The Progression In My Train Of Thought Elmers Book On Cross Cultural Conflict Resolution
THE PROGRESSION IN MY TRAIN OF THOUGHT
BS Penn State University, 1982
Master’s in Educational Ministries, Wheaton College Graduate School, 1994
(double space to put educational credencials)
PRE-CLASS ASSIGNMENT- ELMER’S BOOK
Submitted to the faculty
in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
in Educational Studies
at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
THE PROGRESSION IN MY TRAIN OF THOUGHT
First stop: Simple curiosity
My initial response to this whole issue has been curiosity. Ever since I started
serving in Latin America in 1983 I have been intrigued by the cultural differences as
exemplified by the following anecdote.
Elmer’s anecdote regarding asking for directions in a foreign country
transported me back to Mexico City in 1983, although my line of reasoning differed a bit: (a)
They did not know how to give directions; (b) They did not know the names of the streets
because as pedestrians, they guided themselves by landmarks; (c) They did not own a map
much less know how to read one and here I was with map in hand asking directions using the
official “street names, which by the way, changed every block in order to honor as many
heroes and dignitaries as possible.” In conclusion, I grew very astute at reading the body
language of when they did not know and I would ask three different people directions and
then average out their answers to arrive at the best approximate!
Second stop: I should know this.
Ten years on the field should result in a good accumulation of cultural
insights. However, not if your attitude is “I am doing pretty good as a missionary, I do not
really need to use my credits at Wheaton’s Master’s program to study missions and culture,
it’s better to focus on educational philosophy and pedagogy. After all, my role
is director of training so it behooves me to study that! Almost by accident just weeks before I
graduated from Wheaton and returned to Latin America Duane Elmer let me read the
manuscript of his book (1993). My memory of my first reading of this book was that it
contained a list of good approaches for conflict resolution. In light of this book, I even
changed one of our counselor training textbooks to enlarge the list of conflict resolution
approaches to a total of four: confrontation, mediator, the one-down position, storytelling and
proverbs. As a typical Westerner the text had only listed “direct confrontation” as the only
Biblical method for resolving conflicts between camp staff, counselors and campers.
Third stop: Ignorance is not bliss
The work team members listened to me with their mouths open wide,
incredulity was evident in their expressions: “I cannot believe I have been so clueless all
these years. How is it possible that I never learned this? Did I think I would pick it up by
osmosis, in virtue of being married to a Honduran? Let me tell you, team, I am ashamed to
admit it but when I read Livermore’s book (2006), Serving with eyes wide open: Doing short-
term missions with cultural intelligence, I scored myself incredibly low in cultural
intelligence (my husband corroborated my worse fears by agreeing with my score). We can
do better than that during the next ten-days so let us start by participating in a cultural
observation activity at Central Park….”
I was determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past so together with both
the North American and Latin leaders we spent time observing one another and reflecting on
what we were learning.
Fourth stop: Three-dimensional viewing
With the second reading of Elmer’s book, I discovered that I was not quite as
enlightened as I thought I was! I had conveniently overlooked including in the textbook for
camp counselor training the methods of conflict resolution of inaction, misdirection, silence
and indefinite persons. The omission is significant in that up to this point I did not consider
them to be Biblical, desirable, or even legitimate means of resolving conflict. It was not that I
was unaware of their existence, one trip to any governmental office in Latin America will
give you a book’s worth of anecdotes!
The problem lay in that I had not yet grasped this truth: “our God can be
properly revealed only through diversity” (Elmer, 1993, 13).
Why does this stop represent for me a three dimensional one? Because as
admonished by Elmer, I must add to my cultural lenses (which cannot be physically removed
since they are also God’s gift to me), the cultural lenses of the local people with whom I
work. To which I would include the need for us to add God’s Biblical lenses, which
combined would give us a 3-D perspective.
How has my understanding about myself and about Latin Americans grown?
“What should I do with the fact that the guard in charge of the parking lot is charging me
money in order for him not to tell one of the other apartment owner’s that I ran into his car?”
“Did you run into his car?” I queried. “Not that I know of but I cannot be
sure. I might have. But it is wrong for him to be bribing me,” my fellow missionary
Eager to try out my new found focus to do critical thinking (my first class at
Trinity) on cross-cultural issues (my second class at Trinity), we began to try and figure out
what both cultures’ assumptions and values are. She quickly drew the conclusion that he was
dishonest and wanted to make a quick buck and that is what galled her the most. I tried to
open up another perspective: What is the value of having a parking lot guard that is on your
side, compared to one that is very upset with you? She hated the thought of “being taken”
but soon realized that another value, her harmonious relationships with the others in the
apartment complex, was in play. She confessed that up until that point she had never
considered that there was another side to the story.
Where I perceive greatest growth on my part is in the progression noted from
when I started missions with a posture of superficial curiosity to where I am now, which is a
posture of detained study which impacts my daily affairs. No longer is my concern just
enlarging my “bag of tricks” of resolution methods from one to eight but rather attributing
value to the differences I see all around me. For example: I discussed with my husband how
to reduce the time spent in the buffet line while waiting to be served, when he pointed out
that people attended the meeting to talk with others and fellowship therefore the length of the
wait would be of no concern to them.
The fact that Elmer grounds his entire book and its thrust to the core doctrine
of unity compels me to place a much higher priority on resolving conflict, since it is directly
related to people’s coming to Christ. When I shared this premise with my Salvadorian friend
Rixy, she commented: This moves it from the realm of “it would be nice” to “it is imperative
for God’s glory not to be veiled” that we resolve this conflict.
In further discussion with Rixy she and I observed that one’s temperament
may incline you to react a certain way when experiencing disequilibrium or conflict. A
choleric’s or sanguine’s first choice may be the “win-lose strategy” of conflict resolution;
whereas the melancholic may prefer avoidance and the phlegmatic might be inclined to give
in. As we realized what our tendencies are, we understood the need to use other strategies as
well as broaden our response styles. As we reviewed our long standing friendship we
discovered patterns to our sin and error. Given our temperaments, our use of power and our
drive to win, we could almost predict areas of conflict. Verbatim Rixy and I practiced the
principles and rules for dealing with conflict in the last chapter of Elmer’s (1993) book,
reaping the fruit of a strengthened friendship and setting precedent not just for us but for how
we will purpose to deal with other relational conflicts and teach others to do likewise.
As I understand it the creation of different languages and thus people groups
was part of the Fall, even God’s curse at the Tower of Babel, was it not? That Biblical
incident juxtaposes with the truth that “God cannot be adequately revealed in a creation of
similarities” (Elmer, 1993, 24) which lends itself to believe the diversity of languages and
people groups was God’s original idea, not part of the Fall. How does one understand God’s
move to diversify language and people groups at the Tower of Babel?
Elmer, Duane. 1993. Cross-culural conflict: Building relationships for effective ministry.
Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Livermore, David. 2006. Serving with eyes open: Doing short-term missions with
cultural intelligence. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.