by William D. Taylor
Some suggestions from my experience to help your mission partnerships take shape and function effectively.
I want that holy and transfixing moment forever engraved on my heart. At the front of that gigantic tent, Michael Maileau, spiritual leader of the Solomon Islands, called to his brothers and sisters from his nation and from Papua New Guinea. More than 100 came forward and faced the audience. Then Michael invited people from Australia and New Zealand to the front, to kneel before them.
They knelt, and Michael’s passionate praying voice spoke, “We thank God that he used the white people to bring us the gospel, for through them we came to a knowledge of the true and living God through his Son, Jesus. We are responsible for the advance of the gospel. So now, we from PNG and the Solomons, want to share the torch of the missionary gospel with you. Take the baton with us, may we partner, let us run together, we need each other.”
As Michael spoke, the Micronesian believers blessed those kneeling, laying hands on them, praying for them, exhorting them to bold faith, encouraging them to sail with them anew in the “Deep Sea Canoe Missionary Movement” that had become their new rallying banner to reevangelize the islands and then overflow to the rest of the world. I saw believers of different races, languages, histories, cultures, and education united in partnership for the gospel, each bringing strengths to the missionary movement.
The setting was the Fifth South Pacific Prayer Assembly (February, 1995), a six-day gathering of 250 people from eight island nations. I saw a number of expressions of partnership, starting with the common passion of the leaders to celebrate worship and prayer. The diversity of this partnership was striking. It included Maori New Zea-landers, along with their white colleagues; dark skinned PNG and Solomon Islanders, along with Western missionaries who had obviously won their trust and affection; and the Fijians and Tongans.
I saw other dimensions of partnership. For example, Steve, a younger Western missionary to Muslim Indonesia, had come expressly to challenge the islanders: “Come over, work alongside us, and help us incarnate Christ in the overwhelming Islamic populations where we serve.”
I was keenly interested in his partnership proposals. He was both very serious and very creative: “We invite the churches of the South Pacific to select, equip, support, and send cross-cultural servants to serve in teamwork with us. We will provide the critical field components of strategy, supervision, pastoral care as full members of the team.”
Many details would have to be worked out, relationships had to be cultivated over time, churches and leaders had to sense this was of the Spirit. But perhaps it would not take too long before the first island teams would join their Western partners in a common task.
The New Zealand assembly beautifully showed different facets of partnerships. Here I offer some suggestions from my own experience to help your own mission partnerships take shape and function effectively.
I serve with the World Evangelical Fellowship Missions Commission, an international networking and partnering team that shares ideas, information, and resources. Our commission aims to empower the global missions movement to train and send long-term missionaries. As such, I work with about 40 leaders and some 30 movements, affirming their own vision and plans.
Let me describe two partnerships that grew out of years of listening to national leaders. First, based on our colleagues’ requests, the commission has invested in missionary training (consultations, seminars, and publications), with a primary focus on needs in the non-Western world. We have co-sponsored consultations on missionary training and partnered with national or regional mission associations, with Latin America as our initial arena.
These consultations (with heavy investment both in human and financial resources) built consensus on the need and opportunity for missionary training; later seminars equipped trainers; and finally our publications networked and expanded the training tools.
We made some mistakes, primarily when we moved ahead of our national or regional partners. We spun our wheels and spent funds in the wrong projects. I regret some of the decisions I enthusiastically took and wish I could rewind the video machine of history. The lesson: Listen before entering a partnership, and be willing to learn from mistakes and try again.
International missions leaders have asked me in recent years: “Bill, why are we losing so many good career missionaries? We sent them with such high hopes, and now they have returned home never to go back. Why is this happening? Is it only in our country? Can WEF help us?”
That launched our second major partnership venture, a research project, coordinated now by Guatemalan Rudy Girón, president of COMIBAM International. Our partners are the leaders of mission movements in Nigeria, Ghana, Costa Rica, Brazil, Philippines, Singapore, India, Korea, Australia, United Kingdom, and the United States. We want to keep gifted men and women serving with a sense of Christian challenge and satisfaction in long-term, cross-cultural service.
One of the delights in this partnership is the number of non-Western mission leaders who so believe in their partnership that they are willing to cover their own part of the budget. The lesson: Partnerships work best when there is shared ownership of the project, including finances.
