This article was written in 2004 immediately following work on collaboration in the war-torm Bosnia/Crotia region. It chronicles experiences seeking to develop partnerships in that highly-charged setting and goes on to place such collaborative efforts in the on-going global context.
This weekend I have just arrived back in the U.S. from a brief stay in Croatia where I’ve been facilitating an effort to forge a potentially long-term strategic partnership between the Croatian Protestant church and the growing number of Western church/mission agencies that are beginning to flood into the region following the signing of the “Dayton” peace accords and the deployment of NATO troops.
During this last week in Zagreb some fifty individuals from something like ten countries crowded into a room to discuss, pray together, and reflect on how an already divided Croatian Church could link up practically with the highly individualistic mission enterprise of the West. The Croatian Evangelical Alliance, only two years old, and leaders of several of the Croatian Protestant denominations were on hand as were field or area leaders from about twenty-five Western mission agencies. Beyond the evident theological, ecclesiastical and cultural differences, probably half the audience was working in English as a second or third language. Humanly speaking, the task was clearly impossible!
I am thankful to say that, due I’m sure more to an international prayer network that had been mobilized on behalf of the meetings rather than our facilitating skills, the participants did agree to establish a ministry partnership. A working committee with key representative from Croatian churches and Western mission agencies was established. They’ve named two facilitators, one Croatian and one Westerner. And they have defined quite specific but limited objectives that were perceived to be high priority by most everyone. Operational, working meetings for the partnership begin later this month to start work on realization of those objectives.
The first steps have been taken. I expect dozens of other Western and Non-Western ministries will pour into the region over the next twelve months. Thankfully, the partnership has agreed that it is vital the partnership be inclusive rather than exclusive and is planning to encourage participation by the growing number of ministries involved in the region — not just those present at these initial meetings.
This strategic partnership is seeking to look at the whole Croatian/Bosnia context and encourage the widest range of Kingdom resources to work together in response to the devastating need that exists in this post-war environment.
However, to see this partnership mature and genuinely serve the people of Croatia and Bosnia, enormous tenacity, vision, grace, prayer, and power of the Holy Spirit will be required.
Over the last ten years my colleagues and I at Interdev have worked full time helping international Christian ministries find ways to work together in Partnership. That’s the only thing we’ve done. This experience in Zagreb this last week was similar to others we’ve had in such diverse places as Algeria, Afghanistan, Senegal, Yemen, Mongolia, and Mauritania.
Over these years we have helped with a wide range of partnerships. We run leadership conferences on the theme of partnership and run training programs on partnership development in several international locations each year. And, we spend a great deal of our time coaching, mentoring, and encouraging the men and women who have a vision for Kingdom cooperation — the partnership facilitators who are the real backbone of any serious, medium to long-term effort to bring God’s people together.
Over the years we’ve stubbed our toes, fallen down, picked ourselves up a bit bloodied and, hopefully, a bit wiser, and have sought to press on with the vision. So, what I share today, then, is from the perspective of a practitioner who not only believes in the notion of partnership but who has sought to put the vision into practice in a wide range of circumstances.
At the moment our Interdev team is assisting with some twenty-six multi-lateral, multi-national partnerships which, when looked at collectively, bring over 180 different ministries together from over forty countries. And, nearly one-third of those ministries are Non-Western, from the so-called, Third World.
Definition of Terms
I’d like to move to the topic at hand. But, first, I thought it might be helpful to deal with a bit of housekeeping.
The word “partnership” has been bandied about for a very long time. It can legitimately be applied to a wide range of circumstances —
Bi-lateral, informal commitments of short duration. (Two individuals decide to be “prayer partners” regarding the specific needs in their lives. A church in the West “partners” with a church in a developing country to build a building.)
Multi-lateral, multi-national commitments of considerable duration addressing projects of great complexity. (A half-dozen relief and development agencies from four countries agree to assume the task of rebuilding the infrastructure of a flood devastated area. Fifteen ministries, some national church, some international, expatriate ministries, agree to work together to share Christ in a holistic way with a major people group in an adjacent country in which there is no church.)
