Reflections on Partnership
Four Baskets Over Fifty Years
By Bill Taylor
It’s a peculiar feeling to mull over the topic of partnership at the age of seventy-eight and after fifty-two years of cross-cultural ministry. These reflections are personal, and hopefully helpful. Grappling again with issues of cooperative ventures, strategic partnerships, or alliances, or other terms, I find my thoughts gathered into four different baskets.
But first a good new/bad news preamble, quoting a personal friend who lives and breathes strategic partnerships.
The good. “We are seeing some real partnering work being done in some global networks (especially issue based). To highlight just one would be a disservice but suffice to say that within the collaborative work being done on religious liberty, refugees, vulnerable children, sports outreach, etc., there are marvelous exceptions to the above. Sadly, they continue to be the exceptions and not the rule. Thus, though progress is being made, the tipping point still seems to be out of reach.”
I also know of many healthy examples of viable and healthy partnerships that encourage me, from the micro to the macro; from strategic cooperation in my city to the mega conversation of Scripture in the language of the people who can also read and understand it. There are many more.
However, other things discourage us. My friend again: “One dirty little secret in global missions is the disgraceful amount of waste and duplication that takes place (and not just in the humanitarian sector). Though it is especially true from the Global North to the Global South, it really is happening everywhere. As an example, I read a statistic late last year that there have been nearly one thousand new justice-related non-profits formed in the USA since 2010. Few, if any, are aware of each other, let along talk strategy and approach. When I asked a CEO from one new trafficking organization what their unique contribution might be to the arena, his answer was ‘we are trying to help save children (especially girls) from being trafficked.’ Wow, like no other group working in this sector had thought of that! They are highly inexperienced in their understanding or approach to trafficking, but do have long experience in how to raise money.”
The First Basket: First Thoughts About Partnership: None
To be honest, during our seventeen years of service in Latin America, under a USA based agency, assigned to the Seminario Teológico Centroamericano in Guatemala, this topic was not mentioned. It was not on the agenda. That language did not exist. Why? Perhaps it was the then-ethos (now radically different) of the mission agency I had grown up in as a missionary kid and later joined, a culture defined by separation. One time my boss declared, “we don’t need them and they don’t need us. And don’t ask questions.”
Around the mid-’60s our agency developed the concept of “co-participation” to describe the relationship between the agency and the national church, with mixed outcomes. On the negative side it built a wall between South and North, between “them and us”, between modality and sodality, between poorer and richer. It supposedly gave both the freedom to do what the “Spirit led them” to do in Latin America; but perhaps it drove the wedge deeper.
Yet on the other hand, and at the end of the day, it meant that the Latin American church, a product of one United States-based mission agency, was not beholden to that agency’s set of values, leadership, power, wealth, resources. I can still see the residual effects of that decision.
So that might explain why during my years in Latin America we didn’t talk partnership language. But was it just a neo-logism only for us (and other separated colleagues around the world) in that particular ecclesial, theological, spirituality matrix? Were we the only ones living within that sealed universe?
The Second Basket of Reflections on Partnership: Steep Learning Curve
After seventeen years, God’s peculiar turnings of our journey in mission led us to depart from Latin America in 1985, with kids nearly ten, fourteen, and sixteen years of age. God clearly opened Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) to me as a new mission professor. It was fulfilling for me but the transition from our life in Guatemala to, for us, the very foreign North-Chicago was terrible for the family. I had purposed never to sacrifice my family on the altar of my ministry, so I died to TEDS and we moved to a small Arkansas town where God opened a door for me as a part-time teaching elder of a small church. It was a good place for us and our family to transition into the American culture.
God used David Howard, my life-long mentor, to give us life-giving counsel. Years later I realized that God had used TEDS as the leverage to extract me from Latin America and then pivoted me into a global ministry with World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Mission Commission. But two deaths were required—Latin America and TEDS—before resurrection would visit us.
