Welcome Stranger

Many of my friends have moved around the country of Australia for work, especially those in Defence jobs. We often share observations of local culture, especially how hard or easy it is to acclimatize socially in our new context. These interesting comparisons mature with age and are strengthened by a chorus of witnesses who have shared the same experiences.

Notably, in many places, you find friendships and success in your endeavours because of ‘who you know.’ This puts a lot of pressure on making friends fast, often the most ‘popular’ or influential people in your context can help with networking – to begin to feel ‘at home’ in a community of like-minded people. However, this pressure has some problems:

Firstly, when opportunities come because of ‘who you know’, many experienced and talented people miss out on opportunities, whether for a job or a part in a local play, because they are not well-known.

Secondly, when the most influential or popular person is the one who gives newcomers a leg-up, introducing them to the people ‘in the know’ – it gives those people a lot of relational power. We get a situation where certain families become ‘local royalty’ based upon nothing other than ‘who you know.’

Thirdly, the pressure to get ahead can cause individuals who are perhaps feeling insecure about this whole arrangement, to feel like it’s some competition to know the most people and know the ‘right’ people better than anyone else. It’s a kind of game like in politics where there is smoozing and doing favours for people, and perhaps shouting others down, whether to their face or behind it. This leads to some very unbecoming human behaviours, all for the sake of moving up in the world, or at least ‘fitting in’.

If you’re thinking this is sounding like schoolyard politics, then you would be right. It is only through a healthy autonomous relationship with others where accountability and character development are encouraged can societies thrive. If people are afraid to achieve because they will be ridiculed, like a pecking order in a hen house, this leads to a community that is in drudgery, the doldrums, with limited opportunities and unhealthy relationship dynamics.

For all human history, people have been suspicious of outsiders and competitive with one another for attention or success. This is never more apparent than in communities where there is a long generational line of inhabitants. This can happen on a grand scale with the way that we treat outsiders from other countries. Just like the small communities who recognize a familiar face because they are perhaps related, and this is their basis for trust; we can also be suspicious of an unfamiliar face and guarded about allowing opportunities to come their way.

If we can recognize our biases and prejudices, we are a big step closer to overcoming them. This happens in our workplaces, our social groups, universities, schools, churches and social action groups. We can be amicable and embrace one another’s differences, overcoming the challenges begins with our attitudes and behaviours. If you are an influential person in your context, you can be the force for change by modelling these behaviours, rather than feeling challenged and threatened. Healthy communities have a balance of looking inward and outward, to learn and grow by welcoming the stranger.


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‘to lead to excel’

This was the motto of the Academy where I trained and studied from the age of 19 to 22. After graduation, I spent three years at sea in the Navy and served in ministry in my local church while ashore. Those six years were foundational for my sense of leadership in the church and in the world.

Studying alongside others is a great leveler, those who I served with at the Academy will forever be my classmates, no matter what rank or heights of achievement they attain. At Bible college, where I have been studying for 10 years now, the students and lecturers place themselves at Jesus’ feet, in submission to God’s word and will. When a student surpasses their master, it is often considered an honour and expression of the master’s teaching skill. However, we cannot forget Darth Vaders’ words to Obi Wan Kenobi: ‘When I left you, I was but the learner, now I am the master.’

Both the students and lecturers at bible college are ministry leaders in their own church. When students consider me to be one of their peers, or when lecturers speak to me as a fellow learner and a brother or sister in Christ, it is dignifying and yet commands great respect. We all experience similar trials and temptations in ministry and life and are accountable to the same God. We search the scriptures and pray fervently for God’s guidance and direction. This also is a great leveler.

My experience of church leadership has at times been reminiscent of the military, reliant on rank, with the domination and control of subordinates; and yet many Christian military leaders I’ve observed would excel as ministers of the gospel, because they are humble and show respect for the professionalism of others. They also have a strong sense of identity, calling and wariness of the ‘sins’ of the institution.

The leadership style that uses rank for authority tends to resort to domination and control and does not consider self-reflection or care of others a necessary part of their role. This leadership may be captured in the phrase ‘He will punish you with a warrior’s sharp arrows’ (Psalm 120:4) This phrase is speaking about God’s justice exercised on those who deceive and accuse God’s people. Yet, for those who equate a leadership rank with ‘being God’, submitting to their authority may lead to some arrows being fired. This is spiritual warfare.

It is not the vocation of ministry or military leadership that commands respect, but their submission to God’s will and their treatment of others. The vocation of the church is to live out the gospel, but what does this look like? In the eyes of society, its status is a non-profit and charitable organization; that is to provide support to people, to encourage, to help, to seek justice and serve. Our leaders must model this vocation and be willing to hand on the baton to the next generation through this same encouragement, help, and service to others.

I joined the military and the ministry to be a peacekeeper, yet even in peacetime, people feel threatened and attack others, in these situations submission to authority can lead to distress.

Listen to this: God is the one who answers those in distress, we know this because of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. He is also the role model, empowerer and enabler of leaders in the church and has dominion over all worldly authorities. Rather than seeking to be God, as leaders we must come alongside God’s people and sit at Jesus’ feet. The way toward growth in leadership points toward the task of discipleship and the encouragement of one another, we grow by lifting up others. Our spiritual direction is to be a follower and a leader, that is, to point to Christ.

Reference: reflection on Psalm 120 by Michael Jenson, St Mark’s Darling Point Sydney.

Photo by Raul Petri on Unsplash