Preventing Dependency: Developmental Partnering

Daniel Rickett
A man came out of a store and saw a boy hanging around his new car. Suspicious, he asked the boy what he was doing.

"I'm studying this car," the boy replied.

"Yeah, sure," the man thought. So he began to quiz him. "What kind of car is it?"

"It's a 1997 Mercedes Benz."

"What color?"

"Metallic burgundy."

After a few more questions the man realized the little guy knew what he was talking about, so they began to chat. The boy asked him how much he paid for the car. The man replied, "Nothing. I had a need and my brother gave it to me."

"I wish ..." the boy started.

The man interrupted, "... that you had a brother like that?"

"No," said the boy. "I wish I could be a brother like that."

For those of us who work with indigenous ministries, our driving passion is "to be a brother like that." Developmental partnering can be summed up in one word: brotherhood. If we are skillful at genuine brotherhood, development will result. But such brotherhood doesn't come easily. In today's global village we have to learn how to deal with each other as true brothers and sisters, while also learning to obey God and advance the gospel. This ultimately brings us to very practical questions about sharing power, resources, and responsibilities.

The story of the boy and the Mercedes epitomizes what we all wish we could do for our brothers and sisters in the hard places of the world. If it is in our power to give what they need, we will happily give it for the sake of the gospel.

But the story triggers some disturbing questions. What makes me think my brother needs a Mercedes Benz? Do I know what he needs simply because he asked? Or do I give a Mercedes because I think that's what he needs? Suppose rny brother is making $20,000 a year and a new Mercedes costs $60,000. How is he going to afford the maintenance on a car like that? My generosity has now become his burden.

To have something to share is a wonderful thing. To give what your brother needs when he needs it is even better. But giving is a dangerous business because what is needed is not always apparent. In working with indigenous ministries we face a subtle and constant danger. It is not primarily dependency, though that is the risk for which we are most often criticized. It is not paternalism, though we slip into it more than we care to admit. Brotherhood goes deeper.

The hardest question is whether we have contributed to the self-developing capabilities of our partners. Attention to development is the surest prevention of dependency, and the best safeguard against paternalism. By focusing on development we are forced to ask whether our involvement makes our brothers and sisters better able to serve God according to their own gifts and calling--whether we are helping build their capacity or simply relieving their needs.

The most enduring partnerships are complementary. A complementary partnership is the association of two or more autonomous bodies who have formed a trusting relationship and are fulfilling agreed-upon goals by sharing complementary gifts and abilities. It is a relationship of shared commitment and interdependency.

A healthy, complementary partnership has at least three preconditions. First, the organizations must be autonomous. Before entering into partnership, each ministry has a separate identity and government. This shapes the entire relationship. For instance, consider the differences between the relationship of a sending mission to a daughter church, and that of two previously independent organizations. The former must first work through separation and independence before it can move toward interdependence. The latter can start immediately with assumptions of interdependence.

Second, there must be compatibility in doctrinal beliefs and ministry values. Usually this takes care of itself. Rarely will people from significantly different theological persuasions establish an intimate alliance. But there must also be a fit in the priorities of ministry. If, for example, one partner emphasizes holistic ministry, such ministry should be of more than passing interest to the other partner, or conflict will ensue.

Third, each partner must have and be willing to exchange complementary strengths and resources. Unless each has some attribute the other needs, there is nothing to be exchanged. A partnership that does not result in significant benefit to each partner will not endure.

Development occurs when people learn, grow, and change. It is at once a process and a result. It is a process because people are learning, taking charge of their own lives, and solving their own problems. It is a result when people actually change the conditions of life.

As Christians, we believe the means to development is faith in Christ, and the end of development is a life of faithfulness to Christ. It involves growing in Christ and as responsible stewards. It results in people living out kingdom values and putting God on display. Development is something people do for themselves. It cannot be imposed from the outside. No one can make another person develop any more than a farmer can make a plant grow. A plant grows according to its own internal code. The farmer's task is to work with the plant, to add water and fertilizer, and to keep the weeds away. In the same way, one person merely helps another person develop.

