Some years ago a woman with a foreign accent—a friend of ours—knocked on the door of one of our churches in Bogotá. The church’s pastor—another friend—opened the door. The woman was evangelizing that neighborhood and started to talk with our friend without knowing about his Christian commitment. He invited her to talk, thinking he would give testimony to this foreign missionary that maybe belonged to some strange religion.
They were talking for several minutes before they discovered their common faith. The surprise grew even bigger when they realized they both were members of the same tradition—Anabaptism—and, more than this, that they were members of the same Mennonite denomination. She was shocked to learn that there are around 12 Anabaptist churches in Bogotá. For several years this woman, who had come from a European country, had been serving in this city as a missionary under the auspices of her Mennonite church, without being in touch with Colombian Mennonites of her same church family.
We would like to say that the story of our pastor-friend and his European missionary visitor is just an isolated case. However, similar stories are repeated again and again around the world in places where Anabaptist churches and agencies serve without knowing what other members of our global communion in the same place are doing. Anabaptist presence lacks power and impact when worldwide partnership among our members and institutions is not functional.
This article explores what it means to be a global church in partnership. The realm of global partnerships entails such fields as theological confession, evangelism, church planting, mission sending, peace, justice, diaconal service, education, health, and economic development among others. These matters are all in play if one includes the International Community of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB) and the Mennonite World Conference (MWC). What does it mean to mobilize resources in all these fields “from everywhere to everywhere?”
THE GOAL (TELOS) OF GLOBAL PARTNERSHIPS
Following the story of our Colombian friend we can say that one of the goals of global partnerships has to do with the use of resources for cross-cultural missions. However, we think this is just one of the areas in which global partnerships affects our missiology. Furthermore, global partnerships have to do not just with our missiology but also our theology and ecclesiology.
Global partnerships have as a goal to lead us to a better understanding of who God is. We can see in Revelation 7:9–10 how God yearns for his people to be a multicultural family of faith in which diversity is celebrated; where different foods, music, clothing, customs, ways of celebrating and individual identities are accepted and enjoyed. In our current world of cultural segregation among peoples, God calls us to give testimony of the love that destroys the walls that separate.
In this scripture, more than dogmas or human structures, the family of faith shares a common past of faithfulness to God. As the author John pictures it, the community has remained firm before the Lamb. This community has emerged victorious through commitment, suffering, sacrifice and even martyrdom. As at the Old Testament Feast of the Tabernacles where the Israelites waved palm branches, the multicultural family of faith now celebrates around the Lamb that was slain, free from slavery and materialism.
In Revelation, this family thus finds its purpose. It is in this community where Christ is acknowledged as the Lamb of God, worthy of our adoration, that we discover the One who challenges human standards of glory, authority, leadership and power. Only when we share our faith experience in the context of global diversity can we see clearly who God is and what he is like. Only when we acknowledge our inadequacies and accept the gifts that other global communities share with us, can we have a clear vision of Jesus.
Interdependence in the context of suffering allows us to understand that our God sees leadership as service and commitment. Our God’s authority stems from his sacrificial love for us; he has identified with our pain, and experienced our suffering.
When the global church shares its faith experiences of Jesus in an interdependent way, the characteristics of each local congregation give us a more complete image of God: Jesus, the Lamb of God, who sacrificed himself for us. The goal (center) of global partnerships, then, is the person of Jesus.
Acting as a global family fills us with life because it allows us to see the Lamb in a way we would not have otherwise seen. We are able to enjoy a little of that Kingdom which is still to come, and yet is already here among us!
Another goal of global partnerships has to do with our experience of the church as a foretaste of God’s Kingdom. In a world of nationalisms, violence, injustice, and suffering, to find a global community that stands with you and supports you gives you the strength and hope that you need to overcome difficult situations. Let’s explain this based on our own experience and history.
Around one hundred years ago a German Mennonite pastor and historian, Christian Neff, had a dream about inviting Anabaptist churches from around the world to connect to one another. In a context of suffering because of world wars and revolutions he explained his vision in the following way: “Our strength is great if we stand united in one faith and remain loyal to the brotherhood.”2
A unified, global brotherhood gives us strength and hope in spite of suffering. Neff understood this as well as his brothers and sisters of Russia, who, in the midst of suffering and persecution at that time, supported his vision and encouraged him in his desire of building a global Mennonite communion. However, not every Mennonite leader in Europe agreed with Neff. Why have another Mennonite institution? Do we need something like a global interdependency?
It is easy to get Neff’s vision when you are dealing with contexts of suffering and oppression. Churches in contexts like this appreciate the support and hope they find in a global family of faith. On the other hand, churches that are in contexts of affluence and comfort tend to live independently, without seeing the value of a global community. There are wealthy churches who appear concerned about taking God’s Kingdom to other places, yet fail to notice that an essential part of that kingdom means being a global, interdependent church that is able to walk alongside members who suffer and celebrate with those who experience joy.
