by Todd Poulter
Effectively partnering with ministries cross-culturally is important to avoid the use of three common (and misguided) metaphors.
Why is it that many promising partnerships fall so far short of their goals? Is it a problem with the trustworthiness of the partners, the lack of strong relationships or prayer support, a vision that wasn’t cast widely or broadly enough, an unworkable plan or a lack of the right resources?
While the cause could be any of these or other reasons, the vision component is a critical one. Leadership literature and motivational seminars are full of advice about “vision-casting,” in which one person throws out his or her vision for others to catch. In this rather one-sided approach to vision, huge amounts of energy are invested in trying to sell ideas, gain buy-in, get people on board and in some cases transfer ownership. We are so familiar with these metaphors that we rarely stop to consider the unspoken beliefs they represent. Let us look at three: the sales metaphor, the on-board metaphor and the transfer of ownership metaphor.
1. The sales metaphor. In the marketplace, when we have something to sell we extol its benefits to potential buyers and look for someone who will value what we are offering. If the transaction is successful, the other party buys our product. However, when we sell a ministry initiative that we have developed, the “buyer’s” decision is often nothing more than resigned acceptance of our pre-packaged program (and their pre-packaged responsibilities) in exchange for resources or opportunities that would not otherwise be available to them. A West African church leader recently lamented, “We had a vision before you showed up. Isn’t our vision also valid? But you never asked us.”
2. The on-board metaphor. Imagine yourself on the crowded platform of a train station just as the train is pulling in. If your goal is to get the people on board, your job is to move them off the platform and onto the train. Your success is measured by how many people you can get onto the train, and how smoothly and quickly you can do it. But imagine that you are one of those people who just got swept off the platform and onto the train. You start asking simple questions such as: How did I get here? and Where is this train headed? You may even realize that this was not where you wanted to go. No wonder you do not share much enthusiasm for the journey!
3. The transfer of ownership metaphor. Imagine that you own the family farm. You need to pass on the responsibilities for it but are afraid your heirs may not treat the property with the honor and respect it deserves. They might even sell it once it is in their hands. Therefore, you keep waiting to transfer ownership until they demonstrate the necessary experience, maturity and skills needed to take care of it. That seems reasonable and prudent. However, when this approach is used in ministry projects involving partner agencies and churches, it no longer seems so reasonable, or so prudent.
THE UNIQUENESS OF MINISTRY PROJECTS AND PARTNERSHIPS
There are three things we need to consider when looking at ministry projects, partner agencies and churches. First, we need to ask, “Who owns this ministry anyway?” Or more to the point, “Who decided that you own this ministry?” The answer to this is often determined by who believes they control the most valued resource, which in many cases is seen to be money. Second, we need to acknowledge that most of us who control valuable assets rarely believe that others are ready to assume responsibility for them. A mission leader in the late 1980s observed this phenomenon at work among his colleagues in Eastern Africa. For years, plans had been in place for a “handover” to a national organization; however, there were always good reasons to delay the actual handover: “The local people do not have the skills they need yet.” “What about their administrative capacity to oversee the work?” “Where will the finances come from to keep operating?” Year after year the decision was delayed. It became increasingly clear that the magical day of readiness would never arrive.
Third, we would do well to reconsider the prevalent personnel and leadership development model in many of our churches and missions. Our primary strategy for developing people is training programs. Only after a long and careful training process do we entrust them with practical responsibility. Once they take on that responsibility, there may or may not be someone to provide added support for them in their new role.
Interesting research on leadership turns this approach on its head. The primary influence in the development of leaders is the opportunity to lead through challenging assignments and the freedom to learn by doing. The secondary influence comes from supportive relationships, where people can learn from others and have committed mentors. The tertiary influence comes from formal education and training, which is most beneficial when linked to preparing someone for a specific new responsibility. The best way to prepare people to take on significant responsibility is not to withhold responsibility until they are adequately trained; rather, it is to entrust them early on with opportunities for significant involvement, which admittedly may be over their heads. It is then important to support them through mentors, supportive relationships and specific role-related training.
If we transfer ownership at the last possible moment, instead of creating ownership from the beginning and throughout the life of the project or ministry, we are too late. According to Kathy Bosscher, a project planning consultant, “Program ownership is the cumulative effect of the enactment of hundreds of little decisions along the way.” This picture of cumulative created ownership is radically different than our concept of a one-time transfer of ownership. What happens when these misguided metaphors—selling and buy-in, getting people on board and transfer of ownership—come to life? They often turn on us when we least expect it.