In the United States, hundreds of churches are investigating partnership options, and participating in them to some degree. Some work well and some do not. Hundreds of Americans have entered Russia and Central Asia with a rapid strike force mentality. They have not identified with the culture, learned the language, or related to existing churches and national leaders. They often create havoc for the local churches and for those who have to pick up the pieces afterwards.
Of course, other churches take longer. They are willing to wait in order to do the job right. The lesson: Partnerships generated by local churches are good, but are better when leaders move wisely and cautiously.
Sometimes people say, “History has changed, and along with it the role of the historic (colonial) missionary. Yes, we thank God for the Western missionaries, though they made many mistakes. But the job can best be done with national missionaries. We plead with you to invest your funds in the most cost-effective manner—supporting our national workers.”
This is a sensitive issue in some circles. Many missions-minded people and churches are questioning the high cost of recruiting, producing, placing, and sustaining Western missionaries, particularly in high-cost cities. Admittedly, it is hard to defend investing $70,000 per year for an American missionary family to work in Japan, or $50,000 in some European countries. Why not redirect our giving to support 7,000 national workers? This seems to be good stewardship of limited resources.
Because I move among the non-Western missionary movement and try to be sensitive to its needs, I have struggled with these issues. But let me quote an Indian missions leader who told me some years ago: “If Americans want to send funds to non-Western missionaries, that may be fine in some cases. But do not rob us of the joy and responsibility to support our own people. And I fear that if Americans send now only their dollars and not their sons and daughters, the next step will be to send neither their dollars nor their sons and daughters. There is a nonbiblical extreme to be wary of. Biblical partnership means sending and supporting your own flesh and blood.” This was wise. It is not a matter of either-or, but both-and.
Another Asian missions leader told me: “A lot of Asians are raising funds in the U.S. Please tell your colleagues there to check with respected nationals in our countries who can vouch for the integrity of these ministries. Tell Americans to be careful.”
I profoundly respect agencies such as the Friends Missionary Prayer Band of India that refuseforeign money. They want their Indian supporters to sense complete ownership for the mission. In some circumstances, FMPB will accept financial investment for other projects, but they are very careful.
Other non-Western agencies accept funds only for capital investments (property, buildings, equipment, scholarships for advanced study), but not to support their missionaries. Significantly, most of these agencies are growing and having a powerful impact. The lesson: Be balanced. Don’t get sucked in by hard sells. Take time to check out potential partners before signing up.
What about church-to-church partnerships, which offer a growing menu of possibilities? These can be excellent, but we need some values and attitude checks. Who’s putting the partnership together? What is expected of each partner? Is it really a partnership, or simply a “mother (U.S., of course)-daughter (Third World, of course)” relationship designed to channel funds, or to mobilize missions in the “mother” church?
In counseling local churches getting into these agreements, I ask them their motives, their expectations, their short-range and long-range objectives. I ask them what they hope to contribute, and I probe what they hope to learn from their “sister” church. A surprising amount of American naivete, or simply cultural insensitivity, exists in many well-meaning churches. The lesson: Church-to church partnerships have real potential, but must be entered with wisdom, humility, and a teachable spirit.
What about the church that says, “We can do everything alone to have a successful missions enterprise: screen, train, send, support, etc.”? I hear this not only across the U.S. but in many other countries as well—Korea, Singapore, Guatemala, and El Salvador, to mention a few. Most of them operate alone; others are developing networks of like-minded congregations.
First, these churches sense profound ownership of the missionary task. They may have gifted leaders (with vision, management, and technology skills), and they want to be major players on the global scene with a primary (though not exclusive) target on unreached peoples. Second, some are reacting against what they perceive to be mission agency “control.” In a few cases, they have been burned. Others are unaware of the agencies.
The Holy Spirit is brooding over his church and creating new ways not only of “being the church,” but also new forms of “being the church in missions.” I doubt that most of the historic agencies will pass away, although some need to reexamine their reason for existence. Meanwhile, hundreds of new agencies are popping up, some of them solo or “mom and pop” operations. Others are driven by a broader vision that galvanizes creative people.
