Joel Comiskey's Ph.D. Dissertation

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Chapter 5: Issues of Leadership and Cell-based Ministry

One of the key factors behind successful cell-based ministry is the issue of leadership. In this chapter I will limit myself to those issues that distinguish leadership in the Latin American context. Again, this study will seek to understand Latin American leadership as compared to other cultural styles of leadership, mainly North American.

Distinctiveness of Latin American Leadership

Robert T. Moran and Philip R. Harris have concluded that, “Leadership is learned and is based on assumptions about one’s place in the world” (1982:62). Although by no means exhaustive, the following topics portray various distinguishing characteristics of Latin American leadership.


Authoritarian leadership among Latins is quite common. Usually, there is a clear distinction between leader and follower. In fact, this characteristic has been passed down from the days of the Spanish conquistadors.

Emphasis on Control and Power

There seems to be built into the Spanish psyche a desire to control, to be in charge. Dealy feels that it is this goal that drives the Latin American (1992:62). Dealy says, “Only a vigorous public power stance fully satiates the Latin’s desire for acclaim, just as the economic category ‘millionaire’ uniquely approaches gratification of the capitalist’s sense of total success” (1992:62-63). He goes on to say, “In North American eyes good government would make the Post Office turn a profit; in Latin American eyes a good firm would, like a strong political movement, establish a monopoly of power over every competitor” (1992:107). Geyer confirms this,

In Latin American politics, it has been not the man who seeks to unite and to compromise and to heal wounds who was admired but rather the man who wielded total power--that classic Spanish type, the caudillo or strongman. Power could not be shared . . . (1970:96).
Caudillo Style Leadership

The caudillo in Latin America’s history refers to the self-proclaimed military officer who was supported by a nonprofessional army (Silvert 1977:25). However, in a general sense, caudillismo has popularly come to refer to any highly personalistic regime which is under the control of a charismatic leader (Silvert 1977:25). Geraets describes this term with the words, “daring,” “aggressive,” and “strong” (1970:47).

The spirit of the conquistador is seen in the Latin American caudillo. It is this spirit that guides much of the leadership in Latin America. There is a tendency to exercise control and domination instead of leading by example and servanthood. Geraets says, “Most Latin American leaders, whether in the political sphere or in ordinary life, give the appearance of being strong men” (1970:48) (note 1).

For the most part, Christian leadership follows the same pattern of authoritarianism in Latin America. It is not uncommon to find strong, caudillo type leaders in pastoral positions. C. Peter Wagner says, “Speaking of Latin America, a culturally-relevant leadership pattern which has evolved there is that of the caudillo . . . in a Christian way, their leadership system follows the pattern of the secular caudillo” (1984:90-91). Mike Berg and Paul Pretiz have observed the same phenomena in the grass roots churches that they have analyzed throughout Latin America. They conclude, “. . . the authoritarianism of the GR [grass roots] pastor is comfortable for people accustomed to their country’s power-wielding President, or even perhaps dictatorships” (1996:144).

However, the rigid, controlling, and negative element of the secular caudillo pattern has been largely transformed by Christian virtues. Wagner calls it a transformed “servant” pattern (1984:91) and others call it “charismatic caudillismo” (Deiros quoted in Berg and Pretiz 1996:215).

Another way of describing the pastoral role in Latin America is that of the “godfather” or the benevolent patron (Berg and Pretiz 1996:215). In the days when haciendas were much more common, the owner-boss was the ultimate authority. At the same time, he protected his workers, defended them in legal problems, and stood as their “godfather” at family occasions. For the most part, Latin American pastors are looked up to, respected, and obeyed. Berg and Pretiz write, “In the lower-socio-economic levels, people trust the pastor who may even hold all church properties in his name. They are ‘used to authority,’ said a Peruvian pastor” (1996:215). Like almost everything, there is a negative side to an absolutist, controlling pastoral image and caution is needed on the side of both laity and clergy.

Gap between Leader and Follower

In 1980 Geert Hofstede completed a significant study on cross-cultural leadership patterns. One of the research issues was to discern distance levels between leaders and followers-which he calls power distance (Table 4). High power distance refers to a large gap between the leader and follower (generally true in Latin America); whereas low power distance suggests close relationship (nearness) between leader and follower (generally true of the United States). The research done by Hofstede in this area suggests that the level of power distance is more culturally determined than anything else. Different societies place different values on such areas as prestige, wealth, and power (1980:92).

