Toward Interdependent Ministry Partnerships: Fueling Ministry without Fostering Dependency

Glenn Fretz
Partnership, Self-reliance, Accountability, Dependency. These are buzzwords that came to dominate table talk about missions in the last decade of the previous millennium. The changing face of missions has demanded them. They have been called forth by the global growth of the Church, which has reached exponential proportions in some parts of the world. One of the outcomes of this growth is a radical realignment within the evangelistic work force that God has raised up to reach the world with the Gospel. This realignment, with its need for a new level of collaboration and co-operation, is forcing mission agencies everywhere to re-evaluate their operational guidelines. It is changing the way that mission agencies will "do business" in the years ahead.

Whenever change of this magnitude takes place it always brings unsettledness, even fear to some. Paradigm shifts are disconcerting for most of us. They force us to reconsider methodology and values that once seemed unalterable; and this leads to differing opinions and controversy.

Thus, it is understandable that missions' table talk has taken on the focus it has at the present time.. There is little need to question the legitimacy of any of the buzzwords or the discussion that swirls around them. Not only is discussion merited, it is necessary. Such discussion is ultimately the only way for change to occur without creating severe rifts between those individuals and agencies that need to stand together in the Gospel task as never before.

This article is an attempt to contribute to the discussion in a meaningful way. It grows out of almost a quarter century of worldwide ministry experience in which there has been a strong attempt to forge ministry partnerships that fuel ministry without fostering dependency. International Needs does not claim to have all the answers. Like most mission organizations it has had its failures to cope with along with its successes. At the same time, we believe that our experience in attempting to form interdependent ministry partnerships over the past two decades has a valid contribution to make to the current debate.

Even though his comments have a different overall focus, Stephen R. Covey's book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is helpful as one seeks to come to an understanding of interdependence. Covey presents interdependence as the highest stage of personal or interpersonal development. He refers to it as the relational developmental stage at which "I have the opportunity to share myself deeply, meaningfully, with others, and I have access to the vast resources and potential of other human beings" (Covey 1989,51).

It is noteworthy that interdependence builds upon the foundation stones of self-reliance and personal capability, but does not count them as supreme. Neither does it over-value qualities such as individual potential, self-direction or a strong sense of self-worth. Instead, working together toward a common goal is the highest value within an interdependent ministry partnership. An interdependent person or agency realizes that more can be achieved by working collectively than is ever possible by individual effort.

Perhaps the best way to understand an interdependent ministry partnership is to contrast it with those marked by dependency and/or independency (see chart).
    Dependent Partnerships:
    Basic Focus: OTHERS—me
    Orientation: My needs
    Self-talk: "You give me what I want. You are responsible for my choices, successes, and failures."
    Maturity Model: Infancy
    Identifying features: Passivity, openness to undue control by others, little creativity or initiative

    Independent Partnerships:
    Basic Focus: ME—Others
    Orientation: My plans
    Self-talk: "I can get what I want for myself, I am responsible for choices, successes and failures."
    Maturity Model: Adolescence
    Identifying features: Self-assertion, poor team players, little regard for accountability

    Interdependent Partnerships:
    Basic Focus: OTHERS—ME
    Orientation: Our goals and objectives
    Self-talk: "We can get what we want together. We are jointly responsible for our choices, successes and failures."
    Maturity Model: Adulthood
    Identifying features: Communication, teamwork, cooperation, mutual accountability
In building interdependent ministry partnerships it is important to recognize that often they are not easily or quickly attained. Covey notes a probable cause. He writes, "Interdependence is a choice that only independent people can make. Dependent people cannot choose to be interdependent. They don't have the character to do it, they don't own enough of themselves" (1989, 51). Because this is true, there are times when the common struggles associated with infancy and adolescence creep over into the developing relationship. Unless one is prepared for this and is willing to work through it, accepting the inevitable "short-term pain" for the sake of "long-term gain," interdependent partnership development is nearly impossible.

Some within the current debate regarding the matter of dependency see the independent partnership model as the answer. Often they appeal to the "self-sustaining, self-governing, self-propagating" missionary paradigm of the past. At first glance, these values appear to be worthy goals for missionary endeavor. The weakness with them is that they run counter to most of life. Life, after all, is much more interdependent than it is independent. As the saying goes, "No man is an island."

To summarize, mission agencies should regard an interdependent ministry partnership as a collaboration of two or more partners who, in full recognition of one another's unique gifts and capabilities, have deliberately yet voluntarily agreed to submit their ministry goals and aspirations to one another's scrutiny and activity so that their common aims might be most fully achieved.

