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In the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine is a most compelling article: “The Black Swan of Cairo: How Suppressing Volatility Makes the World Less Predictable and More Dangerous,” by By Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Mark Blyth.

The beginning of this article reads as follows:

Why is surprise the permanent condition of the U.S. political and economic elite? In 2007-8, when the global financial system imploded, the cry that no one could have seen this coming was heard everywhere, despite the existence of numerous analyses showing that a crisis was unavoidable. It is no surprise that one hears precisely the same response today regarding the current turmoil in the Middle East. The critical issue in both cases is the artificial suppression of volatility — the ups and downs of life — in the name of stability. It is both misguided and dangerous to push unobserved risks further into the statistical tails of the probability distribution of outcomes and allow these high-impact, low-probability “tail risks” to disappear from policymakers’ fields of observation. What the world is witnessing in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya is simply what happens when highly constrained systems explode.

Complex systems that have artificially suppressed volatility tend to become extremely fragile, while at the same time exhibiting no visible risks. In fact, they tend to be too calm and exhibit minimal variability as silent risks accumulate beneath the surface. Although the stated intention of political leaders and economic policymakers is to stabilize the system by inhibiting fluctuations, the result tends to be the opposite. These artificially constrained systems become prone to “Black Swans” — that is, they become extremely vulnerable to large-scale events that lie far from the statistical norm and were largely unpredictable to a given set of observers.

Such environments eventually experience massive blowups, catching everyone off-guard and undoing years of stability or, in some cases, ending up far worse than they were in their initial volatile state. Indeed, the longer it takes for the blowup to occur, the worse the resulting harm in both economic and political systems.

As I read this article, I was thinking a lot about the sailboat paradigm and cross-cultural partnerships in the global Body of Christ. There must be some overlaps, some lessons for for followers of Christ, I mused. Here are a few thoughts that attempt to describe some of those overlaps:

1) The article claims that the practice of artificially creating stability, hiding the risks, suppressing volatility in the geopolitical realm ends up creating greater risk and significantly more danger.

Likewise, Christians in cross-cultural partnerships sometimes try to create artificial stability by rigid systems that do not account for the vulnerabilities that exist in the majority world. They often end up with more risk, not less … greater disappointment, and greater potential for broken relationships.

2) In the geopolitical realm, the need for predictability is tantamount to the need for control.

Likewise, western Christian partners sometimes live out this bias for control and end up feeling “burned” when things end in disappointment or failure; they may assume the partnership failed because they could not control it. But the answer is not in having greater control, but in submitting ourselves to, and cooperating with, the sovereign Lord, the Wind of the Holy Spirit, who sees the end from the beginning and is Lord of all members of the partnership.

3) “Complex systems that have artificially suppressed volatility tend to become extremely fragile, while at the same time exhibiting no visible risks. In fact, they tend to be too calm and exhibit minimal variability as silent risks accumulate beneath the surface.”

Likewise, cross-cultural partnership practitioners should recognize that our efforts in Christian cross-cultural collaboration are truly complex systems with many silent risks. This should increase our dependence on God, motivate us to improve our cross-cultural relationship-building skills, and make us more open to honest critique that exposes the hidden risks. A non-defensive openness to critique, though rare, can be our privilege as we sail together inside of that realm we call the grace of God.

I have heard from expert sailors that the silent risks inherent in sailing are enormous. For example, the tides and currents which vary by the season … the weather which can change silently, abruptly … these are two that come to mind.

To artificially suppress the knowledge of the volatility of the currents or the weather would be unthinkable to a wise and experienced sailor. Rather, the expert sailor is bluntly honest, profoundly humble, alert and wise about all of the risks—and able to navigate an incredibly complex system in cooperation with the wind.

Expert sailing is required in volatile times.

Note: This is a revision of the posting by Jon Lewis and Werner Mischke on February 9, 2010.
A PDF of this article may be downloaded by clicking here.