In short, the number and diversity of players in a partnership, its duration, and the complexity of task it undertakes can vary enormously. Obviously, as the number and diversity of partner agencies and duration and complexity of the task increase, so does the challenge of forming and sustaining a truly effective partnership.
For the sake of our consideration, let me suggest a definition of partnership
Partnership: Two or more individuals/agencies with different resources agree to collaborate to achieve a common purpose.
Because my work for the last decade has been to encourage a wide-ranging assortment of Kingdom agencies to cooperate for witness and service in areas where there is no church, we’ve developed the term Strategic Ministry Partnership, or, Strategic Evangelism Partnership. To differentiate the difference between this type of alliance and that of simpler forms of partnership, let me suggest another definition.
Strategic Ministry Partnership:
- Strategic — addresses the complete (holistic) needs of the audience by mobilizing and effectively integrating all available Kingdom resources
- Evangelism — the purpose is individual commitment to Christ which lead to the birth and maturation of a local church where there is none.
- Partnership — based on the above definition
And, just before we leave the matter of definition of terms, since the term Networks is frequently and incorrectly substituted for partnership, let me suggest a simple definition that may help differentiate between Partnership and Network.
Network: Two or more individuals/agencies agree to share information/ resources to enhance their individual purposes. (Note difference from partnership.)
Such networks can, and frequently do evolve into specialized partnerships based on the definition I’ve already given.
Implications of the Modern & Post-Modern Eras
I’ve been asked to address the meaning and practical implications of mission or service partnerships — particularly in the context of globalization.
To do this, I think it might be helpful to contrast the context of historical realities as the Church and her various expressions of ministry have sought to find ways to work together in partnership.
In the receding, modern era we found the Church functioning in an Industrial Age of hierarchies, bureaucracies, and, well-etched boundaries. Such mentalities reflected in how the Church engaged in partnership. It was a world which emphasized the theological distinctives — frequently focused on differences in degree rather than in kind. It was a world which produced comity agreements, and tended to rarely cross ecclesiological boundaries. It was a world of “us” and “them.” It was a world of limited information. It was a world in which the view was of the specifics — rarely a world in which the specifics and the whole were viewed simultaneously.
As the Industrial Age has yielded to the Information Age of post modernism, the Church finds herself with a radically different environment for partnership. An environment of sharply declining commitment to structures and organizational loyalty, a depreciation of the value of the old distinctives in theology, ecclesiology or missiology, and a high desire for personal ownership and access to decision-making. It is a world of high speed, high volume, high specificity information in which distance seem almost irrelevant. It is a world which, de facto, demands a kind of egalitarianism, boundaries mean little, hierarchies are discredited, and functional accountability is driven by common access to data. And, it is a world in which the most effective must be able to look simultaneously at the specific and the whole. For without such an encompassing view, one is destined to the backwaters of isolation and irrelevance.
My experience with my colleagues at Interdev and with the countless leaders with whom we’ve worked from over fifty nations in forming Strategic Ministry Partnerships — particularly in areas where there is little or no Church — is that effective ministry partnerships for the post-modernist, Information Age are radically different than those conceived and executed in days gone by.
These partnerships are marked by these world conditions I’ve alluded to, by the demand to clearly defined functional benefits to the participating ministries, and, above all, by a reexamination of the nature of Christ Himself and the meaning of God’s character and will in the world.
The Meaning of Partnerships and The Nature of God
I fear ministry models derived primarily from functional demands. If Truth is relevant across eras, then it seems we should begin in our search for the meaning of partnerships in the nature of God, His creation, and His desire for that created order.
So, one might ask, is there a model of ministry that reflects God’s nature and will more than others? And, if there is such a model, would its Christ-like spirituality release power and effectiveness greater than other forms of ministry?
