Humility over competency

During my time in college chaplaincy, I served on Monmouth College’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Team. To equip ourselves for our work, each team member took the Intercultural Development Inventory, an assessment survey that measured our abilities to communicate and work with people from different cultural backgrounds. We discussed our results with a facilitator, who gave suggestions on how we could further develop intercultural competency.

The term “cultural competency” was new to me when I began my DEI work. The push for cultural competency emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, grounded in the sociopolitical climate of the civil rights movements, and has led DEI work in education, healthcare and other professional settings. The movement broke good ground: the more we can engage knowledgeably with people across cultures, the more effective we will be in intercultural experiences in our professional practice. However, a problem emerged.

Cultural “competency” implies categorical knowledge about a group of people; that a person can become fully culturally competent and no longer need to learn more. As S. Balajiedlang Khyllep discusses in his article on page 18 of this issue, the concept of “cultural humility” emerged in 1998 from the field of public health to balance the drive toward cultural competency. Cultural humility acknowledges power dynamics, stereotypes and biases. Proponents support knowledge acquisition as a dynamic and lifelong process where self-reflection and personal critique are necessary. Cultural humility also encourages ongoing curiosity about the complexity of identities. It assumes that the professional will never be fully competent about the evolving and dynamic nature of a patient, a student, or an immigrant neighbor’s experiences. Therefore, each cross-cultural encounter must be approached with care, humility, and an openness to being corrected when we are wrong.

In this issue we explore the rethinking taking place around the church’s work in global missions. Hunter Farrell identifies the “Five hidden superpowers” that can help congregations engage in mission activities that are effective and not just self-satisfying. Ellen Sherby offers practical steps and resources to strengthen the discernment and work of congregational mission committees. Alonzo Johnson details learnings from his advocacy work about the power of authentic, non-performative and non-transactional mission partnerships. All of these features are supported by Khyllep’s call for cultural humility.

I am attracted to this call for cultural humility as a faithful posture for all our personal and social interactions. In his book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, organizational psychologist Adam Grant reveals how a good dose of humility can serve us far better than pride, overconfidence and unyielding certainty. “If knowledge is power” Grant writes, “knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.” He outlines a “rethinking cycle” that begins with humility, with knowing you don’t know everything. Recognizing what we don’t know leads us to question our current understandings, which leads us to become curious about what information we’re missing. Curiosity leads us to search for new information, which leads us to new discoveries. But this whole cycle breaks down if we are overconfident, if we believe we’ve already found the truth, if we’re too focused on changing other people’s minds, while ours is set in stone.

As we move through this issue, it would serve us well to not only rethink how we carry out church mission work but to also ask ourselves, what else should I approach with more humility? Where am I missing out on discovery because I am certain my way is the way? Who can I approach with curiosity to gain better understanding of them and their views?

Proverbs 9:10 teaches that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. We are not God. We get things wrong and make mistakes. Rethinking our positions and our ways of doing and being the church is a faithful and fruitful practice.