Dave, the WEA Executive Secretary, invited me to Singapore to meet colleagues at the WEA General Assembly in 1986. Beyond Dave as its top leader, I knew little of WEA, and didn’t know they had a Mission Commission. I flew to Singapore and within twenty-four hours I had been invited by Dave and Theodore Williams of India to take the leadership of the Mission Commission. And twelve hours later I accepted, having no idea what I was getting into. I’ll never be able to repay the debt to my senior colleague-mentors in the Mission Commission who believed in me. It was a God thing.
I returned to Arkansas to our home on a street appropriately called Land’s End, to begin a unique journey with the Mission Commission, at first part-time, then full-time. I was baptized into the travels, communities, rituals and language of global evangelicals. I had to ask the meaning of words like “networking” and “partnerships” and “synergy” and “inter-dependence” and others. I was a beginner but smart enough to ask questions.
The Mission Commission developed with an emerging team and community. We convened our first consultation on missionary training in Manila in 1989, and a lot of spontaneous partnership took place without me knowing what the term meant. Our first book, Internationalising Missionary Training on missionary training came out, with global voices addressing global issues. We established our publishing template.
Then somebody recommended we convene a consultation, again in Manila, June 1992, this time, entitled “Towards Interdependent Partnership.” It was a heavy learning time for me. Some of the pros and foundations are there. As I write these words my eyes peruse our second book, Kingdom Partnerships for Synergy in Missions. I have just re-read what I wrote then; I cringe at my North American bias and definitions, the over-dependence on metrics, the evident dominance of the Global North to set the agenda.
I remember two lessons. First, many languages do not have easy translations for terms like “partnership”, “accountability” and more. Some require a paragraph to describe what we want to happen. So why don’t they have these translatable terms? Is there something in the culture that mitigates against it, or do these categories appear in other forms and more subtle language? Secondly, on the evening of the second full day a godly colleague from Central Asia says to me, “Brother Bill, when are we going to sign the partnerships? I came to do that.” And in contrast, one hard-driving colleague from the North pushed for more concrete, tangible outcomes.
Through this recent review I discern how I had accepted this description of partnerships: “Three characteristics describe cooperation and its greatest impact. ‘First, they must be relevant. The end results must be closely tied to the ultimate purposes of each individual or organization in the group. Secondly, the benefits must be of sufficient magnitude to make it worth the effort. Finally, the individual team members must really believe these benefits are achievable.’”
Hmm. “greatest impact,” “relevant,” “end result,” “ultimate purposes,” “sufficient magnitude,” “benefits are achievable”—to whom? To the ones holding the gold, or the man-power? To the intercessors or the donors or the foundations? Ah, the foundations, the gold gate-keepers. The United States-based foundations that the Mission Commission would visit (some with their top people in Manila) who kept asking us for our bottom lines: “So Bill, after five years of our grant, what tangible results will our investment bring about?” I remember one major foundation telling me that they would fund us only if we re-wrote our proposal on missionary training to mirror what they were already funding. Tempted, I agreed, then repented and withdrew the proposal.
But we had begun to change the conversation, the language, even the literature. We had begun, but it was hard to change the “golden rule”, i.e. “he/she/whoever has the gold, rules”. I just reviewed the names of the twenty-four writers of that book, equally split, 50/50, South and North. At least more global voices were speaking into a key global concern.
Those were the steepest curve of my thirty years with WEA, and as I look back I fear I often reflected the pragmatism of my dominant culture. I was learning but needed to grow. I think I did.