As followers of Jesus we are called to walk alongside those that suffer, to stand with them, and to try to stop the cycle of violence as Jesus did. In the words of Norman Kraus:
Jesus’ shalom-making was a ministry of the “wounded healer” who healed through transformation. Instead of leading a violent revolution as the insurgents of his day advocated or working at political reform of the oppressing structures, he identified with the poor and attempted to interrupt the cycle of violence. At the same time he by no means condoned the inequities of the system fuelled by the selfish anxiety of the politically and economically powerful. This nonviolent peacebuilding from the bottom up is the essential message of Jesus.3
God calls for the experience of feeling the foreign pain as our own pain. It has to do with hearing the calling of the other as God did in Exodus 3:8.4 Jesus called us to live in this way, to be sensitive to the needs of others and to identify ourselves even with their feelings. This is what compassion is.5
Oliver Davies defines compassion as “the recognition of another’s condition, entailing a degree of participation in the suffering of the other, an embrace of that fellow-suffering, and a preparedness to act on their behalf.”6 Can you imagine the impact that our global community would have if we acted as one body, moved by God’s Spirit on behalf of those who are suffering?
Compassion in the Old Testament רָחַם (rā∙ḥǎm) involves the idea of having a strong affection toward someone, based on a relationship, which can manifest itself in actions of kindness and concern for one in difficulty. This word has the same Hebrew root as רֶחֶם (rě∙ḥěm) which is the word for womb, or uterus.7 In some way the relation of these words helps us to understand that God’s compassion is comparable to the reaction—the feelings and the actions—that a mother experiences in feeling the suffering of her children.
A follower of Christ cannot be indifferent to those members of the global church who cry out in pain. A follower of Christ will react with the same passion that a mother would in order to defend her children. Acts of a global and compassionate multicultural family can make a real difference, as has been the case in our Mennonite experiences in Russia, Germany, Vietnam, Colombia, Panama, and Congo among other places.
Good partnerships make possible the sharing of resources, experiences, gifts and weaknesses in a way that strengthens our service and testimony. Good communication enables us to network teams for more efficient and effective work in church planting, peacemaking, social development, health, and education. However, global partnerships are not just an issue of pragmatic benefit. It is part of the core of the gospel we share.
In John 17:23 Jesus prays, “that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me” (NRSV). Through his prayer he establishes a direct connection between the unity of his followers and the effectiveness of their witness. In other words, the world would believe in Jesus if it sees a community that loves one another. In our world today nationalisms and the specialization of some ministries threaten the efficacy of our witness because of the fragmentation that they bring to the body of Christ.
What could happen if our witness were presented in a multicultural way and as an expression of Christ’s church? What could happen if we saw our global family as an organic body that is interconnected and intercommunicated, instead of just a network of institutions? What could happen if we avoided duplication of efforts, while celebrating differences and diversity? Imagine the missional impact of a multicultural team that has been sent: people from different nations overcoming nationalisms, loving each other, serving to their new community; people with different gifts working on church planting, peacemaking, social development, health, and education, connecting all these gifts in a coordinated way; people being one, and the world knowing Jesus.
THE CULTURE OF GLOBAL PARTNERSHIPS
The global church in partnerships stands on a theological foundation, but is also affected by the sociology of interaction. The following items affect how we approach global partnerships.
Models of Relating
As an example, this is a two-nation model. In the political sphere, an ambassador represents one country to another. Interests of the two countries are mutually discerned. This model turns “colonial” when the sending country attempts to dictate to the receiving country, either directly or indirectly. Such actions can be subtle, and not always easily discerned cross-culturally, especially when relationships develop between people that gloss over colonial dynamics at a personal level.
ICOMB—the International Community of Mennonite Brethren—represents this model, at least potentially. It is in this body that each national church is represented. It is a context both for fellowship and to address the critical question: “What does it mean to be a global (MB) church?” ICOMB provides a forum where such matters as the rules of engagement between and among countries can be negotiated; where common activities in holistic mission can be discerned and selected.
The way to the future is the multi-lateral model. It is more complex and takes more time, but speed often results in violence and damaged relationships.
An Understanding of Sharing Gifts
Material and Non-material8
Material gifts include created things—plants, animals, minerals, our world itself—as well as things created from these by humans—goods, products, money, etc.
Non-material gifts include special capacities, skills, and “talents”—things that result in the ability to do almost anything: carpentry, food preparation, music, arts, business activity, farming, science, etc. Time is a non-material gift. Spiritual gifts fit here: all those things used in and by the church to “build up the body until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph 4:11–16).
A conversation somewhere in the “global south” went something like this. “What do you need (from our global church family)?” The list of largely material category items grew quickly. Then the question was asked, “What do you have to offer to the church?” Silence ensued. And then a little prompting elicited a list of some non-material gifts this church could offer.
