Of Partnerships and Power Trips

by Gary Corwin

The differences between true partnerships and power trips disguised as partnerships are significant.

One of the great and encouraging truths of our time is the rapid expansion of energetic mission from the Global South following fast on the heels of massive church extension in so many parts of Africa, Latin America and several regions of Asia. The growth is visible and the energy is palpable. Hallelujah! What is less encouraging is that too much of the celebratory rhetoric that has been engendered in the Global North (West) as a result still seems to be less than meets the eye.

Partnership continues to be one of the most touted concepts—but unevenly practiced paradigms—in the modern mission enterprise. Whether one is talking North to South, church to agency, agency to church, church to church or agency to agency, the practice often fails to reach the level of the promise. Overall, regional or more narrowly-focused partnerships seem to do better than global ones; however, even they reflect many of the same problematic characteristics. I recently became aware of rumblings in some mission and academic circles concerning the desirability of having college and seminary curriculum tracks devoted specifically to the subject of partnerships. May it soon be so!

The differences between true partnerships and power trips disguised as partnerships are significant. Those differences look something like this:

1. True partnerships don’t start with an agenda, but with a relationship and a goal. The agenda then develops over time as the partners together seek the best ways to achieve the goal. Power trips tend to confuse pre-conceived agendas with pre-ordained paths to achieving their goal.

2. True partnerships seek to operate within the bounds of shared first principles, while those on power trips seek to push out the boundaries of shared activity to bring partners under the sway of principles that they alone may hold.

3. True partnerships seek to make sure that all points of view are represented in decisions that affect all, while power trips employ the levers of structural power to ensure that a particular point of view dominates.

4. True partnerships are essentially organic and largely other-oriented; power trips are political and self-centered.

5. Trust and unity are the essential currency of true partnerships. While power trips honor these words, they tend to use them as euphemisms for everyone doing things in a particular way. Manipulation is a rare aberration in partnerships. It is the modus operandi of power trips.

So how do we ensure that we are moving beyond power trip patterns to true partnership? Several things are necessary:

1. “Loving our neighbors as ourselves,” and repeatedly asking the question, “Is this really what I would want if I were wearing my partner’s shoes?” We have to be honest with ourselves before we can be honest with others.

2. Leaving our preferred methods and agendas at home until there has been a thorough discussion with potential partners of needs, goals and purposes. Joint agreement on the mission, and on first principles, must begin the discussion of methods. You cannot assume that they are synonymous with the mission.

3. Learning to accommodate decision-making processes that are different from what we are used to. Speed and efficiency may have to take a backseat to ownership and effectiveness.

4. Paying the price to ensure representation of groups and views that may be radically different than our own. To do less is not partnership, but tokenism.

Can it be done? Are there any good examples where it is being done? Yes, there does seem to be an increasing number of places where this appears to be happening effectively. You can recognize them in several ways:

1. The make-up of their leadership team. Are the same folks always represented at the top, or do those from other groups also have the opportunity to become chairpersons or top officers? It is one thing to be a name on the masthead as a team member. It is quite another to take the lead in the group process and the agenda.

2. The slowness of their decision-making processes. Sharing agenda-shaping tasks takes time, and is often a difficult and painful process. What else would one expect when cultural values, methods and means can be so different?

3. A valuing of breadth of participation, relationships and effectiveness over quantifiable product and efficiency. It is not that these things aren’t all important in their own way, or that they don’t overlap. It is just that certain priorities shine through when a multitude of values are truly in play.

Clearly, true partnership and biblical “oneness” is not as easy to achieve as pseudo-partnership and tokenism, especially for Western participants. We have been “in charge” a long time, and it is not easy to let go. But it is well worth the extra effort to secure and nurture true partnership. The world sees the difference, and as a result is often more inclined to respond to our overtures. It also makes it possible for us to seek God’s blessing without embarrassment.


Gary Corwin is associate editor of EMQ and a missiological advisor to the leadership of SIM and Arab World Ministries.

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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