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5 Ways to Make Misunderstanding Productive

Opposition and misunderstanding are coming. Jesus constantly faced it. Even better, He had answers for it. Jesus had perspective no one else had. He didn’t get bogged down in the moment.

Some people thrive on conflict. Others spend enormous energy avoiding it. If you’re going to serve on the mission field with nationals and other expat missionaries, you’ll have to face misunderstandings in a productive way. Misunderstanding and its first cousin, Disagreement,  are neither good nor bad. The way you handle them will determine the outcome of events that follow. A chain reaction of negativity could occur, or a foundation for productive collaboration could be laid. You should plan for the latter. But without proper perspective, the former is inevitable most of the time. Ultimately, your relationship with people will determine what you will and will not be able to get done on the mission field. Relationships gone bad can lead to a train wreck. Relationships done well will open doors of opportunity you never imagined.

Often, when spearheading a new project on the mission field, as a leader with vision, focus is placed more on the task than the ones doing the task with us – or worse – the ones who benefit from the task being done well. Misunderstandings take place leading to hurt feelings, a perception of disrespect, resulting in severed relationships. This happens over and over on the mission field. It hinders the work of the gospel and damages the credibility of missionaries.

Here’s the rub: misunderstanding is often engineered by God. The Lord is never done refining those He’s called to take His Name to the Nations. Testing missionaries’ ability to navigate misunderstanding by providing some hands-on-experience can result in missionaries representing Jesus to the nations in ways they could never plan for. But in order to do this, the missionary leaders need to submit downward rather than require everyone who is lead to submit upward. We’re all familiar with the corporate pyramid-shaped model of leadership and submission. The leader is at the top of the pyramid and everyone else in the organization is below him. Jesus models leadership differently. He flips the pyramid upside down. Jesus is at the bottom, submitting upward and serving everyone who follows Him.

Jesus doesn’t hold back when teaching His disciples this principle. He adamantly says, “and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve,” (Matt 20:27-28).

Here’s the message that is sent when a missionary serves those he leads: you have value; I value you. If you lead in a way that demands submission forcing people to submit, you send the message that you don’t value people. Even if you truly love those you went to the mission field to serve and serve with, if this is your style, love and value will not be the message that comes through. You’ll become quite acquainted with misunderstanding and frustration.

While the following list is not exhaustive, it contains attitudes that, if identified and owned, can be adjusted when recognized.

  1. Respect – While some misunderstandings just can’t be resolved, with the right heart, many – most – can be. Parties must be willing to come together and talk frankly. Mutual respect is key and often we all need to work on.
  2. Humility – It’s necessary for you to be approachable rather than resisted or avoided. Working through misunderstanding knocks off rough edges people perceive in you. God is doing a deeper work than you realize or are ready for.
  3. Expectations – Misunderstandings often arise from unset and/or unmet expectations. Expectations need to be spelled out. If someone has placed unreasonable expectations on you, you need to clarify.
  4. Fear – You should never fear or run or hide from disagreement. You should fear suppressing it. Suppressed disagreement or misunderstanding goes underground and resurfaces later as interpersonal conflict, or worse, personal attacks.
  5. Arrogance – Avoid arrogance, superiority, or a dismissive attitude at all costs. If you are in a leadership role, remember that a missionary is a servant. Good leaders are trainers and facilitators of the mission; not overlords.

Empathy is something that needs to be developed in the life of a missionary. Learning to share other people’s feelings doesn’t come naturally to most of us. Its something we must practice if we want to get better. Even if you don’t agree with someone, you seek to see something from another’s point of view. Misunderstanding evaporates when you intentionally create this kind of environment where you serve. Unity thrives in an ecosystem where missionaries value people the way Jesus values people.

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