Cross-cultural Parables –When the People Sitting in Church Chairs Become Mentors

Elephants and Power

Church leaders around the globe share common human challenges when it comes to organizations. A couple of years ago I taught a course on ethics to church and NGO leaders in Kenya.  In a lecture on ethics in decision-making and the discussion moved toward working with large outside organizations.  The question was how to help mission agencies recognize the ethics of their own decision making when conflict with the local culture occurred. In the midst of the discussion these Kenyan graduate students gave me a proverb that fits political realities all leaders have to work with in denominational or mission agency contexts.

“When elephants fight the grass gets crushed, when elephants make love the grass gets crushed.”

Effective leadership (leadership that does not destroy or damage people) recognizes how organizations allot and display power. It is not uncommon for good leaders to get crushed not-with-standing their skill, insight and alliances when they are at the wrong place and time e.g., a regime change or economic downturn. Such experiences push leaders through crucible experiences and boundaries to growth. I did not catch a sense of fatalism from these students as much as a clear view of reality and a warning to know where the elephants were at all times.

On the leadership side of church chairs and on the follower side of church chairs this lesson is important. One of my graduate professors at Fuller Theological Seminary was a specialist on organizational change.  “Ray” he said on several occasions, “remember power wins.”  It was his way of reminding me to be aware of the elephants.  Sometimes the elephants sit in the church chairs in front of you every Sunday morning. Sometimes the elephants are found in the church office. Sometimes the elephants make decisions in far distant board rooms that are out of touch with what is happening in the field. Even well intentioned decisions from the mission board may end up stomping out new life on the field simply for lack of cultural or situational awareness.

Eels and Change

A friend of mine had invited me to China to help train managers in a start-up hospitality consulting firm. The hospitality market in China was on fire, hotels and motels were springing up everywhere – so were congregations.  The challenge for my friend was rate of growth of his firm threatened to outstrip the firm’s ability to develop the necessary leadership skills not to mention any kind of bench.  (Congregations often face a similar challenge.)  At the end of the session on recognizing the predictable barriers to personal development my interpreter turned to me with the mixture of epiphany and interrogation.

“You are an eel.”

“Help me understand what you mean by that,” I said.

“Do you see the fish in the market when you come to the office?”  He asked. “They sit in the tanks all day and over time they become listless (I have also seen this in people who sit in church chairs too long).  When this occurs no one will buy them because they don’t look fresh.  So, the fisherman places an eel in the tank.  This makes the fish come back to life,” he explained.

The insight about change has a bearing on trust.  The effect of the eel depends on the perspective of the viewer.  To the fish the eel is a threat.  The fish come to life in the presence of the eel yet the effect is short-lived. The observation of my interpreter made me stop and think about the pace at which I was moving and whether I was helping these managers think through the concepts I explained in the lens of their own worldview.  From the owner’s perspective I challenged lethargy and encouraged action. The larger challenge my interpreter helped me see was how to synthesize the needs of the owners for rapid change with the needs of the managers for deeper understanding and engagement i.e., a function of trust.

Can an eel be simultaneously a source of change and hope?  Not if you are a fish.  Pastors and non-profit leaders must exercise awareness of how those sitting in the church chairs perceive leadership actions. The ends leaders expect may not be the results their congregations experience. On the leadership side of church chairs it is important to use a variety of leadership roles and styles.

Storks, Frogs and Epiphanies

I was still chewing on the what to do with the eel story a couple of days later when my interpreter served as my mentor with another bit of wisdom.

“You are a stork.”

“Is a stork better than an eel?” I queried.

“No, a stork is different.” He responded in what I understood as a correction of my western proclivity for either/or resolutions to ambiguity or dissonance. He reminded me to exercise an “opposable mind” as Martin calls it. Highly creative leaders avoid reducing decisions between alternative options but seek instead to hold the tension of apparently opposing decisions to create an entirely different kind of approach.  An example of this kind of thinking is apparent in Acts 6.  The apostles held the need for serving widows in tension with the need to fulfill their teaching commission.  The result was the emergence of a new group of leaders. This ability to rest comfortably in the ambiguity of tension results in an integrative thinking that seeks out “…less obvious but potentially relevant factors…” then considers “…multidirectional and nonlinear relationships among variables….”[1] With this done the effective leader pursues the problem as a whole and not the parts to “Creatively resolve tensions among opposing ideas; generate innovative outcomes.”[2]

“What does the stork do?” I asked with a greater awareness of my need to learn.

“The stork shows the frog that there is a greater reality than that which the frog sees from the bottom of the well.  You see, the stork appears to be supernatural (read exceptional or unreachable) to the frog.  It appears and disappears at will at the top of the well and the frog cannot understand how the stork accomplishes such a miraculous feat.  One day the frog asked the stork to help him understand the wonders of the stork’s miraculous existence.  The stork laughed and lifted the frog from the bottom of the well to see the world from on top of the well.  You are helping us see a different world.” (Acts 26:18)

I was moved and encouraged – apparently I inspired both fear and hope in my time with these leaders.  More importantly I was learning to hold apparently opposite or mutually exclusive views of reality in a dynamic tension.


Parables or stories connect with the experience of those who sit every Sunday in church chairs.  Parables and stories offer a lens for dynamic reflection.  Stories and reflection are a launching point for many more insights.

  1. Highly effective leaders exercise awareness of how their denomination, agency or congregation assign and use power.  Leaders who lack this awareness end up trampled to death. The leader who is unaware of their power will trample to death those he/she leads.  All good leaders have a tool kit of influence, authority and power.  Power is the last of the tools a leader should use.  Those leaders who abuse the use of power are like a rogue elephant. The destruction caused by rogue elephants and toxic leaders motivates people to end the threat of damage by changing churches or eliminating the threat by getting rid of the pastor.
  2. Highly effective leaders exercise self-awareness and situational awareness.  There are times all leaders must act like eels.  Recognize however that change management requires an awareness of the fear change engenders. Inexperienced leaders scare the congregation to death resulting in disengagement and turn over. Neither alternative generates long-term fruitfulness in ministry. Great leaders understand that change is only as effective as a shift in how people see their situation.  If the perspective in the church chair does not shift then the change has not taken place.
  3. Highly effective leaders work to redefine reality.  They work with an “opposable mind” that lives between eternity and the present and discovers new alternatives and inspire the congregation with the possibilities inherent in seeing a problem or challenge from a biblical perspective.

Pastors and congregations I work with often become my mentors and teachers. Part of the delight I have in leading rests in the influence I exert but the greater joy rests in the exposure I have to new insights and learning from the lives of those I have the privilege to serve.  What are you learning from the people sitting in your church chairs?

Dr. Ray Wheeler is the Director of Global sales for Bertolini Inc and an adjunct instructor in cross-cultural leadership, church growth and ethics at Bethesda University California in Anaheim, California and Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California.

[1] Roger Martin, “How Successful Leaders Think,” Harvard Business Review, June 2007, 60-67.