A Lesson from Jose: Understanding the Patron/Client Relationship

by James Tino

Aside from the discipling/mentoring aspect, there are at least four arenas in which a proper understanding of patronage will have an impact on the effectiveness of missionary service.

On the surface, Jose’s request was quite ordinary: “Can you loan me some money so that I can plant my crops?” As a relatively new missionary, I understood the request to be a simple financial transaction, which I evaluated using my own cost/risk criteria (the amount of money requested versus the chance of ever seeing any of it again). It was only much later—when I was no longer serving in Rio Chiquito — that I came to understand that with those words, Jose was asking me to enter into a reciprocal relationship described by anthropologists as “patronage.”

Rio Chiquito (“little river”) is an agricultural community strung out along a river valley in eastern Venezuela. The inhabitants are located primarily in three main settlements which are about one to two miles apart. There is only one road, and nearly all of the houses in each settlement are along the road. The people in these communities live typical Latin American campesino (peasant) lifestyles. The fertile land along the riverbanks is mostly owned by a few large landowners. Most of the men work for one of the landowners or work their own plots of land, which are located far up into the surrounding hills. The primary crops are black beans, coffee, tomatoes, and other vegetables.

I had been a missionary in Venezuela for about two years when I began assisting the small Lutheran congregation located in the middle settlement of Rio Chiquito. The church had been planted some thirty-five years earlier, and in the past had been served by missionaries and local leaders. The congregation had come on hard times and was lacking pastoral leadership. Because of this, they had requested help from the missionaries. Although I was exercising pastoral care of the church, my primary task was to train new leaders for the congregation. The congregation had put forth two candidates for leadership: an older man named Andres and a 16-year-old named Jose. Of the two, Jose demonstrated a higher aptitude for leadership.

Since my primary mission responsibilities were in the capital city located some sixty miles away, I visited Rio Chiquito two days per week. As a part of the leadership training process, I would spend considerable time with Jose and Andres, teaching basic theology and preparing them for their roles in the Sunday worship service. It was after only a few months of training that Jose came to me with the above-mentioned request for a loan.

I was initially taken aback since I did not live in the community and was not well acquainted with the “ins and outs” of agricultural life. I asked some basic questions about what the loan would be used for and how it would be repaid. The amount requested was about $100—a considerable sum for me at the time, but not beyond reach. I agreed to loan Jose the money.

About a month later, he came to me again and requested money for pesticides. This time, the request was not formulated as a “request”; instead, he said something like, “Pastor, I need the money for the pesticide.” Quite surprised, I asked Jose how much that would cost. “Fifty dollars,” he replied. I began to get an ominous feeling, and asked him if this would be the final loan request, or if there would be more requests to follow. It was Jose’s turn to look surprised. He gave me a lesson on tomato planting: “First you need the seed, the stakes, and wires. Then you need the first pesticide, then come the fertilizers. Then the second pesticide, then the huacales (wooden crates) for the harvest and the wages for the helpers.” I began to see I had gotten myself into something much bigger than I had anticipated. I asked Jose to estimate how much the whole thing would cost; his best guess was in the neighborhood of $500—a sum that would have put a severe strain on my personal finances and was far outside of my comfort zone for informal loans. I told Jose that regretfully I would not be able to continue financing his tomato crop. He was dumbfounded and seemed quite despondent. He said that if I could not continue, the investment made so far would be lost. I told him that I accepted the loss, and would not require of him any repayment. In my mind, the matter was settled.

After that, Jose began to be absent more and more frequently from the leadership training meetings. Finally, I was working one-on-one with Andres. Jose’s attendance at Sunday worship become sporadic, and he finally stopped attending church altogether. In spite of repeated visits to his home, I could never convince Jose to resume his active role in the church. He was eventually completely lost to the church, and perhaps to the kingdom as well. What went wrong?

The entire exchange and the resulting unfortunate consequences can be understood in the context of patronage. By one definition, the patron/client relationship is “a mutually obligatory arrangement between an individual who has authority, social status, wealth, or some other personal resource (the patron), and another person who benefits from his or her support or influence (the client).”1 It is a reciprocal relationship between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

In the patron/client relationship, the patron provides job opportunities, investment capital, and “insurance” against catastrophic financial failure by absorbing losses in the case of an emergency or calamity. The patron is also a “gatekeeper,” providing access to knowledge, information, or people who would otherwise be out of reach of the client.