It may seem almost outrageous to even raise such questions in a post-modern day when virtually “anything goes” in type or style of ministry as long as it doesn’t trespass evident theological or moral barriers. Especially in the West, we live in a ministry environment of intense individualism and rampant adhocracies which produces evaluation most frequently based on an “if it works, it’s ok” criteria, subjective rather than objective realities, and where success is frequently determined primarily by numbers.
The very fact that so much of the discussion in the West about spirituality and Christ likeness in the post-modern environment is focused on the implications for individual behavior rather than the nature of the wider Christian community seems to reinforce this observation.
Study of Scripture and observation of Kingdom work in the field for over forty years has led me to conclude that individual believers expressing their gifts in the fullest possible way, while consciously and intentionally working together, is God’s plan. I believe it is good news that working together is the model that most closely represents Christ’s nature (uniqueness) and, therefore, because of its true spirituality, most likely to see God’s blessing.
In coming to these conclusions, as a layman, I have been driven to seek a Biblical rationale, or set of assumptions that would provide a framework. I’d like to share some of those assumptions, then (at least at this point on my spiritual journey), suggest how we have seen the assumptions validated in the development and operation of Strategic Ministry Partnerships over the last ten years.
The Motivations of Scripture
I must acknowledge my frustration by the lack of time to explore the specific Scriptural annotations for these assumptions. However I was not asked to do a Bible study but, rather, to focus on the practical implications of Kingdom truth when implemented in the Church’s ministry partnerships.
God dwells in community outside of time. It is His nature to do so.
- God created man to live in community — creating man “in His own likeness.” Individual personalities designed to live in relationship.
- In the Garden, Adam and Eve’s choices destroyed relationship at least five levels: with God, with their own personhood, with each other, with the created order, and with the continuity of life.
- The Gospel is primarily a Gospel of restored relationships empowered by Christ’s work to redeem all five of these areas of brokenness.
- Satan’s work in the Garden was to undermine trust and relationships. He continues this strategy today as a primary means of blunting the effectiveness of the Gospel.
- Communication of the Good News, from Genesis to Revelation, occurs at two levels: individual witness and community witness. Despite the Western emphasis on individualism, our witness should continue at both levels today.
- The credibility of Jesus, his nature and mission, is bound up in the Church’s ability to demonstrate the reality and power of the Gospel in restored relationships.
- The Body of Christ is made of many parts, each unique, but each designed to work in conjunction with the others. Effective stewardship calls for fullest expression of this integration.
- Evangelism is a process of “stone clearing,” sowing, watering, reaping, and discipling. It is not an event. This process occurs most readily when the various members of the Body work together — each playing their unique role.
- The power of the Holy Spirit is given freedom and released in a unique way when God’s people dwell in unity.
These assumption have motivated me and my colleagues to press unrelentingly, trying to help God’s people work together in their effort to reach and serve the unreached. Our experience in the formation and operation of Strategic Ministry Partnerships has been motivated, guided, and greatly rewarded by holding to these assumptions.
Impact of the Assumptions in Strategic Ministry Partnerships
As we have experimented and continue to work at implementation of partnerships driven by these assumptions, we have seen some very specific outcomes. Among them are —
- Restored relationships marked by trust become the only real currency for working together — and empower all other specific partnership aspirations.
- Individual, unique gifts and ministries are effectively linked together in a functional community of common vision, values, and objective.
- Diversity in the Body of Christ can be celebrated and unity demonstrated.
- The credibility of Christ is demonstrated through a practical, working Kingdom community — particularly critical in the traditional, community-based cultures such as Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism.
- Communication of the Good News occurs implicitly and explicitly at both the individual and collective, community levels.
- The power of Christ can more readily be released holistically at all levels of brokenness and alienation — individually and in society.
- Effectiveness and stewardship are significantly enhanced.
- The “stone clearing,” sowing, watering, reaping, and disciplining roles in the evangelization process can be celebrated as unique yet part of a whole, strategic vision.
- Ministry experiences unique empowerment by the Holy Spirit when work is done together in unity.
But, there is more than the Biblical assumptions and their resulting benefits that provide motivation for us to work together in effective ministry partnership.
