Becoming a Culturally Competent Leader through Empathy, Curiosity, and Self-Awareness


Written by Rev. Steve Y. Kim, The United Methodist Church of Huntington-Cold Spring Harbor NY Conference

Cross-racial and cross-cultural (CR/CC) ministry is a gift from God. It is a gift in the sense that God opens up an opportunity for a pastor and a parish to embody the diversity within the body of Christ. However, embracing differences are challenging at times and even costly if the CR/CC ministry fails to celebrate and welcome diversity. As a servant-leader in CR/CC ministry, there are a few things that might be worthwhile to consider.

At the start of CR/CC ministry, visible and invisible challenges arise due to crossing the existing racial and cultural boundaries. Understanding and navigating these boundaries by acquiring cultural knowledge does not equal cultural competence; a person can be an expert on a particular aspect of a culture, and yet be unable to negotiate well with one’s counterparts. Such a gap between knowledge and competence may be due in part to being unaware of one’s own culture. Here, self-awareness and self-reflection are vital components, which will guide us to advance as a culturally competent leader. Keeping a “cultural diversity” journal can be a great help and a resource in preserving a record of incidents and breakthroughs within CR/CC ministry.

Cultural competence weighs more on how to manage distress and anxiety caused by crossing racial and
cultural boundaries than what to study for and research about racial and cultural diversity. In other words,
dealing with stress and tension resulting from racial and cultural differences have a more significant and long-lasting impact on the servant-leaders than acquiring specific cultural knowledge and tradition. Here, self-care is critical since knowing and understanding one’s limitations, and weaknesses bring us back to an easy yoke and light burden Jesus assured in Matthew 11:30.

It still takes time and energy for a competent leader to embody and embrace cultural diversity. Since what we often see is just a tip of an iceberg of more significant, elaborate cultural differences, and spirituality of the people we serve. Here, compassion is a must. Empathy will make a pathway to building trust for the people in our care. To care for them is to know and serve them. Take every opportunity to listen to their stories and experiences to connect with them on a personal level. Relationship and trust building happen with this type of sharing.

Then, we can take the next step to embody cultural humility. According to Hook and others, cultural humility is an “ability to maintain an interpersonal stance that is other-oriented (or open to the other) in relation to aspects of cultural identity that are most important to the [person]” (Hook et al., 2013). A combination of empathy and cultural humility with a healthy boundary can create a judgment-free zone in which trusting and harmonious relationships flourish. Sustaining this kind of connection depends on the inquisitiveness of the culturally competent leaders who stay curious and suspend judgments when exploring differences.

At times, the gift is difficult to be received and even embraced when people are filled with other offerings,
which, unfortunately, people take one gift for granted. Pray that the people of God and the servant-leaders
embrace and utilize all talents and blessings God has given us to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the
transformation of the world.

Questions to ponder:

  1. What inspires us to want to learn about others? Their cultures?
  2. What are some visible and invisible challenges arise when crossing the existing racial and cultural boundaries?
  3. How do we envision celebrating and welcoming diversity utilizing self-awareness, empathy, cultural humility, and curiosity?
GCORR is building the capacity of The United Methodist Church to be contextually relevant and to reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people as we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.