How God Helped Me to Shut Up, Listen, and Learn

I was escorted into Pastor Elijah’s office. There he stood on the other side of the door. He threw his hands out with the wingspan of an NBA player.

As his arms spread, his jacket opened wide and revealed a red t-shirt imprinted with the words “Budapest Hungary.” His big smile just sucked me in. Kathy and I were happy to see him. His body language said the same.

He said, “You are most welcome.”

His Smiles Leaves

As I entered the office, I said, “Hello, Pastor Budapest!” I saw his smile leave and his countenance drop.

I said to myself, “Uh-oh.”

He shut the door behind us and asked us to be seated. He pulled up a chair from his conference table and was now facing both of us. His face was three feet from mine.

He said, “You said that same thing to me at the airport. There I was surrounded by over 20 people, and we were there to welcome you and Kathy to Uganda. I was wearing this same shirt that night, and your first comment to me was not hello but, ‘You are wearing your shirt from Budapest.’ Now you jokingly call me Pastor Budapest in front of all my people.”

If this was the warm-up, I was certain I wasn’t liking where this was going.

Raising his hand high over his head and then dropping it to the floor, he said, “When you say that, it takes me from here to here in their eyes. It minimizes my authority and status. This is not what we do in my country.”

Now I’m Feeling Awful

I didn’t mean to insult him. Now I know I insulted him as soon as I got off the plane and now in his office seven days later. Both times in front of a crowd of his people.

I said, “I didn’t know I did all that when I made the statement publicly. I’m sorry.”

He was just getting warmed up. I was responsible for a list of cultural faux pas, and today was the day to hear about them. I wasn’t sure how long he would continue, but continue he did. His critique ranged from how I ought to better relate with Ugandans to expressions I used in my public speaking.

He took a breath and said, “In your networking for impact presentation, you mentioned our success in establishing the non-profit Hands of Love USA. You said it was so successful that within a few short years a large amount of money was raised every year.”

“Yes. That’s what I said.”

I Created a Security Issue

“In Uganda, we do not talk about money in specific numbers. It creates insecurity. Uganda is a poor nation. Most people you were speaking to were poor. When you said we receive lots of money from the USA, they think all that money is sitting in my office.”

He went on, “The conference is over now so there are only a few security guards with guns. At the peak of the conference, we were paying over a hundred security guards with guns to maintain safety and keep peace among the thousands of delegates. These men are temporary workers for us.

“We don’t know them. They are paid very little to protect us. When they hear lots of money, they may tell someone they know about this. Then that person will use his gun to try to find all the money they think is in my office. This is the insecurity you created.

“Of all the attendees, there were probably one hundred who understood how that money is used. They know it is received monthly and distributed monthly for salaries and overhead in the ministry. The rest mistakenly think it is a pile of money sitting in my office.” He looked me right in the eye and asked, “You get that?”

I sat quietly. I knew he wasn’t finished.

Verbal Beating Continues

“While on stage, you were very complimentary to Pastor Richard who is the Residence Pastor of Kampala International Christian Center. But you did not mention the other lead pastors, and they felt left out and minimized.

“If you are going to compliment one pastor, you must compliment them all,” he said. Then he proceeded to give me the names of all the pastors.

I said, “I won’t remember all those names, so in the future, I will not name names but compliment them as a leadership group.”

As I was saying this, I was thinking, The reason I only spoke of Pastor Richard is that he was sitting right in the front row and we made eye contact. But I didn’t mention this to Pastor Elijah as it didn’t matter.

This conversation was taking place just before I was about to walk into a leadership workshop. Sixty of his most influential leaders were waiting for me not fifty yards away.

Take it! Listen! Learn!

I was being dressed down for my mistakes. And it went on for another ten minutes. I won’t go over all the other faux pas I made while in Uganda, but that was the day God told Pastor Elijah to let me have it!

