Power Encounter—of the Wrong Kind

Power Encounter—of the Wrong Kind: A Preliminary Phenomenological Survey on Inappropriate Exercise of Power Experienced by Short-Term Missionaries

By: Dr. Ant Greenham

The phenomenon of Christians indulging in power plays (but refusing to admit it), seems widespread. I conducted a brief, preliminary, qualitative survey to test for its presence in late 2014. I approached fifty units appointed to overseas missionary assignments by a large North American organization and asked if they had experienced an inappropriate use of power or control on the part of a co-worker or supervisor. I also approached ten long-standing personal contacts, previously or presently involved in missions, with essentially the same questions, to gain an independent perspective.

I received twenty-nine replies from the fifty appointees, in addition to five responses from my personal contacts. Of the former, seven had experienced no abuse of power issues, eight had a “no” response but had observations on the topic, while fourteen had experienced an inappropriate use of power or control. A number of different issues were identified by these fourteen (and by three of my own contacts). They may be subdivided into three broad categories: abuse of authority, deficient mentoring, and refusal to consider alternatives. Each case involves a problem the respondent had with a superior, not with a co-worker.

The following leadership issues emerged under the first category: attempts to circumvent or manipulate the authority structure, refusal to consult before making assignments, opposition to transfer of personnel, refusal to specify an alleged problem, refusal to confront the person causing a problem, and making inadequate provision for existing workers. As an example, one respondent had the following to say:

Requests for godly counsel from stateside pastors and fellow laborers were not permitted, and refusal to comply with these inappropriate restrictions would be treated as “insubordination.” In addition to this, it was clearly stated that all mentoring relationships were subject to the approval of the supervisor. This was viewed as an attempt to silence us while we were on the field, and greatly hindered our ability to seek reconciliation and resolution. We viewed this as an attempt to protect our supervisors from honest criticism and scrutiny from higher field and stateside leadership. This treatment left us feeling alone, isolated from teammates and fellow laborers, and victimized with no potential recourse of action.

Unfortunately, this untenable situation played a key role in their not returning to the field.

In contrast to abuse of authority, other respondents reported its virtual absence, seen here as deficient mentoring. The following leadership issues emerged under this second category: abandoning respondent in a challenging or untenable situation, requiring a long-term decision at short notice, miscommunicating expectations but demanding compliance, creating false impressions through miscommunication, and giving no feedback. To quote one respondent, “My first month overseas I was left all alone in rural Africa and we had to figure everything out on our own.” Essentially, his desire was simply to be mentored, but it didn’t happen.

While inappropriate use of authority could take the forms of abuse or abandonment, supervisors’ resistance to other ways of doing things also featured. Leadership issues falling within this third category included a refusal to discuss operational structure, the implication that a different decision to their own was against God’s will, and a discouragement of open communication. One respondent lamented the sclerotic leadership she experienced as follows: “Three ladies in particular were wives of the team strategy leaders within their cities. They informed me that . . . I needed to submit to the way . . . [they] did things in country or find a new team. They were condescending in much of their communication with me and informed me that my ignorance was due to newness on the field.” However, when she and her husband returned to the field on a second assignment, they were treated with respect. Sadly, it would seem that the difference in attitude they experienced on their return was solely a product of their seniority, not because they had better ideas to offer than before.

Rather than end the research on a negative note, questions sent to the respondents included an opportunity for positive recommendations. Examples sent included cases of leaders who admit their shortcomings, seriously consider other ways of doing things, and act sacrificially. These are not radical leadership innovations; similar recommendations are noted in literature on member care and avoiding attrition in missions. Significantly, Jesus addresses such leadership deficiencies and provides a remedy (in Mark 10:35-45), modeled on himself, as well.

