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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Coaxing Collaboration

Written by: on May 30, 2019

Through my research, I’m coming to the conclusion that missionaries will thrive and bear fruit when they are intentional about working collaboratively with national partners. But this conclusion is based on faith, not sight. I can’t point to examples where this approach has proven effective, I can only stand by what I know to be true about God and God’s Kingdom. God calls us to a place of mutual love and mutual submission, and it is in the context of such a place that the Kingdom of God grows. This strategy, however, it goes against our human desire to conquer and control or even business models of authority and delegation. It defies our understanding of power and undermines what we think to be true about leadership. For collaboration to happen, power must be shared.

In the book, What Clergy Do: Especially When it Looks Like Nothing, Emma Percy explains why collaboration is impossible without the sharing of power:

Power does not exist in and of itself, like strength, but arises out of human relationships. Arendt writes that power ‘can be divided without decreasing it. And the interplay of power can generate more power. Thus, the sharing of power does not mean apportioning set amounts, as if it were a cake being cut up, where the more people involved the less there is to go around. Sharing power, like sharing love, can generate more power for all. This is what we mean by empowerment. When interdependence and mutuality are valued, then collaboration, a proper sharing of power, becomes a possibility. The complexity is that this power sharing is not neatly controllable. Collaboration, unlike delegation, leaves options open and does not control the outcomes. This involves negotiation and cooperation, moving forward into patterns of relationships and growth that are creative and open-ended. The virtues of humility, trust, and forgiveness make true collaboration a possibility.[1]

I quoted Percy at length because there are so many things that apply to missionaries learning to work collaboratively with national partners. To begin, there is the question of power. In the past century, much missionary work has been done alongside colonization efforts; and, even when the missionaries were against the oppression that came with colonization, many were remiss to realize that they, too, where imposing their own power structures by establishing western models of churches, music, and preaching. Feeling an urgency to save lost sinners, they failed to contextualize their mean of sharing the Gospel. In the parlance of Friedman, they were “focused on symptom relief rather than on fundamental change.”[2] While those days are long past, missionaries still come as teachers, pastors, coaches, and evangelists—all of which are roles that also come with power.

Furthermore, every missionary sending agency has a vision and mission statement which its missionaries are required to pursue. While this makes sense for a business model, where one decides what they are going to do and then makes a plan and implements it; this is not a model that favors collaboration. What if a mission agency decides that it is going to be all about church planting, and the sends missionaries out to plant churches in a country, only to discover that the national partners in that country have discerned together that their focus needs to be on theological education? Mission agencies who are loathe to deviate from their vision and mission statements will often fail to work collaboratively with national partners. Percy also writes about the value of “chatter,”[3] and all the things we learn through simple, everyday conversations. Such conversations are critical to being able to work collaboratively, but the conversations must be truly open ended and not efforts to control the other. As Glaser reminded us, “When we create conversational rituals that enable us to honor and respect others’ views of the world—especially when these views are very different from our own—we create a space for better conversations and for new ideas to emerge.”[4]

Finally, Percy mention the needed virtues for collaboration. While Percy writes compellingly about the virtue of humility, among many others, I wonder if the spirit of collaboration is not a virtue in and of itself, given Percy’s own definition.  Percy refers to Aristotle’s understanding of virtue “not as an opposite of a vice but as a balance between an excess and a deficiency.”[5] The excess would be consummation, where there are no longer distinct partners, but they have blended into one. The deficiency would be isolation, where the two have no interaction at all.

I’m finding this idea of collaboration is a hard sell, at least here in France. Mission agencies are unwilling to compromise on their own vision (a lack of the virtue of humility). National partners are unwilling to welcome outsiders into their inner circles (a lack of the virtue of trust.) But there are a few people on both sides that get it, and together we are working to make a difference. It’s slow going, and like I said, I don’t have any results. Mission work, like church work, it hard to measure. But I know my God, and I know how he works, and this certainly seems like the Kingdom way.

[1] Emma Percy, What Clergy Do: Especially When It Looks like Nothing, 2014, 78.

[2] Edwin H. Friedman, Margaret M. Treadwell, and Edward W. Beal, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, 10th anniversary revised edition (New York: Church Publishing, 2017), 84.

[3] Percy, What Clergy Do, 57.

[4] Judith E Glaser, Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust and Get Extraordinary Results, 2016, 63.

[5] Percy, What Clergy Do, 34.

About the Author

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Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

10 responses to “Coaxing Collaboration”

  1. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Jenn,

    Great writing! I was drawn to your power sharing discussion, specifically how it related to collaboration in mission work.

    I felt your angst in the final paragraph. However, I also like where you placed your trust, in God alone. After all, it’s His work anyway, right?

    Keep persevering! We all love and care for you.

  2. mm Mike says:

    Jennifer,
    I like your faith! I agree with your ideas that power can become synergistic when shared with others. However, in life’s practical application, in a fallen world, with principalities and powers poised to divide, disrupt, and destroy relationships. So, the outcome of well-meaning collaborative power sharing is often very disappointing.
    I have seen it work in glimpses, in a few God driven scenarios that looks more like a miracle of the divine than a collaboration of created beings.
    So, should we share power, knowing that it will most likely end up dividing more than adding value to the ministry. You bet! Onward Christian Soldiers for sure. What might appear to be small wins to us, are often big multigenerational wins for God.
    Yes, you have good discernment about the “Kingdom way.” God always keeps the long term goals in view for His Kingdom to come.
    Stand firm,
    Mike w

    • Thanks so much for your encouragement about the Kingdom way. and thanks for reminding me of how messy and complicated power-sharing can be in this fallen word. And isn’t that a place where the enemy strives to get a foothold as well? I should be praying more about this, I think. I’m surrendered to Christ, but I’m not sure I’m fighting the good fight!

  3. Great post as always Jenn! I love how you apply this stuff to the missionary world and I agree with you, many of the concepts of mothering apply beautifully to your context and many others. I also appreciated your discussion regarding power…wise words from a wise woman. Blessings friend.

  4. Greg says:

    Jenn. First of all GREAT quote!! This hit at that heart of your passion and research. The interdependence idea is such a beautiful image of journeying together not because it has been forced rather because of a shared vision and trust. Phenomenal!

    Interesting and thought provoking to put this in my own context and leadership structure. I wonder how conversations about this kind of collaboration would go. It makes me think of our local leaders and whether I do a good job listening to their passions and leadership ideas. It is so easy to fall into familiar power structures without recognizing it.

  5. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Jennifer,

    I am with you 100%. I know that you are on the right track even if you don’t have any quantifiable evidence to support your belief. Your vision for mission work as collaboration should be the starting point for all mission work but as you mention most agencies are of the mindset that they know what is best for the local communities and therefore spend minimal time in genuine collaboration.

    I am ever so hopeful that your dissertation will gain a wide audience and influence people in positions of authority in mission agencies to take note and make critical changes in their work and training of potential missionaries.

    Keep at it. I believe that your work and study is so important!!

  6. Jenn,

    You stated, “Collaboration is impossible without the sharing of power.” Very succinct!

    In my work with philanthropists, I also created a collaborative model that is a hard sell for most. Most don’t like surrendering power, and fail to recognize that we are “stronger together”. So I’m with you and think you’re on to something stronger in your work in France. Collaborative models are the Jesus way, as the leadership involves a necessary surrender of power.

  7. mm Kyle Chalko says:

    Great job Jen. I had not seen the connection between this and missionary work. But I suppose the distinction is more toward evangelism or discipleship as opposed to missionary work or pastoring. Love the tie ins you see for missionaries and collaboration.

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