What a Strange Family! Church-Agency Partnerships

by Bruce Huseby

Despite blemishes both the church and the agency have, there is also incredible potential. What would it look like if both organisms made it a priority to work together in interdependent collaboration?

MY CHILDREN WOULD SAY that growing up in our home was at times very strange. Their friends would look in bewilderment when someone in our family would say something and another would break out in a song in which we all would join in. But sometimes, “strange families” can also have great potential. This is the case for three terms coming together: church-agency-partnership. Individually, each term brings both positive and challenging thoughts. But when brought together, they are magnified, holding either tremendous potential or impossible dreams.

The church is the local organism that equips the saints and that preaches and teaches God’s word. It is a community of believers that embraces fellowship and sends out people to serve and make disciples of all nations.

Of course, the church is often not making disciples and, at least in North America, seems to be retreating from the “all nations” aspect of Matthew 28. It is often more consumed with reaching its own “Jerusalem” before going to the “eschatos” (the ends of the earth). In reality, we are part of the uttermost parts needing to reach the rest of the uttermost parts of the earth. This includes our communities, but surely isn’t exclusive.

The mission agencies are wonderful parts of the universal Church. They are an extension of the local church and exist to serve and see people sent out well in order to make disciples of all nations. The agency is the organism that brings together experts in mobilizing, training, logistics, member care, sending, and more.

The reality is that mission agencies are often not sending out well- equipped disciple-makers. Systems are in place, but these are often overlooked when accountability is required. Field workers can become lazy or avoid true accountability for a number of reasons, but largely because of lack of honest oversight or fear. Newsletters often inflate numbers and resist transparency for the sake of donors.

Phill Butler, founder of Interdev and more recently visionSynergy, defines partnership as: “Any group of individuals or organizations, sharing a common interest, who regularly communicate, plan, and work together to achieve a common vision beyond the capacity of any one of the individual partners.”  

In reality, partnerships all too often do not reflect collaboration, but instead have the mentality that “we want ‘your’ part on ‘our’ ship.” A biblical concept of working together has often fallen by the wayside due to improper usage of funds, lack of trust, and pride. We think the task is about “our” kingdom, instead of “the” kingdom.

Despite blemishes both the church and the agency have, there is also incredible potential. What would it look like if both organisms made it a priority to work together in interdependent collaboration?

I come to this subject as a church man, a pastor. I love the church, what it stands for, and the important role it plays in Great Commission work. I love the agency functioning as a part of the church in order to focus on areas that very few churches have the capacity to do well. I rejoice in how the agencies have been used of God in serving the global body for decades.

But church and agency in partnership? It that possible? Is it even worth the effort? I believe the answer is yes to all three questions. What is required is both church and agency leaders come to the table in a spirit of humility, servanthood, learning, and a willingness to genuinely be about what Romans 15:5-6 reflects: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind towards each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

As I have observed the realms of partnerships over the past fifteen years, I would categorize them in three ways that reflect family themes: (1) the “parent-child” partnership, (2) the “family reunion” partnership, and (3) the “marriage” partnership. While terms like these are not perfect, they may help all of us better understand what we are getting into when we start looking into the ramifications of healthy church and agency partnerships.

#1: The Parent-Child Partnership

For our purpose, I want to look at what has been termed the “traditional family.” A parent/child partnership typically starts with an agency setting the groundwork, providing the training, and laying out responsibilities. A number of these types of partnerships exist, but many have also imploded.

When I served in student ministry, I would often say that youth pastors and parents can be natural enemies. Parents often look at a youth group and ask, “How is this group reaching my teen?” The youth pastor must look at the youth group and ask, “How do I reach every teen?” The youth pastor sometimes thinks that he or she knows a student better than the parent does.

While the leader may know something unique about a student, he or she never knows that student better than the parent. Realizing this natural tension helps many leaders and parents foster a greater collaborative effort in ministry. The same case can be made for churches and agencies in partnership.

Churches may think they know a field better than the agency, but this is seldom (if ever) true. Agencies may think they will always be the ones leading in the relationship. While some churches may want their hands held, many grow up and can function well without the parent (agency) running the show. As the child (church) grows up, problems can occur.

About fourteen years ago World Relief started to work in this type of partnering. Parent/child (agency/church) partnerships were set for work in Cambodia, the African lake district, Malawi, and Mozambique. Much has changed over the years, and World Relief has watched their children grow up. Like all parents, it is sometimes hard to let go when things change. Piers Van der merwe of Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Kentucky, shares that,

They had knowledge of the country and they knew how to bring relief and development to a really needy region. As time went by, after many, many trips the church partners began to develop in-depth knowledge of the region and build deep and lasting friendships with the Mozambicans. In addition, the need for urgent relief diminished as the long term development policies started to take effect. Thus, the partnership dynamic began to change. No longer were the church partners dependent minors, but they were now teenagers, maybe even young adults. Furthermore, the area of need was clearly for church development. The balance of expertise was swinging in favor of the churches who have extensive experience in spiritual development. This put a little strain on the partnership as the child was no longer dependent. The young adult was looking to have a seat at the table of decision making.

Many times, in fact, “partnership” was not the word best describing the relationship. Through humility and mutual learning, however, both World Relief and many of the church partners have set a new course of collaboration that, while honoring the “parent,” finds those interdependent efforts to reflect another type of partnership. I would call this relationship the “Family Reunion Partnership.”