In sum, it seems that power plays are alive and well, despite the existence of sound organizational structures and policies. However, more research would help clarify the problem of power abuse in missions and elsewhere. It should also address a potential one-sidedness of my 2014 survey by including supervisors. Nevertheless, beginning a conversation on this subject aims to make the problem more visible, and may lead to concrete approaches to deal with it.

Dr. Ant Greenham is Associate Professor of Missions and Islamic Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Muslims Are People Too

By: Dr. Ant Greenham

Before the US reached its still-to-be-ratified deal with Iran on its nuclear program, before Muhammad Yusuf Abdulaziz killed five unarmed military personnel in Chattanooga, and before Franklin Graham urged a moratorium on Muslim immigration to America, I paid a brief visit to a Shi’ite mosque in north Raleigh. I would do it again in an instant, and indeed, hope to build on a relationship I began that Friday evening in Ramadan (the Muslim month of fasting) in mid-July 2015.

I went because I want to introduce Southeastern students to Shi’ite Islam, in addition to the mainstream Sunni variety, the next time I lead the World Religions Practicum. However, you need a contact before coming with a group. Well, I knew where they were, and wrote them a letter at the beginning of the year. The USPS returned it as undeliverable. So I would have to show up when someone was there, having failed the first time, during the winter. And I knew there would be folks there on a Ramadan Friday evening.

I took my wife, Eva, along, and she had a plate of cookies with her, just in case we were invited to an iftar, the communal meal Muslims share when they break the fast after sundown. The parking lot was full of cars this time, unlike the situation earlier in the year, so that was promising. However, we saw only men milling around, which made Eva uncomfortable. I parked some distance from the entrance and left her in the car (with the cookies). Right outside, I addressed an older man with an As-salamu alaykum (peace be upon you, in Arabic) and asked (in English) if I could see the imam. He took me inside and I began removing my shoes. A guy called Akbar greeted me and I told him about the practicum I lead every year, explaining that I lacked any contact with Shi’ites in the Raleigh area, and that was a pity. He offered me some water, which I declined, since the sun was still up and they hadn’t broken the fast yet, and I didn’t want to drink in front of them after a long, thirsty day. Anyway, he went and got Ahmad, who turned out to be the imam.

Ahmad suggested we talk outside, where it was quieter, and I put my shoes back on and accompanied him out the door. Like the older man I addressed earlier (and Akbar), he was clearly suspicious of me. So I explained how the practicum worked (essentially I ask practitioners of various religions if they would kindly address a group of students on what they believe, at their place of worship, so we can hear from them in their own words). I also took a calculated guess and asked him if he was from Iran (since a significant number of Shi’ites are Iranian). He sure was, and I told him about a fascinating five weeks I spent there in 1999.

The conversation was much more relaxed after that. He told me how the mosque started, almost accidentally, years ago (when he simply taught a few kids about their heritage, after hours) and how significant numbers of people had joined them in more recent days, most from Afghanistan. Anyway, it became clear this would not be the time to join them for an iftar (so Eva and I would eat the cookies ourselves). I thanked him for talking to me and we made sure we both had each other’s contact information, since we certainly planned to see each other again. As he went back inside, I wished him Khoda Hafez (a pre-Islamic Farsi expression meaning God keep you), and he responded enthusiastically, using the same words.

So, what’s my point? Very simply, there are Muslims who need Jesus right on our doorstep. We need to reach out to them. Things might be a little awkward at first, but despite their attachment to a belief system we strongly reject, our common humanity and a little respect and sensitivity can get the ball rolling. I know most readers will lack my Middle Eastern experience. Never mind. Approaching a Muslim with a smile, asking how long they’ve been here and how they’re settling in, would be a good way to start.

To close, I would like to echo Lauren’s words. She took my practicum class this year and is currently on mission in California. She had a great chat with some Sikhs in a restaurant recently, and specifically thanked me for helping her see folks like that as people, not as exotic foreigners. Well, guess what? Muslims are people too.

Dr. Ant Greenham is Associate Professor of Missions and Islamic Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.