The Third Basket, My More Recent Reflections on Partnership: It’s Different
Two “words” come to mind here. First, I love Valdir Steuernagel‘s honestly and transparency, true, realistic, insightful:
When you come to the table today and you have the Koreans, they will say, “We do it our way.” When you have some of the Brazilians at the table, they will say, “Look, we do it our way.” This is both good and bad. Some years ago when I was a young guy, we could say that everything was the fault of the Americans. Yanqui, go home—all that kind of stuff. I cannot say this any longer, because Brazil has developed its own empires, and we have made our own mistakes. So have the Koreans and the Nigerians, and so will the Chinese. (https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/january/main.html)
My second word comes from the last exhausting day of the Cape Town 2010 Lausanne Congress. Two from the Global South were on the platform, Patrick Fung of Singapore and David Ruíz of Guatemala, two personal friends, speaking on partnership. We were there, but everyone was exhausted after long days of packed events, diverse topics, challenging translations. That meant that few “heard” Patrick or David. Tucked into the 22,665 words of the Cape Town Commitment you can find 368 words dedicated to partnership (.00162 %). (https://www.lausanne.org/content/ctc/ctcommitment)
More recently David sent me a key paragraph for the chapter, “A new frontier in missions: strategic alliances” for the revised-expanded Spanish study course, Misiones Mundiales. A Latin fellow prof and I had designed and written it in 1984 for the local church, for basic training centers, or for potential mission candidates. The revision was long in coming, but it reflected my own major musicological changes and maturity. I refrence two USA writers, but my leading voices were from the Global South, insightful, experienced. They approach and do partnerships differently. They work gradually, they build relationships, they invite to long meals just to narrate personal stories.
David wrote: “Cooperation is an act of love that introduces a two-way street where we must find the caliber of love of I Corinthians 13. John 13 profiles Jesus as the model of love, and John 17 established the measure of success. As we enter a new season of cooperation, of projection, of multicultural missionary collaboration, the model of Jesus is new, it’s a clearer standard, more delicate, and the only one truly established”. (Misiones Mundiales, CLASE/SETECA, 2015, p. 155).
I’ve shifted in my thinking. I’m jaundiced about too many top-down, high-power/low-context church and mission leaders who initiate so-called partnerships today. They could be from Nigeria, Korea, Brazil, USA, Holland or Germany. The golden rule continues to prevail; they will call the shots, and people will sign up.
The fourth basket, my own stretch marks—hopeful but realistic
I have not given up on these creatures of cooperation. I bear in my psyche the scars of what appeared to be a solid, long-term, high-investment partnership marked by a Covenant of Cooperation written by my Latin colleagues. But a change of top leadership doomed the project, and it collapsed.
We have had to bury that partnership, for now. Who was at fault? What could we have done differently? We know in part.
Nevertheless, out of those strange and sad ashes, God birthed a new idea, a new venture, with some of the leaders of the previous project. The team is working slowly, praying, listening to each other and to the Spirit. This is a Jesus thing; a God-on-mission venture; a Body of Christ reality; a vision-dream and high-risk journey. I want to live to 100 to see it come into existence and impact. I love a good partnership!
Some take-homes from my baskets
I am still committed to this messy thing of partnerships, just not in the same way as before, thank God.
- Personal, tested relationships of trust are foundational to authentic impacting partnerships. Seeking the Spirit together without prior agenda is crucial.
- Hours invested in meals, personal narratives crucial to build confidence, not wasted.
- “Gentle time” is of greater importance than the outcomes and formal documents. The latter will play their role in time.
- We work on our shared outcomes and documents relationally and truthfully, and meanwhile we listen to each other and to the Holy Spirit.
- Yes, there will be “partnership with accountability”; but these terms need to be mutually defined, understood and shared.
- Never stop celebrating relationships and alliances. And at the right time have a gracious ceremony of “release” of a particular partnership. In some cases, be honest and hold a “burial ceremony”, honoring the past and learning from it while laying it to rest.
These are my values. I’m much older now, but God willing, I have a lot of time yet.
Bill Taylor is President of TaylorGlobalConsult and Senior Mentor of the Missions Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance. Bill has served the missionary movement for fifty years in several capacities: teaching, leadership development, church planting, global networking, consulting and mentoring, writing and speaking.
 William Taylor, ed., Internationalising Missionary Training (Exeter, UK: Paternoster-Baker, 1991).
 William Taylor, ed., Kingdom Partnerships for Synergy in Missions (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1994).
 Pat MacMillan, The Performance Factor: Unlocking the Secrets of Teamwork (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001) 243.