Why Not Collaborate?

“I don’t know why they want to work together.”  This quote is from an interview with a godly, very proactive missionary in Asia who has served God for decades in hard circumstances.  Decades into ministry, this was his statement.  I had personally become interested in the subject of cooperative approaches to ministry during the first few years on the field in Asia.  I had found myself gradually drawn to find out if cooperation between ministries is something worthwhile—while intuitively attractive, in reality it seems to create as many problems as it solves.  I was eventually convinced that it was worthwhile, but can still relate with the person referenced in a Mission Frontiers interview:

 “One colleague of ours has spent nine years just “drinking tea” [coffee] and talking with a person that he knows who has a good ministry in one of the Central Asia countries, but is not part of the Partnership. After nine years the guy said, “Maybe you have something here. Maybe I should come and check it out.”

 Nine years.  That is a long time.  This is a testimony not only to faithfulness on the part of the facilitator, but also to sincere and prolonged misunderstanding of the “something” of cooperation in the mind of the other.   It is possible that this leader was sincerely in the dark about why and when cooperation is appropriate (or not) in his missional context.  In the interests of identifying and communicating when cooperation is (or is not) appropriate, this article is intended to be a “take away” for the toolbox of a partnership facilitator.


Probing the logic of autonomous organized ministries can provide us with starting points and key concepts that catalyze cooperative, interorganizational behavior.  A catalyst is necessary because, as it turns out, organizations are not actually designed to work together—that’s just not what they are for.  Granted this, the intention here is to leave each of us, in our own unique context, with the background necessary to make an informed choice: One of either appropriate inaction or intentional interaction.




The Root of all Organization

The way in which we perceive the world provides a blue print for the way we work.  Typically, the thinking is, “We work this way because, if we don’t, everything will fall apart!”  Organizational structure (loose or tight, autonomous or integrated) exists because members recreate it on a moment to moment basis.  Decisions reference it, reporting lines follow it, information is managed by it, and personal status and significance are often gained and lost by it.  The way people operate is unassailable until their blue print has changed. The blueprint cannot change until the perceptions that require it are no longer tenable. 

For example, I can bless you in your ministry, and you can bless me in mine without ever needing to collaborate on anything… and we can both continue to do good works.  If we get together, maybe we can have a bigger tent meeting and split the rental check, but is a bigger ‘bang’ really all that partnership is about?  What if I’m in a big organization and we can handle the rental check just fine, thank you?  Why do we need to cooperate or collaborate?  Until that question is answered to my satisfaction and to the satisfaction of my stakeholders, you, in your role as a partnership facilitator, do not really have anything else to say to me.  Such is organizational logic, and it is absolutely unassailable until the perceptions that create it, change.



Where it all starts

A ministry organization is what it does, and the right to organize its own activity is self-defining.  This is the primal problem of dealing with perceptions: We already have them.  Our organization’s identity is literally our DNA, built up as a product of both our initial vision and our decisions along the way.  When a ministry is first asked if they are interested in partnership, the reflexive (spoken or unspoken) question is, “How will this help my ministry?”  This question is entirely appropriate and needs to be acknowledged as such.  Our identity is not just a matter of shared values, but also a very keenly felt calling from God.  This God-given vision that started the organization in the first place typically comes in answer to the prayer,

 “Father, show us what you want us to do and be.” 

 This sanctifies not only what we do, but also our right to do it as an autonomous organization—how we do it in our organization.  This prayer constitutes the DNA of every ministry organization with whom I have had personal contact.  Acknowledging this reality, let’s now re-script this prayer by enlarging the scope of what we perceive to be significant to the task of our calling.  This is can be done by probing the perceptions we have of our time, our context, our task, our theology and our shared responsibility.     


Perception of Time:

Where time stands still, we do not need to cooperate with others

Untimely tradition is timely innovation, fossilized and this fossilization is comforting.  It keeps our ministry running predictably, lowers our administrative stress, and provides an established set of rules so that decision-making is not so disruptive.  As part of this not-for-profit organization, I know what I am supposed to do, so I know who I am around here.  You know who you are, we know who we are, and we would like to keep it that way.  Once a problem has been solved, it is best to keep it solved… by building in structure that automates our solution.  As what we do and how we do it moves to the forefront of who we are, we become independent, unflustered, irrelevant and incompetent. Over time, we become stable and autonomous while our context remains dynamic and highly interactive.  

