By Phill Butler
For nearly 30 years, I and numerous colleagues have been developing missional partnerships around the world. Here are 30 insights that we have drawn out of our successes and failures. May these lessons learned help you in your own journey.
“The wise learn by the mistakes of others, fools by their own mistakes.” – Latin proverb
Insight #1 – Momentum
Don’t wait to start until you have “everybody” you want or need to start a partnership! That’s a recipe for frustration and inaction. You need a few people who are trusted and capable—individuals who have a vision for and some knowledge about the challenge you want to address and who are committed to at least trying to work together. Momentum and simple but tangible progress early on will have a big impact on your ability to recruit others into the partnership.
Insight #2 – Credible Core
The longer-range the vision, the more challenging it probably will be to form and sustain the partnership. Increasing the number and diversity of partners adds still greater complexity. You don’t need to have all the players ready to talk about possible cooperation. But you do need people with a vision for the outcomes, commitment to the idea of God’s people working together, and some of the agencies, ministries, and their leaders that are already recognized as credible and competent in the field you want to reach or serve.
Insight #3 – Results
Always remember that what attracts and keeps people committed to a partnership is: (1) a great vision—something they or their organization could never accomplish alone—and (2) seeing results—real, practical progress toward outcomes that provide fulfillment and encouragement. Talking about organization never excites people or sustains vision!
Insight #4 – Trust
All durable, effective partnerships are built on trust: (1) trust in the members—starting with the leadership (facilitator or facilitation team), though ultimately, trust must exist among all the participants; (2) trust in the process—the way the partnership is formed and operated sends strong positive or negative signals with far-reaching implications; and (3) trust in the partnership’s vision, specific objectives, and plans for implementing the objectives.
Insight #5 – Planting & Watering, Sowing & Reaping
Significant spiritual change occurs over time. It usually: (1) involves more than one person and more than one form of communication; (2) acknowledges that different people in our audience are at different stages in the spiritual process; (3) allows strategic partnerships to put all available Kingdom resources to work, since different forms of service and witness are appropriate for different members of the audience; and (4) means that individuals touched by a ministry at one point on their spiritual journey can be consciously linked or referred on to another because the partnership empowers this kind of coordination and effectiveness.
Insight #6 – Touchpoints
At any point in time, different people we are trying to reach are at different stages in their spiritual life-change journey. Often effective partnerships are addressing more than one segment of the audience at the same time. As a result: (1) we begin to see more clearly that everyone’s role in the partnership is important; (2) we realize that linking the work of different people or diverse ministries together to address these segments of the audience not only makes sense, it greatly expands our ministry capacity; and (3) the big vision or long-range objective(s) of the partnership can be kept clearly in mind while addressing and seeing breakthroughs on vital, intermediate steps.
Insight #7 – Vision
Partnerships are durable, effective, and usually strategic when they are driven by a great vision—a vision that is clearly: (1) greater than anything that can be accomplished by a single individual or ministry; (2) one all participants agree is a “God idea,” a high priority, and not someone’s private agenda; (3) one that, in the early stages, can be broken down into high-value, achievable elements that will give participants experience working together, growing confidence, and a sense of achievement; and (4) made up of objectives all participants see as highly relevant to their own ministry vision and mission.
Insight #8 – Spiritual Conflict
Satan doesn’t want us to work together. That means we’re engaged in spiritual conflict. It also means effective partnerships need an intentional prayer strategy. Experience suggests two key elements: (1) a group outside the partnership’s day-to-day operation that is committed to praying for the partnership, its people, and its vision. These people must be seen as an integral part of the partnership and receive regular updates regarding challenges and progress; and (2) inside the partnership prayer must be central, regular, specific, and personal. One of the most strategic parts of a partnership is a prayer task force that communicates both within the partnership and with those outside who are actively supporting the initiative.
Insight #9 – Due Diligence
If you know your long-term dream eventually has to involve others, take time now to assess what the vision may involve. Then make the choice to risk slowing down and working through the steps to develop a healthy partnership. Keep the vision alive. But don’t plunge ahead and end in disappointment.
Insight #10 – Someone Who Knows Everyone
In effective partnership development, someone has to be at least acquainted with everyone! Why? Someone has to be acquainted with all the main issues. And someone has to know where the historical, relational, and operational land mines are located! The facilitator or the facilitation team need to know as much as possible: about the history, relationships, players, current feelings and relationships between the players, and what they think about the vision under discussion.