If development is growth in self-developing capabilities, and partnership is the mutual sharing of resources for a common goal, then a developmental partnership in Christian ministry is a cooperative relationship between two autonomous bodies whereby each enables the other to grow in its capacity to initiate and carry out change for the sake of the gospel. Although no two partnerships are exactly the same, developmental partnerships have three characteristics in common: results, relationship, and vision.

Results describes a partnership's capacity to deliver tangible outcomes. The ministry should emerge from an alliance stronger and more effective than when it entered. No matter how cozy or friendly a relationship may be, its purpose is to accomplish something. Whether it is to plant churches, empower disenfranchised Christians, equip leaders, or minister to the poor, every successful partnership has results as its reason for being.

Relationship is the means by which trust, communication, and collaboration are made possible. Developmental partnerships move far beyond transactional relationships and achieve a deep sense of kinship.

In a transactional relationship a representative from each organization works out an agreement. The relationship is managed largely through those two points of contact. Developmental partnering involves a whole new level of relationship. Rather than limiting the points of contact, developmental partnering involves multiple contacts at multiple levels of the organization.

This is not a question of merely bringing more people into the process. Development requires broad representation of the capabilities within each organization. Different parts of each organization become resources to one another. Communication channels tend to be informal and spontaneous. Tightly structured channels inhibit learning and change.

Of course, communication is only as rich as trust is deep. Closer contact and higher levels of interaction are important ingredients for building understanding and trust. This too is a function of breadth--the right people talking with one another about the shared responsibility of development.

Yet, developmental partnering is more than establishing relationships between two ministries. "A healthy, mature relationship between churches may be a prerequisite for mission, but it can never take its place," wrote G. Thompson Brown.

The church must be seen as the base from which mission moves out into the world. Churches enter partnerships, not so much to help each other, although this may be a byproduct of mission, but to share resources, insights, and spiritual gifts in the crossing of frontiers, in bearing witness of a common faith to an unbelieving world, and in demonstrating by deeds of compassion and justice God's love for his suffering and alienated creation.1

Relationship, no matter how enriching, is not enough to sustain a developmental partnership. That's because it does not, on its own, produce results. It simply makes results possible. If you have no vision of what those results should be, or no way to make them happen, you will not realize the full advantage of partnering in missions.

Vision is a compelling picture of what the partnership can achieve and how it is going to get there. Developmental partnerships have a shared road map that helps them to set expectations, measure progress, and maximize the value of collaboration. The vision is what gives the ministry an incentive to form a partnership. It shows how the partners together can be more than the sum of their parts.

The decisive factor in a developmental partnership is managing the gray area between what you can do for a ministry, and what that ministry should do for itself. It is knowing when to get involved and when to hold back, when to be supportive and when to be challenging. This is the tension between simply meeting needs and building capacity and self-sufficiency.

Meeting needs is not the same as facilitating development. It may be little more than undisciplined giving. "Acts of charity can be dangerous," John Perkins writes, "because givers can feel good about actions that actually accomplish very little, or even create dependency. Overcoming an attitude of charity is a difficult task because it requires givers to demand more of themselves than good will."2 The first challenge to meeting needs is to "disconnect what and how we give from our need to feel good about ourselves."3

Need is, at best, a relative concept, and the definition of need depends primarily upon those who undertake to mitigate the need. That's a problem for at least four reasons:

1. People with different values and cultural perspectives will recognize different needs. The person observing the need and the person experiencing the need may differ. The task of defining needs is not a straightforward process but a negotiated task in which all partners are fully engaged.

2. Needs are not singular, but are diffuse and interrelated. For example, a school in Central America realized it could no longer grow past a certain point without a larger facility. But that would mean a large increase in operating costs, requiring substantial growth in local funding. But the school was closely associated with one local church, precluding financial appeals to a wider Christian public. So the school had to seek autonomy from the local church. Thus, the perceived need was actually part of a cluster of needs.

