Part of a series on major issues that leaders may encounter in the life cycle of mission networks, this article explores the vital role and skills of the network facilitator.
Collaborative partnerships do not spontaneously form on their own. Neither do they run all by themselves. It takes tremendous dedication not only to launch a collaborative initiative, but even more so to lead one. When a collaborative partnership moves into the Operational Phase, it is absolutely essential to have a committed coordinator – a “facilitator” – who can serve the ongoing function of the whole partnership.
You might ask: “What is a facilitator? What do facilitators actually do? What kinds of qualities does this role require?” The following article provides some of the answers to those questions.
In brief, the partnership facilitator is a person – or a team of people – approved by the partnership to coordinate its day-to-day operation. This person is usually loaned to the partnership by a partner agency that is dedicated to the big vision and allows the facilitator to serve in a neutral role for the common good. Most effective partnerships value the contribution of the facilitator and provide for their resources, training, and encouragement.
Facilitators must have a deep personal commitment to the purpose of the partnership as well as the process of working together. Thus, this person must sometimes play the simultaneous roles of prophet (keeping the focus on the big vision) and servant (demonstrating concern for each partner).
The Purpose & The Process
As in all human enterprise, people determine the success or failure of any collaborative effort. By people, with people, and for people – that’s the essence of partnership. Helping people work together to accomplish something they could not do alone is what it’s all about. The most salient feature of the facilitator’s role – and one of the greatest challenges in effective partnership – is that facilitators must constantly affirm and uplift both the purpose (the big vision – what you trying to accomplish) and the process (working together – how you are trying to realize the vision). Both the purpose and the process must be firmly fixed in the heart and mind of the facilitator.
- The purpose: What is your dream? What is it that you and your colleagues want to see changed? What is the point of the partnership? It is not merely the value of working together. Rather, what changes are you hoping and praying for because people will work together? Working together for partnership’s sake isn’t enough. There has to be a vision that attracts, motivates, and sustains people’s interest. It’s your partnership’s purpose.
- The process: You have a vision for something no single individual or ministry can do alone. That’s the purpose – the what. But as challenging as that vision is, equally challenging is the process – the how – working together in collaboration to realize that vision.
As you dream and work toward an effective partnership, keep praying that God will keep those two elements – purpose and process – alive in you. If the process is long, it may be hard for you and your colleagues to keep the purpose alive in your hearts. But keep in mind that if you are really trying to do something no individual or ministry can do alone, then you’re probably working on something that, in principle, is no small affair! It may take longer than you thought, but its potential is infinitely greater!
The Prophet & The Servant
In order to constantly affirm and uplift both the purpose and the process of the partnership, facilitators must consistently play two roles. To serve the partnership best, you have to be both a prophet and a servant. Split personality? No. Important? Yes! Let’s examine what that really means.
- The Prophet.You may say, “I certainly don’t feel like a prophet, and I’m not sure I want to be one!” The very word may bring to mind unsettling images: Jeremiah thrown down an empty well and sinking into the mud to die (Jer. 38:5-6); Elijah’s life-or-death confrontation with the priests of Baal (1 Kings 18:18-40); or John the Baptist dressed in animal skins, eating locusts and wild honey (Mark 1:6).
But consider some of the roles of prophets. They help people see and think about what they don’t usually see or think about – or don’t want to see or think about! They call people back to their core values, like, “God’s people really ought to be working together.” They remind people of their commitments. They remind people of their priorities. They frequently help renew or focus the vision, and with that vision comes new hope. In short, they are communicators with commitment.
If God has really placed a vision in your heart, a dream of something you know is consistent with his character and the needs you see, are you willing to communicate that commitment? And communicate it again? And again? And again?
In your role as a prophet you:
- Serve as an advocate, an ambassador for the vision of working together. Hold out the vision that it is possible to work together, that others are doing it, and that it really can make a difference.
- Encourage the group by helping them see what they’ve accomplished or the progress they’ve made.
