View From the Wall

Opportunities and Challenges When Foreign Workers Leave China

The reflections of any writer are based on the circumstances and experiences of his or her own life. In my case, my contact with overseas cross-cultural workers has been relatively limited, so my reflections may be quite individual. I have chosen to divide this topic into four different aspects. While they are different, they are also interrelated. The divisions are simply for convenience in presenting my thoughts.

NGOs Established and Led by Cross-Cultural Workers

Some cross-cultural workers are in favor of having local people lead their organizations, so they look for locals with leadership potential to assume leadership roles. This creates opportunities to introduce various overseas networks to the local leaders and helps them get to know and understand their supporting organizations. Should the cross-cultural workers have to leave, these local leaders can continue to maintain good relationships with their supporting organizations. At the same time, the local leaders are given opportunities to learn and grasp the basic concepts and methods of fundraising so the organization can continue to develop.

To facilitate the growth of local leaders, cross-cultural workers also provide a variety of leadership training to adequately nurture them both in theory and practice. Workers from overseas also lead the local leaders in developing partnerships with both local churches and those overseas and most certainly in establishing relationships with the local government. Besides being responsible for the local employees’ salaries, overseas organizations also need to provide their benefits such as social security, medical care, housing, and so on.

However, overseas organizations and charitable agencies often run into unpredictable situations. When these circumstances lead to the departure of the worker or changes in organizational structure, the outcome can be either positive or negative. A positive scenario would be that the local leaders quickly and successfully assume the worker’s leadership role and help sustain and develop their organization. There are several possibilities for a negative scenario: supporting organizations overseas have not developed a trusting relationship with the local leadership so fundraising becomes very challenging; local leaders do not have support from the local government so the work cannot continue; unlike the cross-cultural workers, the local leaders cannot establish partnerships with both the domestic churches and churches overseas; local leaders lack resources to develop workers. The departure of a cross-cultural worker presents both opportunity and crisis.

Seminaries Established and Led by Cross-Cultural Workers

Seminaries established and led by cross-cultural workers have the following characteristics: 

  1. Supported and influenced by a single overseas denomination. 
  2. Limited contacts with local churches due to security concerns. 
  3. Students mostly from rural areas. 
  4. Primarily funded from overseas.  
  5. Generally lacking a team of teachers.

If the workers leave, opportunities and challenges arise. Local leaders may seek support from multiple resources domestically and abroad which broadens their perspective as well as builds a local leadership team. As they broaden their perspective, they have the opportunity to formulate their own training model suitable to their own situation without being limited by the worker’s thinking. Since they are no longer under the control of an overseas denomination, these seminaries may suffer in spirit and resources temporarily. However, this may also prompt the local workers to actively keep in contact with local churches and increase the likelihood of their partnership with them.

If funding from overseas stops, student enrollment most likely will decline, and the number of teaching staff will be further reduced. Seminaries could consider establishing a governing board made up of locals and have local church leaders be responsible for institutional development. On the other hand, local churches also carry responsibilities in growing the seminaries.

Fellowships and Churches Established and Led by Overseas Workers

Because cross-cultural workers have their supporting system overseas and are relatively well trained in knowledge, experience, spiritual maturity, and leadership, they have many advantages when building and leading local churches. Many of them need to provide ministry reports to their supporting individuals and organizations, so they are more prone to strive for “ministry performance” when leading local churches. As a result, besides constantly being physically and mentally under pressure, they find investing themselves in training local leaders a challenging task because, unlike the production on an assembly line, personal growth takes time—much like a tree takes years to grow and mature.  

When overseas workers lead local churches, the churches typically start off well, but they easily become accustomed to having foreign leaders and their abundant resources which often help meet the various ministry needs of the church. Cross-cultural workers are relatively more skilled and experienced in leadership which often helps to avoid mistakes the locals might frequently make. Gradually, the local congregations develop a trusting relationship with these leaders who also establish their leadership authority in the church.

Both sides enjoy this relationship, but if for any reason the worker has to leave, the local church leaders are faced with a temporary lack of pastoral resources. They will certainly have difficulties adjusting at first, but they will experience growth in their Christian faith and will also actively seek help from around them. Their Christian life and leadership will grow in the midst of challenges and responsibilities. Even though local church congregations will miss their overseas leaders and may not have sufficient trust in the authority of the local leadership, local church leaders and congregations, facing the challenges, are more likely to have a spirit of humility and mutual support for one another. Through working together, both the local leaders and the congregations have the opportunity to get to know each other and develop closer relationships. Furthermore, the local leadership teams have the advantage of knowing the local language, culture, economy, politics, and other living conditions that will allow them to lead their churches on a new path of development.

Deep Relationships between Cross-Cultural Workers and Local Christians

Cross-cultural workers often become friends with local Christians, and they become good friends with and spiritual mentors to some of the local Christian leaders. Many local Christian leaders have been involved in various long-term positions within their churches. However, not only do they have very heavy workloads, they are also under intense pressure from family, society, and even politics. During the Cultural Revolution, church growth was greatly interrupted and today older Christian leaders are few. Currently most local Christians are first-generation Christians, and their examples of Christian leadership come primarily from the overseas workers. There is also a lack of collaboration among local churches resulting in a lack of Christian fellowship among Christian leaders. Most of these leaders feel very alone. Not only is their theological, pastoral, spiritual, and leadership training insufficient, but they are also financially strapped. All this, coupled with the rapid pace of social change in China, is overwhelming and challenges their Christian faith.

Christian leaders are in need of various kinds of support. Many cross-cultural workers provide them with the strong backing they need: they meet with them regularly; they listen as they share life experiences including their work situations, parent-child relationships, their spiritual lives, their church lives, personal struggles, successes and failures, dreams and hopes, and so on. This provides vital encouragement for their Christian faith. In addition, cross-cultural workers also provide practical help to Christian leaders in many areas such as devotions, leadership, theological training, finances, and even meeting specific needs in their work. They connect the local Christian leaders with domestic and foreign resources such as marriage counseling, childhood education, pastoral skills training, as well as other types of skill training that help Christians grow as individuals, families, and organizations. Help of this nature is very useful for Christian leaders.

However, when the workers leave, the already lonely local Christian leaders will lose their long-term spiritual friends. Even though they need to learn to face the challenges of life and to work on their own as well as to deepen their relationship with God, they will certainly have a difficult time adjusting. Furthermore, they must now take the initiative to establish new relationships and strengthen their own support system. When the workers and the practical support they have provided are no longer available, the local churches must learn to support their local leaders. The gradually maturing Chinese churches should consider establishing support systems for their own leaders: theological education as well as instruction in family life, finances, and welfare should all be included in the scope of support.

Leaders should also have faith in God that while the departure of cross-cultural workers will bring temporary difficulties, these obstacles can also contribute to the local leaders’ and churches’ increasing sense of responsibility.

Translated by Ping Ng

Image credit: The lonely woman by Johan via Flickr.
Share to Social Media


Rachel (pseudonym) has spent the past 20 years working for different foreign NGOs in China, helping to set up programs serving China in the areas of: counseling, mentoring, and village doctor training. Most recently she has been helping home school co-ops and helping to establish bilingual schools. Throughout all of …View Full Bio