This is the fifth in a five-part series on localization of China ministry. Each essay centers on a different issue that the author has encountered as his organization goes through the process of handing over key leadership to local believers. The challenges are real, and the process is ongoing, meaning that some essays contain as many questions as answers.
While it is easy to find reasons to stay in positions of authority, or rationales for waiting just a little bit longer before transferring control to local coworkers, these excuses often mask the real reason why expatriates put off localization: What about me?
There are several aspects to this question. Fear is often a prominent concern, fear of what will happen to “my work” and of what will happen to the expatriate cross-cultural worker on down the road. If local people can do the work, does that mean the expatriate must look for work elsewhere? For those who have been on the field for decades, field skills may not transfer easily to the passport country marketplace. The investment of decades of effort into overseas service also means that letting go or stepping aside is in fact costly. Though it may reveal a selfish concern for oneself that is undermining true commitment to the real mission task, this fear is nevertheless real and understandable. It needs to be addressed openly and with empathy by the entire organization.
More troubling is the belief that an expatriate who isn’t leading is somehow burying his or her talents. The notion of “career” has infiltrated the mission world, and so “success” in mission is sometimes tacitly understood to mean advancing along a career ladder from position to higher position. To step backwards—to give authority to others and take a back row position—can thus be considered foolish. If you are not leading, then you are somehow not “stewarding your gifts” faithfully or “leveraging your resources.” This is western thinking, enmeshed in the prideful thought that the best kind of service is leading. While some may be called to leadership, most are not—and the question itself misses the point of service in the Kingdom (God is looking for “good and faithful servants”). This was the folly of the disciples, and runs contrary to the gospel truth that the “First shall be last and the last shall be first.”
At the root of this question, however, lies the simple yet insidious idea that expats are in some way more suited to leadership. It may be a theological argument (years of training), it may be a “maturity” argument (using culturally bound understandings of spiritual maturity), or it may be an unspoken sense that expatriate leadership is “more appropriate.” Such thinking must be rooted out until all members regardless of nationality can see clearly their true common bond as sinners equally in need of a savior.
In the end, the greatest challenge of transitioning to local leadership lies in the simple fact that the people who have been in control up until now need to let someone else be in control. It requires tremendous humility, and a clear vision of the Kingdom of God as it “already but not yet fully” exists in Revelation 5, a kingdom of priests bought with the blood of Jesus Christ from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
May God grant humility, wisdom, and courage as we all seek to remain faithful in today’s ever-changing world.