- Help the group monitor and evaluate its work – providing encouragement, course correction, and reports to others.
Whether in one-on-one appointments, small group sessions, or large group meetings, the prophetic role of the facilitator means you can’t let a partnership drift, get sidetracked, or lose its focus.
Obviously, you can’t (and shouldn’t) force anything. The vision and commitment has to be growing in the hearts of all the participants. But the reality is that participants can get preoccupied with either their own organization’s agenda or some detail of the partnership that their particular task force or working group is addressing. Keeping the focus on the big picture is a vital role for the prophet.
- The Servant. That great passage in Philippians 2:6-7 summarizes the model for this facilitation role:
He always had the nature of God, but he did not think that by force he should try to become equal with God. Instead of this, of his own free will he gave up all that he had, and took the nature of a servant. (TEV)
Was Jesus considered a prophet? Did he have a clear vision? Did he provide extraordinary leadership? Of course! But here we see him characterized as the model servant. Does this mean you are passive in your servant role as a facilitator? Hardly. Commitment to this vision takes time, prayer, work, connections, and initiative. You listen, you learn, you help, but the servant never loses the clarity of his or her vision. That prophetic vision is always there in the background like your “north star” guiding all you do.
In your role as a servant, you will:
- Help individual ministries see where they can or do fit into the bigger picture.
- Help ministries find points in common they never knew they had.
- Help ministries integrate their work – finding ways to link with others when they’ve never done it before.
- Help fellow believers build and strengthen relationships.
- Help the partnership or network work well – and keep working – through effective communications, meetings, productive task forces, etc. As the partnership or network grows and individuals or groups with the initiative emerge with various gifts, many of these roles can and should be given to others. This increases their sense of ownership and responsibility. But keep your eyes, ears, and heart open. You’ll find there will always be a need for your servant role.
Because of our deep commitment to the vision and the process, it’s tempting to cross the line and try to make sure the outcomes occur the way we’ve hoped and prayed for. But crossing the line can easily take us from facilitation to manipulation. It’s a dangerous place to be – with a short-term life and dubious future. With prophetic insights, as a servant, you must constantly help the group members refocus on the importance of their own vision and the consensus they’d already achieved.
Character & Credibility
You may have brains, contacts, knowledge and experience, but unless you are personally credible, you won’t be able to serve well. Dictionaries often characterize credibility as being trustworthy, believable, or reliable. How do you become credible in the eyes of those in your partnership?
You can possess ascribed credibility – that is, folks hear from other sources what you have done in some other situation and believe it, even though they haven’t worked with you. They trust others who trust you. They apply or ascribe those qualities to you because of what others have said.
Then there’s earned credibility. If you are going to work with a partnership over a period of time, even the most generous amount of ascribed credibility must eventually become earned credibility.
People need to get to know you and watch your life and performance day in and day out, week in and week out. They establish their own perception of your credibility.
Here are some factors that can strengthen your credibility as a facilitator:
- You demonstrate you have a heart and spirit of maturity, clearly committed to Christ and his Kingdom.
- You demonstrate a sense of urgency about the vision on your heart—whether it is a neighborhood, a special sector of people in your city, or an unreached people group in a distant location.
- You demonstrate knowledge about what’s involved in successful collaboration.
- Your organization, if you are attached to one, has a good reputation.
- You remain neutral and committed to everyone’s success, together, rather than to a private, one-person or one-organization agenda.
- You show genuine interest in other ministry leaders and their vision.
- You are consistent in what you say and how you act.
- You handle confidential or sensitive information responsibly—both what you say and don’t say about other ministries and their leaders is important.
- You keep your promises. You do what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it. If you find you can’t keep the promises, you’re honest and indicate realistically what you are going to do.