(Adapted from Hofstede 1980:119)
Countries with High Power Distance
(e.g., Mexico, Perú, Venezuela, Colombia)
Countries With Low Power Distance
(e.g., U.S., Netherlands, Sweden)
Managers show less consideration Managers show more consideration
Employees fear to disagree with their boss Employees less afraid of disagreeing with their boss
Managers see themselves as benevolent decision-makers Managers see themselves as practical and systematic; they admit a need for support
Subordinates favor a manager’s decision-making style to be more autocratic- paternalistic Subordinates favor a manager’s decision making style to be more consultative, democratic, and give and take
Close supervision positively evaluated by subordinates Close supervision negatively evaluated by subordinates
Higher and lower educated employees show similar values about authority Higher educated employees hold much less authoritarian values than lower-educated ones
Students place high value on conformity Students place high value on independence

Hofstede discovered that places like Mexico and Venezuela have double the power distance than places like the U.S. or most European countries (1980:104) (note 2). Table 4 shows some of the authoritarian--democratic values between countries with a high power distance level versus those with a lower level (note 3).

Assigned Status

Latins respond to leadership in a much different way than North Americans do. In Latin America, there is greater respect for position and status than competency.

The Latins propensity toward assigned status can be seen in at least four ways: first, personal identity is determined by formal credentials of birth and rank; second, the amount of respect one receives is permanently fixed; attention focuses on those with high social status in spite of any personal failings they have; third, the individual is expected to play his or her role and to sacrifice to attain higher rank; and fourth, people associate only with their social equals (Lingenfelter and Mayers 1986).

Climbing the Ladder

Perhaps the ladder concept can shed light on the Latin American’s concept of social status. In North America, people aspire to climb the ladder of success. Employees are encouraged to dream and rise rapidly in the company. North Americans often say that if anyone, regardless of race or social status, will simply be dedicated and hard working, there are unlimited possibilities. The upward ladder is there for any worker to become the president of the company, or even president of the United States. However, in Latin America, one’s assigned status often prevents such upward mobility from occurring.

The concept of social status in Latin American means that each person is placed on a particular rung of the ladder in relationship to everyone else (Mayers 1976:23). There is no “climbing the ladder” because each person receives an assigned social status at birth. Geyer states, perhaps judgmentally, “. . . Latin America has far fewer racial attitudes; but it does suffer from a closed and inviolate class system” (1970:7).

Spanish Supremacy

In most Latin American countries, there is a tiny minority of pure Spanish descent who are often referred to as the “white” race. These “whites” wield tremendous leadership power in Latin American countries. They are the ones who steer the major centers of power in Latin America, politically, economically, and socially ( Ecuador in Pictures 1987:38).

This disparity did not develop overnight. The process began years ago when the Spanish conquered the Indian population. For almost four hundred years the strong, soldierly Spaniards lived alongside their conquered Indian slaves. An inevitable attitude of superiority began to develop (Weil 1973:101-102). D. Schodt writes, “The grafting of Spanish rule onto the conquered Inca society established a colonial system with a large Indian underclass and a small Hispanic elite . . .” (1987: 17). The idea that a person’s “pure white” blood line positions him or her for power is still widespread throughout Latin America. Many of these creoles or pure-bloods are vocal about their pure blood and resulting privileged status (Urbanski 1978:170). Even though binding ties have been severed with Spain, the spirit of elitism still remains strong through the descendants.

Conversely, though the Indians were not exterminated, they were clearly given their assigned role in society. Dealy states,

. . . while our forefathers [North Americans] alternately ignored the Indian, stole his land, or drove him out, Spanish settlers inducted them into a social hierarchy: They became a personal work force to till the soil and were brought into homes as mistresses and table servants (1992:62).

Because the Indian population became the workforce for the Spaniards, they were indispensable to the functioning of the society. This social hierarchy remains very important in Latin America today. Rangal calls this social structuring the cancer of Latin American society today (1987:16).

The Underclass

I use this terminology simply to describe those under the ruling white class. Although these could be divided into middle and lower classes, those distinctions do not always hold true in Latin America.

Underneath the umbrella of this small elite upper class is a large underclass consisting of Mestizos, pure Indians, and Negroes. Mestizo status falls somewhere between the White/Spanish higher class and the Indian lower class. Although they are below the white race, they are mixing with it (Weil 1973:66). The Mestizo race emerged as more and more children were born to the Indian woman and the Spanish conquistador. It is probably more accurate to say that most of the offspring were less the result of formal marriage as the result of rape and concubinage (Elliott 1984:201).

The pure Indians are at the bottom of the rung when it comes to authority and power. Governments have tended to disregard their distinct differences and customs and lump them together as a “depressed group” (Weil 1973:67). This attitude of powerlessness can clearly be seen in their behavior towards whites. Indians, while talking with whites remove their hats, lower their heads and speak in soft tones. They assume a passive, submissive role which has been instilled in them from childhood. However, in their own communities, the whites and Mestizos are the butt of their jokes (Weil 1973:67).

