Leading Cross-Culturally: 5 Key Lessons for Missionaries

Sep 15, 2023

If you’re a missionary in a leadership role in a cross-cultural setting, you’re no stranger to the complex challenges—but also the incredible opportunities—that come with the territory. It’s not just about navigating language barriers or different customs; it’s about really tuning into the nuances that make each culture unique. To excel in this rich but complicated environment, you’ll need more than just good intentions. You’ll need a thoughtful blend of cultural sensitivity, a good helping of humility, and the ability to adapt when the situation calls for it. 

How can you become an effective cross-cultural servant leader? Let’s look at five essential lessons that can help us lead well in these settings.

The Core of Your Leadership: Relationships

Leading cross-culturally starts with a simple yet profound understanding—relationships are everything. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, the quality of your relationships can make or break your mission. 

When missionaries are surveyed, they consistently point to team or relationship-related stressors as one of the biggest stressors. In fact, team conflict is the primary reason missionaries leave the field according to a study by the World Evangelical Alliance. 

That’s a big red flag showing us how pivotal relationships are.

1. Your First Task: Build Trust

So, what’s at the heart of a good relationship? Trust. You’ll quickly realize it’s the currency that makes the world go ’round, especially in diverse settings. But trust isn’t given away easily, especially in spaces where lots of differences initially cause skepticism or confusion. You need to cultivate trust patiently and intentionally.

Crossing Cultural Trust Barriers

Before you can lead effectively, you need to build a bond of trust that knocks down walls of prejudices and stereotypes. People from different cultures might already have a preconceived picture of you, based on nationality, ethnicity, or even gender. Your job? Approach these biases with patience and empathy.

Be authentic. Let people see the real you by showing vulnerability and sharing your story. Break the stereotypes that people might hold about you through intentional, transparent interactions.

The Long Game of Trust-Building

Trust doesn’t come easy; it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Pay attention to the cultural subtleties and be willing to learn. You’ll find yourself in situations where the culture is entirely foreign to you. Embrace this newness with curiosity rather than judgment.

Messing up is inevitable. When you do, humility becomes your best friend. Say you’re sorry, strive for understanding, and own up to your mistakes. Your ability to be accountable will serve you well in the quest to build trust.

2. Show Vulnerability

Don’t shy away from being upfront about your struggles, your vulnerabilities, and the areas where you could really use some help. It’s natural to want to put your best foot forward, especially in a leadership role, but transparency is key to building authentic relationships. Create an environment where feedback isn’t just accepted; it’s actively encouraged. Make it a safe space where people feel comfortable sharing their perspectives, even if they’re offering some tough-to-swallow criticism.

By doing this, you’re not just ticking a box for “good leadership;” you’re setting the stage for real, meaningful connections with the people you’re leading. Your sincerity in welcoming and valuing their input not only fosters deeper relationships but also provides you with invaluable insights. You’ll find that this openness can transform not just how you lead, but how you’re embraced as a leader in a cross-cultural setting.

3. Pay Attention

It’s time to dial your observation skills up to 11. You’re not just learning about another culture—you’re also getting a front-row seat to how you, as a leader, are being perceived by others. So, keep tabs on your communication style, how you’re acting, and the choices you’re making. Don’t wait for feedback; go ahead and ask for it. And if you hit a bump in the road or have a moment of doubt, be the first to check in and see how things are going.

This isn’t just about smoothing over potential issues; it’s a trust-building exercise. By actively seeking feedback and showing you’re willing to adapt, you’re sending a clear message: you’re committed to understanding the culture and being the kind of leader who fits well within it.

4. Embrace Cultural Differences

When you live and work in cross-cultural environments, it’s natural for you to compare your own culture with that of your host country. You might initially default to thinking your way is the best way. Yet, as time goes by, you often find yourself appreciating the strengths in both cultures, realizing that neither is inherently superior to the other. Your journey becomes about blending the best elements of each culture into something richer and more inclusive.

Remember, your leadership approach isn’t the gold standard; it’s just one way among many. So, don’t rush to judgments or quick fixes. 

As a leader, you face the challenge of balancing this appreciation for cultural differences. If you’re too vocal about your own culture being superior, you risk alienating others and meeting resistance. On the flip side, if you adopt the stance that everything from your host culture is better, you could lose a sense of your own identity. Your effectiveness in cross-cultural leadership lies in recognizing the value of both worlds, focusing on the most important issues while not sweating the small stuff. 

The goal here isn’t to make everything the same—that’s homogenization. What you’re really aiming for is harmony, a beautiful blend that respects and celebrates each culture’s unique contributions. The beauty of leading in a cross-cultural setting is that it gives you a chance to create something new, something that captures the best of all worlds. 

5. Drop Unrealistic Expectations

Avoid setting the bar unrealistically high for yourself; it’s a guaranteed way to stumble into disappointment. Know that the pace of progress might not match your initial expectations, especially in the short term. This isn’t a sprint; it’s more of a marathon where you should be prepared for a steady, albeit sometimes slow, advancement. Patience is the name of the game here. Recognize that some of the most meaningful breakthroughs and significant achievements are likely to materialize over the long haul, not overnight.

Embrace the learning curve as part of the journey, not a detour. Understand that growth isn’t always linear and that setbacks can offer as much value as successes, sometimes even more. Give yourself the grace to grow, to make mistakes, and to learn from them. This mindset won’t just help you be more patient; it will equip you with the resilience and adaptability that are so crucial in any leadership role, but especially in cross-cultural settings.


Leading in a cross-cultural setting, especially as a missionary, is like navigating through a complex maze. It’s not enough to just know the local language or customs; you’ve got to really dig deep and lead with a sense of empathy, trust, and openness. Building solid relationships is key, as is actively listening and valuing what others bring to the table. This goes beyond just being tolerant; it’s about creating a kind of harmony where different cultures can genuinely blend and enrich each other. Sure, the path to get there won’t always be smooth—expect some highs and lows—but the long-term impact is worth it. Think of it this way: Success isn’t just about hitting milestones; it’s also about the meaningful relationships you build along the journey.

You can find the full interview with Charley Elliott here:


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