Obviously, how you work is as important as what you do. As you think about the qualities of an effective facilitator, never confuse a strong personality with a loud, dominant, or aggressive personality. Facilitating Kingdom collaboration calls for strong vision, commitment, and willingness to keep going even in the face of daunting challenges. Those challenges may be in communicating the overall vision or in a one-on-one meeting with someone who just doesn’t seem to “get it.” But
strength and effectiveness starts with who you are – deep inside. Eventually, if not very soon, who you are will always come out in what you do.
For most of us, it’s natural to wonder what others think of us. But to intentionally evaluate your communication and relational effectiveness isn’t so natural. Taking time to reflect on how you “come off” to people, why they think of you as they do, requires intentionality. One way to think about your style and, therefore, your effectiveness in partnership development is to ask: “What kind of impression do I make as I meet and work with others? What do folks think or say about my style following our meetings together? Would they recommend that a friend, colleague, or head of another organization meet with me?”
Many times, of course, we can pick up how effective our leadership is by the way things go or the anecdotal things people say. But there’s no substitute to simply asking people how they think you’re doing. When you do your partnership evaluation, whether it’s at the end of a particular meeting or on an annual basis, always include evaluation of your facilitator or facilitation team. If the responses are anonymous, you will likely get good feedback. Even more important is to ask those you trust to be honest, not necessarily your friends who will just say complimentary things. It’s often hard to ask others for this personal feedback. Sometimes people feel awkward because they want to be pleasant and affirming and avoid issues that seem negative. Here are some approaches you can take:
- “How did you think things went – what did you think was effective and what could have been done better?”
- “What could I (or we, if you’re working with a facilitation team) have done differently to get a stronger outcome?”
- “What suggestions would you make about the way I facilitate these meetings (the work) in the future? What would make things work better?”
Experience over the years suggests that the most effective style is one that brings together sincerity, vision, and conviction, combined with a low-key or calm approach to the process. A sense of humor is always valuable, even if you’re discussing serious matters. There’s always something on the lighter side that can bring smiles and help lower the intensity of the discussions. Take your vision and topic of collaboration seriously. But don’t take yourself too seriously!
Most of us have a way of communicating or relating to people that we have developed over the years, often almost unconsciously. It is helpful to become aware of the style or communication approach of your audience. Then, while being true to yourself, try to communicate or relate in a way that is consistent with your audience’s style. Whether it’s an individual or a group, the way they communicate is important to them and affects how you will be received. Imagine sitting in the other person’s chair while looking at and listening to yourself. What’s the impression you get? Is it the impression you want to communicate? What, if anything, would help you communicate more effectively? Keep in mind that you’re speaking with people, not to them.
Asking & Listening
In question-and-answer sessions, we are often asked about our most difficult experiences in developing collaborative initiatives around the world. In a recent workshop, one participant asked: “Who were the most difficult people you’ve ever worked with?” The answer to that question is quite easy.
The most difficult people to work with are the people who “know” they are right. They never ask questions. They never listen. In the partnership facilitator’s role, effective listening is absolutely vital. While this may seem obvious, we can all improve as listeners. The problem is that we’ve been listening for so long we
think it’s “natural.” Almost like the rhythm of our heartbeat, controlled by our autonomic nervous system, we assume we don’t have to think about it! Typically, it’s only when we’re challenged, things aren’t clear, or other interpersonal difficulties arise that we even give passing thought to our communications. Even then, our effectiveness as listeners is often last to come to mind.
Many times in conversations, people are not really listening. They are simply waiting for their turn to talk and instead of listening they are formulating their “monologue” in their minds. So, here is a place to start. Be quiet. A key element of good listening is not speaking. Effective communication is not necessarily eloquence – using words or vocal intonation well. Your effectiveness is often in what you don’t say and when you don’t speak. But don’t think of being quiet as being passive. Being quiet is a vital part of thoughtful, active listening.
Effective listening is also closely linked to being able and willing to ask good questions. Think of some of the people you know or have lived or worked with. They’re absolutely certain of what they know and believe and aren’t interested in listening to others – much less asking any real questions. The more certain we are of our position, the less we are likely to be genuinely curious – wanting to ask questions and know even more. Active listening is far from a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of maturity and effectiveness.