Group Orientation

In Latin America there is a definite “we” consciousness. Group consensus is favored over a more individualistic style of decision-making. It is not surprising that when Hofstede researched this particular trait, he found that the Latin American countries were among the least individualistic while the United States rated the highest on individualism (note 5). Table 5 clarify these distinctions.

(Adapted from Hofstede 1980:230-231)
(e.g., US, Great Britain, Canada, Australia)
(e.g., Venezuela, Perú, Colombia, Mexico)
Need to make specific friendships Social relationships predetermined in terms of “in groups”
Individual initiative is socially encouraged Individual initiative is socially frowned upon; fatalism
Managers endorse “modern” points of view on stimulating employee initiative and group activity Managers endorse “traditional” points of view, not supporting employee initiative and group activity
Emotional independence from company Emotional dependence from company
Managers aspire to leadership and variety Managers aspire to conformity and orderliness
Students consider it socially acceptable to claim pursuing their own ends without minding others Students consider it less socially acceptable to claim pursuing their own ends without minding others

Resistance to Change

Those in the United States have learned to live with change while in Latin America there is the tendency to avoid it. Hofstede investigated how cultures react to change from a leadership perspective. He has labeled this dynamic “uncertainty-avoidance” (1980:164). Latin American countries scored very high in the uncertainty/avoidance continuum, while the industrialized nations scored very low (note 6). Table 6 gives a summary of the values in high uncertainty/avoidance countries versus the low ones:

(Adapted from Hofstede 1980:176-175)
(e.g., Perú, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela
(e.g., US, Sweden, Denmark, India)
Pessimism about people’s amount of initiative, ambition, and leadership skills Optimism about people’s amount of initiative, ambition, and leadership skills
Initiative of subordinates should be kept under control Delegation to subordinates can be complete
Competition between employees is emotionally disapproved of Competition between employees can be fair and right
Conflict in organization is undesirable Conflict in organization is natural
Preference for clear requirements and instructions Preference for broad guidelines
Less risk taking; fear of failure More risk taking; hope of success
Lower ambition for individual advancement Higher ambition for individual advancement
Managers should be selected on the basis of seniority Managers should not be selected on the basis of seniority
Loyalty to employer is seen as a virtue Loyalty to employer is not seen as a virtue
More emotional resistance to change Less emotional resistance to change
More worry about the future Less worry about the future
(Adapted from Moran and Harris 1982:299)
The individual can influence the future (where there is a will there is a way) Life follows a preordained course and human action is determined by the will of God Planning, scheduling
An individual should be realistic in his aspirations Ideals are to be pursued regardless of what is reasonable Goal setting
We must work hard to accomplish our objectives (Puritan ethic) Hard work is not the only prerequisite for success; wisdom, luck, and time are also required Motivation and bargaining
Commitments should be honored (people will do what they say they will do) A commitment may be superseded by a conflicting request, or an agreement may only signify intention, and have little or no relationship to the capacity of performance Negotiating and bargaining
One should effectively use his time (time is money which can be saved or wasted) Schedules are important but only in relation to other priorities [people and family are often the priorities] Long- and short-range planning
A primary obligation of an employee is to the organization The individual employee has a primary obligation to his family and friends Loyalty, commitment, and motivation
The employer or employee can terminate their relationship Employment is for a lifetime Motivation and commitment to the company
The best qualified persons should be given the position available Family considerations, friendship, and other considerations partially determine employment practices Employment promotions; recruiting; selection; reward
A person can be removed if he does not perform well The removal of a person from a position involves a great loss of prestige and may only rarely be done Promotion
All levels of management are open to qualified individuals (an office boy can rise to become company president) Education or family ties are the primary vehicles for mobility Employment practices and promotions
Competition stimulates high performance Competition leads to imbalances and to disharmony Promotion
Change is considered an improvement Tradition is revered and the power of the ruling group is founded on the continuation of a stable structure Planning
Persons and systems are to be evaluated Persons are evaluated but in such a way that individuals not highly evaluated will not be embarrassed or caused to “lose face” Rewards Promotion

Additional Latin Leadership Patterns

Robert T. Moran and Philip R. Harris, two experts in the field of international management, offer an excellent synthesis of the differences between North American business patterns versus Latin American business patterns (1982:298). Table 7 represents some of the cultural patterns presented in their analysis. These comparisons further add to and confirm what has been said thus far about Latin authority patterns, change dynamics, group consciousness, and the priority of people and family over work and prosperity.

Latin Leadership Factors that Affect Cell Ministry

There are various leadership patterns in Latin America that apply to cell ministry. A few of these major factors are listed below.