After a recent discussion here at our Partners International office about the Sailboat-Powerboat metaphor, I came away with a troubled feeling about how this illustration is being understood. My sense was that different people are interpreting the metaphor from different contexts leading to misunderstanding of each other’s points of view.

It is sometimes argued that the sailboat paradigm is clearly the “right” perspective and the powerboat the “wrong” one—a “right/wrong” view. I propose that in taking a “right/wrong” view one is thinking of the metaphor exclusively in terms of the spiritual dimension—relating to the degree of one’s dependence versus independence toward God—and emphasizing that dependence on God is healthy, biblical—right.

Could it be there is also a “both-and” view—with which to recognize the spiritual, and additionally, the cultural dimension, of the powerboat/sailboat metaphor? Could it be that a multi-dimensional perspective enhances the metaphor’s clarity and usability?

While I appreciate and respect the vital spiritual context of the powerboat/sailboat metaphor, I also understand the metaphor from a cultural context. For example, I view the powerboat and sailboat paradigms as primary features, respectively, of the cultures of the Global North (the West) and the Global South (non-West.) Generally speaking, the Global North has a culture that is more task-oriented, more “powerboat” in its cultural expression—while the Global South is more relationship-oriented, more “sailboat” in its cultural expression. Moreover, I believe Christians possessing either cultural style can be healthy and biblical.

In looking back over the various blogs and conversations on this metaphor, it appears to me that many others have been mixing these two different contexts—spiritual and cultural. The result is that there has been an overall “muddiness” to the discussion about the metaphor, leading some to question if the metaphor is useful at all.

My proposition is that both the spiritual and the cultural aspects of the powerboat/sailboat metaphor have validity, but they must be separated in order to understand the metaphor’s pragmatic value to cross-cultural partnership ministry. When these continuums—spiritual and cultural—are separated, I propose that the cultural continuum is morally neutral while the spiritual continuum is not morally neutral. This is represented by the diagram below:

The powerboat-sailboat continuum—viewed culturally—is morally neutral. The powerboat-sailboat continuum—viewed spiritually—is not morally neutral.

Having defined two different continuums, I suggest we think about them as two interrelated dimensions. To illustrate this, let’s put them both into a two-dimensional diagram with the cultural continuum on the vertical axis and the spiritual continuum on the horizontal axis (as shown below). This allows us to discuss some practical implications. Here is my attempt at that—with the caveat that these are extremely broad generalizations.

ASSUMPTIONS

  1. The Global North has a cultural style and worldview that is somewhere in Quadrant I. Our “rugged individualism” hinders us from living in dependence on God’s Spirit day-by-day—while our industrial/technology heritage enhances our ability to control outcomes and accomplish more through a “task-oriented” approach to life and problem solving. I‘ll label the typical starting position on the chart for the Global North as “N1.”
  2. The Global South has much more of a relational cultural style and worldview. They experience more vulnerability and embrace flexibility due to circumstances and situations over which they have little or no control. Therefore, their relational approach to life and problem solving puts them in the lower half of the chart. However, Global South people can also tend toward independence from God, though probably differently and not to the same extent as those of us in the Global North. I’ll label this starting point in Quadrant III for the Global South as “S1.”
  3. The Global North has a need to learn greater dependence on God’s Spirit as opposed to using self or secular management approaches to determining Truth. Therefore, in general, it has a need of moving rightwards on the chart. It also has a need to be much more sensitive to relationships and not always so intensely goal- and task-oriented. So it also could use moving downward on the chart as well. However, the Global North has a huge and rich heritage of learning how to get things done, so I think it would be wrong for it to totally give up its understanding of strategic planning, etc., and demand that it live only in a Quadrant IV worldview. I suggest a good ending point for the Global North would be the lower part of Quadrant II—“N2.”
  4. The Global South also has need of learning greater dependence on God’s Spirit as a primary guiding force. It, too, can use movement to the right on the chart. It could also benefit greatly from learning something about the Global North’s experience in management practices and goal orientation. Therefore some upward movement is also appropriate. Its ending point could then be in the upper part of Quadrant IV—“S2.”

