Note: Names have been changed to address security.
The partnership initiative with which I worked was called the Shangba partnership. The vision of the initiative was for the Body of Christ focused on the Shangba people group to learn together and collaborate appropriately in the demonstration of God’s love in order to see a sustainable, reproducing church planted among this people group.
The social circumstances of the Shangba were defined within a caste system. They were a very low caste people group within their larger society and had few recognized rights. Their spiritual context was one of Buddhism mixed with shamanistic practices. Rituals, magic and manipulation of the spirit world were constant concerns for them, and affected every part of their life.
It is hard to say when the partnership started because there were so many converging stories of how God had been leading this person and that person towards greater participation. Tom, Sharbu and myself were talking one evening about the need for more cooperation and about others who had been sensing the same thing. We decided to take on a “coffee shop diplomacy” and just went around listening to people about the vision God had laid on their hearts. In the process, we planted the idea of more intentional coordination between groups. The major block we ran into was a vague fear of loss of organizational identity and the fact that cooperation between organizations was just not the way people think here—the mindset is a new one for this area. This got quite discouraging at times—seeing the blank look on one face after another when we talked about collaboration. We ran into several of the problems that were mentioned on the survey, most specifically a quite passive mindset to the problems that came up. We countered this by trying to set a good example in our own behavior and relations. After the exploratory stage, we called for a meeting where we first talked about working together as a group. Our first action step was a relatively easy win: Set up a small water project together in a local Shangba village. This is done and we are now moving on to other things. In the process we learned that communication between the members, even those who are not directly involved, was key to making people feel part of the group. At the same time, expectations for how this actually works out can be very unrealistic and should be made clear on the first day (even though many of us didn’t know what questions to ask until later!)
Most people involved were leaders of their own ministries, teams or churches. Very often, more than one representative from a given group would be at the table. I will decline from specific names, but it will be sufficient to state that local and foreign churches and ministries were involved. Generally, the ministries had a specific activity/skill they did best, and the churches provided the community into which new believers could be invited.
I would say we are a loosely structured partnership. We made decisions based on consensus when we were deciding on larger projects that concerned everyone, but also used the forum as a chance to learn together about the needs and opportunities for demonstrating God’s love in this context. With that information, many times task forces sprung up spontaneously within the group and collaboration started to happen more as a mindset than as a structure. In the midst of all this though, it was clear that personality differences, high need for closure, fear of authority within one’s own organization, and other factors consistently threw rocks into the ideal of how smoothly a given structure was supposed to work. The temptation to institutionalize this thing gets high when people start to get offended—high structure means aligned expectations, and this looks attractive after a rough phone call.
We are taking a long term perspective on this. One problem we are facing though is the fact that we demonstrate our unity with our attendance at meetings and collaboration on big projects. There is a sore temptation to move on too quickly to the next project lest we disintegrate and lose the ‘vision’. We’re still working on that one.
Our primary objectives are to learn together about the culture, needs opportunities, and “redemptive analogies” of the Shangba; to work together on projects that could not be done by a single organization alone; and to coordinate our individual efforts by making sure we can articulate where our own ministry fits as part of the other things that are happening in mission to the Shangba. We are trying to demonstrate the unity of the Body of Christ by coordinating our efforts at demonstrating God’s love and spreading the Good News about Jesus Christ. The primary objective is to see a church planting movement happen among this people group, and for this church to have, from day one, a mindset of cooperation and fellowship with others who are in Christ. If we are pursuing these objectives we have to model them so that we will be better equipped to disciple them.
We did our first evaluation last year, which was our second meeting. The water project went well, but we need to work on our communication and clarifying expectations of each role and how success is measured. We found that trust was lost between a couple of the participants in the process of working together, and this for good reason. We are now trying to better understand how we can build a mechanism for regaining trust into our cooperative work. I like the fact that the guideline sheet put the word “success” in quotes. I would prefer to look at this less in terms of product and more in terms of process. From this perspective, yes, we are successfully in the process of learning to cooperate as the Body of Christ, and the water project went well. We are now working on a more systemic communication network between churches and agencies in the area. I say “yes” while needing to include that some have left the partnership after feeling betrayed or ignored. I personally see this less as a failure and more as a decision to stop learning in exchange for personal safety. I would say it is still successful if there is a back door built into the exit process by which they can rejoin the partnership and be welcomed in the future.
Our most important achievement was the recognition by the Shangba village that this was an act of love done by Christians from both their own country and abroad. The only way they can make sense of it is from our description of God’s love binding us together with a common purpose: to show them that God loves them and invites them to be part of His family. The opposition accused us of trying to buy them, but this didn’t make much sense when they heard from the nationals how much both the foreigners and locals had given up in order to participate in this effort. They also recognized that this was done with no strings attached. No one became a Christian, but the village as a whole has moved up another step on the journey towards a church planting movement.
In the process of all this, we have learned that God built the groundwork for the partnership long before any of us came along, and that this partnership is just a part of the converging stories that God is taking each of us through. We have also learned that we need each other because no single person/ministry knows enough, has enough resources, or can control for enough contingencies to reach any vision in isolation. We have also learned that partnership is a very human enterprise and that the biggest obstacle to partnership is often “me.” Personally, I have become more aware of how very mixed my motivations are as leader of a large organization (a position which gives me a very real sense of significance). At the same time, I learned that at the root of it all, I love Jesus with all my heart and I want to cast aside every weight that hinders while not losing the organizational capacity I steward in His Kingdom.
In the future, we need to improve our communication system within the partnership. One way to do this would be to distribute the responsibility for communication to the network of participants rather than making the coordinator responsible for keeping everyone appraised of everything that is going on lest someone feel ignored and offended. We also need to develop a means of determining if the partnership is becoming too introverted and concerned primarily with its internal relations and workings than it is with its vision and objectives.