Those in the ministry of Bible translation commonly talk of Bibleless peoples. Regrettably, it sometimes happens that there are also “Peopleless Bibles,” newly translated scripture that is available but not used. In some instances the neglected Bibles may be the result of key church and mission leaders who were not involved in envisioning what was needed and how the need could best be met.
In the early 1990s I participated in a strategic planning meeting in England for a ministry in Africa. A colleague innocently asked us what we were doing. “We’re doing strategic planning for our work in Africa,” someone responded. “Oh,” our colleague said, observing that we were all westerners. “Where are the Africans?” he inquired. We dismissed his comment as idealistic and impractical; we needed to get our own house in order before we could involve others.
However, typically by the time we get our own house in order, we have usually got everyone else’s work planned as well. We are uncomfortable with loose ends, open options and unresolved challenges, especially when we envision sharing our unfinished business with others. Using the metaphor of a train, the tracks are already laid and the train is picking up steam before we invite others to join us on the journey. We are so far along in our planning that potential stakeholders must either get on board or risk being perceived, at least by those us who are inviting their involvement, as being uninterested or worse, uncooperative.
CO-CREATION IN COMMUNITY
So what is the alternative? It is a simple principle called “co-creation in community.” People support what they help create. In the creation and pursuit of a common vision, we will be most effective when we together actively seek out the best contributions of each stakeholder. According to Francis Viscount, SIL International Partnership and Strategic Planning consultant, Partnership isn’t simply, “You carry the left side and I carry the right side and together we move the object,” but something that is deeper and also more profound. Together we join with each other to see that an object moves to a different place than it is today. We might carry it, but it is only when we truly probe who we are and what we can become through being with one another that we can begin to conceive of strategy and roles. The very heart of partnership, like covenant, involves redefining who we are because we are no longer defined solely by the boundaries of our “solitary state.” We are defined by our “being” in relationship.
Co-creation in community is a creative, Spirit-led process that starts with friendship, leads to prayer and moves into mutual vision sharing and a bond of common commitment. This often requires a significant change in thinking and approach for the ministries involved, and may take valuable time to learn. However, in the end it is far less costly and holds greater promise for effective and sustainable ministry than more traditional methods of launching ministries. Co-creation in community is built on a set of beliefs which include the following:
• Resources turn into results through relationships. Quality products and services grow best out of a commitment to quality relationships.
• God often reveals himself among members of a community who regularly engage in intercession and dialogue. In such a community, information is friendly, ideas and feelings are shared freely and communication is lavish.
• We can accomplish more together than any of us could accomplish alone. Strong spiritual communities who come together around a common vision and engage in shared planning and decision-making from the beginning carry out the most effective ministry. They are the most likely to follow through with shared implementation and evaluation.
• Everyone’s contribution matters. All who share a common vision have something valuable to contribute, whether that contribution is immediately obvious to all or not. Our energy and creativity can be harnessed with the creative energy of others in the body of Christ.
BIBLICAL COMMUNITY AND PARTNERSHIP
People really do support what they understand, believe in and help create, especially when someone they have grown to love and trust is involved. Toward the end of his life, Jesus spoke to his disciples about the quality of his relationship with them: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).
Jesus spent his whole ministry relating to his followers and sharing with them what he had learned from his Father. His approach to his disciples bears little resemblance to the misguided metaphors we started with. Jesus did not sell them anything and he was not simply trying to get them on board for the kingdom.
Some of us cringe when we see how early Jesus began sending out the twelve to preach, heal and drive out demons (Matt. 10:1-8ff). We become even more uncomfortable when we learn that he “appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go” (Luke 10:1). What if they messed up? What if they got the message wrong? What if, instead of preparing the way for Jesus, they turned the people away from Jesus before he got there?
In fact, the disciples did apparently fail at times. In Matthew 17 we find the story of a man who brought his son, who was having seizures, to the disciples. “I brought him to your disciples,” the father complained to Jesus, “but they could not heal him.” After expressing frustration at the unbelief of those around him, Jesus healed the boy. However, Jesus never gave any indication that he was ready to call off the ministry of his not-yet-perfected disciples.
REASSESSING HOW WE DO MINISTRY
In the late 1990s a family moved to the Sangu plains in the Mbeya region of Tanzania, where they hoped to do Bible translation. Local church leaders did not understand why the family was trying to work among the Sangu people instead of with one of the larger groups. When the family went on leave several years later, they felt quite discouraged and uncertain of what the future would hold. But when they returned in 2002, they sensed that God was preparing to do something important in the region. During a season of prayer and fasting, the husband was in a minor plane accident. This intensified their sense of expectation and their sense of spiritual opposition. God spoke a word of encouragement to them through Amos 9:13:
“‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when the reaper will be overtaken by the plower and the planter by the one treading grapes. New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills.’”
