Evangelicals and the Phenomenon of Leadership in the former Soviet Union

Leadership theory and practice is essential to effective Christian mission, yet as a multi-faceted, culturally conditioned phenomenon, it is often underestimated and lacking in critical examination. Indeed, greater cultural understanding can be crucial for effective cross-cultural leadership, as secular theorists such as Geert Hofstede have shown.

However, research among Christian communities is often lacking. To help meet this need, Hodos Institute and the Graduate School of Leadership (GSL) at St. Petersburg Christian University carried out extensive research in 2015-16 among evangelical youth (ages 13-29) and youth leaders across 13 countries of Eurasia (former Soviet Union – FSU). The results of this study can be helpful for mission leaders and missionaries in the FSU, as well as in Eastern Europe.

In the first phase of the project, 245 interviews were conducted with youth leaders. Respondents represented 13 countries of Eurasia, including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and others. Following the interview phase, an online questionnaire was developed based upon the information collected in interviews. Nearly 2,500 evangelical believers from across the FSU completed the questionnaire, and in total, nearly 3,000 people contributed their thoughts through various means. In the final stage, around 150 youth participated in focus groups in Central Asia, and 30 experienced youth leaders participated in a consultation in St. Petersburg, all for the purpose of refining results and gaining further feedback. Material from this project and resulting practical recommendations for leadership formation among evangelicals in Eurasia is presented in detail in four books published in Russian. These books (see right) are also available in PDF format, and can be downloaded at http://www.hodosinstitute.com/publications.

What emerged from the research were the following primary observations:

1. Leadership is in the process of redefinition

When asked the open-ended question – What is leadership? – a majority of respondents answered beginning with: “It is a person whom others follow, or a person who influences others.” The emphasis on a single figure as leader was evident across the research sample, and overall there was a lack of attention to notions such as followership and collaborative leadership. Also notable was a strong emphasis on positional leadership, which leads younger believers to believe that they have no opportunity to exercise leadership without a position of authority.
Language also plays an important role in the redefining of leadership. Often indigenous terms have their own cultural baggage, and borrowing the English term can also be problematic. One youth leader from Kyrgyzstan commented that in the Kyrgyz language, there is no equivalent word to ‘leadership.’ In Russian, the English loan word has been widely adopted (liderstvo), but as in other Eurasian countries, the term often carries a pejorative meaning, conjuring thoughts of autocracy, pride and abuse of power. Some older church leaders reject the term ‘leader,’ saying that they need servants, not leaders.

2. Mentoring and leadership formation are needed and desired among young Christians throughout Eurasia

Most evangelical Christians in Eurasia acknowledge that mentoring is important, but they also note the deficit of established and wise mentoring practices in evangelical communities. Mentoring is often reduced to or substituted with “instruction,” often long lectures or sermons. The younger generation of evangelicals is looking for mentoring that is not reduced to prohibitions, restrictions or dictates from older leaders, but rather mentoring through good examples, relationships of trust, and teamwork. They want to see principles and values lived out in authentic relationships of collaboration.
Respondents also noted that young people are often seen as simply implementers. One youth leader in the study confessed, “We are not forming [young leaders], we use them…and this is a tragedy!” Young people shared that often they hear appeals to serve, minister, take responsibility, etc., yet often the necessary conditions are not in place for their participation.

3. The dramatic socio-political changes following the breakup of the Soviet Union have led to significant generational differences in regards to understandings of leadership

Among respondents the younger generation sees leadership more horizontally, while the older generation is still rooted in a vertical mindset. Paradoxically, however, while young people desire more teamwork and collaboration, they still want a visible, strong leader.
Misunderstanding between generations is also prevalent. For example, while the majority of older generation claimed that young people view leadership as popularity (charisma), less than 1% of younger respondents confirmed this stereotype.

4. Leadership and mission are often disassociated in both theory and practice

The majority of respondents indicated that good Christian leadership practice is needed both inside and outside the church, but they indicated that church-based leadership training is mostly concentrated upon ministry within the church. At the root of this issue is a truncated definition of mission. For example, while young people spend the majority of their time at studies or work, they most often demonstrate leadership only in the church context. Their work or study context is not seen as an arena for Christian leadership, other than simply for evangelism.
For the betterment of mission collaboration and partnership in Eurasia, it is important to note that leadership formation programs, particularly those funded by Western partners, often lack critical evaluation and analysis. Respondents reported that events and resources are funded without sufficient thought given to assessment of effectiveness or appropriateness.
We reiterate that cross-cultural understanding of the phenomenon of leadership is crucial in Christian mission, and further studies are needed, not only in Eurasia. Cultures are never static, and the need for learning is ongoing. As one mission leader has said, “Cross-cultural leadership is a school from which you never graduate.”1 We hope that the results of this study will provide missionaries and leaders with much-needed understanding of the Eurasian context. Moreover, we hope that it will stimulate further study and critical thinking among those involved in missions in Eurasia and Eastern Europe.

Alexei Belov, Jon Coody and Alexander Negrov

For more information on the Hodos Institute, visit http://www.hodosinstitute.com or email anegrov@hodosinstitute.com
1. Joshua Bogunjoko, as quoted by James E. Plueddemann in Leading Across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 31.
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