As I sat there, I didn’t say a word. I was talking to myself. My ego was saying, I am doing all this work out of pure generosity, and you talk to me like this! but then I thought, You insulted these people and put them in danger. Just shut up, listen, and learn. There is no good way for him to correct you on these cultural screw-ups.

As the verbal beating continued, I thought, I respect this man. He loves me and wants me to be a better communicator in Uganda and around the world. Just take it. Listen. Learn.

But this level of criticism started to get me down. I was thinking, How am I going to regain my self-esteem and confidence so I can be useful in this leadership workshop? I only have sixty seconds to recover.

I Cried Out to God

Even as Pastor Elijah was finishing up his observations and advice, I prayed, “Lord, I know this is a great, powerful, and prayerful man of God in front of me. You created this meeting, and you know I needed to hear what he is saying. Please let me take this feedback positively. Strike any evil thoughts from me. No self-justifying. No defensiveness. No arguing. Build up my spirit so when this ends, I will be ready to present your material to your people. Make me a positive and enthusiastic disciple of your Son, Jesus Christ.”

As I prayed, the ugliness of this dress-down retreated. When Pastor Elijah finished talking, there was a moment of silence. I said, “I am sorry I embarrassed you and put you at risk. That was not my intention, but now I understand. Thank you for telling me all of this. I am sorry. Forgive me.”

With that, we stood and joined hands. Pastor Elijah asked Kathy to lead us in prayer in preparation for the workshop. She prayed. He closed. We walked out of his office and into the church where sixty of his leaders gave us a standing ovation.

It was the best leadership workshop ever. God is good!

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5 thoughts on “How God Helped Me to Shut Up, Listen, and Learn

  1. I like your humility in sharing this and in receiving the rebuke. Cross cultural engagement is going to be difficult. The kind of mistakes you made are going to be inevitable.

    Rightsizing one’s ego is important in situations like this. At the same time, I want to ask pastor Elijah, “Did you expect your guest speaker to be culturally sensitive? If so, was that a realistic expectation? What responsibility did you bear in preparing him to succeed in your country?”

    If he felt diminished, it seems like he took the opportunity to re-establish his authority at your expense. If he is that interested in not diminishing others, it seems as though his actions are perhaps hypocritical.

    Contrast that with Jesus in Luke 7:39. He gets permission before delivering the rebuke. He packages it in a story. He asks a question. And he concludes by affirming the person.

    You gave us a good lesson in how to receive a rebuke. Jesus gives us an example of how to deliver one.

    • My friend and advisor Seth, thank you. Once again, your advise is Biblically centered and balanced. As you rightly saw in the article, I sat there quietly and learned from the Pastor. But with all your international experience, you have advice to make him even more effective in working with folks from the USA. To be fair, I have been giving him advise on how best to communicate in the USA. There are clearly cross-cultural differences which must be navigated. Jesus gives us the best example which you plucked from the Word of God. I love it!

  2. Thank goodness for your humility and sincerity in being a Godly person. In a previous post you asked for suggestions for what to say to this group. I wrote and explained that you are irrelevant to them. You are so far culturally from these people as to be irrelevant. You do need to ask the questions to have them communicating with one another – not with you. I learned this in the masters program from Fuller Theological Seminary.

    • Thanks for the feedback…again. I hear what you are saying. When dealing with the large audience of 8k+ I tried to get them talking with each other and hope I accomplished it. The smaller leadership workshop worked well because Pastor Elijah jumped in and helped in this area. Thanks for the suggestion. Really helped!

  3. I respect this man. He loves me and wants me to be a better communicator in Uganda and around the world. Just take it. Listen. Learn.

    Not necessarily the Uganda part, but I have had to have this internal conversation with myself many times. Usually after the conversation (sometimes days after). It’s always good to have people in our lives that challenge us. That aren’t afraid of making us angry. Because we know the love and trust will bring us back to that point. We might not agree with 100% of what is said in those moments, but if we step back, listen, and learn, 80% of it is probably true and we are better for listening to it.

    This was a great write-up.