by Daniel Rickett
I was inspired recently by the title of an article in a business magazine, “Failure: The Secret to My Success.” It reminded me of the saying, “Leadership is moving from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”
I was inspired recently by the title of an article in a business magazine, “Failure: The Secret to My Success.” It reminded me of the saying, “Leadership is moving from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” I am enthusiastic about partnering in mission! And I’ve made plenty of mistakes. Whether that qualifies me as a leader, I’ll leave to others to say.
One thing is certain, partnering in mission is like learning to walk. It’s a process of catching yourself before you fall. Even when you’ve got the swing of it, there are plenty of things to trip over. Partnering in mission is complex and prone to errors—in judgment and practice. This paper is designed to help by providing a guide to the most common mistakes made in intercultural partnerships. If you know where the pitfalls lie, you can avoid them more easily.
MISTAKE #1: ASSUMING YOU THINK ALIKE
One of the quickest ways to get into trouble in a partnership is to assume that others share your perceptions and expectations. I know. I made this mistake and it almost cost me a dear friend.
Several years back a close friend invited me to get involved in a ministry to slum dwellers on the outskirts of a major city. It was, and still is, a fresh and exciting ministry. What started as weekly visits by a group of local Christians has become a thriving church with vocational programs for men and women, and health and educational programs for children.
When the ministry was still a dream, my friend outlined his plan. Because we had known each other for several years, we jumped into the partnership without making sure we were clear about our roles and expectations. It didn’t seem necessary. After all, we were the best of friends. We held many values and perspectives in common. Working through the details seemed like an insult to our relationship. We trusted each other. That’s all we needed, or so we thought.
By the time my friend was well into the ministry, it seemed to him that I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain.
Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t as though I had made promises I couldn’t keep. I was doing what I said I would do. It’s just that he expected a lot more from me.
Through several discussions, we were able to get the issues on the table and resolve them in a spirit of humility and brotherly love. It wasn’t easy. There were mistakes on both sides. On my friend’s part, he had overestimated my availability to help build his ministry. We were, after all, close friends with a long history. It only seemed reasonable that I would be as committed to the dream as he was. He had also overestimated my capability to provide crucial resources. That was an easy mistake to make. At the time I was successful in business and directing a small nonprofit ministry in the United States. You could assume that I had ample resources at my fingertips.
On my part, I assumed that my friend understood the nature of my ministry. I was involved in serving several organizations like his. I was simply not available to give all of my attention to a single ministry, even if it was directed by my best friend. I also let him down by not clarifying what I was capable of doing. It appeared to him that I was capable of raising needed funds. In truth, my ministry was paid for out of my own pocket and by a few faithful friends. We were not fundraisers and we didn’t wish to become a fundraising ministry.
It took several candid discussions to restore the relationship. Real healing came over time as we adjusted our expectations to the realities.
Remedy. Be explicit about your expectations and capabilities. In order to be clear about your roles, you need to talk about them, not just once, but over and over again. Communicate to the point of over-communicating.
1. Use guidelines. What are the most essential things you need to know in order to succeed in the partnership? Outline those items and agree that whatever else you might discuss, you’ll always cover those critical factors.
2. Have regular discussions. Plan to talk monthly, bimonthly, or quarterly about your responsibilities in the partnership.
3. Inform your partner quickly. Few things will insult your partner as much as hearing important news outside the partnership first.
4. Ask for your partner’s opinion. Your partner represents an important information base, especially on his region of the world. Treat him as a trusted advisor. This wins confidence and opens up opportunities for discussion.
5. Send short notes. Tell your partner about progress on joint projects, events in your organization, or personal milestones.
6. Invite bad news as well as good. This can be difficult in some cultures and the burden is on you to understand your partner’s cultural style. Still, he needs to know that you can’t work in a vacuum, and that you need to be made aware of a problem before it’s too late.
7. Relax together. Take casual time away from the ministry, where you can allow conversation to become more intimate.
MISTAKE #2: PROMISING MORE THAN YOU CAN DELIVER
You’ve probably heard stories of Christian tourists who promise the first one thousand dollars on the spot, and then leave the problem of raising the balance of a thirty-thousand-dollar project to their church back home. But making a promise you can’t keep doesn’t happen only to the novice. Experienced missionaries can also overestimate their abilities.
