What Makes a Partnership?

Jim Thomas 02 Jan 2010

A Response to Valdir Steuernagel’s ‘More Partners at the Table

Valdir Steurenagel is right to stand with many others who call for equitable relationships between churches and organizations of the West and those of the global South. Western cultures are notable for their self-assuredness, assertiveness, and belief that there is nothing they can’t fix. Non-Western cultures are more often deferential to guests, especially wealthy ones. The pairing of these two worldviews is a set-up for misunderstandings and unequal relationships.

Partnership sounds like a good alternative. The term evokes images of equality and shared goals. Or does it? I receive appeals in the mail on a regular basis from Christian and other nonprofit organizations, asking me to partner with them as they attend to some social need. What they envision, though, is a relationship in which I give money and they do work. That is hardly a partnership. It’s a transfer of funds, with the return of good feelings, occasional reports of the group’s achievements (with requests for more money), and a calendar at the end of the year. There are times when that is exactly the kind of relationship I want. But it’s not my idea of a partnership.

The word partnership, then, can hide as much as it reveals. It can confound as much as it clarifies. I now rarely use the word. Through my church and an organization I founded (Africa Rising), I have worked to build and nurture relationships between churches and organizations in Africa and the US. I have seen how using the term partnership early in a relationship can create misunderstandings that stymie the development of a genuine relationship. Two parties can have very different ideas of what partnership means. I prefer to talk instead of relationships and the virtues that enable good and healthy ones. Virtues like respect, honoring one another, giving the benefit of the doubt, and persistence — or, hanging in there when things get tough. These are the virtues that we talk about in friendships and marriages. The same should be true for international relationships. Valdir Steuernagel affirms such virtues when he speaks of listening well.

Practical Advice

Steuernagel avoids suggesting there is a formula to listening well or developing a good relationship. But he also demonstrates that experiences he and others have had can be helpful to others. To put flesh on the lofty idea of equitable relationships, we need to share these experiences and insights. I’ll mention a few here.

  • A Kenyan friend of mine, Pastor Oscar Muriu of Nairobi Chapel, suggests that Westerners offer little advice and draw few conclusions on their first visit to another culture. Their principal task should be listening and seeking to understand. A book I use to help people understand other cultures isMinistering Cross-Culturally by Sherwood Lingenfelter and Marvin Mayers.
  • Money is part of all relationships. It can range from buying a friend a cup of coffee to a major donation. Relationships are most likely to keep interpersonal relations first and money second when they do not start with a sizable donation. And money is most likely to further a relationship when it is given in the context of a longstanding relationship.
  • On the other hand, we shouldn’t aim for a relationship in which money is never exchanged — especially with such global wealth disparities. God’s justice requires that we share with our brothers and sisters in need. But both Westerners and people of developing countries have much to learn about sharing resources without spoiling a relationship by basing it on money or by using money as a means of control. For more insights on money exchanges, see African Friends and Money Matters by David Maranz.
  • My church has relationships with churches in Kenya and South Africa. With both, we seek to have representatives from their churches spend as much time in Chapel Hill as we spend in their cities. On a number of occasions, we’ve had one of their pastors or staff members spend a few months with us. During those visits, we pave inroads to our inner circles and solicit their thoughts in those meetings so we can benefit from their perspectives.

The Goal

All cultures have insights into God’s kingdom and all cultures have blind spots. By developing relationships across cultures and listening well to each other, we all stand the chance of more fully experiencing God’s kingdom. For Westerners and non-Westerners alike, the goal of our relationships is that our own lives and the lives of others might be transformed toward the likeness of Jesus. Christians of different cultures sacrificially serving each other are also a testimony of the unifying love of the Holy Spirit.

Jim Thomas is an associate professor of epidemiology and director of the Program in Public Health Ethics at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He is also the founder and president of Africa Rising, an organization that enhances the impact of effective African organizations by extending their networks (

This article was a part of a special series called ‘The Global Conversation’ jointly published by Christianity Today International and the Lausanne Movement in the months leading up to Cape Town 2010: The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization to help prepare the global church for the issues to be addressed at the Congress. Each lead article had several commissioned responses, and was published by dozens of publications around the world. (View all Articles)