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Troubled Waters: Reasons International Partnerships Go Awry

In today’s connected world, churches, missions organizations, and missionaries work with partners from nations around the globe. Some of these international partnerships end because of moral issues, theological differences, or methodological tensions. In other cases, however, international partnerships struggle because cultural differences end up leading to missteps and misunderstandings. If not carefully trod, these cultural differences can cause international affiliations to end abruptly, leaving the partners frustrated, disillusioned, or bitter. Here are four potential cultural differences that can cause international partnerships to go awry.


1. Different Definitions and Expectations of Partnership


First, the very word “partnership” can introduce tensions when working across cultures. Vern Poythress discusses the fuzzy boundaries of words in his book, Symphonic Theology. He states, “Nearly all (if not all) words have a range of application with a clear center but a fuzzy boundary.”[1] “Partnership” is one of these words with fuzzy boundaries, and the fuzzy boundary becomes even fuzzier when used in two different cultural contexts. The two parties may attach different meanings and implications to the word that then influence the way they approach the relationship.


Culture and experience will color the way people understand the word “partnership.” If definitions and implications are not thoroughly discussed before embarking on the journey, the two parties might attribute different meanings that are laden with different expectations. People from one culture might view the partnership as strictly professional, while people from another culture might view it as familial. Some partnerships imply monetary commitment, while others do not. When expectations are not met, trouble lies ahead. Continual communication of definitions, implications, and expectations is one way to avoid this potential pitfall in international partnerships.


2. Cross-Cultural Miscommunication


Cross-cultural communication is difficult. Language barriers, communication styles, and different understandings of nonverbal cues all lead to potentially explosive miscommunications between people from different cultures. A person from an honor/shame culture might be offended by the terse communication of a Western partner. A person from a low-context culture might feel manipulated by the honorific titles bestowed by someone from a high-context culture. While a person from one culture may think a “no” is a “no,” a person from another culture might assume a “no” is required multiple times to truly mean “no.”


Cross-cultural miscommunications happen. To alleviate some of these issues, partners should learn about the common communication styles of their partners, work to develop feedback loops that ensure proper understanding, and strive for clear, culturally appropriate communication.[2] They also should commit to grace-infused conversations and assume miscommunication instead of intentional offense.

Partners should commit to grace-infused conversations and assume miscommunication instead of intentional offense.

3. Differing Cultural Understandings of Money


Not only do people from different cultures have different communication patterns, but they also have different understandings of the function and purpose of money and wealth. A person from one culture might value wealth accumulation, while a person from another culture might view saving as selfish. Receiving money from a partner may come with certain social obligations that are not present in the other party’s culture.[3]


International partnerships can easily fracture if the partners do not address these different understandings of money. New international partners should set aside time for honest, yet contextually appropriate, conversations about finances. These conversations should include questions about how money is spent, who makes financial decisions, what constitutes appropriate uses for funds, what obligations come with accepting funds from the other partner, and even culturally appropriate ways to discuss financial issues without embarrassment.


4. Mishandling Cross-Cultural Conflict


The aforementioned issues often result in conflict that, if not resolved, can eventually destroy the partnership, and conflict across cultures can be tricky to navigate. A person who prefers a direct confrontation style can offend a person from another culture who favors an indirect confrontation style. A partner who defaults to direct confrontation might overlook or ignore indirect confrontation techniques such as parables or proverbs. Direct communicators may interpret indirect confrontation methods as avoidance of the issue.[4]


International partners must learn to navigate cross-cultural conflict styles in order to succeed. Instead of assuming their usual way of handling conflict is appropriate in all circumstances, they need to listen and learn about other ways to deal with conflict and be willing to attempt resolution methods that are different or uncomfortable to them. The conflict resolution process should be endued with both patience and grace as partners strive for a resolution that encourages mutual edification and continual partnership.

By maintaining patience, grace, and a shared love for God’s mission, international partners can wrestle through these cultural differences in a way that brings glory to God and offers hope to a weary and watching world.

Cross-cultural affiliations are challenging, and cultural differences can bring about problems in even the strongest international partnerships. Partners can struggle to recognize cultural differences in expectations, communication, understanding of money, and even the intricacies of resolution. But by maintaining patience, grace, and a shared love for God’s mission, international partners can wrestle through these cultural differences in a way that brings glory to God and offers hope to a weary and watching world.

Notes:

[1] Vern S. Poythress, Symphonic Theology: The Validity of Multiple Perspectives in Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1987), 64

[2] For a concise description of feedback loops and other aspects of cross-cultural communication see David J. Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross-Culturally, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), 50–52.

[3] These and other examples can be found in David E. Maranz, African Friends and Money Matters: Observations from Africa (Dallas, TX: SIL International, 2001).

[4] These and other examples can be found in Duane Elmer, Cross-Cultural Conflict: Building Relationships for Effective Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1993). Also see David W. Augsburger, Conflict Mediation across Cultures: Pathways & Patterns (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992).

 

Anna Daub is the Director of Special Projects and Partnerships for Global Theological Initiatives at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She has a PhD in Applied Theology with an emphasis on Missiology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, an MDiv from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a BS in Biology from Howard Payne University. She has served overseas in South Asia and worked with international students in the United States.

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