The grand prize of my work is helping a ministry achieve self-reliance. So when I came across a ministry that was ready-made for self-reliance, I jumped at the chance. The ministry was called the Promised Land and that’s exactly what it was. A large agricultural cooperative owned and operated by dozens of Christian families. It was well managed, productive, and showed great potential for profitability. It had every reason to succeed except one. They needed cash to get through an unexpected misfortune.
Political scandals had locked up promised funds from the local government. On the promise of the government grants, the project had borrowed money for land and equipment.
When I showed up, several months later, the grants had not come through and the loan payments were taking everything the cooperative could produce.
Rather than ask for grants, they asked us to help find investors. At the time I was in business and had a lot of business contacts. How hard can it be to find a few investors? Except for the debt, the project would be profitable. And it was just a matter of time before the government grants would come through.
What I didn’t face up to was that I knew nothing about finding investors. I assumed one of my business friends knew how and would help me. Well, it didn’t work out that way. My friends did help, but they weren’t any better at it than me. We didn’t come up with a single investor. I had to face it. I had taken on a project for which I was not qualified.
Remedy. Make sure to under- promise and over-deliver. On the one hand, you should stick to what you do best. Take on only those projects that are within your grasp. On the other hand, I hesitate to give that advice because it would mean never stretching ourselves. I would rather try and fail than fail to try. The question is, how much damage will you cause if you don’t succeed? That’s probably a better indicator of whether or not you should take the project. If the margin for success is slim you can take one of three approaches: (1) make your apology and back out; (2) recommend someone else who is better suited to help; or (3) under-promise what you think you can deliver.
If your capacity to do the job is limited, make sure your partner knows it, and encourage him to find other options. For example, the Promised Land project didn’t rely on us alone. They could talk to anyone anywhere. In the end, our failure didn’t hurt the ministry, but it didn’t help them either.
MISTAKE #3: TAKING TO THE ROAD WITHOUT A MAP
It is normal for partnerships to start with ambiguity, misunderstandings, and disagreement. A partnership is necessarily untidy as people negotiate values and interests. It is abnormal when major misconceptions emerge late in the relationship. This happens generally for one of two reasons. Either the partners did not clarify goals for the partnership at the outset, or they neglected to review and recalibrate their goals along the way. The net effect is like going on a journey without a destination.
All ministries are engaged to achieve results. That’s the purpose of being in ministry. But too often Christians are inclined to think, “We can’t operate with goals and objectives, that’s for business, not ministry.” Yet, when you ask people why they do what they do, they’ll talk about what they want to happen as a result of their ministry. Those hoped for results are as good as goals in any language.
A key to effective partnering is to make hoped for results explicit. In the absence of such goals, the results of partnering tend to be activities that keep everybody busy but rarely meet expectations. Instead, unstated, unplanned, and usually unknown results are achieved.
Remedy. Establish goals that make a difference. Establish goals for the relationship as well as for ministry impact. Even when the partner ministry as a whole has clearly stated goals, the partnership must also have goals. For instance, suppose you’ve decided to partner with a ministry that has a goal to plant churches among an un-reached people group. By partnering with them you’ve adopted the goal of church planting. The key result or impact goal of the partnership is to plant churches among the unreached group.
Other goals are also needed to hold the partnership together and keep it moving in the right direction. Such goals serve as standards by which to make decisions, milestones to check direction, and implicitly say what not to do. Adopting change comes easier in the service of mutually understood goals, and inevitable misunderstandings are directed away from individuals and toward goals.
Merely stating your goals is not enough. In partnering they must be the kind of goals that make a difference. They answer the question, “So what?” “What difference will it make?” Goals that make a difference reflect the purpose of the partnership, are feasible, challenging, and underline the larger significance of the ministry of the gospel. Goals that make a difference define the impact the partnership can achieve that could not have been achieved without it. They are the hoped for results that make partnering worthwhile.
MISTAKE #4: UNDERESTIMATING CULTURAL DIFFERENCES
Succeding at intercultural partnership requires at a minimum some understanding of the world-view, ways of being, and interacting, used by members of the partner ministry.
To take one vivid illustration, an article in the COMBIAM magazine, ELLOS y nosotros, told the story of a Mexican missionary to the Tarahum-aras Indians of Mexico.1 The missionary lived among the people, preached his heart out for years, even worked side by side with them to support his family. Yet he never had a single convert. Finally, one Sunday after he had preached particularly well and he saw his audience nodding in agreement, he was sure some would make decisions, but none did. That afternoon one of the men came to his house and said he was going to tell him something that no Tarahumaras had ever told an outsider. From many generations past their fathers had kept repeating that they should never trust any outsider (non-Indian) who comes offering something without cost. Naturally, the missionary had been saying that salvation is the free gift from God, so they simply could not trust that offer.
