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  • Writer's pictureRandy Nabors



BY Randy Nabors

I have a friendly name.  Actually it’s my middle name, which I prefer, and I think it sounds friendly because it ends with a “y.”  My friends call me Randy. I know of a famous evangelist who asked everyone to call him “Billy.”  I have heard of a Prime Minister of England who asked people to call him “Tony.”  This essay about cultural intelligence begins with a discussion about my name because “friendly” names can sometimes send a wrong or confusing signal to people, especially if one is seen as a person in authority and deserving of respect.

Professor David Livermore wrote a book called, “Customs of the World; Using Cultural Intelligence to Adapt, Wherever You Are.”  One of the chapters has to do with, “Authority-Low versus High Power Distance.

Professor Livermore teaches that some cultures see authority figures as distant, worthy of being shown respect in how they are addressed. These are High Power Distance cultures.  Folks in these cultures are uncomfortable with showing too much familiarity with authority figures such as professors, doctors, clergy, etc.  They may always and only use terms of formal address when greeting authority figures.  They wouldn’t dream of calling them by their first name.  They might stand up when such a person enters a room, they might defer to them in any kind of public environment, or in conversation.

Low Power Distance individuals are much more comfortable with engaging authority figures almost as a peer, as a friend, to even call them by their first name. To them this does not necessarily equate to not having respect, at least in their feelings about the authority figure.  The authority figure in such a culture might understand this behavior and not feel offended by this sense of familiarity, as long as the familiarity doesn’t descend into some kind of obvious disrespect, although signs of disrespect can be culturally and generationally relative.


As a pastor of a cross-cultural church in a multi-ethnic environment I have seen how this contrast and clash of cultures takes place, especially in the way white Americans and black Americans relate to their pastor.  In my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), we have experienced a growing wave of multi-ethnic churches.   A church with a mixed population experiences differing cultural expectations.  One of the things Dr. Livermore points out is that leaders with strong Cultural Intelligence can help these organizations thrive.  Leaders without cultural intelligence can cause needless confusion, offense, and disruption.  One can be a strong leader and be fairly clueless culturally.

I am prone to be, as a typical white American, a low power distance kind of guy.  This sometimes caused authority figures that taught me or led me to gnash their teeth at my impertinence.  I am sure they were displeased at my audacity (even as a very young and ignorant student) to offer opinions as equal to theirs in a classroom or in a discussion.  The U.S. Army taught me to temper some of my impulsiveness in putting myself forward.  I was literally taught to “know my place.”  I had to learn to restrain myself when I achieved authority status.  As a Colonel I couldn’t just “hang out” in the company of enlisted people without making some of them feel very nervous.


As I pastored black people and white people I began to realize that various individuals and families would treat me differently.  Some families allowed their children to call me “Randy.”   Usually this was only done by white families, but not all.  When they asked what I preferred to be called I said, “You can call me Pastor Randy.”  Black families very much wanted to call me “Pastor,” or even “Reverend,” and were quick to rebuke their own children who didn’t show me respect.  If I said “hi” to their kids then their parents would insist that their children not run off but answer me with a greeting.  One black family even had a small ritual with me after every service, every one of their children has to come and give me a hug.  It is hard today not to immediately hug each of those grown children when I see them.

When our church was in pastoral transition we called an African American to be our new Senior Pastor.  I took pains to try and teach our white members not to make the mistake of quick familiarity, especially not in the presence of other black people.  For a white person to walk up to the front of the church after a service, (though attempting to be friendly and thank the new black pastor for the sermon), and then to call him by his first name could come across as insulting and disrespectful to our African American members.  They were thrilled to have a black pastor, and anxious for the white members to give him proper respect.

In mixed environments black people have been very conscious that the public black person (speaker, singer, actor, teacher, pastor, doctor, etc.) prove that if they are not the equal of any white person, they are even better at what they do. They are sensitive and careful that this public effort of a black person not bring discredit in a mixed environment.  If they have earned the position by performance or education, they expect respect.

White Americans have this tendency to be self-effacing, to not “take on airs.”  It is a frequent American ritual to tell someone, “don’t call me “Sir” of don’t call me “Mr. That’s my father’s name, “etc. We think it is culturally acceptable to be on a first name basis even with people who are our elders.  We sometimes confuse worth with respect, as if in showing too much respect we are saying they are more worthy than we are.  By contrast we go way over the top in worshipping celebrities, rushing to approach them and yell their name, begging for autographs or photos, when in fact that person could be living an immoral public life worthy of no one’s respect.

It was part of the old Jim Crow tradition that young white people were allowed to call an older, even elderly, black person by their first name, while insisting that a black person call them, even if younger, “Sir” and Ma’am.”  Those days are over, and should be, especially in multi-ethnic congregations.

Some of my white members would never show me deference.  They were ready to argue with me at a moment’s notice, especially over any decision that might cause them inconvenience.  Having sat under my preaching for years they could still feel cause to leave our church if I wanted to change the parking area, the worship service times, the order of service, the kind of music, children’s care or church, whatever.  These decisions could come about suddenly and then they were gone.  I doubt any of them thought that their actions of disloyalty should be taken that way or were seen as disrespect.


Solidarity and loyalty are huge cultural values for African Americans, and they would tend to support me strongly and consistently. Some white members were offended that there was a parking space reserved for the pastor (left over from previous owners of the building).  One of two individuals would park in that space on Sunday mornings without thinking or caring that it might offend me or cause me difficulty in getting to the pulpit on time.  I didn’t see the parking space as an elevation of myself above other people, but some white members did. Black folks had no problem with me having a parking space, and some black churches have one for the First Lady as well.  I finally got rid of the designated space to avoid the temptation of resentment. Some black folks wondered why I wasn’t paid more, and were ready to vote “yes” for any motion to give me more or elevate me in some way, and were offended when a white person would question the amount of my salary in a church business meeting.

Black folk coming into our congregation were often confused as to how I was treated at church suppers.  Why wasn’t I, along with the first lady, seated at our own table and served first?  Why was I instead in the serving crew, or putting up chairs or tables?  For some of them this was embarrassing and was seen as a failure in our white members for not knowing how to respect their pastor.  Quite often a black woman would fix me a plate no matter what I tried to do.


Biblical values of serving rather than leading come into play right in the midst of these other cultural values.  Jesus said, “I am among you as one who serves…”  This was my goal, and I wanted all of my people to see that and to follow my example.   The Bible also calls on all of us to, “give honor to whom honor is due.”  I certainly needed to learn how to show respect to black people in our church experience. White pastors in my denomination seldom show respect to a visiting pastor who is not scheduled to preach.  Black churches will call on a visiting pastor to come sit on the platform, and will at least acknowledge another pastor’s presence, often asking them to, “say a word!”  I have been treated with enormous respect in black churches.

Cultural intelligence means you begin to notice these things, and you make some effort to adapt.  Cultural intelligence also helps you as a leader to try to explain these things across cultural lines.  Thinks like explaining to a young white college student that for him to wear shorts, flip flops, and his white undershirt to church while sitting next to a black woman decked out in her finest and wearing a big hat reveals a bit of cultural insensitivity and ignorance. He might be judging her, she might be judging him, but sometime soon they are going to have to love, care for, and be patient with each other even as it takes them time to understand each other.

Lord help us all!


#pastors #crosscultural #multiethnic #respect #CulturalIntelligence #andchurches

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