Respect, patience, and a sense of humor help when ministering in a different country.
In 2001 I was one of six students from Eastern Nazarene College who spent our spring semester in Romania taking classes and serving in church-related ministries. I had no prior experience living outside the United States, and brought only preconceived notions about what it would be like to minister in another culture.
Growing up in the Church of the Nazarene, I had learned a lot about missions around the world but had not experienced a clear calling to become a missionary.
It wasn’t until those six months in Romania, as I was exposed to a new culture, that I began to feel God leading me into cross-cultural ministry.
I’ve come a long way in the last 16 years. Following college graduation, I spent a year in Romania as a volunteer before continuing my education at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City. For the past seven years, I’ve been serving as a missionary for the Church of the Nazarene to Romania. In each of these chapters of my life, I have learned important lessons that have formed how I approach cross-cultural ministry today. Here are five.
1. Embrace the culture.
As a study-abroad student in a cultural immersion program, I lived with a Romanian host family and took classes on Romanian history and language. This allowed me to experience what everyday life is like for Romanians. I not only learned to recognize cultural differences, but also to appreciate and embrace those differences.
Just because Romanians do things differently than what I am used to doesn’t mean their way is wrong and my way is right. In fact, there are times when I’m tempted in Romania to replicate familiar models—anything from worship styles to construction materials—simply because they’re what I know best. To be most effective, I need to know Romanian culture well enough to make culturally-relevant adaptations.
2. Respect indigenous leaders.
It’s not enough for me to understand Romanian culture. I need to respect Romanians. This sounds obvious, but I’ve met cross-cultural workers who act condescendingly toward indigenous Christian workers rather than displaying an attitude of humility and a willingness to learn.
As a missionary, I need to listen to, learn from, and be respectful toward Romanian church leaders. I am a guest in their country and in their church. Far from seeing Romanians as inferior to myself, I see them as my friends and partners in the gospel as we learn and grow together.
3. Equip others for ministry.
As a study-abroad student, and later as a volunteer, I wanted to do my best as I led church ministries. But after I left, there was no one to continue what I had been doing. My hard work had produced few lasting results.
I now operate under a different principle: preparing Romanians for service. I’ve realized that focusing on what I alone can accomplish is short-sighted. A healthy long-term approach involves equipping others for ministry. Sometimes this training takes weeks; other times it involves years of mentoring. Empowering others may mean more work for me in the present, but it will create a healthier Romanian church for the future.
4. Be part of a team.
Ministry isn’t a competition. It’s not about who gets credit for its success. It’s about being part of a team whose members use their distinct gifts and abilities to accomplish our unified mission.
My missionary colleagues—including a scientist, a pair of social workers, and a music teacher who is also a carpenter each have unique backgrounds to serve in ways I never could. I, on the other hand, have a seminary education that I use in other areas of service, such as training Romanians for pastoral ministry. We don’t duplicate one other’s efforts—we complement each other’s distinctive contributions as part of a team approach.
5. Have patience, flexibility, and a sense of humor.
Living in another culture can be full of surprises, each with the potential of becoming overwhelming and stressful. I was advised early on that when nothing seems to go according to plan, I need to exhibit patience, flexibility, and a sense of humor. I am reminded of this guidance every time I’m forced to run all over town just to obtain a single document or when the only perceivable solution to a problem seems 10 times more complicated than I think it should be. In those situations, instead of complaining about my circumstances, I need to be adaptable and laugh at the situation.
Of course there are many other lessons that have formed my approach to cross-cultural ministry since I first came to Romania as a college sophomore. I’ve made my share of mistakes and have had to learn some lessons the hard way. As I continue under God’s guidance to minister cross-culturally, I look forward to the new lessons He has in store for me.
Jonathan Phillips lives in Romania and serves as a missionary in the areas of literature development and theological education.
Holiness Today, March/April 2017