Tradition works enviably well when most everyone and everything that affects us acknowledges our traditions; for example, in isolated tribal societies.  Time almost stands still.  However; time does not stand still when the Christian mission is global, the personnel dispersion is international, and the technology available to make it all go doubles in versatility, efficiency and speed every 540 days.  It would seem that something adaptive would need to take place if we are to steward the treasure entrusted to us faithfully in our generation.  Preparing ourselves, and our organizations, for intentional, appropriate cooperation is one of these necessary adaptations.

Where time effectively stands still, we do not need to “cooperate.”  Everyone knows what to do and has been doing it for centuries.  In our world of mission, however, time does not stand still… ever.  So to our DNA prayer, I would add,

 “Father, show us what You want us to do and be now.”  

 “Now” implies we seek to make use of all that is available in the quest for excellence in our ministry in this day and age.  Everything from state-of-the-art behavioral science to the balance between cost and capability in technology must be consistently re-evaluated as we prepare ourselves responsibly for the option of cooperation.  We must stand among those who “understand the times” (Est. 1:3, 1 Ch. 12:23) and act accordingly in our context.


Perception of Context:

Where the context is controllable and predictable, we do not need

to cooperate with others.

It takes a system to transform a system.  The Gospel of Christ speaks of transformation, not one-dimensional change.  Change one thing, and the system in a context will certainly change; but that change will be adaptive, not transformative.  If our objective as Christian businesses, churches and mission agencies is transformation, we need to organize ourselves accordingly. 

Where our mission statement deals only with factors we control, we do not need to cooperate with anyone else.  Everything that happens occurs “in house” and under one “umbrella.”  If the results of this are sufficient to satisfy our group’s mission statement, then we do not need to coordinate with others.  However, if this is the conclusion, it means that we assume that not only we ourselves, but also the context in which we serve, operate in a vacuum.  We assume that other’s actions cannot cause interference with what we intend to do, and that all competencies necessary for transformation are held in-house under this one umbrella.  If this is so, cooperation with other groups is unnecessary.  If this is not so, appropriate cooperation is inherent to our mission statement.

The reason why context is significant is simply that it is the place in which our task is done.  Task is what makes context relevant, and it is due to this fact that the DNA prayer will be adapted further only in the next section.  The Great commission is a “Task-in-context.”


 Perception of Task:

Where the task is completely isolated, predictable and routine,

we do not need to cooperate with others.

The partnership process is messy.  But then, so are many of our organizations.  So why is it worth making a bigger mess?  People organize themselves in various ways to accomplish a task, and this structure reflects their view of the context in which they operate.  No structure is inherently good or bad; it is rather appropriate or inappropriate to the context in which it operates.  For example, where the context is simple and predictable (e.g., a cog factory), an isolated, authoritarian approach is very effective in getting the job done.  Where the context is more complex, but still fairly predictable (e.g., a large restaurant), an isolated hierarchy is usually the structure-of-choice.  Where the context demands a project that is too big for one organization (e.g. a city-wide crusade), generally a temporary joint venture is chosen.  So what does the context look like where ongoing, sustainable, messy, innovative partnership between organizations is appropriate? 

In a phrase, this could be labeled “perception of unmanageable complexity.”  Lets unpack this phrase in story-form.  For example, if a group of businesses, churches and agencies come together in a city to affect the situation of the homeless, they might pool resources and personnel to rent and staff a shelter with a kitchen.  Several years after the initial struggles and successes, it becomes clear that a 1500 square foot rental space is not enough to transform the situation of homelessness in their city.  At this point, the group is faced with a choice:  (1) Decide that “We can’t do everything, but, Hallelujah, God let us do this!” or (2) Identify the political, social, economic, psychological and other aspects that create and maintain homelessness in the city, then bring together a coalition that will simultaneously attack multiple aspects of the system that creates it.  In effect, the choice is to create a system to affect a system.  So long as the shared perception is “The situation in which we are seeking transformation is unmanageably complex,” it will perpetuate at least a shared understanding of the need for a cooperative approach.

