As the Pastor of an Immigrant Church’s English Ministry, How Should I Relate to the Senior Pastor?
In this piece, I want to speak to fellow English-speaking pastors of immigrant churches’ English ministries. In particular, I want to talk about how we can honor the immigrant senior pastor, despite whatever differences we may have.
I pastor the English ministry in a Chinese Heritage Church. By God’s grace, I’ve had the honor of working under a God-honoring, immigrant senior pastor—one who champions the flourishing of the English ministry. Over the years, I’ve noticed that three practices enhance and enrich our partnership in ministry.
1. Think like a missionary.
Most immigrant senior pastors spend decades learning about Western culture and acculturating to a different way of life in a new country. We expect them to learn our Western ways, contextualizing their leadership style to reach our culture.
This is understandable, but we should also take the time to learn why immigrant senior pastors think and act in certain ways. We should ask questions like:
- What unique cultural pressures are they facing that I’m unaware of?
- What expectations must they uphold before their fellow-immigrant congregants?
- How does their culture inform why they hold certain convictions or ministry practices?
- How often do we take the time to see things from their perspective?
Paul was willing to become all things to all people for the sake of the gospel (1 Cor 9:22–23). Becoming a cross-cultural ambassador while relating to your immigrant senior pastor is a small sacrifice for the sake of gospel-partnership.
2. Remember that honor and shame speak louder than right and wrong.
When it comes to confronting or disagreeing with an immigrant senior pastor, there is a wrong way and a wise way. Whatever you do, avoid dishonoring or shaming them at all costs. It doesn’t matter if he’s older, younger, or the same age. If you disagree with him publicly, refrain from doing so in a critical manner. Perhaps make a habit of talking to him privately, or voicing your disagreement in the form of a question: “I see where you are coming from, but have we considered the following?”
In Asian culture, the truth is, even if others in the room agree with you, they’ll disagree with how you dishonored or shamed your superior. Paul tells Timothy, “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers” (1 Tim 5:1). If we are exhorted to treat older men as fathers and younger men as brothers—in the context of correction—then how much more ought we honor our elders and fellow pastors when we simply disagree with them? In Asian churches, honor is currency; it buys the most relational authority and trust.
3. Seek to earn relational authority and trust over time.
The New Testament teaches that local churches should be led by a plurality of pastors. But most Asian churches uphold some type of positional hierarchy. Even in elder-led churches, the senior pastor is ranked higher in the eyes of most church members.
Let’s refer to this hierarchy as “positional authority,” which differs from relational authority. By relational authority, I mean the trust you’ve earned with the senior pastor that enables you to make biblical changes with his blessing. One way to earn trust is to initiate private conversations and one-to-one meetings. Ask questions about his vision. Inquire about his views on practical theology. Find out what shaped his philosophy of ministry. Discuss how you can implement some of his passions within the English ministry. Be patient. Voice your ideas under the framework of submission to your spiritual leaders (Heb 13:17). And be willing to compromise on an agreeable ministry plan.
Later, if you come back to him saying, “I implemented our plan, but the English ministry didn’t respond as well to the ethnic-cultural nuances, what should we do?” there’s a better chance he will ask for your ideas and empower you to make changes.
The hypotheticals above assume a working relationship in which you are co-leading with your senior pastor—one marked by collaboration rather than confrontation. Over time, such collaboration with earn trust. This will bring some of the principles of a plurality of pastors to your church, even if you’re unable to change the polity. While positional authority might bring the power to initiate change, relational authority changes the culture and shapes the future.
Relating to an immigrant senior pastor comes with its challenges. Change usually comes slowly, and patience is required. Nonetheless, the fruit of cross-cultural ministry is always worth the labor.
For more articles on the topic of how pastors ought to relate to each other, see also:
- Dear Senior Pastor, Sincerely, the Associate Pastor by Andy Johnson
- Dear Associate Pastor, Sincerely, a Former Associate Pastor by Michael Lawrence
- 9Marks Journal: The Pastor and His Staff
- Episode 14 of Pastors’ Talk: How the “Senior Pastor” Relates to Other Pastors, with Jonathan Leeman and Mark Dever
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Editor’s note: This piece is a part of a series on immigrant churches:
- The State of the Immigrant Church, by John Lee
- Gone and Back Again: My Departure and Return to the Immigrant Church, by Jonathan Szeto
- Opportunity or Accommodation? Thinking Through Cultural Practices in the Immigrant Church, by Geoff Chang
- Make Sure Your Church Members Are Christians, Not Just Immigrants, by Jeremy Yong
- Moving from Topical to Expositional Preaching in Immigrant Churches: Five Steps of Preparation, by Alex Hong
- As the Pastor of an Immigrant Church’s English Ministry, How Should I Relate to the Senior Pastor? by Hanley Liu
- Reflections on One Assembly and the Immigrant Church, by Geoff Chang
- Helping Second-Generation Immigrants Love the Immigrant Church, by Daniel Chan