies were warning us about an impending invasion from Russia and encouraging us to leave. If we stayed, what would be sufficient reason to leave in the future? If we left, where would we travel to? Bertha and I had tickets to leave Ukraine on February 20 for some training we had planned many months ago. Should we wait until then or change our travel plans so as to leave earlier?

Missionaries make life-altering decisions

Cross-cultural workers like ourselves have made many life-changing decisions over the course of our missionary career. Our initial decision to join a mission organization had significant and long-lasting consequences for ourselves, our families and our sending church.

The decision we made to transfer from the Philippines to Russia in 1998 was just as major a decision. My wife and I struggled for a couple of years trying to discern whether we should leave the Philippines, when would be the right time to do so, and where we would move to. The decision we finally made meant we were going to have to learn a very different language and culture. Our children’s future education was going to be impacted in a big way since we would not have a MK school in Far East Russia.

Our decision almost 10 years later to accept the invitation to head up our mission’s training department and move to Ukraine had similar far-reaching consequences.

Now we are faced with the decision of where our future ministry will be based, in light of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

organizational involvement
Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash

Resilience: What part does the organization play?

We have been discussing the need for resilience among cross-cultural workers. In the last post, we talked about how God develops resilience through suffering. But what is the mission organization’s responsibility in supporting their workers in these times of crisis and stress? How does the organization determine its level of involvement in caring for its missionaries?

These questions are not easily answered. Cross-cultural workers vary widely in their desire for and expectations of organizational involvement. Some only want their organization to provide receipts to their donors and make sure the missionary receives the support on a regular basis. Others want a full range of services, including health insurance, training, pastoral care, leadership, and supervision, conferences and retreats, risk assessments and security training, and IT support.

SEND International is one mission that has sought to better determine what level of organizational involvement it should provide for its members’ well-being. Here is the story of what one region in SEND has done to find answers to these questions.

A survey of field missionaries

In 2019 SEND International established a workgroup to study the feasibility of designing and implementing a regional “hub” structure for the Eurasia region. SEND had already worked in this part of the world for a couple of decades, but we wanted to strengthen the services we provided to our missionaries serving there. One of the mandates of the workgroup was to protect what works well in Eurasia (strengths) while improving what is not working well (gaps). To learn more about the strengths and gaps of our organization in this region, the workgroup created a questionnaire and a list of possible interviewees.

effective organizational cultures
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What makes an organizational culture effective?

Cross-cultural workers spend a lot of time thinking about, discussing, and examining cultures. Ethnography is a foundational skill for missionaries. But I have found that we are much less adept at understanding and describing organizational cultures, even the cultures of the organizations in which we serve. What does an effective organizational culture look like? What kind of organizational culture would lead to greater fruitfulness and well-being of our members? Even more mysterious is how leaders can nurture the organizational culture they would like to prevail. Or can we even change or develop our organizational culture?

I have just finished “The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups” by Daniel Coyle. I believe that this book begins to answer some of these questions, at least for me. Coyle set out to discover the reasons why some groups, teams, or organizations accomplish far more than what we would expect of them if we only looked at the sum total of the individual talents of their members. His research has resulted in an excellent and fascinating book about group culture. Coyle believes that these cultures don’t just “happen” but are intentionally created by learning and practicing a specific set of skills.

In his book, the author describes 3 essential “skills” of highly effective groups:

effective organizational culture
  1. Build safety
  2. Share vulnerability
  3. Establish purpose

Coyle devotes a section of his book to describing each skill. Each section includes multiple stories about great teams and organizations. Then it concludes with a set of suggested action steps for developing that skill.

Build safety

The first skill is all about the value of belonging. As cross-cultural workers, we are very familiar with the feeling of not belonging. Thus, we are often not able to contribute fully to the discussions and decisions in the cultures and communities in which we live. We long to belong, to be accepted, to be valued for our contribution. Even as we recognize that we will always be outsiders, we want to become “acceptable outsiders.”1 See Joann Pittman’s article “Learning to Be an Acceptable Outsider” for a better understanding of this term. We want to feel that it is not only safe to live in these communities but also safe to contribute meaningfully to its well-being.

Photo by RUN 4 FFWPU from Pexels

Finishing Well: Cheering the Next Runner

What would you think of a relay runner who went to the locker room right after completing his or her lap? Perhaps you would think the runner had suffered an injury or had some other health concern. Aside from that, we would question their relationship with the rest of the team. A healthy relay team recognizes that success depends on the performance of each runner. Therefore, each member of the team who has completed their leg stays on the field and cheers on the remaining runners. They stay off the track and cheer from the sidelines.

In this series, we have been using the analogy of a relay race for finishing well in a ministry assignment. So, how do we cheer those who follow us as we complete our ministry assignment? How do we keep from getting in the way of their performance? Our relationship with those who follow us in ministry shapes our cheering for them as they run their lap.

Relationships Matter

Yes, it would be strange for a relay runner to go directly to the locker room. Similarly, it would be tragic for church planters to cut off the relationship with the local church leaders who succeed them in leading the new church. Tom Steffen wrote:

The seventh and final component is determining how church planters can maintain good relationships after the phase-out. They work themselves out of a job, but not out of a relationship. Continued fellowship includes prayer, visits, letters of challenge and encouragement, sending other people to visit, and cautious financial assistance.

Tom Steffen, Passing the Baton, p. 18.
baton transfer

Finishing Well: Transferring the Baton

We are finally getting to the finishing part in our series on finishing well in a ministry assignment. In a relay race, transferring the baton is crucial to finishing well. For example, the US 4 x 100 meter relay team was disqualified in the 1988 Olympics for a late handoff. In a similar way, how we transfer responsibility and leadership defines to a large extent whether we finish well in a ministry assignment.

The incoming runner has the primary responsibility for the transfer of the baton. Specifically, he/she places the baton so that the outgoing runner can grasp it most efficiently. In a church planting assignment, the missionary is directly involved in the training of emerging leaders. However, in administrative assignments, there is usually less involvement in selecting a successor. Nevertheless, one can leave behind a “Policy and Procedure Guide” or a step-by-step manual for the next person filling that role. So, what characterizes a good transfer when we finish our ministry assignment?

The Transfer is Intentional

Throughout his book, Passing the Baton: Church Planting that Empowers, Tom Steffen emphasizes “a comprehensive, phase-out church planting model” (p 7). From the very beginning, the church planting team intends to transfer responsibility and leadership. In other words, this transfer plan guides the whole process of church planting.

Likewise, in an administrative role, we recognize that others will follow us in the role. We are intentional in passing the baton to those who follow us. Successfully transferring responsibility may include cross-training others in the office prior to our departure. 1Cross-training is the practice of training your people to work in several different roles,2 or training them to do tasks that lie outside their normal responsibilities (from Cross-Training – Team Management Skills From MindTools.com). Furthermore, putting together an up-to-date procedural manual will contribute to a smooth transfer. Of course, we also need to spend adequate time in the transition zone. More about that later.

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