The Motivation of World Conditions
So, the Scriptures themselves provide motivation and meaning to our efforts in partnership. But there is more. Over the last couple of decades, a revolution of world conditions, on a scale undreamed of twenty years ago, have radically changed the shape of our ministry context. Among the elements contributing to that revolution are —
- Massive migrations and shifts in population — from the rural areas to the great cities and the nomadic refugees fleeing, for one reason or another, from their original homelands to new, adopted ones.
- Radical geo/political changes with old, centralized authoritarian empires being dismantled producing a growth in the UN of 18% in the last five years, over 25% of all sovereign nations changing form of government in the same period, and those of us in the West suddenly having physical access to more than a billion people we couldn’t even meet face to face ten years ago.
- In the areas where these radical changes have been taking place, an intense sense of perceived need, high instability as old orders give way to new in processes that are messy and often destructive, and an unprecedented openness to change and new ideas.
- Demands for efficiency and accountability causing outcomes as diverse as stockholder revolts, the demise of long-standing political careers, and the demand on the part of donor for greater accountability on the part of their recipients. The grass roots constituencies, stockholders or church membership, are no longer satisfied with simply sitting back and letting the professionals decide what is effective and what isn’t.
- The capital-intensive and risk nature of technological innovation — the engine of change in the post-modern world.
- The radical changes in communications that have revolutionized the ability of individuals to connect, find others of like interest, form special action groups, or engage in other creative innovations be they social change, intellectual stimulation, product development, or ministry.
- Nation-states giving way in fundamental influence to the global corporations and their strategic alliances that are built on a foundation of new organizational paradigms, high flexibility, relentless demands for efficiency and profitability, and radical changes in communications/data transfer capability empowered by computers and satellites.
- The rise of the Non-Western missionary force; in effect the “return on investment” of the last 200 years of the modern missionary movement. In four years, these thousands will represent the numerical majority of the world missionary force.
- And, the increase rather than decrease in mission and evangelism initiatives in the form of dozens of new agencies, local churches, individually or in coalitions, seeking front line involvement, and new Kingdom strategic alliances that twenty years ago would have been thought impossible.
The Motivation of Ministry Effectiveness
Beyond the Scripture and world conditions, there are still other motivations that bring meaning to our partnership efforts. Ministry effectiveness can be highly motivating and can be sharply altered by working in partnership. Let me suggest a few of things we’ve found —
- No agency can possibly provide all the resources necessary for the challenges of ministry in today’s world. Effective partnerships allow more creative, wide-ranging ministry to be undertaken.
- Partnerships allow ministries to work in their areas of strength. Rather than having to “do it all,” agencies can focus on their areas of strength, where they can make the greatest contribution.
- Today’s demand for high return on investment highlights the natural stewardship benefits of ministries working together. Partnership usually produces very high “leverage” in terms of Kingdom outcomes compared to the inputs of any one of the partner ministries.
- In a world of high volatility and risk, partnerships allow for flexibility and shared risk.
Partnerships and Their Problems
Four years ago, in cooperation with the Missions Commission of the World Evangelical Fellowship, I undertook a survey on the nature and problems of partnership among more than eighty Western and Non-Western international ministry leaders — all of whom indicated they had been involved in some type of ministry partnership.
The primarily problems the leaders had encountered in partnerships were, in order:
- Cultural differences
- Lack of effective communications
- Financial issues
- Personality conflicts
- Lack of clear objectives.
Interesting isn’t it that theological issues did not even surface in the prime problem list?
A striking thing in this survey was that the Non-Western leaders had a 32% higher sense of dissatisfaction with their partnership relationship than did their Western counterparts. When I examined this difference in perception, it was fascinating to see the issues on which their difference in perception about the problems was greatest. Here’s the list:
- Lack of clear objectives. In other words, the Non-Westerners perception was that there were much greater problems in clarity of partnership objectives than was the perception of their Western counterparts.
- Lack of understanding/sensitivity to the political and economic problems in the region. Westerners assumed they knew much more about the situation than their Non-Western counterparts gave them credit for.