Being Mexican and ministering to the Tarahumaras of Mexico, did the missionary assume too much? It’s easy to underestimate cultural differences, especially where there are strong similarities. For example, I’m currently working with a ministry in Hong Kong. Although the staff and leaders are Chinese, they are very Western. They wear suits and ties, carry cell phones, and converse fluently in English. Still, their cultural heritage shows up in deeper matters, such as in their approach to authority, leadership, and managing relationships. To work with them, it isn’t enough to be open-minded, accepting, and respectful. I also have to understand how they see things and what is important to them.
Remedy. Build intercultural understanding. Anticipating cultural issues is what I’m getting at here. That involves understanding not only the host culture but also your own culture. Being aware of how your own assumptions, values, and beliefs are culturally construed has as much, if not more, to do with intercultural effectiveness than knowledge of the host culture.
There are three ways to build intercultural understanding. All three are needed to reduce cross-cultural uncertainties.
1. Learn culture. This includes knowledge of your own culture as well as the host culture. Unless you become aware of your own cultural frame of reference, you will not be able to understand why you react toward another culture in the way that you do. Learning the host culture includes not only reading about general cultural patterns, but also observing and inquiring about what you see. By taking the role of a learner in the host culture, you’ll also be winning friends and building relationships.
2. Build relationships. Genuine Christian ministry is inconceivable without meaningful relationships, and progress in building relationships comes through spending time with people, sharing your stories, exploring differences, and taking on tasks together. It is in building the relationship that you will encounter differences. When you do, discuss them face to face. In this way you will build trust and mutual understanding.
3. Understand yourself. Although it’s often overlooked, people who understand their own social style and personal tendencies are better equipped to adjust to cultural differences. By understanding themselves, they are able to anticipate their own response to cultural differences. This allows them to manage stress and take advantage of particular properties of the host culture. In partnership, developing cultural awareness works both ways. Understanding your cultural differences is a mutual responsibility.
MISTAKE #5: TAKING SHORT CUTS
I like to think I’m too smart for someone to play me for a fool. But it can happen, especially when I’m willing to take shortcuts. They say con artists succeed because people are greedy. They know how greedy people behave and use it to their advantage. Con artists who prey on Christians take advantage of trust and benevolence. You can usually spot them, though, when you start checking references. The chances of being scammed by a certified con artist are slim. Even the most modest investigation sends them scurrying. Where you’re more likely to get hoodwinked is by someone you know.
A number of years ago we began to assist a pair of physicians in a very needy corner of the world. They ran a number of clinics as well as other projects for the poor. For years it was an impressive ministry. These doctors could have made a lot of money, but instead chose to serve the poor. To do that, they needed financial subsidy. They didn’t ask for much, and besides, they were skillful at writing prayer letters and communicating with Western donors.
As the years passed we made a few quick visits. But with other pressing problems to solve, it was easy to take shortcuts.
During that time the physicians began to enjoy a higher standard of living. I suspect they grew into it, much like middle class families do in America. Lifestyle always rises to meet the income and then some. In the absence of accountability, the missionaries found it easier and easier to spend on themselves rather than the ministry.
When we stopped taking shortcuts, the deceptions started to surface. First, they danced around travel agendas making it impossible to have any time with them. Then they commandeered the agenda, steering our site visit team away from points of interest. Finally, when we broke through the charade, the evidence of fraud was painfully obvious.
Remedy. Develop evaluation procedures and use them. Establish procedures for investigating new ministries and maintaining accountability with current partners. For example, look at a ministry through the following six lenses:
1. Study the priorities of the ministry and compare it to other Christian ministries in the area.
2. Look for agreement in basic doctrinal positions.
3. Check out the ministry’s reputation and relationship with local churches and other bodies of evangelical Christians.
4. Examine the ministry’s financial situation and support base.
5. Identify specific goals and objectives of the ministry.
6. Analyze the structure and quality of the board of directors.
What you can learn about a ministry through each of these lenses is useful to maintaining the relationship, as well as qualifying a new ministry.
