Guest commentary by Jihyun Oh
Transitional ministry can happen at any time. It can happen in a 10-year pastoral call when key members of the congregation move away or die. It can happen in a 22-year pastoral call when the neighborhood around a congregation begins to change. It should happen when the congregation finds itself older and less energetic and unable to support the vision and mission that the members discerned 30 or 40 years ago. It can happen when the congregation experiences a transition in pastoral leadership.
I want to focus on this last instance of transitional ministry and how it relates to something else I’ve been pondering a lot lately: cultural competence or cultural proficiency.
Cultural proficiency is one of the competencies that call seekers can select on Personal Information Forms to describe the gifts they offer as church leaders. It is listed among the Organizational Leadership qualities, and is described as the competence of having a “solid understanding of the norms, values and common behaviors of various peoples, including direct experience working in multiple cultural and cross-cultural settings.”
As a preferred competency of many organizations calling a minister (mostly churches), it lags far behind competencies like “Organizational Agility” and “Change Agent,” and still farther behind “Preaching and Worship Leadership.” This isn’t surprising, because we are, as a society and as a church, experiencing enormous amounts of change and transition. Many of our congregations are anxious about survival; they believe that calling someone with these competencies will help their churches manage disorienting change or find ways to shift their demographics toward younger and perhaps more energetic people. Still others look at megachurches drawing droves of young adults and believe that having a strong preacher who can connect with “young people” will attract that demographic into their congregations too.
The lag is also not surprising because most people think of cultural proficiency as something one needs only if one is dealing with people of other races and ethnicities. If the perception of a calling organization is that the neighborhood and the congregation is mostly monocultural (whether that perception is actually true or not is another question entirely), then the congregation may see no need for cultural proficiency.
Here’s where I think the rub is: with narrative question #2 on the Ministry Information Form (MIF). Question #2 asks, “How do you feel called to reach out to address the emerging needs of your community or constituency?” Note the keyword “emerging” in the question.
“Emerging” is meant to signal the need to look at the current needs around the calling organization, but often MIFs list ministries that have been in place for years, sometimes even decades. This could be because there haven’t been any discernable shifts in the community for that many years, but also because calling organizations haven’t really done the transitional work necessary to be able to see those emerging needs.
Here’s where cultural proficiency comes in. I have been pondering the critical importance of developing cultural proficiency in transitional ministry, especially during times of pastoral leadership transitions, because cultural proficiency is a necessary competence for being able to see the emerging needs of our neighbors, whether they be of different races or ethnic cultures, another generational culture, socioeconomic culture, etc.
Some of these needs may not be easily visible to outsiders and onlookers. But even if we were able to see the needs, a vision for how to meet those needs (if we are not deeply engaged in the cultures around us) is often about our desire to “fix” others to be more like us. Those fixes may work in our minds, but they may not work in other cultures. The needs we think we see may not even be considered needs within our neighbors’ cultures, or at least not the most pressing ones.
Beyond understanding norms, values and common behaviors of others, which can still be done as outsiders and onlookers, I believe cultural proficiency means being grounded in one’s own culture as well – but not by centering that as the only right way to think and live. It involves moving from judgment to recognizing differences and being able to engage others within their own cultures, instead of insisting that they fit into one’s own culture. It means seeing the value and beauty of thinking and living another way. It means offering gracious space to negotiate and collaborate on how we will be community together. It also means doing enough work to know my own culture, to know that what one takes for granted as a “given” of all human society may be merely a manifestation of one’s own cultural norms, values, and common behaviors.
I wonder whether an inability to really see one’s neighbor – or to see their needs, or to see the community’s emerging needs – is an indicator that our calling organizations are not being led to grow in cultural competence during times of transition. Note that I am talking about growing cultural competence for our calling organizations and congregations, and not just insisting that the pastoral leader be culturally proficient. After all, the call to mission and ministry in the neighborhood is the entire congregation’s call and not just the pastor’s. Thinking cultural proficiency is only important for the pastoral leader is like saying health and vitality is only important for the leader, or that call and vocation are only important for pastors and not all disciples of Jesus Christ.
Jesus taught that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We cannot love our neighbors when we position ourselves and our desires as being more significant than their needs. We cannot be a neighbor when our agendas keep us focused solely on our own path instead of opening our eyes to see the needs of others.
Cultural proficiency is an important competence for calling organizations and pastoral leaders at all times. It is especially critical in transitional ministry, as congregations and other ministry settings seek to hear and see anew how and what God is calling them to be and do among their neighbors.
JIHYUN OH serves as the manager for call process support in the Office of the General Assembly. She is a minister member of Greater Atlanta Presbytery.