by Eldon Porter
An organization that functions well in the partnership culture will be better positioned to manage the variety of partnership scenarios.
Eight of us were sitting around a table drinking coffee in San Jose, Costa Rica, at a conference planned to facilitate relationship building between international and Latin American missions. Three of us represented large, traditional mission agencies and five represented interdenominational Latin American agencies. The Latin Americans shared about their missionaries and asked if our organizations would be willing to partner with them in forming multicultural teams.
An essential organizational skill for an international mission functioning in the “from anywhere to everywhere” global paradigm is its ability to manage diverse partnerships. Some of the most challenging are between highly structured traditional mission organizations (TMOs) and the dynamic and often unstructured mission entities in the Majority World mission movement (MWMM). It isn’t surprising that both sides have experienced their share of frustrations. TMOs are looking for strategic partners that will produce long-term results in generating missionary candidates for their established strategies. The sending structures being developed by the MWMM reflect the context and culture and seldom resemble the traditional Western mobilization base.
As globalization and the tremendous growth of the Majority World Church impact the world of missions, a partnership culture is beginning to emerge. This culture is more relational than formal. It has more to do with an organization’s personality than its name or any carefully crafted and signed document. An organization that functions well in the partnership culture will be better positioned to manage the variety of partnership scenarios.
At the very heart of this partnership culture are two essential principles: (1) to value the success of your partner and (2) to be the kind of organization with whom others would love to partner. Both principles reflect upon the character of the organization rather than a particular signed agreement.
The paradigm shift from the “west to the rest” to the “from anywhere to everywhere” has complicated life for the TMOs. Those that were respected and valued in the past are now finding it necessary to change structures and policies in order to maintain their relevance.
Having served for twenty years in various SIM leadership roles, I understand the difficult changes faced by TMOs. In the early 1990s I felt like a hypocrite encouraging Latin Americans to become involved in missions, knowing that not one of them could ever join “my mission.” I grew up in Nigeria where my parents served with SIM and later joined the same mission to serve in Bolivia.
I loved my mission, but its policies and procedures had been designed for the time when almost all missionaries came from fairly affluent Western cultures. At that time, a Bolivian requesting to join SIM would have had to fill out an English application, undergo certain psychological tests designed for westerners, participate in a candidate orientation course in the USA, obtain recommendations in English, be grilled by an English-speaking board, and then go out and raise financial support that would be considered “adequate” in the West but “excessive” in Bolivia. Due to visionary leadership SIM has consciously worked at becoming globally friendly and now has members from more than forty countries.
Come back with me to the table of eight drinking coffee in San Jose. One of those at the table was Christian Castro, director of FEDEMEC (a successful Costa Rican missionary training and sending agency) and the coordinator for COMIBAM’s international related missionary sending structures across Ibero-America. He suggested we focus on identifying best practice principles for organizational character and capacity instead of getting lost in the complexities of specific partnerships. That was the beginning of an effort to identify principles that could define best practice for both TMOs and Majority World mission ministries as they would relate in ministry.
Best Practice for Traditional Mission Organizations
In my role as consultant for global integration for COMIBAM, I’ve had the privilege of listening to godly Latin American mission leaders reflect upon their experiences working with TMOs. Below are some of the points they consider important for TMOs desiring to partner with the Latin American missions movement.
• Respect the sending church. High on the list is the call for the TMO to respect the sending church. A Nicaraguan pastor asked me, “Why do westerners want to rob us of our dignity by sponsoring our missionaries rather than partnering with us to send them out?”
• Encourage the development of culturally appropriate methods for sending missionaries. I recall the shock on the face of a Guatemalan pastor when shown a TMO’s manual on how to screen, select, and send out a missionary. Fortunately, the TMO leader responded, “This represents what works best in our culture. Show us how to do it best in your culture.”
• Equality of membership. I have been asked, “If one of our missionaries were to join your organization and had all the gifts and experience necessary, could he become your next international director?” All too often Majority World missionaries are treated as second-class team members because they haven’t joined the mission in the traditional way.
• Financial flexibility. With the majority of missionaries historically sent out from relatively affluent cultures, it is not surprising that many TMOs have policies that require everyone on a particular team to raise the same amount of support. The MWMM looks for organizations that are flexible on this issue while treating their missionaries with equal respect.
• Pastoral care. As the cultural diversity of a team increases, missions need to find alternate ways to provide pastoral care. I was asked by a sending church pastor in Quito, Ecuador, if SIM would consider him to be part of the SIM pastoral care team for his missionary about to join the mission. Sensitivity to the role of culture and sending church is essential in member care.
• Language sensitivity. Often, a Majority World missionary is required to learn English in addition to the language of the people they are seeking to reach in order to join a TMO. No one disputes the value of knowing English; however, some organizations are willing to work with the new missionary rather than setting what some consider burdensome expectations.
• Quality partnerships with senders. Most of the MWMM cultures place a higher value on relationships than on signed documents. A Peruvian leader said, “They want us to be their partner in ministry. Could we first dance and fall in love before we get married?” Not many TMOs are structured intentionally to provide the attention necessary to the building and maintaining of partnership relationships.
• Multi-cultural team training. Cultural diversity on a team can be a great tool from which to communicate the gospel, but also a challenge in knowing how to work in harmony. A mission that values diversity and intentionally provides multicultural sensitivity training is especially appreciated by those in the minority culture.
• Missionary Kid (MK) education. Any mission that is sensitive to the educational and other needs of Majority World MKs ranks high for those from the MWMM.
This list is not conclusive, but my point is that any TMO recognized for seeking to meet such best practice standards would find relationship building with the MWMM much more of a joy than a frustration.
Best Practice for Majority World Mission Movement Sending Entities
Majority World missionaries are being sent out through a variety of methods. There are some organizations that recruit, train, send, and oversee their own ministries. But most of the missionaries are being sent out and serve in relative isolation or are relating themselves in some way to either a TMO or a ministry in country. Sending is being done by businesses, local churches, mission departments of denominations, and interdenominational sending agencies. A North American international mission that considers partnering with one or more of these sending entities values certain traits.
• Sound governance. A TMO is more inclined to invest in a ministry that is held accountable by a board or council made up of respected leaders.
• Financial controls and capacity to transfer funds. A ministry capable of receipting and transferring funds internationally at an auditable standard is essential. This is important not only for local supporters, but also for TMOs that might need to transfer funds from another country or back from the field.
• Capacity to mobilize and train missionaries. A Majority World ministry recognized for its capacity to mobilize and train missionaries in culturally appropriate ways is always appreciated.
• Capacity to develop and maintain healthy relationships with supporters and churches. The capacity to maintain and nurture the relationship between the donor and the sending entity is fundamental for maintaining the long-term support of the missionary.
• Capacity to provide pastoral care. TMOs look for partners capable of working with them in providing pastoral care to the Majority World missionary. This is especially true when missionaries return to their sending context.
God intends for partnerships to play a pivotal role in the paradigm of global missions. I would encourage ongoing dialogue on the role best practice principles could play in facilitating a culture of partnerships.
Eldon Porter, first as an experienced field missionary and then as a mission administrator, has a foot in both sides of international partnership advancement. He splits his time between being the COMIBAM consultant for global integration and CrossGlobal Link consultant for global connections. You can contact him at: Eldon@CrossGlobalLink.org.
EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 3, pp. 344-347. Copyright © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.