#2: The Family Reunion Partnership

If one would think my family a bit strange, you should see it when we gather the whole clan together. While we have no Greek heritage, we would rival the characters from the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. While it can be extremely crazy, when everyone stops trying to “one up” the others and we gather to worship, the dynamic moves from strange to beautiful.

What happens when many agencies and churches come together? This “family reunion” has often been referred to as a “macro-partnership.” For more than twenty-five years, Interdev (and now visionSynergy) has been used mightily of God to develop a number of great models of this primarily among the unreached parts of the world. Many of these models use consultations to see agencies, churches, and national leaders come together to address the pressing needs of the regions that they represent. Recurring themes of persecution, church planting, discipleship, media, business for transformation, orality, children and youth work, and many more bring the partnerships together for kingdom collaboration.

In one such family reunion partnership with which I am involved, we have seen great things happen for the proclamation of the gospel. There have been more rapid Bible translations as three groups previously duplicating work began working together. A youth network was formed, as well as networks for those in the medical field, those in community development, and most recently for those going out as missionaries. We are seeing various types of media (from television to smartphone apps) being used of God to see biblical transformation.

Are these types of partnerships easy? Surely not. When people come into these gatherings with agendas of raising funds, promoting their own opinions and methods, offering financial incentives, etc., the family starts to unravel and many return to their homes convinced that partnership is not worth the effort. I was in a consultation where people were actually encouraged not to participate in meetings if they need to raise funds. But when all comes together in worship, humility, and mutual learning, the dynamic can be amazing. Still, while these reunions can invigorate, it is easy to end up with little collaboration if follow-up efforts aren’t ardently pursued.

#3: The Marriage Partnership

I praise God that the strange family I was born into is balanced well by my insightful, loving, gracious, faithful wife. She helps me keep the weirdness in balance. A healthy Christian marriage is one that focuses on Jesus, commits to submit to one another in love, is patient, kind, does not seek its own…you know the rest. A good marriage does not mean you are devoid of conflict. You talk through it and work through it. Forgive one another as Christ forgave you. Put on love, which is the perfect bond… (Col. 3). While we know this is God’s intention in marriage and that this reflects Christ’s love for the Church, is this type of relationship possible in the church/agency realm?

Some are working hard on this relationship, but moving partnerships beyond a prepackaged process is difficult. In preparing for this article, I asked several agency CEOs to send me the names of churches that are in true collaboration with their agencies. I never heard back from most of them. The ones I did hear back from had only one or two examples.

Ellen Livingood, founder of Catalyst Services, a ministry that seeks to bring churches and agencies to the table, believes that high-engagement partnerships reflecting true interdependence are difficult, but possible. In an effort to move conversations forward, Ellen publishes a monthly resource called Postings that encourages healthy partnering practices. 

The agency PIONEERS has formed a strong marriage relationship with Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium, Maryland. Denny Spitters, PIONEERS vice president of church partnerships, says that Grace Fellowship has

…been a church that has focused well on the unreached and epitomized reliability in the process of a long-term vision with us…They are committed to supporting their workers well, not just financially. They know we are in the yoke with them, and we know that they are caring well for their workers and that is a high priority for them. They have partnered with us for almost twenty five years and we have learned much from them.

Did you pick up on some of the key words? Long-term vision, committed, yoke, we have learned much from them. These are indicators of what can be a healthy partnership. Sure, multiple issues can sabotage a marriage partnership. For example, churches often resist direct financial support for the agency or agencies hurt themselves by not bringing a sending church into a conversation that directly affects a worker. All relationships take effort. We must ask ourselves the question: Is it worth the effort?

The “marriage partnership” may be rare, but it is the most mature, loving, trusting collaboration possible. It takes hard work, commitment, and moving together at the same time and at the same speed.

Just like my family is strange and weird at times, church/agency partnerships can be as well. When we come together with an attitude of worship and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and how we can help each other, the beauty of true interdependent collaboration can shine through. It is worth the effort and the messiness to see what God can do as we work together for his purposes. Parent/child partnership, family reunion partnership, marriage partnership—which one(s) will you become part of?


Special Note for Church Leaders

Leadership change is often the Achilles tendon of partnership. To prevent vision bleed, hurt, and damage to a relationship:

• Work out the partnership with your current leadership in your church. This would mean that the senior pastor, mission team, and church board are unified in the partnership relationship.

• Put the partnership in writing and revisit its importance on a yearly basis. If your church lay leadership structure has term limits, you will always have to re-educate.

• Form a solid team within the church that is committed to the partnership. If possible, have an active board member on that team.

• The partnership should become a non-negotiable for the church as a whole. This is not to say that evaluation is not done and the nature of the partnership will not change.

Apply these action points and, when you see a change in leadership, the likelihood of the partnership collapsing will be greatly diminished and may even strengthen as a result.


 

Rev. Bruce Huseby serves as pastor of global ministries at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He had previously served in student ministries for twenty-four years. For the past fifteen years his ministry focus has been on global ministries. In addition to serving as chair of a consultation among unreached peoples, Bruce also serves on the Global Leadership Council of the Mission Commission of the World Evangelical Alliance.

EMQ Jan 2015, Vol. 51, No. 1 pp. 92-97. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors. For Reprint Permissions beyond personal use visit our STORE (here).

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