CONCLUSION
My conclusion is that the new positions of N2 and S2 now describe a position for truly healthy cross-cultural partnerships. By both being sensitive to God’s Spirit (the same Spirit for each!) and both bringing to the table the value of their heritage cultural styles, (task- and relationship-orientation, respectively), there is the potential for new synergy that can produce greater effectiveness. It is from this position of N2 that I would hope Partners International is interacting and working together with its ministry partners from the Global South who, in turn, have learned from our partnership, how to end up at S2.

My hope is that by combining both the cultural and spiritual dimensions of the sailboat/powerboat metaphor in this manner, we can clarify our dialog and extract a richer understanding from it—to configure our global partnerships for even greater impact for God’s Kingdom.

A PDF of this article may be downloaded by clicking here.

Jon Lewis is President/CEO of Partners International, Spokane, Washington  /  www.partnersintl.org
Werner Mischke is Executive VP of Mission ONE, Scottsdale, Arizona  /  www.mission1.org

by Jon Lewis / February 4, 2010

After a recent visit by Alex Araujo here at our Partners International office last week, and a subsequent stimulating discussion about the famous Sailboat-Powerboat metaphor, I came away with a troubled feeling about how this illustration is being understood. My sense was that different people are interpreting the metaphor from different contexts leading to misunderstanding of each other’s points of view.

This became clear to me when Alex was arguing that the Sailboat paradigm was clearly the “right” perspective and the Powerboat paradigm the “wrong” one. I had always maintained that there were good and bad qualities on each side. Upon further discussion, however, I realized that Alex was thinking of the metaphor primarily in terms of a spiritual context relating to how we should work out our dependence vs. independence in our personal relationship with God. I, on the other hand, had been viewing the metaphor purely from a cultural context and attributed the two different paradigms as relating to the contrasting worldviews of the Global North (the West) and the Global South (non-West.)

In looking back over the various blogs and discussions on this metaphor, it appears to me that many others have been mixing these two different contexts in the discussion. The result is that there has been an overall “muddiness” to the metaphor discussion that has even led some to question if the metaphor is useful at all.

I would like to propose a new way of thinking about both of these two contexts with the metaphor by adding them BOTH to a two-dimensional chart. My proposition is that both the spiritual and the cultural aspects of the metaphor have validity, but they must somehow be separated out in order to gain pragmatic value to any application that might be attempted.

This two-dimensional chart would look like this:

Having defined two different continuums according to the X and Y axis, it now allows us to discuss some practical implications. Here is my attempt at that—with the caveat that these are extremely broad generalizations.

Assumptions:

  1. The Global North has a tendency toward a worldview that is somewhere in Quadrant II. Not only does our “rugged individualism” keep us from living in dependence on God’s Spirit day-by-day, but our industrial/technology heritage pushes us toward a “goal-oriented” approach of problem solving. I will label this typical starting position on the chart for the Global North = N1.
  2. The Global South has much more of a relational worldview and understands flexibility due to dependence on circumstances and situations usually out of a person’s control. Therefore, their relational approach to life and problem solving puts them in the lower half of the chart. However, Global South people can also tend toward independence from God, too, though probably differently and not to the same extent as those of us in the Global North. I’ll call this starting point in Quadrant IV for the Global South = S1.
  3. The Global North has a need to learn greater dependence on God’s Spirit as opposed to using self or secular management approaches to determining Truth. Therefore, in general, it has a need of moving leftwards on the chart. It also has a need to be much more sensitive to relationships and not always so intensely goal-oriented in worldview. So it also could use moving downward on the chart as well. However, the Global North has a huge and rich heritage of learning how to get things done, so I think it would be wrong for it to totally give up its understanding of strategic planning, etc., and demand that it live only in a Quadrant III worldview. I suggest a good ending point for the Global North would be the lower part of Quadrant I = N2.
  4. The Global South also has need of learning greater dependence on God’s Spirit as a primary guiding force. It, too, can use movement to the left on the chart. It could also benefit greatly from learning something about the Global North’s experience in management practices and goal orientation.  Therefore some upward movement is also appropriate. Its ending point could then be in the upper part of Quadrant III = S2.

