Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner

Working Toward Intercultural Competence

The Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner organized and offered training to help deaconess and home missioners become more interculturally competent.

Working Toward Intercultural Competence
Garlinda Burton is consecrated as deaconess during the 2014 United Methodist Women's Assembly.

Effective ministry means moving within different cultures. Intercultural competency is the ability to effectively relate with people of various backgrounds and practices. Intercultural competency is an important skill for all people, but especially for those working to build God’s kin-dom.

As part of United Methodist Women’s historic and ongoing work for racial justice, the United Methodist Women Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner in 2018 began the work of putting together a course on intercultural competency for active deaconesses and home missioners.

National office staff commissioned the Rev. Elaine Robinson, professor of Methodist Studies and Christian Theology at Saint Paul School of Theology, to develop the course, and in July 2020 began offering the online course “Growing in Cultural Competence” to help deaconesses and home missioners become more antiracist and interculturally competent.

“The Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner is committed to being antiracist, anti-biased and inclusive, and we know that this is a process that must be invested in.  Intercultural competence training is only the first step,” said Megan Hale, executive for candidacy for the United Methodist Women Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner. “The work of intercultural competence is a journey that never ends. It takes work, vulnerability, open-mindedness, awareness and intentionality. Our hope is that the training and opportunities for growth provided by the administrative office will educate, equip and empower deaconesses and home missioners in every aspect of our lives and ministries.” 

Lay servant ministry

Deaconesses and home missioners are laypeople called to a lifetime relationship with The United Methodist Church in vocations of love, justice and service. A covenant community and order of the church, deaconesses and home missioners are approved through a discernment and education process established by United Methodist Women and consecrated and commissioned by a United Methodist bishop, appointed within their United Methodist annual conference.

Deaconesses and home missioners commit their lives to alleviating suffering, eradicating causes of injustice and all that robs life of dignity and worth, facilitating the development of full human potential, and sharing in building global community through the church universal.

They can’t accomplish these commitments without intercultural competency.

Learn more about the order of deaconess and home missioner at

The process of intercultural competence

The goals of the course were to understand and define culture; understand bias and how to minimize the harmful aspects of unconscious bias, learn the stages of intercultural development and tasks for growth, and learn about the variety of opportunities to develop intercultural competence.

Divided into the four parts, participants heard from Robinson along with Greater Northwest Area Director of Innovation for an Inclusive Church Kristina Gonzalez, Alabama-West Florida Conference Director of Leadership Strategies Deaconess Celeste Eubanks, and Diversity Professional and Law Professor Danne Johnson. The asynchronous course was available for deaconesses and home missioners to take as they were able.

“Though many might say we are living in unprecedented times, the reality is: we are not,” said Deaconess Sophia Agtarap about the need for the training. “Racial tension, police brutality, xenophobia, homophobia, inequitable access to basic needs and health care are not new. What we are experiencing, however, is an uncovering—an awakening to the present realities that many have experienced for generations.”

The coronavirus pandemic unavoidably revealed the concurrent and ongoing pandemic of white supremacy and the deadly consequences of systemic racism. Engaged in cutting-edge ministries, deaconesses and home missioners work with people of various life experiences, ethnicities, citizenship, races, sexual orientations, abilities and socioeconomic status. Intercultural competency is one of the most important skills for ministry in today’s world, Robinson explained in the training. No one can ever arrive at a full understanding of the variety of cultures in the world, but those in ministry can learn how to learn aboutdifferent cultures.   

Culture, the course taught, is the customs, practices, ways of living and worldview of a particular social group involving behaviors, values, symbols and languages. Christianity is its own culture and within it includes multiple cultures. Cultural standards are taught and learned.

Robinson offered Jesus as a model for how to live in the world. Jesus, a Jew who didn’t call people to be Jewish or live by the laws of Judaism, “had certain cultural understandings, certain cultural behaviors, values, etc., and yet we know from the Gospels that he frequently challenged those kind of cultural norms and standards,” she said. “Anytime a culture was seen by Jesus as excluding people he opposed it. He invited people in. He didn’t let those cultural differences be barriers.

“My culture is one way of living before God,” she continued, “and maybe other ways are acceptable in the sight of God.”

A deeper understanding of cultures other than our own helps us understand how others deal with conflict and express anger, grief, joy, gratitude and respect. Intercultural competence is a lifetime process that involves humility and a willingness to build and cross bridges.

Recognizing bias and valuing difference

The second and third parts of the training focus on recognizing bias and learning to value both sameness and difference in others.

Johnson explained that bias is something every person holds and is not by definition negative.

 “Bias is just a tendency to favor one thing over another thing, and all of us have biases. It’s a tendency to preference one idea, a group of people, or an individual over others,” she said. “Bias alone does not have to carry with it a negative meaning.”

