“This Changes Everything”
By Kelsey McFaul
Jon Lewis on transformative stewardship in African missions, leadership, and faith
It’s early morning in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Jon Lewis’ small Cessna 206 aircraft cruises 5,000 feet above the endless green treetops of the Ituri rain forest below. In the six-seater plane, several young, passionate Congolese leaders raise their voices above the noise of the engine attempting to discuss plans for church planting and social justice ministry.
“I was always impressed with the creativity and energy they had for implementing their ideas. But, unfortunately, they often had to compete with well-funded Western missions that came into their areas with brand new strategies developed back in the U.S. From my vantage point, it appeared that the foreigners, although having good intentions, were totally oblivious to what was already happening in that area, such as the efforts of leaders like those in my plane.”
It was situations like that this that spurred Jon, a pilot with Mission Aviation Fellowship (a Christian organization providing aviation and related services to church and humanitarian agencies), to start thinking about how things should be done differently.
“As a mission pilot, I literally had a bird’s eye view, of the different kinds of ministry that happened on the ground across a wide section of the Congo. It allowed me to see the results of traditional Western mission agencies that had been operating there for many years. At the same time, I got to personally meet a lot of emerging indigenous leaders who were trying their best to develop themselves, their ministries and their country. Unfortunately, I did not always see a lot of healthy partnership between the two groups.”
Jon explains that in the West, a partnership is understood in a business context. Two companies will partner together for mutual benefit, but as soon as there’s no benefit for one of the parties, there’s no incentive to continue.
A steward partnership, in contrast, consists of one entity partnering with another to support the success of their goals and vision, without importing their own.
“It was there, during those jungle flights, that I really began to understand the need for a totally different attitude about how to work together cross-culturally. And, it made me excited to think of how much more effective those Western entities could be if they began employing the concepts of steward leadership and began cultivating national resources that were already there. It meant a transition from an owner mentality to a steward mentality.”
It’s this kind of partner stewardship mentality, which approaches resources and relationships as gifts given to us by God for us to manage rather than to own, that Jon first identified a need for while working with MAF. Years later, it’s what drew him to the President and CEO role at Partners International, where he served eight years (2003-2011).
“What attracted me to Partners was its ethos as a steward partner, coming alongside a national indigenous leader and helping him to accomplish his God-given vision, as opposed to coming with all sorts of big plans and agendas, and trying to get him to accomplish those goals.”
And stewardship informs Jon’s current work, where he mentors, encourages, and trains African leaders under the umbrella of One Change International. He’s learned that not only is the stewardship helpful for outsiders relating with Africa, but for African leaders themselves.
“Stewardship of the relationship with God is a big one. For a pastor, there’s a tendency to put his own role in his own ministry at the same level as God. God comes first, then marriage and family, but right up there with God comes their job as a pastor or ministry leader. Many times, the wife and family play second fiddle to the job, and the leader justifies that because in his mind he’s serving God.”
Jon points to his own leadership journey as a useful example in this regard.
“As the CEO of Partners International, I often fell into this same trap of misplaced priorities myself. I had to learn the hard way, over many years, that my wife, as a daughter of the King, had been given to me along with the responsibility to cultivate her own potential. All too often, I allowed that responsibility to be eclipsed by my CEO duties. Today, sharing about this with African couples in leadership gives me a special credibility, since they too struggle with finding proper balance between ministry and marriage.”
These days, Jon sees himself as a leadership coach and delights in asking deep, challenging questions with those he mentors: What does ministry success look like to you? How do you balance faithfulness with ministry results? What’s your next big challenge? What can I do to help you face it?
What gives Jon the greatest fulfillment in his current role, is seeing people connecting the dots between theory and practical implementation of steward leadership.
“In one case, we were meeting in a church and talking about the steward’s responsibility for creation. Just for a treat in the middle of the day, somebody went around the church and handing out little candies. As usual, everybody took their candy, unwrapped it, and threw the wrapper on the floor. One woman stood up and said, ‘Look at us. We just talked about responsibility for creation, and now every one of us threw wrappers on the floor with no thought about the responsibility to keep our church clean. If our attitude doesn’t change right here, right now, we’re never going to take care of the rivers and jungles of our continent.’”
While Jon began thinking of stewardship as a framework for approaching Africa, he’s been amazed to see the transformations in the lives of African men and women who apply its principles to their own lives.
“Their reaction is much bigger and stronger than I ever would have expected. There is deep truth in the concept of being a faithful steward that really connects with people who are serious about their relationship with God. So many of them come to me and say, ‘This changes everything.’”