- Problems with the agreements between the partner ministries. Apparently the Westerners thought the ground rules were much clearer and “win-win” in nature than did their Non-Western partners.
- Lack of effective communications. Westerners apparently didn’t understand that, at least in many cases, what they thought was being communicated wasn’t the message coming through at all.
In summary, Non-Western participants in partnerships were significantly less satisfied with the partnerships than were their Western counterparts.
Key Elements in Effective Partnerships
Having spent a decade working on nothing but partnership development and talked with hundreds of individuals involved in partnerships of various kinds, let me give you my short-list of the most basic things to keep in mind if you want an effective ministry partnership:
- Spend time in listening, establishing relationships and trust individually with the partner ministries. This investment of time will pay rich dividends when you actually bring the partners together.
- Make sure there’s someone who is not only committed to the project, the outcomes, but also the vision of partnership, the process. A long-term, committed facilitator is vital. No effective partnership ever emerged spontaneously. It takes a dedicated person.
- Make sure there’s a champion for partnership in every one of the partner ministries. This person has to sell, consistently communicate, and interpret the power and potential of partnership across differing ministry cultures.
- Insure the partnership undertakes high-priority, limited objectives in the beginning. Trying to do too much is a recipe for failure. Attempting objectives that don’t have compelling value to the partner ministries means irrelevance and indifference in commitment.
- There must be clarity, high perceived value, and high ownership in these objectives. Value must be perceived at a broad Kingdom level and at the individual partner agency level.
- Effective partnerships acknowledge the various constituencies involved and actively work to communicate and interpret the partnership’s work and value to those constituencies.
- The clearer the individual ministry vision and contribution of each partner agency, the more likely they can play a role that is both valuable and satisfying.
- Effective partnerships focus primarily on the ministry goals, not the structure to accomplish the goals. Form follows function. It is all to easy to substitute a sense of safety through focusing on the “means” rather than taking the risk of focusing on the “ends” that really motivated the ministries in the first place.
- To sustain an effective partnership takes much greater effort than to start one. Wise leadership will recognize this and will be working pro-actively to sustain a clear-eyed focus for the partnership and a high sense of participation by all players.
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Partnerships in the Context of Post-Modern Globalization
The Information Age of global corporations has awakened to the necessity of strategic alliances and international partnerships. Former competitors are doing the unthinkable — forging alliances with once sworn enemies. The winners are those who see the particulars and the whole simultaneously; who do not let national or organizational boundaries constrain them; who understand the power of cross-disciplinary synergy; who have the information networks in place and use them to empower staff at the most distant, front line decision-making level; who understand that all parties to these strategic alliances or partnerships must have a real sense of ownership and see high value added from the relationship, and who realize that these partnerships require great intentionality and high maintenance.
So, Kingdom partnerships, while empowered by quite different motivations, must function in the same world. Old, static paradigms must give way to partnerships that are highly flexible in nature, mosaic and cross boundary in composition, organized in ways that defy former structural norms, and are focused on objectives where the specifics are seen within the broader picture of the whole including ministry context, resources, process, and outcomes.
The “old order” of Jesus day, reprctural norms, and are focused on objectives where the specifics are seen within the broader picture of the whole including ministry context, resources, process, and outcomes.
esented in both Jew and Gentile communities, found His new order empowered by the Cross and Resurrection to be deeply threatening. However, His new order set men and women free individually while allowing them to forge new communities based on completely new values. Jesus always breaks through. Rather than copying the world of the global corporations who have recently seen the need for innovation for the sake of profitability, empowered by our freedom and relationship in Christ, we should be at the leading edge of demonstrating the potential and power of partnership in this context of globalization.
As believers, we are in a day of opportunity, access, and resources unprecedented in this century. Kingdom partnership in this rapidly evolving context is rooted in the timeless, Only Source of both complete freedom and complete security. He is the ultimate guarantor of our effectiveness if we will let His power loose to restore relationships and, in great steps of faith, forge new partnerships based on those transformed relationships.
God help us to do it!