3. Needs cannot be understood in isolation from their context. The best way to understand is to work shoulder to shoulder with the people. By discovering our partners' needs together with them and making their needs our own, we can begin to help bring about real, lasting change.

4. Needs are dynamic. Because organizations are in a state of almost perpetual change, the needs that give rise to outside intervention may within a short time no longer be of the same magnitude. This alone is sufficient reason to maintain an open and fluid relationship.

It is one thing to understand a need; it is another to answer that need. At the very least, the ability to alleviate needs requires three things:

1. Before searching for solutions, it is important to know the dimensions of the gap. A "gap analysis" is a perception of what is, what should be, and the extent and importance of the discrepancy between them.

2. There must be a process for translating needs into organizational programs. It is tough enough to plan and implement interventions in your own organization; developmental partnering means working through this process with your ministry counterpart.

3. There must be adequate resources.
Effective implementation comes down to the ability to reallocate existing resources or to appropriate new resources. The extent to which these are indigenous resources will have a lasting impact. If you help people define their own needs, search for solutions, and mobilize their own resources, then you have begun the process of building capacity.

The key to building capacity is not in developing programs. The key is in enabling people, namely the leaders and members of the partner ministry. Helping people learn and effect changes in their own ministry is the most essential, and the most difficult, part of developmental partnering. It is most essential because it releases the energies and creativity of people. It is most difficult because people are responsible for their own development. The outsider may help, but the insider must do the work. Whether we are dealing with individuals or with whole organizations, building capacity has to do with supporting people in their own learning and development.

At a minimum, the skills of self-development involve the capacity to (1) articulate needs, define problems, and visualize goals; (2) seek new behaviors, skills, and technologies; and (3) try them out.

Enabling people to work through this process is the heart of building capacity. To do so requires that we serve as facilitators, process guides, and resource persons, supporting people in doing things themselves:
  • From the outset, leaders of the partner ministry must be fully involved in a process of discussion, investigation, and analysis of perceived needs.
  • Leaders must see the entire process as a learning experience in identifying problems and proposing and implementing their own solutions.
  • Facilitators must have a high regard for their partners' competencies.
  • All partners must view themselves as participants in a dialogue between equals; they must remain open to, and learn from, one another.
  • Facilitators must be skilled at getting close enough to their partners to understand their situation and point of view.
  • Success is measured by the increased capability of the ministry to mobilize creative potential and indigenous resources.
Self-sufficiency begins with acknowledgment of the all-sufficiency of Christ. Only God is self-reliant. The rest of us should be God-reliant.

To be self-sufficient does not mean to be independent of Christ or the rest of his body. "Self" in this regard is not egoism but personal responsibility. "Sufficiency" is not independence, but having enough to meet one's needs on the basis of one's capabilities. A self-sufficient (or self-reliant) organization grows and develops on the basis of its own capabilities and needs.

Self-reliance should not be confused with independence. Rather, it is the condition for fellowship and collaboration with the larger Christian community. Every ministry relies on a wide array of resources whether at the local, national, or international level. The precise location of those resources is less important than how they affect a ministry's selfhood and faithfulness to God.

Self-determination is the capacity of the ministry to make its own decisions and chart its own course. Self-determination is violated when aid is imposed, whether by coercion or inexperience. A ministry may feel compelled to accept aid when it senses that refusal would jeopardize the relationship, especially where the funding partner provides a large portion of the ministry's total income. In such a relationship the funding partner holds the power of implicit veto.

The implicit veto should not be confused with accountability. It is not unreasonable to expect the one who provides financial resources to have some influence over how those funds will be used. The apostle Paul saw to it that the funds from Macedonia were put to the purpose for which they were sent (2 Cor. 8:16-24).

The tenuous differences between offering aid and insisting on aid are difficult to separate. The degree to which these subtle differences are successfully identified is what safeguards self-determination and reinforces interdependence.

Interdependence is the capacity to relate successfully to the wider Christian community, and to collaborate with other members of the body of Christ. Every ministry, whether church or parachurch, is part of a larger community of Christians. Fellowship and cooperation with local Christians create a network of interdependencies and thus accountabilities. When a ministry is funded primarily from an outside source, its loyalty may shift to that source. The ministry may become isolated and impervious to correction by local Christians.

