During the summer months of 2012 ChinaSource launched a survey of Christians in China who had experience in partnering, either with other churches or organizations within China or with foreign entities working in China. The definition of "partnering" (jianli huoban guanxi) was deliberately left broad but was understood to apply to ministry situations outside one's own fellowship or organization in which the participants had been involved. The survey, administered online in Chinese, consisted of nine items covering respondents' own partnering experiences, lessons learned, and what they felt were the important elements of healthy partnering. One item asked specifically about barriers or helps to partnering in the China situation, and another asked what skills respondents felt were needed in order for partnering to be successful. Respondents were also asked to list biblical examples of partnering and the lessons to be learned from these.
The small initial pool of nine respondents can hardly be seen as representative of the larger body in China; however, the consistency in their responses does suggest that their views are likely shared by others who have had similar partnering experiences. Those who completed the survey had all had experience in partnering and, for the most part, these experiences were positive. (One indicated they had seen partnering but had not seen it being successful, and asked what is the definition of successful partnering.) These experiences included helping to host short-term teams from abroad, cooperating in long-term campus work, starting a business enterprise, conducting research in a minority area, and conducting training. Respondents mentioned a few foreign organizations as examples of entities which they felt had provided positive models of partnering.
Responses overwhelmingly focused on the nature of the relationship among the partners. Not surprisingly, trust, respect, sincerity, and communication were commonly mentioned as elements of healthy partnering. Openness and frankness were frequently mentioned, with one respondent exhorting those who partner to "Get the unpleasant words out early." Many respondents specifically mentioned taking time to build not only the work relationship but also the personal relationship, caring about what is important in the lives of the partners, seeking a deep understanding of the background of those with whom one is working, and being accepting, forgiving, and tolerant of one another. One specifically mentioned friendship as important to partnering. Another mentioned a culture of acceptance. Several respondents discussed the need to identify relative strengths and weaknesses within the partnership, supporting people to play to their strengths in order to overcome the weaknesses. Commitment was seen as important, with one respondent cautioning, "If you are not able to partner over the long-term then don't be too quick to enter into a partnership or make promises you can't keep." Having a clear goal and clear expectations were also mentioned repeatedly.
Among obstacles to partnership, cultural differences in the case of partnering with foreigners were mentioned. These will be dealt with in detail below. Other obstacles included the desire to control on the part of one party, particularly where money or resources are involved, which can contribute to a lack of a sense of security within the partnering relationship. One respondent warned that "in partnering, even a hint of a desire to control cannot be tolerated." Another said it is important to keep a degree of freedom for those in the relationship, ostensibly to foster willing participation and guard against a feeling of control. Another mentioned criticism and a judgmental spirit as obstacles.
Divergent goals were also listed as a barrier to partnering. One respondent told of working with a foreign organization in an area of common interest, only to learn later that the organization's goal was to launch a movement while the local partner's goal was to build stability in the church. The foreign entity was looking for numbers; the local partner was seeking spiritual growth. While these goals may not necessarily be exclusive, in this particular case the partnership dissolved due to the difference in purpose.
While most responses dealt with the nature of the relationship, a few touched on more "technical" aspects of partnering. One gave an example from an actual partnering situation which illustrated the importance of a skilled and committed leadership team. When asked what skills were necessary for effective partnering, most respondents emphasized communications skills, empathy, and building up those in the partnership. However, in regard to scriptural methods or models, two respondents pointed to Moses choosing leaders from among the Israelites as an illustration of the importance of having a succession plan. One of the same respondents identified Jesus' relationship with His disciples as showing the importance of building a core team, developing intimacy with the members, and delegating responsibility to them. This respondent also saw in the Jerusalem Council a scriptural reminder of why it is important to hold a meeting at the appropriate time and to have a means of decision-making and arriving at an outcome. Another respondent mentioned the example of Barnabas, who served as coach to Paul, did not respond with jealousy once Paul became more prominent in leadership than Barnabas, and stood firm in his support of Mark despite Paul's rejection of him.
The Role of Culture
A content analysis of the responses revealed that "culture" was the most commonly used term. Although none of the questions specifically asked about culture, nearly every respondent mentioned the role of culture, either as a factor in partnering with foreigners or in influencing the way in which Chinese approach partnering.