Insight #11 – Representation
If at all possible, it’s important that your partnership or network team include individuals who represent the group you are trying to serve or reach. Trying to develop a partnership to reach or serve the street kids in your city? Better have some who have “been there, done that” in your discussions and planning. Hoping to change the way ministries coordinate their efforts? Better make sure leadership from those ministries is involved. It may seem obvious. But many times this key principle is overlooked—particularly when language, cultural, or social circumstances are natural barriers. The conscious effort to include these people will pay rich dividends.
Insight #12 – Neutral Broker
The more neutral the partnership facilitator is, the easier it will be for that person to approach others with experience in the field. It is usually very hard for staff from a ministry already engaged in the issue to facilitate a partnership’s development. Many will fear that they really represent their own organization’s agenda—not the common good. Is it impossible for an insider to facilitate such a process? No. But, without hiding their identity, an insider has to take off their own organization’s “hat” and consciously seek to be a neutral honest broker.
Insight #13 – Critical Mass
You don’t need to have all the players ready to talk about possible cooperation. But you do need a few of the leaders or ministries already recognized as credible and competent in the field. I have found that if you have thirty to fifty percent of the more influential people, you have a good start. The initiative will become linked to their credibility. If the partnership moves forward, the others looking on will eventually be drawn in.
Insight #14 – Common Data Set
No partnership or network can effectively be launched, much less sustained, without a commonly agreed upon base of information and assumptions. This “common data set” involves history, social/spiritual context, information about organizations and their leadership and teams, understanding of roadblocks, and so on. Sharing this information allows for a common “vocabulary” and a set of assumptions participants will draw on as they move forward. Where their experience confirms what has been said, they can indicate that. Where it doesn’t, they can use the common information as a point of reference.
Insight #15 – Common Themes
If the group of people you are working with has any real experience with the subject under discussion, their ideas will tend to cluster around certain common themes. You can predict with reasonable certainty that the eighteen people working on a single question such as that posed above will identify only eight to ten issues—not eighteen. In fact, it would not be surprising if they came up with only six to eight. Their common history and understanding about the matter under discussion accounts for this. This is true in virtually every consensus-building process you will use in partnership development.
Insight #16 – Positive Progress
Group meetings that work on processes like this develop their own personality and emotional atmosphere. As facilitators, we need to work actively to be positive, constantly engage the group, calling on those who may be less forward. Make sure the group knows where it is in the process and what progress it has already made. Referring back to the road map is always helpful.
Insight #17 – Limited Achievable Objectives
The limited, achievable objectives of the partnership must always meet two key criteria: (1) all participants must be able to say, “This is something that is vital to reaching our common objective, and it is something that none of us could ever do alone;” and (2) these same individuals must be able to say, “If we achieve this objective, I can see how, in the not too distant future, it will help my vision or my ministry achieve its vision/mission.” The goal has to capture everyone’s imagination. But everyone who represents a ministry or organization must also be able to see the specific, potential value for the organization’s mission. It’s a simple equation: Unless these two elements coincide for all the players at the table, they will ultimately opt out of the process or question the partnership’s relevance for them.
Insight #18 – Appropriate Structure
The challenge is always to develop a structure that will meet the essential needs of the partnership’s vision, while allowing individuals or organizations to retain their own identity and freedom in other sectors of life and ministry. Dozens of partnerships have found they can operate very effectively based on consensus, with very limited rules guiding their joint efforts. Others work from a middle ground and use a memorandum of agreement or other document to give structure to their alliance. Still others develop more formal structures with membership, decision-making procedures, and other elements that define how they will work together. But until your task force has a chance to work, think, pray, and get back to the wider group, serious consideration of such details is probably premature.
Insight #19 – Investing in Relationships
Investing quality time at the Formation meeting helps you and your partners lay an essential foundation for good relationships and strengthen the partnership’s later work. It establishes healthy patterns and increases confidence.
Insight #20 – Expecting Problems
No process is perfect. If problems have arisen on the way to achieving your vision, that is natural. You don’t have to achieve 100 percent of your objectives. What is important is that you have made good progress, are clearly headed in the right direction, and your partner ministries and their personnel can see how the progress to date is leading to eventual success. It is also critical to keep everyone in the group fully informed about how things are going during this process—no secrets, no cover up. Active, positive communication is central to strengthening ownership and trust in your group and the collaborative process.