It is ultimately of very little use to define and defend the concept of interdependent ministry partnerships if they are unworkable; however, this has not been the experience of International Needs in over twenty years of partnership development. At the same time, we must note that the process has not been without challenges, particularly when trying to forge new partnerships. In our experience, the creation of an interdependent ministry partnership works best when the national ministry partner has been able to overcome a mindset of dependency. As has been noted, this mindset cripples creativity and thwarts the proactive planning process. Both of these qualities are indispensable if true interdependence is to take place. It is also important to work through the process carefully so that an independent mindset does not arise to replace one of dependency. An independent mindset is crippling because it allows for little "team play" in partnership development. An attitude of "My way or the highway" will never build true interdependence. Neither will paternalistic attitudes, no matter how they are expressed. Joint ownership is absolutely crucial to the success of interdependent ministry partnership. What this ultimately means is that the partnership development process must focus on more than meeting needs. It must focus on the internal building blocks of ministry partnership before it begins to focus on the external needs that it will ultimately address. Perhaps another comparison similar to the one developed earlier will help to further demonstrate what our experience has proven to be true (see chart below).
    Dependent Partnerships:
    Structure: Financially driven—built round the opinion or the perceived opinion of the funding source.
    Decision Making: Decisions made with undue regard for funding source. Control is a real issue when "he who as the gold rules."
    Leadership Style: Non-initiating, non-creative, passive, little independent vision. May manage well but will not actively lead.
    Outcome: Will meet goals but foster unhealthy dependency and/or paternalism.

    Independent Partnerships:
    Structure: Hierarchically driven—built around the opinion of the leader.
    Decisions Making: Directed from the top, usually by the "boss." Very little room for deviation.
    Leadership Style: Dictatorial or at least highly individualized.
    Outcome: Will meet goals, but foster partnerships marked by periodic tension.

    Interdependent Partnerships:
    Structure: Collegially driven—built around opinions reached by concensus.
    Decision Making: Direction gained through open discussion and dialogue.
    Leadership Style: Cooperative effort with others in order to attain predetermined objectives.
    Outcome: Will meet goals and will build lasting, mutually satisfying partnerships.
Our experience would also confirm what Daniel Rickett notes in an article published in the October 1998 edition of the EMQ. He notes that three preconditions are necessary for what he calls a "healthy, complementary partnership" (Rickett 1998, 439). These are Autonomy (the partnering organizations must be autonomous and be capable of making their own decisions); Compatibility (they must share common beliefs and values); Complementary strengths and resources (each must bring something of value to the partnership to be shared with the other side). Luis Bush and Lorry Lutz suggest what some of these preconditions might be in Partnering in Ministry.

Two other points based on our experience need to be noted by all who would seek to initiate interdependent ministry partnerships. First, doing so will require careful cultivation and constant nurture. It is easy for both sides to slip into old paradigms and forget that they are true partners working together interdependently. When this happens commonality of purpose is lost and one side or the other can begin to unduly contest the other's actions or point of view. Secondly, organizational lines of authority need to become secondary to the development of a cooperative working relationship. While they are necessary for clarity's sake, organizational lines of authority tend to undermine interdependent ministry partnerships. When they are functioning at their optimum, their collegial style dictates that there is no "boss," only "workers-together" each bringing a valid contribution to the task.

In the current discussion that is swirling around the realignment of mission paradigms, ministries like International Needs, which seek to build partnerships with indigenous ministries, are often accused of fostering dependency. And with humility, we must admit that like other missions, even our best efforts to do otherwise have not always been successful. Still, we will carry on with our present practice. We will do so, not only because we have seen more successes than failures, but also because we believe that our approach to mission is biblically and sociologically valid.

Interdependent ministry partnerships are in keeping with the interdependent nature of the body of Christ (Rom. 12:4,5; Eph. 4:15,16). At times, the "sending-receiving" mission model has created an unfortunate distinction within the Church wherever it exists across the world. It has created an artificial division that is hard to break down so that the universal nature of the Church is lost on most of us. In the texts noted above, where the apostle Paul stresses the unity yet diversity of the body of Christ, he is describing interdependence. He is talking about the natural ties that we have to each other because we are brothers and sisters in Christ. He is helping us to look past the artificial barriers that divide us to see that we are one and to acknowledge that we need one another to be truly complete.