In return, the clients support the patron. Clients may pay rent to their patron for housing or land, or they may pay a percentage of their earnings to their patron. Clients may also provide domestic services such as cleaning, cooking, or hauling water and firewood. Clients are loyal to their patrons and support their political aspirations and leadership initiatives (c.f. Stein 1996, 906).

All of this “reciprocity” is wrapped up in a personal relationship that can be described as a “friendship with strings.” Patrons and clients treat each other with mutual respect and publically affirm each other. I have observed patron/client relationships that I would describe as deep friendships. The patrons and clients socialize together and participate in the details of each others’ lives.

From our Western perspective, patronage is “quite a different way of managing resources and meeting needs” (deSilva 2000, 96). We tend to view it as favoritism or nepotism— evils that should be carefully avoided. From our individualistic and democratic perspective, we believe that access to education, goods, and services should be provided on the basis of who you are or what you do, not on the basis of who you know. Patronage goes against our deeply-held convictions that everyone should have equal access to whatever opportunities or benefits are to be found in a society, and that the granting of access to those benefits should come about as the result of an impartial bureaucratic process, and not as a personal favor granted by a patron (deSilva 2000, 95-96).

Descriptions of patronage systems from all over the world abound in anthropological literature. Originally understood as a purely political system that resulted from a dysfunctional state which was unable to provide access to goods and services, it was thought that patronage would disappear as the state developed adequate political systems (Mitchell 1996, 417). Recent studies, however, have demonstrated that patronage persists even alongside functional democracies. In anthropological circles, patronage is “increasingly seen as another mode of political activity, which (is) not necessarily dysfunctional” (1996, 417). Patronage is more than a political relationship, however. Author David A. deSilva points out that patronage is a long-term relationship in which both patron and client receive benefits—a classic “win-win” situation (2000, 97). While the patron/client relationship may be abused or exploited (as with any other relationship), patronage per se is not abusive or exploitative. In many societies, it is the preferred way of doing things—much better than, for example, subsistence-wage common labor, sharecropping, or migrant labor.

The missiological task is not to attempt to “change the system”; rather, it is to identify and understand patron/client relationships and utilize them for the good of the kingdom. This is particularly important because Western missionaries—due to their relative wealth and the status conferred on them—will be viewed as potential patrons in their host culture.2 As my experience with Jose demonstrates, being uninformed about the dynamics of patronage or unwilling to work within a patron/client system benefits neither the missionary nor the persons to whom we are ministering.

With this is mind, it is surprising that so little missiological reflection on patronage has been published. A rather energetic search surfaced only four potentially relevant readings. Of these, an article by Delbert Chinchen brings some relevant insights from a missionary perspective into our discussion.

Chinchen writes from the context of his experience as the director of African Bible College in Liberia. He discerned four steps which are to be followed in order to establish a relationship with a potential patron: “admiration, visits, token gifts, and request” (1995, 447). These steps are executed by the client over a period of time during which the patron has the opportunity to evaluate the character, sincerity, and intentions of the aspiring client (1995, 448). These steps are not codified or formalized in any way; they are just “known.” If the potential patron is inexperienced or gullible (like many foreign missionaries), the client may shortcut the process and proceed directly to the “request.” It is the patron’s duty to ensure that the client follows the proper procedures so that the resulting relationship is mutually beneficial. If the “shortcut” is successful, the missionary will find him or herself “overwhelmed with requests from clients who hope for quick responses” (1995, 448).

Chinchen reports that he has successfully utilized the patronage system to develop deep and lasting relationships which have served as an indigenous model for discipleship. He contends that within this framework, values can be transmitted at a deeper level from the patron (missionary) and the client (disciple). Eventually, the patron phases out the dependency relationship so that the client is able to stand on his own (1995, 451). Relevant to my experience with Jose, Chinchen makes the following observation:

After performing all of the required protocol…the client finally marshals enough courage to request some tangible or intangible assistance. He has tried to prepare the way so that a positive response will be forthcoming from the patron. To be refused would be humiliating and devastating. If the patron says no when he has the ability to help, the relationship dies and the patron’s reputation is tarnished. (1995, 449)

Returning to Rio Chiquito, it must have been devastating to Jose when I refused his second request, especially when I had already “agreed” to the relationship! It is no wonder that our relationship died, and that Jose absented himself from our arena of interaction, the local church. According to Chinchen, my reputation in the community was also tarnished. However, since I was so naively unaware of what was going on, I cannot recall any evidence which would indicate that my reputation was either tarnished or intact.