My conclusion is that the new positions of N2 and S2 now give a place for truly healthy partnership to work well. By both being sensitive to God’s Spirit (the same Spirit for each!) and both bringing to the table the value of their heritage worldviews (goal- and relational-orientation, respectively), there is the potential for new synergy that can produce great effectiveness. It is from this position of N2 that I would hope Partners International is interacting and working together with its Ministry Partners from the Global South who, in turn, have learned from our partnership, how to end up at S2.

My hope is that by combining these two different interpretations of the Sailboat-Powerboat metaphor in this manner, we not only clarify the dialog about its interpretation, but also have the potential of extracting an even deeper and richer understanding from it and thus inform and configure our global partnership endeavors  for even greater impact for God’s Kingdom.

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“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.
So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything,
but only God who gives the growth.”
(1 Corinthians 3:6–7 ESV)

The Bible teaches that when it comes to spiritual fruit, “God gives the growth.” But with our modern management orientation in Christian ministry, we often think we can control outcomes. This is understandable because of the secular environment in which we live in the west; but is it biblical?

In early September I attended a small gathering of mission leaders for a “Sailboat Retreat” during which we compared the powerboat mindset with the sailboat mindset—and what it could mean for Christian mission ministry. One of the things we discussed is that money is very often a controlling force in ministry. As a result, fundraising is what often shapes ministry. This can be quite unhealthy, an example of “the tail wagging the dog.”

In keeping with the sailboat theme of “catching the wind of God”—one of the things we considered in our sailboat retreat is this idea: Instead of having money as the single greatest catalyst for ministry, what if that catalyst was simply listening—listening to God and listening to people?

To make this contrast clear, take a look at two “formulas” for ministry. With the “powerboat” formula for Christian mission, the catalyst is money:

Money drives ministry for results

Money drives ministry for results

  • Money drives the process; no funding = no ministry = no results.
  • Money comes first; listening is sometimes optional and comes last.
  • Primary emphasis on fundraising and methods to raise money.
  • Western nations have more funds, therefore wealthy nations tend to control ministry.
  • Implies reliance on expensive structures, technology, “missions machinery.”
  • Money makes “mission” go fast.
  • Tremendous pressure on people for results—measurement of outcomes—in order to maintain funding. This shapes ministry strategy and reporting protocol.

With the “sailboat” formula for Christian mission, things are very different. The variables are the same, but the priorities are different. The catalyst is listening—to God and people.

Listening shapes ministry for faithfulness

Listening shapes ministry for faithfulness

  • Listening replaces money as the catalyst for global missions.
  • Listening comes first; money is sometimes optional and in balance with other priorities.
  • Primary emphasis on—listening to God—catching the wind of the Holy Spirit.
  • Implies a quantum leap by Christian mission leaders in the west relative to listening to Christian mission leaders in the global south—while at the same time adopting more of a servant role rather than a leadership role in missions.
  • Ministry can go forward without excessive reliance on funding.
  • Sometimes fast, sometimes slow; it depends on the wind of God.
  • Results are up to God, and can greatly exceed the plans of people, or not. Either one is okay, because God is in control. What is required is that God’s people be found faithful.

Obviously, there are generalizations involved in making formulas and it would be easy to critique specific pieces of the formulas above. Nevertheless, the point of this is to imagine: What would be different in your cross-cultural partnership, if you put listening ahead of funding? What if listening to God and to people was by far the most important, the most catalytic practice, in your cross-cultural partnership ministry—or any ministry, for that matter?

NOTE: This post is excerpted from a “A report on Catching the Wind of God—A Sailing Retreat: Contrasting the Powerboat and Sailboat mindset for leadership,” collated and edited by Alex Araujo and Werner Mischke. You may download a copy of this report by clicking here.