I am not surprised or disheartened by some of the bold, new church mission ventures. We see a new set of parallel church structures geared to global missions. In some cases this goes far beyond the pastor, the elders, or even the missions pastor.
However, I do worry about these ventures and potential partnerships. Yes, a church can screen, partially train, send, and support missionaries. But remember the “etc.” in the above paragraph? This little term is critical, for in it I cluster additional components that must exist for a healthy missionary movement: pastoral care, supervision, strategizing, teamwork, leadership.
It is one thing for the church to serve as a sending agency, but it is very much another matter for the church to serve as an adequate deploying and pastoring agency. Rare is the church that can provide the on-field infrastructure needed to sustain a strong venture over the years. Nor can any church I know of provide the complete training that is desirable and available today.
Nevertheless, some of them persistently argue the opposite. Why? Frankly, they fear losing their keen people to recruiters of other groups during their years in schooling. They also sense (rightly, in many cases) that most Bible colleges and seminaries offer mind-oriented,theoretical learning based on the formal schooling model. They do not see the schools committed to spiritual formation. They find schools divorced from local church values. They want to provide hands-on, evaluated, experience-driven training that only the local context can provide. But can they offer the complete biblical-theological-missiologi-cal training package? No. Then what can be done?
I propose two levels of partnership, training, and member care. For training, why not form strategic partnerships with schools? Churches can talk with schools, express their concerns, and negotiate a type of partnership. Perhaps the church will focus on summer school and winter term courses. A number of Bible colleges and seminaries are packaging excellent missions courses during these periods.
Churches can also work with mission agencies for field-based member care. The church in both cases sits in the driver seat. The church pays the bills (both schools and agencies must never forget this lesson). The church has the ultimate accountability, and the church is ultimately responsible for the well-being of its missionaries. The lesson: Wise churches recognize what they cannot do, and partner with those who can assist them in their long-range goals.
In considering partnerships, perhaps we can learn something from the secular world. The Economist’s cover editorial (Sept. 10-16,1994), “The trouble with mergers,” analyzed some of the major problems with mergers (for which we can substitute partnerships). It dispelled the romantic illusions about partnerships and exposed some of the weaknesses and dangers for national and global corporations.
“Entailing true romance rather than shotgun weddings, tempting synergies rather than financial opportunism, no rash of mergers has ever seemed more benign, or better calculated to boost corporate profits. The snag is that mergers can almost always be made to look that way at the time. Troubles come later. . . the real disappointment about mergers is that, on average, they do not result in higher profits or greater efficiency; indeed, they often damage these things…. Much depends on the quality of management. Even complementary firms can have different cultures, which makes melding them tricky.”
Which metaphors apply to missions partnerships? The “romance,” the “tempting synergies,” boosting “corporate profits,” “troubles come later,” the key is “management” (leadership), and “different cultures.” So must we avoid strategic partnerships because we tend to follow secular models, or because they don’t always work? Of course not.
However, some leaders do shy away for diverse reasons. For one, it’s a new concept and they lack experience. Some reflect the attitude of a leader under whom I worked for some years, who was wary of “theological ideological pollution.” He said, “We don’t need them and they don’t need us!” Others simply prefer doing their own thing with relative efficiency and effectiveness—an attitude characterized by many local churches wanting their own vertical missions movement, by some “mom and pop” operations, as well as Christian and secular organizations.
However, I sense a maturing attitude toward and commitment to sensitive and significant partnership covenants in the globalized body of Christ. For the first time, some churches and organizations are developing serious partnerships. A colleague in the U.K. reports that his agency is revising and expanding its partnerships. Another writes of his partnership with the AD2000 and Beyond Movement, with implications far beyond a one-event congress.
This movement is a massive network of networks, of partnerships within partnerships, focused on one goal—global evangelism and church planting among every group of the world. Some fear the movement is too tied to a specific date, or has talked too much about “closure,” or that its unrealistic “faith goals” may suffer from a reductionism. The fact is that God is using this visionary leadership team and its networksof networks to spur the church on.
Many older mission agencies have been engaged in viable partnerships for years. They are expanding them as rapidly as possible. For example, Trans World Radio has joined with Peter Deyneka Russian Ministries to launch the Moscow Media Center. President Thomas Lowell of TWR explains, “As we studied our common goals and needs as organizations, we realized there would be tremendous synergy from our working together more closely.”
