Partnerships—what do we mean by them, and why should I consider involvement in one? In my ministry of catalyzing partnerships and mentoring those who are facilitating their development, I have seen that involvement in partnerships maximizes the effectiveness of discipling people groups for Christ. Following are seven simple, but crucial steps for becoming involved in a partnership that have been identified in the course of my work.
Know what you’re getting into. To know what you are getting into, you must understand what is meant by “partnership.” This will help you to have more realistic expectations about a partnership and what it might require of you.
The concept of partnership that we in Interdev promote revolves around Christian ministries working together where they have a mutual and active interest in seeing the evangelization and discipling of certain geographical areas and/or people groups of the world. Partnerships are not mergers as partners retain their distinctives and their independence while they work together in the overlap of mutual interests and goals.
Included in the term “ministries” are churches. Interdev believes that mission agencies and local churches or church networks should work together in partnerships. Not only does our vision include the development of relationships between churches and mission agencies, but it also inspires us to see Western missions and churches involved in the Great Commission working together with missions and churches from newer sending bases such as South Africa, Korea and Latin America. Interdev’s end-goal is culturally relevant national churches emerging among unreached people groups. Therefore, we encourage national Christians from emerging churches to take a significant part in partnerships, in which everyone has an equally important, but different, role to play.
To further clarify the concept of partnership, I have laid out several possible levels of relationships between ministries with mutual interests.
- Independence—ministries passively hear of one another and continue in their own paths.
- Communication—ministries actively share information by networking and, ideally, avoid duplication.
- Cooperation—ministries agree to help one another achieve their individual goals.
- Collaboration—ministries consent to work together on joint goals to achieve together more than the sum of what they could have achieved by each working on their separate goals. This is what we would usually consider to be the best form of partnership.
- Constitution—ministries go beyond informal collaboration and set up a constitutional agreement for working together. A disadvantage of this more formal arrangement is that it can restrict partnership activity as much as it can release it.
Attend a partnership meeting. Many partnerships are spawned and developed by partnership meetings (often called consultations) frequently held over a few days once a year. They operate at several levels of relationship. Some participants just enjoy networking and catching up with what each other is doing. Others, including nationals, collaborate in partnership on specific projects. In Mongolia, it was from the annual partnership meetings that a constitutional partnership sprang up. This partnership places Christian professionals from its several partner agencies in positions where their skills are needed and their gifts appreciated. If you are uncertain whether or not partnership is for you but have been invited to a partnership meeting relevant to your area of focus, I suggest you go. By attending, you may find that Christ confirms whether or not you should consider further involvement at this stage.
Prepare your heart for partnership. This is perhaps the key step since partnership—practical, working unity—is contrary to our sinful nature. Galatians 5:19-21 (NIV) lists fifteen acts of the sinful nature. Four of these are frequently associated with divisions—selfish ambition, envy, jealousy and hatred. Another three, discord, dissentions and factions, even more clearly relate to division in the body of Christ.
In missions communities, as in churches around the world, people at times offend each other and have disagreements. Others take sides. Rifts form and Satan has a field day. Partnership exposes the need for reconciliation. We need to prepare to attend partnership meetings full of God’s enabling grace to bear with each other, forgive, and ask forgiveness, for His glory in the nations.
Partnership does not just mean that others will help you with your agenda. Agendas are good but need to be offered up to God prior to partnership meetings so that they can be held lightly. Trust must be in God to see one’s agenda furthered. This type of preparation will release one’s heart to hear the agendas of others and see the bigger picture. We need to be prepared to see what God, in His sovereignty, is doing through His body for His agenda. We need to see how well we are working with Him and with others and be prepared to give to others.
Review with the Lord what your non-negotiables, such as basic theological tenets, are. If you can then anticipate what some of the negotiable items are that might come up and require you to step out of your comfort zone (such as worship style), you can offer them up to God. Then Satan will not find it so easy to distract you from what the Lord wants to do in the meeting in and through you.
Satan desires that we be manipulated by fear, especially those working in “closed countries.” This can isolate us. Bringing this before the Lord in advance will help equip us to relate to others confidently, both resting in His sovereignty and exercising wisdom and discernment.
Successful partnerships require that time be invested in building relationships and trust with other ministries. “Bottom-line” individuals who are high on task and achievement may become frustrated with what might seem to be slow progress. This too is an aspect worth bringing before the Lord.
