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Partnering in China: The Missing Foundation

In a recent post we introduced Degrees of Partnership, a Missio Nexus infographic that illustrates the continuum in partnership development between Western churches and overseas entities. Although created with the North American context in mind, this continuum is a useful device for understanding how partner relationships develop in the wider context, including among organizations serving together in China and with the Chinese church.

At the advanced end of the continuum are Alliance and Deep Partnership. These stages of collaboration entail shared objectives, regular financial support, exchange of workers, joint projects and multiple partners. The high degree of activity at this level makes such partnerships both complex and potentially very productive.

Seeking to engage local partners in China, foreign organizations may come to the table with this kind of partnership in mind. Questions they ask might include “What is your capacity? How much time can you commit? What kind of financial support is needed? Can we sign an agreement? Can we set up a reporting mechanism?”

These questions may be appropriate in an advanced level partnership. But leading with this kind of discussion neglects the earlier stages of the partnership building process.

Going back to the beginning of the continuum, the foundational stage is Friendship. Included in the Friendship stage are these relational building blocks:

  • Occasional visits
  • Exploring opportunities
  • Learning about each other and common points of ministry
  • Openness to networking and building mutual relationships
  • Limited financial support
  • Maintaining the friendship in preparation for future projects or initiatives

If the Friendship stage is a prerequisite for partnership generally, it is all the more important in a relational honor/shame-based culture like China’s. Here the journey through the process of friendship building on the way to concrete partnership is assumed. Without first giving face to one’s potential partners, expressing sincerity, and acknowledging one another’s place in the relationship, there is no basis for true partnership. Whether over a bowl of noodles at a roadside stall or over a fourteen-course banquet in an official setting, this trust building process is essential. While some may acquiesce to premature requests for collaboration out of pragmatic considerations or deference to the other party, such arrangements will not likely lead to long-term mutually beneficial relationships.

For Western partners who would rather just cut to the chase, this foundational process may seem overly tedious. As one frustrated evangelical leader asked after sitting through yet another banquet that was, in his mind, long on conversation and short on substance, “Can someone just tell me how to get to ‘yes’?”

Yes, partnership is possible. Friendship comes first. 

Image credit: No-Name Hot and Sour Sweet Potato Noodles by Prince Roy via Flickr. 
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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, 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 …View Full Bio

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