This article is part of a series on major issues that leaders may encounter in the lifecycle of mission networks and partnerships. This article outlines various types of structures depending on the complexity and level of member involvement necessary to achieve your partnership goals.
Operational Issues In Partnerships: Structure
As your mission partnership moves into operation, your group will need to consider how it will organize for effectiveness. Frequently the group’s vision comprises a range of elements, each fairly challenging in its own right, that must be effectively linked together in order to achieve the end goal.
Collaboration can be organized in many ways – from informal awareness of each other to highly structured initiatives with constitutions, membership, and significant budgets. Here are a few things to consider as you move forward:
- Keep the structure as simple as possible. Don’t let discussions or debate on how you are going to organize deflect the focus on your vision. The dream is what motivates people to join hands and hearts. Structures only exist to facilitate the dream and give clarity to how you do what you do.
- Particularly in the early going, you probably need only a small coordinating team with a servant leader to facilitate. Then you can add some working groups to get down to the specifics of accomplishing the big vision.
- In your partnership, issues or opportunities may arise that are clearly related to the main objectives but need special focus or concentration. Be flexible and engage the widest range of people possible in order to explore new options for service, outreach, or innovation in ministry. The main point is to make sure everyone is clear about objectives, timetables, and communications. Collaborative initiatives often go wrong when members (people, committees, task forces, or working groups) work on something the wider group doesn’t understand or doesn’t believe is a priority; don’t achieve their objectives on schedule, through poor planning, execution, or inattention; or fail to communicate what they are doing with the wider group.
How complex is your partnership? Are you trying to gather neighbors to reach the kids in your neighborhood or twenty ministries to reach a major unreached people group? Do you need a constitution, memo of agreement, or simple consensus? Do you need membership fees or can you realize the dream on voluntary contributions? The simplest and most direct route is usually the most effective.
A leader of a large denominational missions program once commented about ministry structures: “You know, in thirty years I’ve never had anything but frustration when folks want to start by first talking about money or about how they’re going to organize themselves! It’s even worse if they want to start by writing a theological statement that they want everybody to sign! Unless there’s a compelling reason for folks to come together,” he added, “there’s really nothing to talk about.”
To be effective, form must follow function. First, there has to be agreement on the vision and what success will look like. Only then do the other questions follow. In short, what you do should always precede how you to do it.
An ancient philosopher once said, “The decline of a great nation is marked by the passage of many laws.” As the core vision and values erode, the citizens believe they can hold onto predictable or preferred lifestyles by tightening the rules. But it all ends in failure. The heart of the community – its vision and the values by which it lived out that vision – has been lost. Rules can never provide an adequate substitute.
If form follows function – that is, how we organize partnerships or networks depends on what they seek to do – there are likely to be as many forms of organizational structures as there are objectives. It’s obvious, isn’t it? Collaborative efforts will range from simple projects undertaken by a few people over a short period of time to complex, long-term initiatives involving dozens of people and organizations. To be successful, these diverse initiatives will need very different organizational structures. In partnerships and networks one size doesn’t fit all! And there is no one right way.
Let’s take a look at some of the structures that, over the years, have emerged and met essential needs of people and ministries working together.
Simple awareness of each other is a real step forward for God’s people. Who else is doing what I’m doing or interested in the things I’m interested in? So much duplication of effort, waste of money, hard feelings, turf wars, and dissipation of energy could have been avoided over the years if individuals had simply asked, “Am I the only one with this idea? Is anyone already doing this or something like it? Has anyone already tried this? If so, what happened?”
We tend to imagine that we are the first ones to have thought of a particular idea. Submitting our ideas to the diligent research and checking with other people is a vital first step.
Awareness may be enough. It may allow you to move ahead with something truly distinctive or complementary to what others are doing – to avoid duplication of effort and waste of resources. But before you decide to stay at the awareness stage, you may want to ask the “what and where” questions:
- Is what I’m thinking of doing so unique in purpose and character that there’s no potential or possibility for collaborating with others?
- Is the geographical area I want to serve one in which no one else is working and others I’ve learned about have no interest?
Honestly, it’s rare that the answer to both of these questions is “yes.” It does happen, of course. But if that’s your experience, the next question might be, “Who has a similar vision but in a different geographic or functional area and might want to team up with me?”
If a number of people or ministries are working in your area of interest, whether it’s a type of work or geographical location – or both – it’s hard for everyone to stay in touch. Staying up to date on what the others are doing calls for active ongoing communications. Once you value that kind of communication, you are into the early stages of a network.
Often the number of people involved is small, the project is simple, or the geographical distance between the interested parties is great. Making a step beyond awareness is to acknowledge each other, commit to each others’ best interests, and to acknowledge the common vision you share. The pact may be for a short-term but intensive effort together. It may be to prayer, occasional communication, and possibly occasional face-to-face meetings. A covenant, though less formal than some other approaches to collaboration, can be a powerful means to help you focus resources, reduce duplication, and enhance effectiveness.
Awareness or a covenant between people or ministries often leads to informal working meetings that, in turn, lead to a network in which participants share information, resource ideas, best practices, and encouragement. While the participants in a network may share interest in a particular issue, they are usually not trying to do a joint project. Just raising awareness and strengthening communications usually reduces duplication and helps each ministry increase the effectiveness of its own work.
As specific issues or opportunities arise, often networks become the “seed bed” for initiatives or partnerships within the network’s overall vision and structure. As we have already seen, the lines between various types of Kingdom collaboration often blur. At the outset of this section on organization and structures we observed that what is usually best is what is absolutely needed to get the job done effectively. Awareness can morph into a covenant relationship. Covenants can give way to more active networks. And networks can spawn partnerships of many types.
It is important to keep in mind that 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.
The best way forward is to 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. 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.”
There are other types of structures for collaboration, as this diagram shows. This diagram suggests some of the key elements that may help you determine how your collaborative effort should be organized.
- How complex is the vision you have in mind?
- How many people and/or ministries will be involved?
- What is the geographic focus (distance always makes communication and coordination much more challenging)?
- What kind of organizational structure will best help you meet your objectives?
As a general rule, the more the group has to do together – deal with money, coordinate projects, hold each other accountable, and insure regular communications and reporting with various stakeholders – the more structure it will need.
As we have already said, working together can take many forms. But when it comes down to the purpose of the partnership, form must follow function. We can talk about structure for days on end, but all that matters is how the structure facilitates the accomplishment of the goals. Our experience is that words frequently get in the way and sometimes create confusion and roadblocks to effective communication. That is particularly true in the early stages of developing collaboration. All of us have pre-conceived ideas of what certain words or phrases mean. Usually these are based on our experiences, not on dictionary definitions. Working together is real life, and people have a lot of skepticism about working together. So rather than spending a lot of time in advance trying to name the kind of collaboration you have in mind, focus on the vision and good communication with others about that vision.
This is why we often say that participants in any collaborative effort must not only believe in the vision but must trust both the people and the process. How do you come to trust these two key elements fully? Only by actually working together.
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.