Where the context in which our task is played out is predictable and we know all we need to know about it, we do not need to work together.  Where this is not the case, we again need to change the prayer that constructs our organization’s DNA:

 “Father, show us what you want us to do and be here and now.” 

 “Here” implies that we can articulate what we are doing with reference to what others are doing in a context we now view from multiple perspectives, not just our own.


Perception of Knowledge:

Where we know, in real time, what it will take to move from reality to vision,

we do not need to cooperate with others.

Knowledge is interactive.  The cliché, 1+1=3 is just not true: 1+1=2.  It always has, it always will.  To get 3, we need something else.  The existential fact that I know what I know and you know what you know gets us to 2, not 3.  In order to get to 3, we need to connect my piece of the puzzle to your piece and create something that did not exist before—a larger single picture we both now own.  This bigger picture is where the other (1) comes from in the old cliché. 

            Metcalf’s Law states that the value of a network increases exponentially with each member added.  The reason that is relevant for partnership in mission is that the bigger picture allows us to envision, decide and act on a scale unavailable before partnership.  Here, ideas can interact and build on each other.  As we seek the Lord in the fellowship-of the task, both where and how the Body of Christ can operate cooperatively becomes clear with each one playing its part. 

Here’s how it works: As our information base becomes more complete and more shared over time, our autonomous decisions are more harmonious because we make them based on the same basic picture.  As the perceived value of this information slowly dawns on each of us, the significance of the partnership to each of us grows in direct proportion.  As the perceived value of the partnership to my organization grows, so does the significance of the values represented by the partnership.  Our mission field can become less governed by marketplace dynamics and become more norm-governed: I don’t try to duplicate or displace your ministry because it is clearly understood by everyone around us why that is not appropriate.

            Where knowledge of our context in real-time is irrelevant to our activities, we do not need to cooperate with others.  Where the big picture is necessary for knowing where we fit into what God is doing here, cooperation is vital.  As learning takes place in community, the DNA of our prayer changes again:

 “Father, teach us what you want us to do and be here and now.” 

             Assuming that God teaches us in community where He wants us to have a communal effect for His Kingdom, we seek the mind of Christ.  The mind of Christ is not only in all by the ministry of the Holy Spirit and available to all by the finished work of Christ, but it is also active by nature of the fact that we are part of one Vine, one Body.


 Perception of Theology:

Where the Body of Christ can be fully represented by my group,

we do not need to cooperate with others.

People relate; groups do not.  We were created as persons with a relational nature in the image of God, and you and I are one in Christ; not in organizations, and not in associations, partnerships or networks.  Jesus Christ is a relational Person, neither a structure nor an ethnic identity.  If I were to leave my organization, the Body of Christ is not reduced in the slightest so long as we part ways in God-honoring peace.  It is just not true that because we are one in Christ, we must enter into a partnership.  Rather, this phrase needs to be re-written to make clear that because we are already one in Christ, this unity has opportunity to be manifest where the mission of God in our context requires collaboration.

            This may be a point that few would undermine conceptually, but what happens when this statement requires change in our structures, our strategies and even our identity.  What if reaching this city means praying with a pastor from another denomination, one long demonized by our own creed?  What if the bureaucracy of our large organization prevents us from allowing those at the table of partnership to make any meaningful decision or commitment to the cooperative task in pace with what everyone else is doing?    What if the decision-makers are just too busy to come to the round table, citing their heroic efforts to do everything… literally, everything?  What if historical comity divisions of mission territory become incarnate in tribal warfare now doubly reinforced by sanctified denominational distinctives?  What if sanctity of a God-given vision means we have 43 strategically and economically isolated Bible schools in a four square kilometer area of our city… each struggling for resources, each developing material, each in a race to develop their own library, each planting churches that “belong to my church”?  What if all our sanctified divisions create a public witness that flags people past the church of Christ on their way to hell?  What if all this is not OK?

