The word “partnership” continues to be used in a variety of ways and with differing meanings within the missions community. This makes it rather difficult to arrive at a consensus on the subject and often allows debates over definition to prevent the more productive discussions on practical opportunities for partnership. I would like to suggest a way of looking a partnership that may provide an acceptable framework for discussion. I call it the collaboration continuum.
We often mean different things when we used the term partnership. Even the same person may use the term differently depending on context. We use it to define casual cooperation between people. At other times we use it to define a contractual arrangement between two parties in which the duties and privileges of each are clearly defined. We even use it occasionally to refer to our cooperative relationship with the Lord himself. You can probably come up with more examples. No wonder we have difficulty reaching a working consensus about partnership.
We probably all agree that partnership refers to a specific kind of relationship between two or more parties. It may help us to be more specific about what we mean by partnership if we can see it in a continuum of relationship-defining terms.
Fellowship is the fundamental relationship we share in the body of Christ. It binds us together in the Spirit through time and space, and it is true even if we live in different centuries and places and never meet on this earth. It is the oneness whereby our identity with Christ identifies us also with one another in his body. We share in the commitment to the agenda established by Jesus Christ in the Great Commission, even though we may not be involved in the same task.
This fellowship is initiated by the Lord and predisposes us to love one another. It opens us to cooperation with one another whenever we meet. Yet, this fellowship in the body of Christ worldwide, real as it surely is, does not in itself provide the opportunity for practical partnership. For that to happen, it is necessary that our paths cross in space and time, that our realms of activity come in contact.
As members of the body of Christ find themselves together, they have an opportunity to express their Christian fellowship in practical cooperation. When we cooperate, we get involved voluntarily in what each other is doing. Cooperation is given and received voluntarily. There is no obligation. There is little or no expectation of each other and we each are grateful for whatever cooperation we get from the other. It is a spontaneous good will response to each other whenever we meet, and we should not feel obligated to make every cooperative relationship into a structured partnership.
There are, however, occasions when a more formal and structured cooperative relationship seems practical. On those occasions it becomes appropriate and desirable for two people or entities to establish a partnership.
Partnership can be defined as a cooperative working relationship between two or more autonomous entities whereby each contributes some of its own resources towards the accomplishment of a common goal.
It is no longer merely a predisposition to cooperate whenever the opportunity occurs. In a partnership, each partner makes specific commitments of resources to the other, and gives the other the right to expect the commitments to be fulfilled. It usually involves a written agreement that specifies each partner’s role and contributions toward a common goal. While partners enter into this agreement voluntarily, they are now bound by agreement to fulfil their part. While in a partnership each partner retain its independent identity, some organizational adaptation is necessary in those areas where the partnership is affected.
Since structural relationships can be cumbersome and limiting, a partnership should not be considered unless there is reason to believe that it will best achieve the results intended.
A Joint Venture
A joint venture is the kind of partnership where two or more entities, rather than making a direct structural link with one another, agree to create a third entity to which each contributes resources, but which remains structurally independent of each of them. This arrangement is helpful when the partners wish to keep the identity of the joint project separate from that of either of the partner entities. This may be done for a variety of reasons such as legal registration requirements, for security in restricted areas where the identities of the parent organizations might cause problems, or for the purpose of preventing undue control or influence by one partner.
At the end of the continuum we will find the relationship in which there is such close identification between two entities as to render it unnecessary for them to maintain separate identities. There may be such extensive overlap of goals and objectives that a separate structure becomes a duplication of effort. In such cases a merger seems to be the best option. Mergers, because they involve loss of organizational identity, are seldom considered, although it can be a very practical way of pooling resources and avoiding duplication.
Observations about the Continuum
No one place in the continuum is better than any other. Each stage flows progressively from the previous one, but only as circumstances permit or require.
Cooperation cannot occur unless circumstances permit. It is unreasonable to expect that rural evangelists in India should cooperate with Christian radio broadcasters in Brazil.
Nor is it necessary or more virtuous to move from an informal cooperative relationship to a formal partnership. Partnerships should only occur when there is a specific goal that can be assumed jointly, when measured and objective evaluation can be made as to its accomplishment.
While all Christians are inevitably part of the fellowship of the body of Christ, and while all should be willing to cooperate when the opportunity arises, partnerships should be only established when objective conditions indicate that such an arrangement will better advance a common goal.
There are many situations in which a partnership is not the best arrangement and may, in fact become a hindrance. We should not so idealize partnerships that we impose them on ourselves and our colleagues at the cost of effectiveness and the risk of disharmony. A healthy, informal cooperation is much better than a partnership with strife.
Several Christian leaders have been asked to continue the conversation by responding to this lead article. Read their responses and share your own thoughts:
Prem James responds to Alex’s article
Bill Sunderland responds to Alex’s article
Alex Araujo works with United World Mission.
Connect with others who share your desire for collaboration www.powerofconnecting.net
See over 70 short videos from global practitioners about actual partnerships. Youtube.com/visionSynergy