If I had understood the patron/client relationship, the outcome of my experience in Rio Chiquito may have been quite different. In exchange for assistance with his crops, Jose would certainly have applied himself diligently to his studies and preparation as a church leader. Rather than exploiting his labor in the fields, I could have received a monetary return equal to the amount loaned, providing the “profit” to Jose and his family for their own betterment. Jose could have become a leader in the church and eventually would have improved his station in life so that he would no longer need my financial patronage. Eventually, he could have become a patron himself, mentoring other young men in the community as Christian disciples, transmitting the values that he had received as a client of the missionary-patron. As it stands, however, Rio Chiquito is still without a local pastor, and the congregation is served by deacons who visit periodically from the city.

My experience with Jose provides one example of the importance of understanding patron/client relationships while serving as missionaries in societies where patronage is commonplace. Aside from the discipling/ mentoring aspect, there are at least four other arenas in which a proper understanding of patronage will have an impact on the effectiveness of missionary service.

1. Managing requests for money and favors. As Chinchen rightly pointed out, many unscrupulous potential clients will attempt the “shortcut,” and directly ask the missionary or patron for money or favors without investing the requisite time into the relationship. In such cases, the missionary could direct the potential client to the proper protocol, reminding the client of the patron’s other important obligations and asking him or her to come again to visit at another time.3 Those who return will have entered into the “trust-building” stage, and the development of the relationship can proceed at a more deliberate pace. At the same time, if a patron/client relationship develops, the missionary needs to be prepared to put aside his or her Western self-sufficiency and identify legitimate needs the client can meet.

2. Understanding tensions among church leaders. In one case, a national pastor in a Caribbean nation developed new pastoral leadership by mentoring selected men in a patron/client relationship. Over time, the patron seemed unwilling to “let go” of his clients, and they began to chafe under the limitations imposed on their service. With the encouragement of well-intentioned yet uninformed American visitors, the clients eventually severed the relationship with their patron and began their own ministries (funded by their new patron, the Americans). The separation was not done in the “proper way,” and the original patron—who was now deeply offended—refused any further contact with his former clients. To this day, the breach has not been healed and the tensions between the former patron and clients remain extremely high.

In this example, an understanding of the dynamics of patronage is essential for comprehending an otherwise inscrutable state of affairs. How could godly men—pastors, at that!—be so unwilling to heal a damaged relationship? Many Western observers and church leaders have sought to understand the difficulty between those men, and have exhorted them to forgive each other and to heal the relationship. All of the men involved claim they have forgiven the other; however, the relationship still has not been repaired.

In that particular cultural context, what needs to happen is that the former clients must repent and apologize to their former patron, attempting to restore his fame and good name. This will be difficult, however, because all of the former clients have now become significant patrons in their own churches, and it would be both unseemly and highly unusual for a patron to position him or herself as a client once again. For the former clients, new rules now govern the relationship: the rules of patron-to-patron interaction. The former patron, however, is waiting for them to follow the proper protocol and to restore his honor in order to restore the relationship.

Missionaries who are unaware of the dynamics of patronage risk misinterpreting the real source of conflicts among church leaders, both in situations where a missionary is present and (as in my case) in situations where no missionary is present.

3. Effecting a healthy withdrawal of missionary presence. In situations where a congregation has been planted by a missionary (as often happens in urban areas today), several local leaders can work together as a harmonious team because all of them are clients of the same patron. When the missionary withdraws, however, the role of patron is left vacant, and in many cases there is an ensuing power struggle among the local leaders to determine who will fill that role. As I have personally witnessed, these power struggles can completely decimate the church the missionary worked so hard to establish. Usually, the conflict is resolved when only one leader is “left standing” — and often, very few of the former members of the church are left with him or her.