Prepare practically. Clarify in your own mind the key activities and goals of your organization that are relevant to the focus of the meeting. Which are core items and which are peripheral? Take stock of the resources (human, intellectual, and material) at your disposal and determine what can be shared or given away. What do you want to come away with from the meeting? How do you want to present yourself and your ministry? (You may want to consult with others in your organization concerning these questions.) It may be that at a meeting you will only be given a minute to introduce yourself and the agency you represent. Without prior consideration this could be a struggle and you may not communicate as you desire. Partnership meetings are not conferences but consultations. They are very interactive. With adequate preparation in these areas you will increase the benefit to your ministry, other participants and ultimately to the Kingdom.
Try not to take work with you to a partnership meeting, and consider leaving your laptop behind. A morning’s e-mail can easily become a distraction. Arranging to stay on-site at the location of the meeting will help you to get into the flow of the proceedings and allows you to maximize the use of your time outside of formal sessions for relationship building, reflection and activities related to the event.
Be open to reviewing your methodology and strategy—even your vision and values. As we consider our work, are we open to the fact that the Lord might want to reposition us? Are we flexible enough to adjust if we find realignment is needed? Do we see adaptability as a virtue?
Sometimes established ministries can resent participation at partnership meetings of new entrants or people not yet active in the field. This is understandable as practitioners want to share experiences and those who do not yet have experience can ask naive questions. However, these individuals can be less entrenched and more open to fit into current programs. They may also be sources of new contacts, prayer support and funding.
Consider whether other individuals from your ministry should become involved. If so, you will also need wisdom as to when to involve them and in what capacity. For example, do they need to attend a meeting, just be kept in the loop or asked for pre-meeting input? Usually, invitations to a partnership meeting specify a certain number of people per ministry, so it may be possible to extend an invitation to one or two others in your organization. Field leaders can contribute much to partnerships as they often have the most experience and knowledge of what’s happening “on the ground.” They are also probably the closest to national Christians and may be able to partially represent the emerging national church or recruit nationals for attendance at a partnership meeting.
Executives based close to the field may have a better opportunity to see the “big picture” and the benefits of the implementation of a more strategic approach. They also usually have a better understanding of the nature of their organization, allowing them to gauge what might be necessary to release resources so their ministry can be effectively involved in partnership.
Ministry directors usually have a significant influence on their organization’s involvement in partnership activity. Involvement of higher level executives can be crucial for the ministry’s successful long-term engagement in partnership activity.
Understand the long-term value of partnering and count the cost of involvement. We need to ask God to give us vision and lead us regarding what He wants us to achieve through partnership and our part in it. He can inspire us far better than any partnership advocate. With a vision for what can be accomplished, involvement becomes easier; nevertheless, sacrifice is often required. The most common areas of sacrifice are:
Taking time out for just two to four days a year (the usual time taken for an annual partnership meeting) can be a significant cost for most people. Partnering with others on work towards joint goals will take additional time. Because many people in ministry suffer from pressure due to over-commitment, consideration of taking on more responsibilities or giving up present ones for partnership activities can seem unreasonable. However, the call to involvement in partnership should result in a reassessment of current time commitments, which can be very helpful. We may end up with fewer time commitments and become more effective. God will bless faithfulness with the use of our time.
A realistic estimate of the time that can be given to partnership involvement is also necessary. In a working group it is easy to come up with big joint goals and tasks for the following year. Once back home, however, even a minimal amount of time given to the partnership activity can seem like too much. Goals set should be modest and achievable.
Achievements resulting from partnerships must be shared. No one can boast that their organization was solely responsible for achievement X, if X was achieved through partnership, but we can say that through partnering with others we achieved X, which will often be greater than what those partners could have achieved on their own.
If we work with others we will have to share control in areas of joint effort. Independence gives us control; interdependence is costly. We may have to bear with other work styles and cooperate in control.
In Scripture, we are told that “...there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12:25 NIV). Surely we should consider this regarding our place in the missions community. As one body in Christ, ministries with a shared interest in a region or people should explore whether or not they are functioning appropriately within the larger body. Should not our assent to the concept of Christian unity in missions go beyond expressions such as joint communion celebrations and singing praise songs together while holding hands? Partnership gives an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to the unity of the body of Christ by action.