MISTAKE #6: FORGETTING TO DEVELOP SELF-RELIANCE
It is a mistake to underestimate the destructive potential of foreign aid. Relief self-reliance has three interwoven qualities: organizational self-determination, relational interdependence, and financial independence. A self-reliant ministry is capable of making its own decisions, collaborating with the larger Christian community, and surviving on indigenous resources.
Self-reliance is undermined when one partner unilaterally interferes in the administration of the other, when a partner is handicapped in its relationship with local Christian bodies, or when one partner cannot survive without the other.
In complementary partnerships where each partner comes to the relationship from a position of autonomy, issues of self-determination and interdependence are generally not a major problem.
Effective complementary partnerships can only be achieved by truly independent organizations. The question of self-reliance comes with the flow of money. The greater the proportion of funding from a single source, the less self-reliant the organization becomes. For example, one of our partners planted churches successfully for more than thirty years. During that time we steadily increased our support. The more churches were being established the more we approved grant requests. With no other goal than to plant churches, the partnership appeared to be achieving its purpose.
It wasn’t until the partner ministry experienced a leadership change that we began to reassess our impact on them. Although our partner had succeeded in planting hundreds of churches, it had become dependent on outside resources. While we had achieved the main goal of the partnership, we had overlooked the importance of self-reliance.
Remedy. Include self-reliance in your goals for the partnership. A good rule of thumb is to provide no more than 30 percent of the partner’s total income. A ministry that receives 70 percent of its support from local sources represents a healthy level of interdependence. Admittedly this is not always possible. Start-up situations almost always turn these ratios around. Special situations or capital needs alter the ratio for a period of time. The point is to be aware of the impact and work purposefully toward a realistic target. From time to time ask each other a series of questions:
1. In what way is the ministry stronger and more effective than when you entered into partnership?
2. What would happen if you were to dissolve the partnership today? Would the partner be destroyed, crippled for life, or handicapped for a while? What would it take for the partner to recover?
In the end, your goal is to enable the ministry so well that they are capable of growth without your assistance.
MISTAKE #7 RUNNING A RACE WITH NO END
The easiest mistake to make in a successful partnership is to keep going with no end in sight. Long-term partnerships tend to make this mistake more than short-term, functional partnerships. Short-term partnerships are by definition, goal-driven. When the goal is achieved the partnership is dissolved. A good example is the consultative relationship. Consultants and clients form a temporary partnership to solve problems, make decisions, and plan for the future. The consultative relationship is ended when the project is completed.
Although long-term partnerships may start with a clear picture of what is to be accomplished, over time the relationship tends to dominate. This is particularly true where the ministry is successful. Examples abound of partnerships that seem to outlive their usefulness. Ministries led by gifted evangelists seem to be the most common. One such partnership was recently dissolved when the evangelist passed away. Although he was successful as an evangelist in an extremely difficult and restricted country, he left no enduring ministry. The partnership, which had lasted for some twenty years, was based strictly on one man’s personal capacity. His success as an evangelist kept the partnership alive though it operated with no end in sight.
Remedy. Have an exit plan before you start. Today it is a regular practice at Partners International to look at longstanding relationships and ask, “So what?” “What are we really accomplishing?” When the answer is, “Not much that could not be accomplished without us,” we start the process of graduation. That’s a polite term for withdrawal. It usually involves a gradual reduction of financial subsidy. In some cases other types of assistance, such as consultancy, actually increase in an effort to help the ministry fulfill its mission without our financial investment.
What have we learned? In addition to what’s been shared, perhaps we can boil it down into three propositions. The secret to success in partnering is to (1) have a vision for the partnership and frame it in terms of achievable goals; (2) cultivate trust by practicing respect and integrity in every detail; and (3) evaluate the relationship by measuring outcomes. For example, if the vision is to reach an unreached people group, how many churches will have to be started? How will you know when a church is viable? How will you handle information sharing and joint problem solving? How will you keep your promises? How will you know when you have achieved your purpose? Giving attention to achieving results that match the expectations of your relationship is critical for any partnership in mission.
1. Alfredo Guerrero, Martin Poniente, y Eugenio Ongaro, “UnChabochi Regiomon-tano Entre Los Tarahumaras,” ELLOS y nosotros, Año IV, Numero 6, 1998, pp. 31-35.
Daniel Rickett is director of Partner Development for Partners International, Spokane, Wash., which provides consultation and specialized services to Two-Thirds World missions.
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