One way to avoid the problem is to train only one local leader, to have only one “client.” In most cases, however, missionaries train multiple leaders so that the work can extend exponentially. In cases where several national leaders are expected to work together as a team after the missionary departs, the inevitable struggle for patron ascendancy can only be avoided by the selection and installation (however that may happen) of the local pastor while the missionary is still present. The missionary will need to effect a gradual transferal of his or her patronage duties to the new pastor, until such a time as the new pastor is the acknowledged patron. Only then can the withdrawal of the missionary be effected without causing severe upheaval in the congregation’s leadership.

4. Avoiding foreign models of church governance. In societies where patronage is practiced, patron/client relationships form the backbone of the political system. Clients (and their families) vote in solidarity with their patron in order to maintain or increase his or her position in society. Patrons form mutually beneficial alliances with other patrons, and help each other to gain or maintain access to the political “prizes” of power and influence. To the Western observer, the system seems somehow improper and immoral. To the cultural insider, however, such a system is natural and the way things should be done.

Patronage models of governance differ from Western models of governance on at least two major points. First, Western models of governance are individualistic. Ideally, leaders are chosen on the basis of their personal qualities or qualifications; ideas are selected or discarded on the basis of their individual merit. In contrast, a patronage system is relational. Leaders are selected on the basis of the number of relationships which they maintain and the quality of those relationships; ideas are selected or discarded on the basis of the person advocating the idea.

Second, Western governance models are democratic. Each person has an equal voice, and the majority opinion is the determining factor in selecting a course of action. In contrast, a patronage system is reciprocal. Each person’s voice is heard only in the context of their role (patron, client, or “independent”), and the determining factor is the agreement between patrons over the proper course of action. Clients will vote with their patrons, and if the influential patrons agree on a matter, generally there will not be enough “independents” to influence the decision. Both patrons and clients know that if they “go along with” something to which they have personal reservations, at a future time they will “get it back” in the form of patron support for “my issue” or some other special consideration.
Based on my own experience, that is how the “democratic process” works in many areas of Latin America, and perhaps also in other countries throughout the world. Yet over and over I have seen models of church governance which are based on the Western ideals of individualism and democracy. Westerners invest considerable time into training their national brethren to govern their churches by a Western model, and in many cases, they succeed. When conflicts arise, however, the Western democratic vote does not settle the issue. People align themselves with one leader (patron) or another, and if the patrons cannot settle the matter between them, the church splits along patronage lines. The independents, in order to avoid aligning themselves with one patron or the other, join a different church or are lost to the kingdom.

How much better would it be to acknowledge patronage as a legitimate form of governance, and allow the national leaders to sort out for themselves how to govern their church? At the very least Western missionaries need to separate democracy from Christianity. We need to control our urge to organize and write church constitutions as the first step of the church-planting process, and simply serve the people until an authentic form of church governance emerges from the people. This may mean that “voters’ meetings” would become formalities, convened to publicly ratify decisions already made by the patron. But this could also mean the emergence of authentic governance models that make sense to the people, and that can be operated intuitively and effectively by national leaders.

1. “patron client relationship” on www.webref.org/anthropology/p/patron_client_relationship.htm.

2. Non-Western church leaders who have received a Western education and then have returned to their home culture will also be viewed as potential patrons. The difference is that they understand the system and will be able to properly exercise their patron role.

3. This is how Chinchen handles improper requests for money; c.f. his example of the army soldiers, p. 448.

Chinchen, Delbert. 1995. “The Patron-Client System: A Model of Indigenous Discipleship.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 31(4): 446-451.

deSilva, David A. 2000. Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

Mitchell, Jon P. 1996. “Patrons and Clients.” In Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Eds. Alan Bernard and Jonathan Spencer, 417. New York: Routledge.

Patron Client Relationship (Anthromorphemics). Accessed February 7, 2008 from www.webref.org/anthropology/p/patron_client_relationship.htm.

Stein, William W. 1996. “Patronage.” In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, vol. 3. Eds. David Levinson and Melvin Ember, 905-907. New York: Henry Holt and Company.


Rev. James Tino served as an evangelistic missionary in Venezuela for thirteen years and as a mission executive for the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod for three years. He is currently planting a multi-ethnic congregation in Miramar, Florida, and serves as an adjunct professor at Trinity International University, South Florida campus.

Copyright © 2008 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

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