Overcoming divisions, one mile at a time
I recently met with two pastors – a black man who pastored a predominantly black urban church and a white man who pastored a predominantly white suburban church – who had recently failed at their attempt to lead their churches in working together on a project at the black urban church. The joint venture began well but soon ended quite poorly, leaving behind a trail of distrust, negative emotions and bruised egos. After hearing each pastor’s perspective on the situation, it became clear to me that both pastors were guilty of engaging in perspective divergence, particularly when it came to leadership ideals. Each pastor possessed very different ideals about what a leader does and does not do and each pastor projected his ideals onto the other pastor and negatively evaluated him based on criteria that pertained to those ideals. Essentially, each pastor gave the other a failing grade on leadership because they had very different criteria for evaluating leadership. Neither pastor was aware of this perspective divergence and consequently, neither had thought to address this difference in leadership ideals. Once we were able to uncover the perspective divergence and its devastating contribution to intergroup misunderstanding, the pastors began to understand each others’ perspectives and work towards healing. Perspective divergence occurs when we stick to our homogenous group and essentially create our own alternate universe in which the standards, experiences, ideals, and goals of our group become the new “normal” – not only for our specific cultural group but for the entire body of Christ. As such, we interact with others thinking that our alternate universe’s laws, experiences and way of life are the gold standard for everyone and that other cultural groups should see and experience the world exactly like we do. This particular attitude serves to widen the divide between groups in the body of Christ because each group believes that it’s the model group in the body of Christ. However, our inevitable cross-cultural interactions are often doomed from the start because we are operating under the laws of our alternate universe and the other group members are operating under the laws of their own alternate universe. We can’t understand why the other group’s language, opinions, actions, and characteristics are so different from ours. We also can’t understand why they think that they know what is best for the body of Christ, when clearly the opposite is true. We each have our own perspective on the situation and our perspectives are very different.
Church groups that wish to achieve cross-cultural unity must overcome perspective divergence. And thankfully, the solution to the problem is relatively simple. Last week, I spoke to a group of predominantly white pastors from a predominantly white denomination and during the Q&A, one of the audience members asked me what he could do to better understand some of the challenges that the small number of people of color in the denomination might experience. My answer was simple: in addition to simply asking people of color to share their personal experiences, majority group members should make a habit of going out of their way to “walk a mile” in people of color’s shoes. Specifically, I encouraged the white men in the room to begin by attending a large predominantly African-American pastors’ conference in order to experience what it’s like to be one of the few “others” for whom the conference was clearly not designed. By doing this, in one small way, they can begin to understand what it’s like to be the “other” who is marginalized and whose perspective is overlooked and devalued. In other words, they can begin to understand what it’s like to be a person of color in their mostly-white denomination.
Several research studies show that the simple exercise of taking the perspective of a different "other" can powerfully break down the divisions erected by perspective divergence. According to prejudice researcher James Weyant[i] , perspective taking involves attempting to imagine oneself in another person’s shoes, thinking from the other person’s point of view, envisioning oneself in the other person’s circumstances, and feeling what the other person is feeling. One study[ii] asked white students who listen to a black student describe how he, as a black man, experienced problems adjusting to college life. The students who were asked to take the black student’s perspective by “looking at the world through his eyes and walking through the world in his shoes”[iii] expressed more empathy for the specific student in the story and more positive attitudes towards black students in general compared to students who were not asked to take the perspective of the black student. Other studies have shown that perspective taking increases empathy for and positive attitudes toward a wide variety of groups including elderly people, individuals who are HIV positive and individuals who speak English as a second language.[iv]
If we never leave our homogenous church groups, we will continue to be terrorized by perspective divergence. But if we take the time to listen to each other’s stories, attempt to take each other’s perspective by “looking at the world through his/her eyes and walking through the world in his/her shoes,” and travel beyond the boundaries of our culturally-homogenous worlds, perspective divergence will cease.