Bias, can, however, lead us to make wrong decisions and discriminate. It can appear as stereotypes against people based on a group to which they belong or physical characteristic they hold. Learning the biases we hold—conscious or unconscious—is important step toward recognizing the ways we discriminate individually and collectively. Bias is a barrier to effective ministry. The training offers Harvard’s Implicit Association Test as one way to discover the biases we hold as well as Jennifer Eberhardt’s book Biased.

Another barrier we face as Christians in ministry is a tendency to overvalue sameness in a way that minimizes differences.

“When we rest in what we have in common culturally, we miss the differences that make a difference,” said Gonzalez. “Like how we communicate, or how we solve problems, or how we engage conflict—all of which are culturally learned behaviors.”

Minimization, she said, happens in phrases such as “we’re all human beings,” “we love everyone the same,” “I don’t see color” and “can’t we all just get along?”   

Robinson called on those in ministry to recognize that the church is filled diversity not only in race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation but also socioeconomic status and ability.

“All of these things matter quite a bit, and God has created this vast and beautiful diversity, and so it’s very important that we begin to think not in terms of everyone being the same but asking about the different ways we live in, engage and encounter God’s world,” she said.

Antiracism and intercultural competence

To live into the beloved community, it’s not enough to be “not racist”; we must be antiracist. In a society that elevates white culture above all others, and in a U.S. denomination that is disproportionately white, learning our racial biases and working to dismantle white supremacy is an integral part of intercultural competency and living out our faith.

“Anti-racism is naming and working to dismantle white supremacy and systemic and institutional racial discrimination and bias and building systems of equity, justice, reconciliation with and reparations for people of color affected by institutional racism,” said Deaconess Garlinda Burton, interim general secretary for the General Commission on Religion and Race and training participant. “Intercultural competency requires not only cultural humility, awareness of one’s biases and openness to new cultures, it is also imperative that one learn and address the real impact inequities and even death-dealing destruction that racism brings.”

United Methodist Women brought the Charter for Racial Justice to The United Methodist Church. It opened homes for immigrants, fought against lynching, created multilingual resources, commissioned advertisements against hate speech and defied The Methodist Church’s segregated Central Jurisdiction and rules against interracial gatherings. Members marched for civil rights and hired the first Black deputy general secretary in the church. The organization speaks out today against extrajudicial killings of people of color, includes antiracism in leadership training, supports regional missionaries and takes action to reduce carbon emissions and end the school-to-prison pipeline.

But the work for racial justice is not a checklist. And United Methodist Women is committed to ongoing work for racial justice.

 “As Christians, the work of antiracism is holy work, it should be a component of our spiritual formation and an expression of our discipleship,” Burton said. “If we are only concerned with learning about other races and cultures and not with our lack of competence, which has fed generations of supremacist violence and destruction, then our work is only half done.”

Continuing the journey

Growing in intercultural competence is an intentional and continuous process. The fourth and final segment of the training offered ways to continue growing and suggested intercultural competence as important for all people in ministry.

“The intercultural competency training offered by the Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner is essential for someone like me, an immigrant from the Tagalog region of Southeast Asian Island known by its colonial name, the Philippines,” said Home Missioner Jonah Ballesteros. “Even though I am a Tagalog/Kapampangan, a person of color, it does not make me culturally competent. Colonial history, economics, gender and culture have complex intersections with racism. I am fortunate that I had the intercultural competency training because it reveals so much of my unconscious biases learned from the traumas of colonialism/imperialism and neocolonialism.”

Eubanks noted two common myths when it comes to intercultural competence: That life experience itself helps us become culturally competent and that traveling or living in another country automatically results in greater intercultural competence.

“Intercultural competence does not simply happen as a result of being in a different culture,” she said, and pointed to Mitchell Hammer’s definition of intercultural competence as a self-reflective, intentional process focused on understanding patterns of difference and commonality between yourself and other culture groups’ perceptions, values and practices.

Robinson, Gonzalez and Eubanks encouraged deaconesses and home missioners to participate in the Intercultural Development Inventory, an assessment for building intercultural competence within organizations. Per the IDI, Eubanks suggested the following ways to grow cultural awareness: training programs; workplace activities; theater, film and the arts; educational classes; personal interactions; keeping an intercultural journal; reading books; travel; site visits, like museums; and post-IDI coaching.

These steps should be taken within an individual intercultural development plan, Eubanks said. And she posed the following questions to help participants in their path to becoming more interculturally competent: What are you reading? Who are you learning from? What do you talk about? She also posed benchmarks of eating at a restaurant serving unfamiliar cuisine, visiting a museum, developing friendships with someone with major cultural differences and attend a worship service led by a different culture.

“I’m so excited about the ways that the deaconess and home missioner community is offering the IDI and is committing to this capacity-building for the community, which will then in turn serve the people with whom deaconesses and home missioners interact and the organizations and congregations of which they are a part,” said Agtarap. “Imagine the impact if all who were in ministry roles (which is all of us!) would move about the world with a growing understanding of cultural difference and commonality and how we move along the continuum from a monocultural mindset to an intercultural one.”

Tara Barnes is editor of response.

Posted or updated: 10/26/2020 12:00:00 AM

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