Interdependent ministry partnerships recognize the universal gifting of the Holy Spirit and the innate capability of Christians everywhere. If the admonitions of 1 Corinthians 12-14 teach us nothing else, they teach us that even the most undisciplined and immature Christian is supernaturally gifted by God. Timothy, the young and inexperienced leader, was counseled not to despise the gift of God that he had received through the laying on of hands. The gifting and capability of the most immature and inexperienced individual can contribute to the work of God. But the ministry model under which it is to function must recognize and release it in order for this to happen. Our experience is that interdependent ministry partnerships do so most effectively.

Interdependent ministry partnerships reflect the ministry model set down by the New Testament church. From a purely human perspective, we might regard it as incredible that when Christ ascended to return to the Father he left his mission in charge of men whom the religious aristocracy regarded as "unschooled and ordinary" (Acts 4:13). We might also be dumbfounded that when these men set out on their mission, they turned over the leadership of the churches they founded to similar people. Leadership wasn't something to be grasped in the early church; rather it was something to be given away as soon as possible. The result was that the whole of the known world was evangelized within a few generations. Similar things result when the ministry is given away in like fashion today.

Interdependent ministry partnerships allow for the sharing of financial resources in keeping with New Testament practice. In a variety of his epistles, the apostle Paul documents the generosity of the New Testament church when it came to giving to those in need (2 Cor. 8 and 9, Rom. 15). He commonly characterized this voluntary sharing as a "service to the saints," something in which they were to "excel." That Paul took this aspect of ministry partnership seriously is indicated by the fact that he "[took] pains to do what was right" in the administration of these gifts, "not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men" (2 Cor. 8:21).

How might an interdependent ministry partnership differ from one that fosters dependency with regard to the sharing of financial resources? An interdependent ministry partnership must teach that all have a responsibility to give-poverty is not a legitimate excuse for a lack of stewardship as it is taught in the New Testament. An interdependent ministry partnership built on trust and mutual respect for one another's giftedness and capability naturally restricts the tendency for the funding partner to dictate ministry plans or agendas. This same climate of trust fosters full disclosure of financial record keeping and opens lines of accountability without threat or manipulation.

Interdependent ministry partnerships promote the dignity of person-hood and self-worth. One of the strongest sociological values of an interdependent ministry partnership, with its OTHERS-ME focus, is that it enters into the world of the needy to share a mutually accepted need to which each side brings its contribution. Most significant is the fact that this focus views the one receiving help not as a beggar seeking alms, but as a brother. Thus the dignity of person-hood is not destroyed in the giving process. Levi Keidel, who served in Zaire for 30 years, helps us to understand why this is so important by quoting John Janzen, a Christian anthropologist. He writes:

Wherever generosity of giving, teaching, and helping is of an unconditional character, the recipient must be able to return the gift or some equivalent in order to remain his respectable self. Otherwise, he will begin seeing himself as inferior to the giver: his personal sense of worth is down-graded, and instead of being grateful, he will be bitter (Keidel 1997,46).

True interdependence empowers the disenfranchised and offers hope in an uncommon way. When it does, joy, fulfillment and blessing falls on both sides of the partnership.

None of us can question the change that has taken place within the worldwide makeup of Christendom in our generation. Its traditional Western center has been forever altered by the growth of the Church elsewhere. In the midst of this change, it is good to be reminded that the Church is one, no matter where it is found. And this is true in spite of the aberration that our missionary methodology has often created. As painful as it is for us to admit it, much of the missionary effort that has gone on in this century has been based on a "We/They" model, which accentuates diversity rather than unity. Consequently, it has brought artificial division with it; division that many are now stumbling over.

The interdependent ministry partnership model, which forms the framework of International Needs approach to world mission, reverses this tendency. When fully realized, it not only skirts the difficulties identified in the current missions debate, it fosters a level of ministry that glorifies God and changes the world.

Bush, Luis and Lori Lutz. 1990. Partnering in Ministry: The Direction of World Evangelization. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity.

covey, Stephen R. 1989. The 7 Habits of HIghly Effective People. New York: Simon and Shuster.

Keidel, Levi. 1997. "From Dependency to Dignity." EMQ 33 (Jan.): 42-47.

Rickett, Daniel. 1998. "Preventing Dependency: Development Partnering." EMQ 34 (Oct.): 438-445.


Glenn Fretz spent several years fostering interdependent ministry partnerships in various regions of the world as Canadian director for International Needs Network. A pastor at heart, he returned to pastoral ministry in British Columbia, Canada in July 2000.

Copyright © 2002 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