Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.
1 Corinthians 1:10 (NRSV)
Networks & Partnerships
In a time when so much is being said about ‘networks’ and ‘partnerships,’ what do we really mean? Knowing what form of collaboration is most relevant to the challenge we are trying to address can be critical. Are partnerships and networks really the same? If they’re different, so what?
The answer is that, no, they are not the same. And, yes, understanding their differences, their strengths and weaknesses, can have a real impact on what you do and how you do it, and can save time, energy, and frustration!
Every time two or more people or organizations agree to talk over their similar interest on something, temporarily or long term, we have a network. Every time two or more people or organizations agree to work together on something, temporarily or long term, we have a partnership.
In God’s Kingdom purposes, both networks and partnerships are needed to release Kingdom power and restore hope to our friends and colleagues and those they minister to along the way.
The study and understanding of human networks has actually become a whole specialty in the fields of sociology and communications. Networks can be simple or complex, weak or strong. For example:
- Weak or informal networks are less active or intense in their relationships, often only sharing information or interests, and frequently are “on demand,” or fellowship-oriented.
- Strong or more structured networks are often task, project, or issue-oriented, have well-defined structure, responsibilities, and objectives, and require substantial time commitments.
But, for the sake of simplicity, here is a working definition of networks:
Any group of individuals or organizations, sharing a common interest and who regularly communicate with each other to enhance their individual purposes.
Note the key phrases – “common interest,” “regularly communicate,” and “individual purposes.” Networks generally are designed to facilitate ongoing communication and information sharing, helping members of the network do their own individual work more effectively. The only real points of connection may be a common area of concern and regular communication, which might be in the form of an annual gathering.
The network may be composed of pastors, building contractors, doctors, mission agencies, or neighbors. The network may be structured – with membership, regular meetings, newsletter, websites, etc. Or, it may be informal – just an agreement to meet on certain occasions to share information and perhaps encouragement.
In some instances and for some purposes, individuals and/or organizations move beyond just communications and fellowship into coordinated action around a common concern. This is when partnerships frequently begin to emerge.
Partnerships can take many forms, for many purposes, and use many names. They can range from simple to complex, informal to highly structured, short-term partnerships to ones that last for years.
For the sake of simplicity, here is a definition of partnerships that will get us started:
Any group of individuals or organizations, sharing a common interest, who regularly communicate, plan, and work together to achieve a common vision beyond the capacity of any one of the individual partners.
Here, the key phrases are:
- common interest
- regularly communicate
- work together
- to achieve a common vision
- beyond the capacity of any one of the individual partners.
Partnerships don’t exist to just share information or to encourage fellowship. Information and encouragement are part of the partnership process. But, they are means to an end – not the partnership’s purpose. Attaining defined objectives through collaboration are a partnership’s purpose. While networks may bring people or organizations together because of a common area of interest, partnerships galvanize linkages around a common vision or outcome. By working together on that common vision or outcome, they can achieve outcomes far beyond the capacity of any of the individual members of the partnership.
The Network-Partnership Slope
Partnerships, as they get underway, will go through many activities (including sharing information, relationship-building, and lower-level coordination) that would be considered network-level, but in fact these activities are done all in preparation to surpass those of a network and into partnership levels.
To illustrate that path, we have created The Network-Partnership Slope diagram. Look at how the partnership slope goes along the network slope, and then develops to shoot through and beyond the network line. Contrast this with the network slope that can only flirt with the network maximum line but not surpass it by much:
A partnership can act like a network at times, but a network cannot act like a developed partnership because it will be acting beyond its commitment level. Put another way, partnerships often do network-level activity but networks rarely do partnership-level activity.
A Discernable Pattern: Partnerships Emerge from Networks
Networks and partnerships are not mutually exclusive. More often than not, they can and should play complementary roles. When addressing issues over vast distances, it is realistic and sustainable to first identify common concerns and resources. Then, develop a network, to share those resources, empowering each ministry to greater effectiveness in its own sphere of influence.
A network frequently becomes an incubator or launchpad for partnerships where smaller groups of ministries that are part of the network develop initiatives together that focus on working together on a specific issue. Many times the network becomes a kind of “mother ship” which fosters two levels of sharing and encouragement:
- At the macro level — the network links people across large geographical areas around a specific but very large topic such as digital ministries, cities, refugees, sports, or Bible publishing and distribution.
- At another level, the network encourages and informs partnerships among its participants which deal with very specific issues.
These two elements of collaboration are highly complementary and should never be confused or seen as competitive.
Rev. Dave Hackett is Senior Advisor at visionSynergy where much of his work involves collaborative global mission in the areas of digital and Muslim ministry. Living in Saudi Arabia as a child embedded Dave’s love for the world and the Middle East. He taught at Han Nam University in South Korea as a Presbyterian missionary and studied at Fuller Theological Seminary (MDiv) and Oxford University. Ordained as a Presbyterian minister since 1985, Dave was a mission pastor for eight years before serving as associate and executive director of Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship for 12 years, coordinating unreached people group mission. Dave was on the founding board of visionSynergy in 2003, and joined the staff in 2005.