When power dynamics impact relationships

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Power does funny things to relationships. It changes the dynamics of how relationships form and grow and become.

When I met my first friend in kindergarten, we built our relationship on even ground. We both couldn’t read or write; we both struggled with things like tying our shoes and sitting still in class; we both came from similar backgrounds and approached life with the similar challenges and opportunities. And we both spoke English, the language of our neighborhood, region and country.

As I grew older, I began to realize that the forming of relationships takes work. It takes time, and it often takes patience. Sometimes relationships come easily. Other times it takes more time and more energy and sometimes I realized, our differences in life experiences create relational dynamics that make it more difficult to build authentic relationships.

Cultural differences create relational challenges that are often difficult to overcome. There are many types of differences—some obvious, some less obvious—but all impact the relationships we form. And while we can all work to overcome these differences, there are some differences that create power dynamics which inhibit the normal formation of relationships.

An example

Let me give you an example. I was at a conference in a North American city. The conference was a gathering of African pastors and elders from around the upper Midwest. All of them had come to the U.S. as refugees following a season of intense persecution against their particular tribe in their home region. All of them were men of reputation in their communities back in Africa and that had in many ways transferred with them to the U.S. They were leaders of men.

But they had invited some of the American leaders of their denomination to come and teach on a particular subject during the conference. I wasn’t from that denomination but had been invited to do some training as well around relating to and sharing the gospel with Muslims. I decided to come for the whole day of meetings even though I wasn’t presenting until after lunch.

The morning teaching went well for the most part until one of the African leaders voiced a concern. The question was, “How can we do more to serve the North American church?”

The American leaders assured them, they there was no need to feel like they needed to do anything.

“Cultural differences create relational challenges that are often difficult to overcome. There are many types of differences—some obvious, some less obvious—but all impact the relationships we form.”

What was missed in the exchange was the underlying feeling of the African pastor that they were being seen merely as charity cases. The Anglo churches who were allowing them to use their buildings were doing so in good faith, believing they were serving their brothers and sisters in Christ.

But a number of things were at play that prevented authentic relationships to develop between the African churches and their American host churches. And these things lead to a relationship that left these African pastors feeling like they were not being understood or appreciated.

First was a general assumption that the African churches were basically poor and needy. In that sense the African pastors were struggling with a sense that they were being viewed as charity cases. That was unfortunate.

Relationships and power dynamics

But this dynamic was in many ways the result of a number of relational dynamics. As the two groups met and interacted, the Anglo churches and their leaders entered the relationship from positions of power.

This power dynamic shows up in various ways:

Financial Power: Established legacy churches (traditional American churches) have established wealth.  They are in comparison rich and too often we look from our place of wealth on anyone who has less and assume poverty. It is difficult to build healthy relationships when one party perceives the other party to be constantly in need of help.

Cultural Power: Immigrant churches and pastors often enter into relationships with their North American counterparts with a lack of cultural knowledge. They have to navigate American culture and also a church culture that has developed over the last two centuries that they just don’t completely understand. They won’t always understand why it is so important to be done by 2:00 pm or why we don’t allow drinks in the sanctuary. It can be disheartening to always be feeling like “we’re not doing it right.”  And it is a space that creates difficulty for the development of true relationship.

Theological Power: North American’s love their theological training. It’s not a bad thing to have so much seminary training but too often that becomes a gauge for spiritual maturity which can often lead to feelings of superiority or inferiority as relationships are built.  And this too can be another hurdle to the building of healthy relationships.

Linguistic Power: Language! When I went to Turkey, one of the greatest challenges I faced in building relationships was that no one really knew who I was because I could not express myself fully in Turkish. My Turkish friends were gracious and kind but the reality was that they only knew a version of me, but they didn’t know me. They knew a lesser form of me. I know of refugees and immigrants who were engineers and teachers and government leaders who are working in a meat packing plant now because they don’t know English well enough yet. My African pastor friends who would speak weekly before crowds in Africa, who were regularly invited to speak at conferences in Africa, who lead churches and hours long prayer meetings have in many ways been relegated to the sideline when interacting with their American counter parts because they don’t speak English. While they often invite American pastors to their conferences to teach, they are rarely invited to the American conferences to do the same. The challenge of language is a real barrier to developing relationships from an equal footing.

There are of course other challenges, but when relationships are built in these dynamics of power imbalance, relationships won’t develop into the kinds of healthy relationships where both parties come to the table with gifts to share, with talents to contribute and with experiences from which we can all learn.

To be clear: this is just a reality. The North American church isn’t sinning any more than my Turkish friends were in not knowing me better. They are not actively creating this imbalance of power—it just is. It is the crucible in which we find ourselves, however, and it is the challenge we must actively seek to understand and seek—in any ways we can—to disrupt and overcome.

We must not merely throw up our hands in despair. There is much we can do to right the balance of power. And we have a good example.

In your relationships with one another,

have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God, 

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death–
even death on a cross!

A few ideas

Here are a few ways you can disrupt this relational power dynamic.

  1. Invest in learning their language. In doing so, you put yourself in the place of the learner. You in essence hand over some of the power by taking up the role of learner.
  2. Invite an immigrant pastor to teach in your church. Provide translation from their language to English.
  3. Invite yourself over to your immigrant friend’s house for a meal. Honor them by allowing them to serve you. Be uncomfortable wandering into their territory and wondering what the proper protocol is when being received as a guest: Should you bring a gift? Do you take your shoes off or leave them on? What do we do when we have something on our plate that we do not recognize? These are all challenges and points of discomfort that your immigrant friends face daily.
  4. Go with an immigrant pastor to minister in their home country. Go as a learner and support their work.
  5. Listen to their story and hear their vision for what they see God doing in their church, in your city and to the ends of the earth.
  6. Read a few helpful books and perhaps have your congregations read a few helpful books.
    1. Global Humility by Andy McCullough
    2. Foreign to Familiar by Sarah Lanier
    3. Western Christians in Global Mission by Paul Borthwick

The task before us is not an easy one. Building healthy relationships is difficult enough as it is. Add in the imbalance of power that naturally occurs in cross cultural relationships and the task can seem insurmountable.

But it’s not. With prayer and humility, we can find a better way.



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