From my perspective, successful cell ministry takes place when all are allowed to express themselves freely, when the gifts of the Spirit are developed in each person, and when individual needs are met. The cell group itself is specifically designed to bring out total participation. We have noted that Latins tend to be authoritarian leaders. There is a clear distinction between leader and follower.

Because of this characteristic, there is a tendency among Latin cell leadership to exercise control over a small group gathering. Instead of stimulating others to talk and participate, the Latin cell leader often dominates the entire meeting. It is a very subtle cultural tendency that is not easily broken (note 7). It seems that the only way to effectively deal with this problem is constant teaching and modeling that stresses the importance of participation in the cell group.

The cell group is designed so that people can share what is really happening in their lives--good and bad. Yet, in order to move from sharing about more superficial, safer topics, it requires that the cell leader initiate and model a transparent openness about his own weaknesses and trials. Because of the deeply rooted “macho facade” inherent in Latin males, such vulnerability is not always easy. There is the tendency to want to be “in control.” In order to overcome such reticence, much teaching and modeling may be required in the Latin context.

Assigned Status

We have noted that in Latin America, a person’s ascribed status affects how he or she acts, thinks, and responds. When the status level is compatible, there is usually exuberant, expressive conversation and communication, but when it is not, the flow of group interaction is negatively affected. It is important that a cell leader or assistant be placed over a group that is basically made up of members from his or her social grouping.

These status considerations must also be taken into account in the birth of a new group. It would be a fatal mistake to force a group to give birth against natural cultural lines. Rather, the new cell groups should be formed according to natural group/class affinities. When determining which members will go with the new group and which ones will stay, it is important to discover the natural “clicks” within the group (e.g., status, friendship). Perhaps, the reflection of a district pastor in Cho’s church is helpful.

As much as possible, we divide groups based on natural networks. For example, if the assistant in that group brought two other cell members to the Lord, then that individual will split off with those members to start a new group (Hurtson 1994:93).

Bob Logan’s advice is very helpful for a Latin American context,

A group ripped asunder without regard for the naturally occurring segments or affinity clusters within the group will make a big mess. If you split a group by arbitrarily counting off, or in this culture, even by using geographical boundaries or some means other than affinity clusters, you may end up with many injured group members (1989:138).

The wise cell leader will be continually analyzing those natural friendship links. When the time comes to give birth, the leader’s discernment will prove to be very helpful.

Resistance to Change

One of the important dynamics of cell ministry is the constant change which occurs as cells multiply. This aspect may be difficult for the Latin leader who tends to resist change. It is important in the training and preparation of these leaders that they understand the necessity of this type of change in order to maintain the life of the group and to continue reaching out to the unbeliever. The leaders of the newly formed daughter cells often require additional time and training in order to successfully make the transition. I think this is key.

Group Consciousness

Latin leadership tends to be more group oriented than individual oriented. Studies show that Latin culture is one of the least individualistic cultures in the world (Hofstede 1980:230-231). For this reason, it seems that the team approach to cell leadership works best in Latin America.


Careful attention must be given to areas such as authoritarianism, assigned status, resistance to change, and group orientation in the Latin American cell-based church. Too often there is a wholesale application of North American principles to Latin culture. To assure maximum effectiveness in the cell ministry, an attempt must be made to model Biblical principles of leadership (not necessarily North American) in a culturally relevant manner.


  1. This is especially true in cell-based ministry. The issue of authority, both from the pastoral leadership perspective as well as how it relates to cell leadership, seems to come up on a repeated basis.
  2. For example, the Power Distance scores for Mexico were 81, Venezuela 81, Colombia, 67, and Perú, 64; whereas the USA had a power distance level of 40, Great Britian, 35, Denmark, 18.
  3. Hofstede lists eighteen characteristics. Here I have only listed those values that relate most significantly to my present study on leadership.
  4. This has been confirmed in my own personal experience. We ministered in a middle to upper class church in Quito, Ecuador. We soon discovered that the higher class people of the church struggled with accepting and submitting to the national pastors who came from a lower class. In fact, the only pastor that the upper class of the church has ever accepted was an educated Argentine who came from the upper class.
  5. Here are some of the scores most relevant to who I am as an American and a missionary to Latin America: US-91; Great Britain-89; Canada-80; Italy-76 versus Venezuela-12 (the lowest); Colombia-13; Perú-16; Mexico-30.
  6. Some scores: US-46; Great Britain-35; Sweden-29; Australia-51; In contrast to Perú-87; Colombia-80; Venezuela-76. At the same time, this study was not so easy to label because of countries like Belgium-94; Greece-112; Japan-92.
  7. More than any other area, I have had to repeatedly deal with this problem. As director of the cell ministry in Ecuador I would rotate from cell to cell on a weekly basis. I discovered that it was quite difficult for a cell leader to guide his or her cell into dynamic, participatory communication