Three Ways Collaborative Partnerships Can Sustain Mission and Ministry
Research reveals how successful partnerships within organizations can change the world.
Dustin D. Benac
An African proverb regularly provides a rationale for collaborative ministry: “If you want go fast, go alone; but if you want to go far, go together.”
In an age of networked individualism, this saying offers an important corrective to our collective obsession with speed and autonomy. The proverb also expresses a fundamental insight that is relevant to pastoring, community organizing, and institutional leadership of any kind: collaboration is a key to the future of mission and ministry.
We really are better together.
However, when I started studying the structure of collaborative partnership, I realized this proverb doesn’t actually describe how collaboration supports a more connected future. It is one thing to critique the individualism that marks American religious life, but we need something more if our collaboration is going to grow beyond token proverbs to sustain mission and ministry.
If we want to go far together, we need wisdom to guide collaborative partnerships.
To that end, I’ve spent the last seven years trying to understand how collaborative partnerships can change the world. I studied collaborative communities in the Pacific Northwest—a region where religion has a marginal social position and there is a history of religious entrepreneurship. According to Mark Silk, the region provides insight into America’s religious future. My book, Adaptive Church: Collaboration and Community in a Changing World, tells the story of how collaborative partnerships are creating new structures of belonging.
I want to offer three field-driven insights about the structure of collaboration that can change the conditions that order our lives and communities.
Find your three. Martin Ruef, a scholar of entrepreneurship, reports in The Entrepreneurial Group that the majority of entrepreneurial teams are formed around two partners. When I asked individuals in my research to name their primary partners, the average number of partners was 3.6. While some individuals identified more than three and some fewer, two was the most common response.
For individuals pursuing collaborative partnerships, this points to the importance of your three primary partners. While transformative mission and ministry can certainly be advanced through extensive networks, ministry leaders should consider and cultivate strong partnerships with three primary partners. If you want to go far, collaborative partnership requires focusing on the three people who will journey with you.
Develop shared language. Leading change requires shared language in order to advance collaborative mission and ministry. While the need for shared language certainly applies to the core values that guide collaborative work, it must first apply to the structure of collaborative partnerships themselves. To this end, my work in and alongside collaborative communities identified six different forms of leadership.
Form of Leadership
Setting the Table
Discerning the Next Step
These complementary expressions provide language to structure collaborative partnerships. The Caretaker holds the hopes, dreams, and pains of a community, seeking to create the conditions where they may be transformed through an encounter with God and community. The Catalyst is an entrepreneur who may inhabit the edges of organizations and institutions and leads out of a restless discontent with the status quo. The Champion energizes and elevates collaboration in diverse communities that support the life of faith. The Connector-Convener leads by tending the connective sinews where mission and ministry take place The Surveyor first attends to the system of connections and ideas that comprise a community, and then translates insights to support the common good. The Guide comes alongside individuals and communities amid the uncertainty that characterizes collaborative responses to the challenges communities face.
When coordinated in ways that are rooted in the needs of a particular community, these six forms of leadership can structure collaborative partnership in transformative ways.
Move at the speed of trust. While collaborative partnerships have the potential to have a catalytic impact on local communities, trust is the essential condition for partnerships to form and flourish. As a result, building and maintaining partnerships require time, proximity, and mutual respect. The trust partnership requires cannot be bought and it is easy to lose. However, much like a sapling that takes root and grows over time, bonds of trust can eventually create space for a broader community to gather in transformative ways.
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This African proverb illumines one final feature of the structure of collaborative partnerships: the wisdom that sustains mission and ministry comes from local communities. While the proverb itself does not describe how to go far together, it emerges from a community that carried wisdom about how do this kind of work well. Each of our communities similarly carries local wisdom, inviting us to discern the ways collaborative partnership can take place right where we are.
We can go far together, but we should never neglect the local wisdom that compels us to join others in collaborative partnership. Instead, when embedded within and supported by the new structures of belonging that are emerging, we can begin imagining a more connected future for mission and ministry.