            If Jesus can be encapsulated in one group structure over another, and if all the above implications are acceptable, then we do not need to work together cooperatively, nor seek for reconciliation.  However, this is not acceptable.  We need to again re-evaluate our DNA prayer:

 “Father, teach us what you want us, as members of the Body of Christ in this area, to do and be, here and now.” 

 This is not to say that theological differences are in any way irrelevant or unimportant.  Rather, acknowledging that we see “through panes of glass darkly,” we must focus on the Person of Jesus Christ beyond those panes, not the images we have so carefully traced onto the panes.  The core of our faith is a living, speaking, relational Person; the periphery is made of glass.  Our purpose for existing in the first place comes from the Person, not the panes.


Perception of Power:

Where power is articulated in the language of dependency, not responsibility,

we do not need to cooperate with others

I am what I do with power, and if I need you for me more than I need you for them, there’s something wrong… with me.  If the interdependency of what I can do for you and what you can do for me is the penultimate of our partnership, then what we are engaged in is deal-making, not what has come to be called “Kingdom Mission.”  This is not to say that we don’t need to negotiate and make practical, clear deals on who pays for what and who does what when.  Rather it is to say that the language we use to evaluate our partnership needs an exchange of terms when it references power.  “Interdependency” is impotent to get us to a place where we must acknowledge our Kingdom responsibility because it does not include, at its core, those for whom we exist in the first place.  If I am ‘helped’ and you are ‘helped’, we are now interdependent regardless of what actually happens in the village or city.  Change the language of power from dependency to responsibility, and the logic by which our decisions are made must also change.

For example, say that I need help to enter a village for a water project.  The project is my goal, and I need financial and staffing power to accomplish it.  If interdependency is our mode of evaluation, I expect other organizations to look for benefit to themselves in the project, and will try to “sell” the idea to them on this basis.  If, on the other hand, shared responsibility is our mode of evaluation, I have a different starting point all together.   I envision the project as part of a larger scheme to see the village reached for the Kingdom, and invite the participation of others to learn in community what God wants to do in that place.  Power is articulated in the language of shared responsibility, not simply resource dependency.  In this state, I may even be willing to give up the water project if shared research indicates there is a better way to go or someone else better qualified to do it. The difference is in whether my focus is on my pet project or why I am doing it in the first place.

Where the focus is on interdependency, we do not necessarily need to work together; I just need your resources, not you.  Where the focus is on responsibility, stewardship demands cooperation.  Coming again to the prayer that constitutes our DNA, we now pray,

 “Father, teach us responsibility in our being and action as members of the Body of Christ, here and now.”

 There is inevitably going to be some reader who will spiritualize all this and come out with, “Brother—have you never read that its not by might nor power but by the Spirit?”  Yup; and I guarantee that if the same reader articulates partnership in the language of dependency, not responsibility, the Spirit is being quenched, to whatever degree, by personal ego.



 The significance of an idea is not found in how it influences other ideas, but rather in how it impacts real people in a real world.  I am a confirmed believer in the notion that if one can identify unacknowledged truth, and then communicate that in the language of pre-existing values, one can catalyze intended change.  It is in this spirit that leadership-by-influence must operate if it is to be broadly effective.   

If this article seems theoretical, that’s because it is— one has a theory when one knows where to tap on the boiler in order to un-stick the valve.   This is not a list of maintenance “to do” items and it will not fit on a bumper sticker.  At the same time, it is also highly practical in its effect: We do what we do because we are who we are.  I sincerely believe that there is a change of thinking that needs to occur within our organizations before it can be manifest between us. 

The choice facing us today is not whether or not to work together.  From the perspective of those we seek to reach, we are already “working together” if we are in the same place at the same time with the same message.  Our time, our context, our task, our theology and our shared-responsibility demand in chorus a re-evaluation of our organizational mindset in the face of the highly dynamic, intimately interactive nature of Kingdom mission.  What would be different in [your] area if every leader of every ministry organization woke up each morning and pleaded with the same God,

 ”Father, teach us responsibility in our being and action, as members of the Body of Christ, here and now.”