All Change! From Partnership to Collaboration

I’ve lost count of how many seminars I’ve attended and articles I’ve read on ‘partnership’. I’ve written on it myself – at least once for Billions. ‘Partnership’ has certainly been a buzz word, but is it a biblical word?

It can be a useful term, but things get tricky when we read modern understandings of ‘partnership’ into a verse such as Philippians 1:5. Many English translations have Paul rejoicing with the believers in Philippi for their ‘partnership in the gospel’. But the word is actually ‘fellowship’ – which is not the same as ‘partnership’.

Prioritising relationships

Missiologist Jonathan Bonk points out that ‘partnership’ ‘has its roots in the cognitive domains of management and business’ and can allow us to remain somewhat remote from the one with whom we partner.’1 ‘Fellowship’, however, is fundamentally relational, organic rather than managerial, wholistic rather than siloed. The Bible uses a rich set of metaphors, to describe relationships between Christians.

Rather than independent ‘parts’, the Body of Christ consists of interdependent members. ‘After all,’ says Bonk, ‘what does it mean for a hand to be in partnership with a leg or a foot or an eye?’

Addressing power

Problems on this front were present well before the pandemic, but it has exposed weaknesses around the language and practice of partnership – particularly how it perpetuates unbalanced power dynamics.

At this year’s Global Connections conference, Sri-Lankan theologian and author Vinoth Ramachandra noted that sadly, ‘partnership’ is often ‘a disguise for neo-colonial paternalism’. What sounds like a desire for mutual listening and collective deliberation too often looks like this: ‘We have a mandate from God; so, we have decided the programs that you need; we will send the funds and you fund the local people to implement the programs.’

It is for this reason that many are calling for the term ‘partnership’ to be reconceived in the direction of collaboration, with an emphasis on inter-dependence and reciprocity.

The insights of Majority World theologians point to a set of values that embrace inter-dependence, and celebrates collaborative relationships marked by intercultural integration and reciprocity.

Open to change

These kinds of relationships mean that all who are involved are being changed. Rather than a tightly framed partnership in which transformation moves in one direction, true collaboration means that individually and as an organisation we must be willing to become different people – and a different organisation.

Putting the emphasis on collaborative relationships will mean surrendering privilege and creating space for local self-determination in the places where we work.

Seeing initiatives in East Asia thrive will not be down to OMF empowering people or churches or movements. It will often require a willingness on OMF’s part to remove our power for local innovation to flourish. That’s an outworking of authentic and costly collaboration.

Ready to listen

One of the first steps towards forming collaborative, intercultural relationships in which difficult issues such as power dynamics can be addressed, is to develop the space and the skills for listening.

We can all be guilty of what is described as ‘cosmetic listening’ – going through the motions of listening to ‘safe’ voices and with no real expectation that what we hear is going to change us. So, we all need help in actively listening to the voices of those outside or on the edges of our church or organisation, and to integrate those perspectives into what we’re doing.

Recently I was involved in a listening project with several leaders in a ministry in East Asia. The aim was to create space to listen to local leaders and to let those leaders speak into us as an organisation.

One OMF leader commented how this listening project brought surprises, how local voices were more open than had been expected, and how it helped them recognise their own blind spots.

Listening revealed new insights into what God is doing in and through local followers of Jesus – perspectives and insights were gathered that brought their own challenge as to whether OMF was prepared to join in, co-create and collaborate in new ways of doing mission. Deeper listening has built deeper trust, and this is opening up possibilities for radical collaboration.

The future of mission will be characterised by this humble readiness to listen and the prioritising of relationships out of which can flow co-created collaborative ministry as a shared task in which all are being transformed by God’s Spirit.

Dr. Peter Rowan
Co-National Director OMF (UK)

1 Jonathan Bonk, ‘Engaging Escobar… and beyond’ in Global Missiology for the 21st Century: The Iguassu Dialogue, Ed. William D. Taylor (Baker Academic / WEF, 2000), 51-52.
2 The Global Connections Conference had the theme ‘Listening to Global Voices’ and Vinoth Ramachandra’s presentation was entitled ‘Towards Inter-Dependence and Mutual Learning’.