In this context, think about Jesus. How much does he know? He is by very nature “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by the power of his word” (Heb. 1:3). As we read the Gospels, we see that Jesus knew the hearts of men and women hearts before they spoke. Yet despite His all-encompassing understanding and knowledge, he was the master questioner.
The Old Testament, from the first chapters of Genesis, points us in the God direction. God talks with us, not to us. Think about it. How did God deal with Adam and Eve after their fateful decision? Did he immediately declare them guilty? Did he immediately pronounce judgment? Go back and read the first half of Genesis 3. At this most critical, watershed moment of the human saga, how did he communicate? God knew what had happened; he knew the hearts of Adam and Eve. He knew what the fateful consequences were going to be. Still, he did not make statements. God asked questions!
And as he asked, Adam and Eve discovered their own tragic dilemma. All through the Old Testament and the gospels and the chronicle of Jesus’ life, we find account after wonderful account of God in two-way communication with men and women.
As a partnership facilitator you need to be deeply committed to the issues you’re working on; the essential challenge or vision God has put on your heart, as well as the idea that, to realize that vision, God’s people need to work together. But never think that your commitment to a vision and the need to listen are mutually exclusive.
Here are a few questions that, in almost any situation, can strengthen your communication, raise the effectiveness of your listening, increase your understanding, and strengthen the relationship:
- “I believe I hear what you’re saying, but would you mind restating it another way?” (Remember, this is not a game! You’re not just playing dumb. If you listen carefully, the answers to these questions will flesh out your understanding and often provide another perspective or information you didn’t have.)
- “May I try to restate what I think I’ve heard you say, to make sure I understand?”
- “Would you mind elaborating a bit more on this?”
- “What other aspects of this issue would be helpful for me to know?”
Asking good questions and listening carefully does several things:
- It reflects humility. We acknowledge we really don’t know everything. It’s a great place to start.
- It allows us to actually learn – about people, facts, circumstances, history, relationships and a host of other things vital to achieving our vision.
- It communicates respect to the person we’re interacting with. It says, “You’re valuable – your history and experience. You’re worth listening to.”
Effective, active listening strengthens your credibility, provides access to a rich tapestry of information, and yields fresh ideas about needs, opportunities, or ways the partnership can work more effectively.
As an effective partnership facilitator, you have to listen to many voices. There’s the Holy Spirit, the group you’re trying to reach or serve, and the people that make up your partnership (speaking for themselves or their organization). You also need to be listening to your advisers – the facilitation team or steering committee that’s behind you and the vision.
Encourage active listening throughout your partnership. Participants who know they will be listened to and taken seriously will listen to others. Relationships will be strengthened, and the partnership will become more effective.
Serving Everyone & Serving No One
The truth is, serving as a facilitator can be a lonely task. You’re helping the partnership ministries and team members realize their individual and collective dreams. But while working for all of them, you don’t actually work for any of them. As a prophet upholding the fundamental purpose of the partnership, you work for no one. But as a servant, upholding the essential process of working together, you work for everyone. This is the daily tension in which a facilitator must live. But like the tension of a rubber band, or the opposite poles of a magnet, or the flow of electricity, these two sides of the facilitator’s role (the prophet & the servant) can energize the work of the partnership.
Understanding this tension, it is vital for a facilitator to have personal accountability. We all need to be responsible to someone. In a company, the CEO is responsible to the board. And that accountability goes right on down through the ranks. In the case of a partnership facilitator, it’s very
important that you define as clearly and early as possible who you are accountable to. Partnership participants need to know this! Asking for this kind of relationship with the group will enhance your credibility and give you a greater sense of security in knowing what’s expected of you. It will also allow you to report on your work with much more confidence. Usually the facilitator is responsible to the steering committee or leadership team. These individuals are often selected by the partnership to represent the group’s interests on a day-to-day basis.