Managing the internal to external ratio may be the key to sustained self-reliance. As a rule of thumb, a ministry should have an income ratio of 2:1 in which external sources provide no more than a third of total income. The issue in self-reliance is not the amount of money supplied to a ministry, but the proportion. A minimum of two-thirds support from within the country represents a healthy degree of interdependence.

Many opportunities, however, may be lost without substantial outside assistance. Ministry start-ups or major initiatives can quickly exceed the 33 percent threshold. How can we ensure that a ministry will progress toward self-reliance when outside funding represents most of the total income?

It helps to visualize external funding as a progression from more to less in relation to the growth of internal funding. The diagram below illustrates this progression. The model acknowledges that some situations call for substantial outside support. This helps overcome the inertia of initial obstacles to the ministry. To achieve momentum, however, inside funding must increase. The goal is to increase the ratio of internal to external funding. This requires serious effort by the partner ministry. At some point, the gap between inside and outside funding should represent a ratio of 2:1 or better. The first milestone is where the lines cross, when inside funding surpasses outside funding. After that, it's a matter of keeping the momentum and diminishing the impact of outside funding.

Whether we are trying to achieve a 2:1 ratio, or safeguard self-reliance, the steps are basically the same:

1. Establish expectations at the outset and recalibrate them from time to time. In a joint effort, start with the end in mind and, working backwards, discuss needed outcomes.

2. Monitor and review changes regularly. This should include frank discussions of what steps the partners are taking to increase local/regional funding and shrink reliance on outside funding.

3. Evaluate the effect on self-reliance and make decisions accordingly. There may come a time when outside funding should be cut back in order to motivate the ministry to work on internal funding. But that would represent a breakdown in the development process. Funding sources should be reluctant to force their partners to improve local funding by use of the implicit veto. A better solution is to agree on a gradual reduction of funding while simultaneously working with the ministry to cut costs, raise funds locally, or generate income through creative enterprise.

In the final analysis, as Kenneth Donald wrote, "The answer does not lie in any set policy. The answer lies in being sensitive to what the Holy Spirit says in any given situation. The initiative must always be with God, and in each situation we must take time out to listen to what he has to say."4

Developmental partnering is helping a ministry grow in its capacity to create and manage change in obedience to God. Realizing that people are authors of their own development, we cannot presume to show the way, only to help them find their own way to becoming biblically faithful and missionarily effective. Our job is to enhance the skills of indigenous Christian leaders in releasing the creative potential and indigenous resources of the people of God. To do so requires that we come alongside ministry leaders, listen and respond to their agenda, and together find ways to help that result in the growth and success of their ministry.

In a word, developmental partnering is the practice of brotherhood. If we can achieve true brotherhood, we will in a single stroke enrich one another and advance the gospel. But genuine brotherhood, especially between culturally and geographically distant organizations, doesn't come easy. There is no formula for the practice of brotherhood any more than there is for marriage. It requires constant attention, open communication, mutual support, prayer, persistence, and heavy doses of forgiveness all around.

1. G. Thompson Brown,"Rethinking Some Modern-Day Missionary Shibboleths," Missiology, Jaunuary 1984, pp. 92-93.

2. John M. Perkins, Beyond Charity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1993), p. 23.

3. Perkins, Beyond Charity, p. 28.

4. Kenneth G. Donald, "What's Wrong with Foreign Money for National Pastors?" Evangelical Missions Quarterly, January, 1977, p. 25.


Daniel Rickett is director of ministry development for Partners International (San Jose, Calif.). He has a Ph.D. in adult and nonformal education from Michigan State University and an M.A. in intercultural communications from Wheaton College Graduate School through Daystar University. This is a shortened version of a paper he presented at the second Consultation on Support of Indigenous Ministries, held in September 1997 at Wheaton College's Billy Graham Center.

Copyright © 1998 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.

Print this ArticlePrint this ArticleSend Article by emailSend Article by email