A number of other agencies are revisiting their structures and practices to move into partnerships, many times with the churches rooted in the agency’s work in the past. At the same time, new models of partnership have emerged in organizations such as Partners International, Operation Mobilization, Youth With A Mission, and Interdev.
WHY SOME WORK
We have noted some lessons we can learn from partnerships. What seems to make some work? Why do others fail? I’ve asked a number of my colleagues. Here is a summary of their answers.
1. Partnerships born after a period of sustained trust and building of relationships tend to work. They don’t work simply because someone has a passion and rushes into a marriage of convenience “to get the job done.”
They fail when someone rushes into the partnership, even if it comes as a “gift” that will benefit the ministry. They fail when trust is lost, when personal conflicts arise, and when ego needs drain corporate energies.
2. They tend to work when there is understanding of diverse cultures. Unfortunately, some missions leaders still operate from their monocultural framework of values and behavior. They impose themselves on the partner, subconsciously perhaps regarded as the junior, or secondary, player. Westerners do not have a monopoly on this attitude. Ignoring culture makes an easy recipe for failure.
For example, many languages do not have simple equivalents for the English words “partnership” or “ accountability.” Therefore, if partnerships are to work, the covenants must have the dynamic equivalent terms that partners can share and support. Spell it out. Make it clear.
3. They tend to work when there is a commitment to a common objective, and the recognition that the partners truly need each other. They fail when goals and expectations are fuzzy, or when one partner wants to impose objectives not supported by the other.
4. They tend to work when there is a clear understanding of how each partner functions. They fail when the agreed-upon roles are ignored, or when a partner tries to change midstream without dialogue. The concept of “accountability” is critical, because the word has different meanings in different cultures. Is accountability possible without control? Yes, but it’s not easy.
5. They tend to work when the partnerships are carefully cultivated and strengthened. Amazingly, some partners assume everything is fine because the strategic alliance has been inaugurated, but they fail to care for it adequately. If the partners don’t treat the venture like a living organism, it will die.
6. They tend to work when the partners are willing to evaluate periodically and to change when necessary, ending the venture at the right time. This may be when the project is over, or when it simply is not working. There is a time to cut losses before losing friendships. Partnerships fail when we perpetuate the “dead horse.”
For some, partnership is like the Holy Grail. Everybody is talking about it but nobody has seen it! Perhaps the good term “partnership” risks losing its value through overuse. Nevertheless, God is bringing his people and organizations together.
However, we have to beware of mere partnership pragmatism, of getting more “bang for our buck,” of efficient management mechanisms. After all, isn’t there some relationship between partnership and John 17:11, 21-23? Our Lord four times calls us to demonstrate our unity. He emphasizes what will happen in the world when Christians come together.
How do we this? Here’s one story: Francisco Velásquezis a key partnership promoter and broker for the Arab Middle East and North Africa. He works for a Western agency, but his training, gifts, and Latin American personality enable him to serve with unique skill in the Arab world. Some North Americans are mystified at his ability to understand the Arab mind, as well as the ministry needs in the area.
His agency is involved in many strategic (and sometimes silent) partnerships in the area—partnerships with clear accountability, but without heavy-handed control. He is able to speak lovingly and frankly with his Arab and Berber colleagues, and some wonder how he does this.
But Francisco has been cultivating these trust relationships over years, and he has earned the right to speak. He has spent long hours drinking tea, talking, visiting some of the hottest spots in the region. He encourages, listens, learns, shares his life, and teaches in an indirect way. He talks the difficult language of audited financial statements that show how the funds were invested and spent.
The best news is that people are coming to Christ through these partnerships. The micro-minority churches in that sensitive area are strengthened, tested leaders are affirmed, and new leaders and ministries are emerging. This is partnership alive, well, and teaching the evangelical world how to do it. I’m so glad to have Francisco as my friend, example, and partner instructor.
The global body of Christ is learning about partnerships in every language and culture. Let us continue to grow, to expand, to please the heart of God without creating artificial structures. Let us be true partners in the gospel.
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