Here is one suggestion. Based on the expectations for your role (which you have clarified with your steering committee or leadership team), you need to draft a job description or assignment profile.
This should define the role, the specific outcomes expected, who you’re responsible to, and what you’re responsible for. Since facilitators are often “loaned” by their parent organization for this role, there can easily be confusion as to who you work for and what expenditures of time and energy are
expected of you. That is one reason why this description of your role is so important.
Then, with your team, agree on a reporting schedule – even a single page with a few standard headings based on your job description, produced regularly (weekly or, at a minimum, monthly) for that team. It is a great discipline for you, and it’s a core communications element as you serve the wider group. If nothing else, those reports become wonderful tools for review as you look back over your work of previous months or years. They become a kind of “log” of your journey.
It’s just as important for the facilitator as it is for the overall partnership or network to set limited, achievable objectives with a realistic timetable. While keeping the big vision always in mind, establish your personal, valuable, near-term goals in a way that allows you to focus and be
encouraged as, step by step, you see progress.
Even in the best of cases, being responsible to a team of people who give their time (usually as volunteers) on a partnership or network steering committee – no matter how deep their commitment – just isn’t the same as working for one person or organization.
Just remember – you can’t do it alone. After all, this is partnership we’re talking about! Early in the process you need to be identifying those who share the vision and can share work load. If you take a team approach to facilitation, make sure the communication roles and responsibilities are clear. The wider partnership or network needs to know who they will hear from and who they can go to with questions or issues.
Once a partnership gets underway, it will need to have its own steering committee, facilitation team, or coordinating group. (The term you choose for this team has to communicate to the wider group that these individuals are serving the partnership, not telling members what to do!)
Particularly if you have been instrumental in stating the vision and giving early leadership to the partnership’s formation, it will be easy to communicate an exaggerated sense of your “ownership,” even though you really do want others to be involved. At times that can lead people to say, “OK, we’ll leave it to you.” Or worse, “I don’t think you really want others helping in the leadership of this initiative.”
We recommend getting others involved “up front” as early in the process as possible so the wider group can clearly see that it isn’t a one-person vision. But don’t just leave this process to chance or good intentions. The facilitator needs to work with these people to agree on what role they will play, how the process (meetings, discussions, etc.) will work, and the outcomes you all want.
One of the most important things for the partnership facilitator to do is to give away the vision. That’s not giving it up! Give it to others, so they understand, personally own, and are willing to take with you the steps necessary to turn dream into reality.
You may ask, “How can I possibly do all that?!” Helping God’s people work together isn’t easy. Satan is after you. Well-intentioned folks don’t want to break from “tradition.” Those who expressed early enthusiasm may not return your phone calls. Things may have gotten complicated. Relationships may seem difficult. In the middle of it all, remember:
- The idea for God’s people to work together was his, not yours. We just need to make sure that what we’re doing and how we’re doing it is guided by him and affirmed by trustworthy people who love him, listen to him, and are committed to his church.
- The vision is important – what you’re trying to accomplish can make a real difference.
- Ultimately, only the love and power of Jesus will carry you through. Unless he’s in it, providing wisdom, vision, and hourly and daily encouragement, you won’t get far.
The Psalmist said it well: If the Lord does not build the house, the work of the builders is useless. (Psalm 127:1 TEV) But, the good news is that God has been there before you. Looking straight at you, he says, Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke and put it on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in spirit; and you will find rest. For the yoke I will give you is easy, and the load I will put on you is light. (Matt. 11:28-30 TEV)
Because Jesus is alive and loves you and his people, he wants to communicate with you just as he did when he walked around Palestine – healing, encouraging, and bringing hope. Stay close to him. Ask him, listen to him, and reflect on what he says – in your private devotions, through his word, and through the godly people around you. He is the vision. He is the source for anything of lasting value that you will do.
He who calls you will do it, because he is faithful. (1 Thess. 5:24 TEV)