Comments on partnering with foreigners dealt largely with their attitude and awareness of Chinese culture, specific ways of operating within China, and the degree of equality within the relationship. More than one-third of respondents mentioned a perception of ethnic superiority and a lack of respect for the culture as hindrances to partnering. One described a perceived desire to change the culture, while another mentioned foreigners "aggressively imposing their culture" and "forcing the Chinese to accommodate to them" as creating a barrier to mutual communication and working together. Still more respondents listed a lack of cultural understanding or a lack of understanding of the situation in specific cities or regions where the foreigners are working as obstacles. On a practical level, several respondents mentioned differences in cultural and educational background as necessitating flexibility in trying to apply programs or strategies to China. Some comments: "In the long-term, some material learned from foreigners cannot be put into practice." "Be willing to dynamically adjust strategy and direction." "Don't be too results-oriented .Don't overemphasize numbers." Finally, more than a couple respondents mentioned the need for equality in the relationship, including the equitable distribution of resources where foreigners were involved. Respondents discussed the need to focus on developing local partners and to know when to allow local partners to take the lead, with one commenting, "Allow your partner to finally become your leader. Your partner's success is your success Spend your time and your life on your partner, care about what matters to him or her."
In discussing cultural differences the majority of respondents took the position that it was the responsibility of the foreign partner to understand, respect, and adapt to the local culture. One respondent advocated a "territorial principle;" if the partnering is taking place in China then the foreign partners should "meld into" the local culture as opposed to holding onto outside customs and traditions. Another advocated respecting and becoming a student of Chinese culture and its effect upon the character of the Chinese people. Pointing out the complexity of cultural differences, one respondent said that some differences are obvious and are areas where much tolerance and forgiveness are required; however, the more insidious are those that are left unacknowledged and can conceal underlying unresolved contradictions. Only one respondent gave a positive example of cross-cultural partnering leading to a new way of looking at things. None broached the possibility that this kind of partnering could produce a "third culture" situation where participants create a unique set of values and operating principles based on their shared experience. Rather, the issue of culture was seen largely as an "either-or" proposition.
When asked about unique factors in the Chinese situation that could either promote or hinder partnering, several respondents listed cultural factors. One, reflecting on his or her own partnering experience, began with a rather strong Chinese idiom about Chinese being strong as individuals but weak in groups, then remarked:
"It's really just 'collision avoidance.' We are not good at open communication, and often small wounds become serious illnesses; in the end the relationship ruptures and dies untreated. Furthermore, human feelings are more important than rules. We don't differentiate between people and things, so that to disagree with something means disagreeing with the person. Even though disagreeing with something is not the same as disagreeing with the individual, still the individual feels that he or she is being rejected. This is a cultural phenomenon that is in need of a breakthrough ."
Another stated that "traditional culture and concepts hinder the development of collaborative relationships" but did not elaborate further. Still another singled out not paying attention to, or deviating from, principles. Other factors included China's strong nationalistic education, the political situation, security concerns, "bureacratism," egoism, lack of trust, "rigidness in sticking to one's own viewpoint" and a tendency not to promote the abilities of others. Finally, one respondent mentioned a trend toward passivity and not knowing how best to communicate or to utilize human resources.
On the positive side, respondents noted that the transformation brought about through faith, new ways of thinking in Chinese society, China's economic development, abundant resources, and a huge market in China are all factors that promote partnering. One said the trend seems to be toward more collaborative relationships which should lead to greater partnering.
Anecdotal evidence drawn from many conversations and actual partnering experiences over the years has suggested a willingness and desire among many Chinese Christians to work together across organizational or geographical lines, yet also a frank acknowledgment that doing so is difficult. Historical and political factors, a trend toward hierarchical leadership and "mountain top-ism" among different groups, the general lack of trust within society, competition for resources, scarcity of leaders, and being overworked with one's own direct ministry are all reasons given for a lack of partnering. The current survey underlines many of these same factors. Nevertheless it is encouraging that nearly all respondents have had positive partnering experiences and that much has been learned in the process.
Particularly hopeful is their emphasis on the relational aspect of partnering, as opposed to simply gauging its success or failure in terms of how much was accomplished. For some the partnering is seen as a crucible bringing about a refining and, eventually, greater fruitfulness. One respondent wrote, "The partnering relationship is part of our training toward maturity; the specific project or program is temporary, while the relationship is for eternity." Another capped off their comments with, "Before building relationships, firmly believe that God's love will bring about a holy and loving relationship that brings glory to Him." This statement seems to capture the unity Christ was referring to when He prayed for all believers in John 17. May it be our prayer as well, together with believers in China as they continue to explore what it means to serve in unity.
Image Credit: visionSynergy
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Prior to assuming his current position, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding US director of China Ministries International, and from 1985 to... View Full Bio