But the big shock came when they were ready to start translation. The people they had worked with during their first years had left. It became painfully obvious that any sense of ownership for the project resided with them, as outsiders.
Following two more accidents the husband was bedridden for three months. He spent much of that time praying for the people groups of Mbeya. He and his wife began to re-think their approach to ministry, reading all they could about partnership. In July 2003, after a significant time of one-on-one relationship-building, they met with the leaders of several large denominations to ask, “How do you as leaders want us to be involved in supporting the church’s ministry in the region?” The denominational leaders came up with nine languages needing scripture in the mother tongue and selected people from each of their churches to work on the translation. This effort has become an integral ministry of these churches, and is part of their mission strategy and discipleship program. An important side benefit is that church leaders are now effectively communicating with each other. Some are saying that through this ministry a new Pentecost is occurring in the region.
Remember the situation in Eastern Africa where there was so much hesitancy concerning handing over the work to a national organization? An incremental approach to training and sharing responsibility with local colleagues, combined with an unchallenged belief that it would take years for them to be ready to take over the ministry, created a scenario that had no end. The mission leader involved finally stepped in and declared, “We will make the handover this year.” The handover occurred, and it has worked. It has also included inevitable growth pains along the way. How much easier the process could have been if they had started with an intentional commitment to create such a ministry together from the beginning.
Next time we find ourselves wondering why the people and partners who seemed so interested in our ministry vision never followed through on their commitments, we need to ask ourselves if it is really their irresponsibility that is to blame. Perhaps we were the ones who were too successful in casting our vision, selling them on the ideas and getting them on board before they realized they did not want to go where we were going. Or maybe when we transferred ownership of our ministry, they could not figure out what to do with it, or why they even wanted it, because they were never invited to be involved in shaping it along the way.
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CASE STUDY: Theological Education by Trial and Error
(This case study is taken from an actual situation, with facts and dates modified to respect the identity of those involved.)
In 1999, a Bible college professor and one of his most promising students saw the need for Bible training among the numerous church denominations in a rural region of their country. They decided to launch a theological education by extension program. They called a public meeting of church leaders who expressed interest in seeing such a project carried out and a small “Education Commission” was set up to oversee the project.
An office was set up, with several Bible-college graduates employed to develop and produce materials. A major outside agency joined in the venture to provide a project coordinator, training and planning help and additional funds. When the project coordinator needed something from the churches, she would discuss it with the commission, write a letter and give copies to the commission to distribute to representatives of member churches from the original signup list. However, response rate was low and the project team had a growing feeling that the churches were not all that excited about the work.
The strong show of support at the initial meeting proved to be a mirage when the project needed help from the churches in actually testing and using the materials. The project coordinator was frustrated by the churches’ passivity and the fact that the employees perceived their work more as a paying job than as a ministry. The employees in turn were unhappy with their working conditions, the provisional nature of their contracts and the managing style of the project coordinator.
Things continued to slowly unravel and by 2002 it became apparent to all that theological education by extension in the region, at least in the form it had been attempted up to that point, had no future. The office was closed. The project coordinator was not ready to give up on the whole idea, however. She discovered an informal network of Christian leaders in the region called “The Fellowship of Brothers and Sisters” who met together monthly, had a region-wide system for information dissemination and were recognized as the liason between the government and the more than forty local churches who were part of the group.
As the project coordinator began talking with the president of the fellowship about the goals and needs of fellowship members, she discovered that better-trained pastors and laypeople were near the top of their list. “These are our churches and we should ensure that our people get the training they need,” declared the president. “But how?”
In the following months they worked out an approach to theological education that fit the realities of the church denominations in the region. The fellowship agreed to administer the program, employ personnel and work with the churches to nominate candidates for training. The project coordinator negotiated a certificate program and established links to other outside groups willing to support the program with people and prayer. In 2003 seven pastors and twelve laypeople enrolled in the program. Although half eventually dropped out, a new group of students joined the following year. As of mid-2005 fourteen pastors and thirty-one laypeople were enrolled. Current plans are to double that number by the end of 2006.
Todd Poulter and his wife Karla have served with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Ghana, Kenya and the US. They now live in Southeast Asia with their younger son Scott.
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