Insight #21 – Bi-focal Vision
Keep in mind that for participating individuals and ministries, the partnership’s vision and operations must meet two criteria. The partners must believe that accomplishing this vision is clearly something God wants done, and that accomplishing this vision will help them realize their own mission more fully.
Insight #22 – The “go/no” Point
Before you get to the vital, “go/no” question of the Formation Stage, make sure the majority of your participants have at least general agreement on the following: (1) the specifics of the challenge—clearly articulated and understood; (2) the history of the challenge you’re addressing; (3) the key factors that currently affect the challenge; (4) the roadblocks standing in the way of a breakthrough; and (5) if they and others worked together on the challenge, what one or two action points or changes could have the greatest impact.
Insight #23 – Conflict Resolution
It is vital to address differences or conflicts directly and immediately. However, the way in which you deal with the conflict is critical. Those who are actually involved in the problem need to know that the issue is being addressed. But the number of voices heard in dealing with the issue must be manageable. Confidentiality is usually vital. Conflict or disagreement among a few can have a major psychological and spiritual impact on many who may not know the background and who, in the end, have little to nothing to do directly with the issue.
Insight #24 – Step-by-Step
It’s just as important for the facilitator as it is for the overall partnership or network to set limited, achievable objectives with a realistic timetable. While keeping the big vision always in mind, establish your personal, valuable, near-term goals in a way that allows you to focus and be encouraged as, step by step, you see progress.
Insight #25 – Optimistic Outlook
Working together in effective partnership creates a world where you learn new ways of doing things, imagining outcomes beyond your own capacity. Sharing the load with other ministries instead of just doing what you can do alone. You will make decisions involving people who may share your vision but not your history or organizational culture. Together, you will have to deal creatively with the funding the joint effort requires. Seeing each of these elements as opportunities rather than roadblocks can transform your collective spirit and the success of your outcomes!
Insight #26 – Active Leadership
Even the simplest form of collaboration needs active facilitation. Someone must take initiative. This is a person equally committed to effective connections within the group and to achievement of the group’s objectives. Whether it is an informal covenant group of a few people or a complex, constitutionally based partnership of many agencies, servant leadership committed to both the process and purpose is vital.
Insight #27 – Form Follows Function
Count on the fact that the more you talk about the structure and use specific words to define it before your group has met, talked, prayed, and worked together, the more problems you will have and the more explaining you will have to do—often unsuccessfully. At that point, you and the people you are talking with probably have little mutual experience of working together and, therefore, little in common to draw on. This is why structure should always follow and be defined by the purpose—the compelling vision that has brought you together. More often than not, words need to be defined by action and experience.
Insight #28 – Minimal Structure
Start with the minimum structure you need. It is easy to add elements to the way you work together. But it is much harder to dismantle structures once expectations and ways of doing things are put in place. Remember: simple is good. The less structure you need to accomplish the vision, the less maintenance you need and the more resources can be focused on your primary outcomes. An old proverb says: “Sad is the man who builds a tower to protect his land and in becoming a caretaker of the tower, loses his land.”
Insight #29 – Celebrating Progress
Celebrate the milestones you reach! Acknowledge those who have made special contributions to the progress of the partnership or network. Let your success to date energize and encourage the group to continue toward the dream with even greater appreciation and confidence. All great journeys are made of up incremental steps.
Insight #30 – Synergy
Partnerships are powerful because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That’s the definition of synergy. It isn’t easy, but working together is worth it, because working together is God’s idea. God lives in community, in tri-une relationship. And we were created in God’s image. Our individual potential is only realized, our wholeness only experienced, in relationship with others. We were created to trust and to work with others as a community – a “common-unity” – of love and action. In that context, God’s power is released. That’s why, for centuries, Christians have dreamed that the world might really be changed … if only believers could work together rather than doing their own thing.
Phill Butler is an author and internationally acknowledged expert in partnerships and strategic alliances. For nearly three decades, Phill has led the way in developing missional partnerships among Christian organizations in more than 70 countries. Phill is the founder and current Senior Strategic Advisor of visionSynergy, and was the previous founder and director of Interdev and Intercristo. In his earlier years, Phill was an international radio and news correspondent with ABC News.