Pioneers, Partners, Friends: four decades of partnership in Thailand

We often talk about ‘partnership’ with local people. But what does this mean, and how do we move towards it? OMF worker Dr Larry Dinkins shares how he has witnessed growing partnerships with the people of Thailand in his time serving there.

In forty-one years of working with the Thai, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to learn what it means to partner with local Christians in ministry. I started out as a pioneer church planter in Central Thailand, which meant almost all initiatives and leadership came from the missionary. Later I felt I was in more of a parent role as I helped the fledgling church begin to walk on its own. 

After transitioning into Bible teaching at Bangkok Bible College, I found myself acting as a partner in ministry with a very capable Thai faculty. Most of the finances still came from the West, and there were cross-cultural workers in the school and on the board, but my relationships with faculty staff became based more on mutual friendship rather than a strict hierarchy. 

This pattern of increasing partnership was also a feature of my time at the Chiang Mai Theological Seminary. After acting as founding director in 2001, I served only one year there before my wife’s cancer diagnosis forced our family to leave the seminary. A fellow OMF worker, Daniel Kim, became the director for the next sixteen years. Daniel took on a parent role as he added more Thai staff, solidified the curriculum/board, and gave primary direction to the seminary. During a couple of Daniel’s home assignments the seminary had Thai interim directors, but otherwise it was OMF-led.

I rejoined the seminary as a faculty member in 2015 under Daniel and saw the fruits of his approach. As a good ‘parent’, he had prepared several seminary alumni to become part of the school faculty and was partnering and collaborating much more with the Thai in everyday decisions. When Daniel went on home assignment, I filled in once again as director and sought to promote his idea of increased partnership.

Raising leaders

In 2019 I was scheduled for home assignment and Daniel also left the seminary to pursue a doctorate. Before leaving, we had the pleasure of placing Ajarn Thanit Lokeskrawee as the seminary’s first permanent Thai director. Thanit’s first year was quite a challenge, as the school was starting a 25 million baht (more than £500,000) building project on a new plot of land and faced the challenges of the pandemic. 

It was a joy for me, therefore, to return for Thanit’s second year and see how the school had progressed under his able leadership, with the full-time faculty staff all being Thai nationals. Of course, I am now learning what it means as a founding director to follow the leadership of a new director almost thirty years my junior. 

Ajarn Thanit had many years’ ministry experience under OMF missionaries in Central Thailand, so I asked him if he had noticed any changes in the relationship of missionaries to the Thai. Ajarn Thanit replied, ‘From my experiences in Central Thailand I can say that the missionaries got used to working ‘above’ the Thai, but now I’ve observed missionaries joining hands with Thai nationals much more. I have seen much more partnership, especially with OMF workers Dr Daniel Kim, Dr Larry Dinkins, and Dr Henry Breidenthal’. (Dr Henry is in his 89th year with 57 years of that spent in Thailand and almost 20 years associated with the seminary). It was gratifying to hear Ajarn Thanit express appreciation that I decided to return during the pandemic, and that some experienced missionary presence was a welcome encouragement at that time. 

On the far left are Ajarn Thanit, Dr Henry Breidenthal, and Dr Daniel Kim.

Beyond partnership

I know I’ve achieved a good level of partnership when I can sit down for a coffee with my Thai pastor and don’t have to struggle with language, seek to impress, or fear making cultural blunders. Instead, we can relate as co-workers and peers, not just in ministry but as kindred spirits and true friends.

I have heard national level Thai leaders say what is most needed in the Thai church today is for missionaries to move even further from partnership to fuller participation. There is, of course, an ongoing need in certain parts of the country for more pioneer work. Yet as missionaries acquire language and cultural skills their role should eventually transition into that of a “shadow pastor” and mentor. Personally, my goal is to act as a kind of Barnabas and encourager as I ‘pass the baton’ on to my Thai brothers and sisters. Practically that means that I want to be in prayer for them, offer counsel, and fill in to help when asked.

If you asked me what issues caused the most obstacles to partnership, I would first list financial considerations. There have also been cultural barriers which make full participation harder. For example, my Western style of leadership values directness, accountability, long-term planning, and lots of team meetings – but Thai leadership has a much more individual and intuitive style. Another challenge is having sufficient time on the ground to establish deep and lasting connections. Short-term workers add huge value, but it’s hard to see them go so soon.

I often refer to Ephesians 4:15 which says we must ‘speak the truth in love’. My tendency is to speak the truth but without enough love, while the Thai’s face-saving tendency is to speak in love but compromise on the truth. To achieve true Christian partnership, both sides need to see their weaknesses and seek the right balance of truth and love.

Dr Larry Dinkins
OMF Thailand