In global partnerships we need to give credit to both categories because of disparity in the material realm. Some parts of the world are more gifted in non-material areas, and less so in the material category. Since material gifts are easily observed and evaluated, it is also easy to develop prejudice toward their intrinsic value, over against the value of people without an abundance of material gifts, and the value of their contribution.
“Need” is not the opposite of “Gift”
We tend to think that need is the opposite of gift. But Tshimika and Lind propose otherwise. If all are gifted, then “need” plays a different role.
Needs are not the opposite of gifts, but are much more intimately related. Why do the hungry need food and the sick need healing? So that the gifts God has endowed them with can be nurtured and can in turn be given. We could say that gifts “need” other gifts so that they in turn can be given. What we call a “need” then, can in fact be seen as a cry of invitation from a gift that is trapped and cannot be released or given.9
Need is thus the vital link between gifts. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12:21–22, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” We do well to reflect on the implication: we actually need the weaker members of the body. Need actually mobilizes gifts.
But we must be creative and thoughtful—need does not always dictate the kind of gift to be mobilized. Needs can awaken gifts, sometimes those not currently being used. Without needs there can be no gifts.
Gifts are meant to be “shared”, not merely “given”
This follows closely, for example, behind the theory of need. In Africa, a strong funeral tradition is community sharing. Everyone comes, and all bring what they can—money, food, livestock, clothes, singing or a lengthy eulogy. All gifts have one central purpose: not to enrich the family of the deceased, but to build a stronger community. The gifts allow the family to take care of the needs to those who come to visit, of course, but the telos is that the bonds of the community be strengthened.
Sharing carries relational freight. When gifts are shared, rather than simply “given”, the world of the giver and receiver are made to overlap. Sharing implies that all of the parties become involved with each other.
For this reason it is difficult to share (rather than merely give) material gifts. They are too mobile, and too easily separated from the giver and from the relationship. Unless, of course, material gifts take on a relational value because they are objects that can be viewed frequently, reminding one of the relationship. Then their value lies in their provenance, and because of who used them or gave them, not intrinsic cost.
Of all material gifts, money is the most mobile, the most detachable, and therefore the least relational. Money is disconnected and mercurial. One easily gives money instead of sharing one’s life in friendship.
But since it is essential for acquiring certain things we give it more value than it deserves. In conversations like the one above in the “global south,” it becomes apparent that we do this rather instinctively. Christians may offer “mature faith,” “trust in God,” and “the power of prayer” but somehow underneath, there is a feeling that these “don’t really count” in comparison with what money can do. This is felt by all—not just the rich or poor. As Paul put it, “The love of money is the root of all sorts of evil” (1 Tim 6:10). Discounting the non-material gifts of our brother or sister is one such evil.
We realize our inter-connected potential in gift-sharing
The human relationship is enriched with the sharing of gifts. In every family, there are special occasions when we celebrate by sharing gifts. The mutual exchange may provide a much-needed item of clothing or a tool. Or we share to enhance beauty. No matter what gifts are shared, however, such sharing is designed to gladden the heart and reinforce the love between us. Can you imagine a relationship without sharing gifts?10
In the global family of faith, the same principle applies. Global partnerships are simply frameworks of relationship designed to mobilize gifts through need-detection, and thereby gladden our hearts and raise the love-factor between us.
Challenges to True Partnership
These challenges revolve around material resources and how we manage or mismanage them.
ICOMB and MWC are organizations with very limited means. As organizations, they are restricted to the capacities of the members—many of whom are materially poor. So the resources available around the world have mobilization needs.
Historic attitudes and prejudices
In addition to historic attitudes about material and non-material gifts, we have political and even theologically driven prejudices. The politics of the world have painted certain areas as less valuable, or more violent, or more aggressive, more unjust, and so on. These prejudices come from our own culture and even our own families. Only Christ and his message of inclusiveness can change that.
The church has also contributed to prejudice. Certain races were deemed “cursed” by the church of 200 years ago. This is completely unacceptable theology, but the echoes of such theological prejudice continue even today.
Anyone working in a global partnership needs to listen to their own thoughts and biases carefully to avoid slip ups and embarrassing offenses that do not honor God.
In relating across cultural lines even “accidental” offenses occur. One might be ignorant of the specifics, and commit an offense merely by doing one’s best—but within the rules of one’s own culture, rather than the host culture. Such differences can be learned, of course, and in global partnerships, it is worth the time and effort to acquire this knowledge.
A Preferred Culture
In summary what might a healthy culture of global partnership look like?
It is easy to get caught up in local concerns. However, in an age of global communication and awareness, one must not ignore the struggles of our faith family in another part of the world. This awareness makes us more responsible. Global partnering and relating is a divine calling to use the gifts available from all over the world to care, identify, and to address issues and needs.
“No one left behind” is a slogan from the educational field in the United States. It reminds everyone that some children who struggle to learn can be left behind as other children forge ahead.
This slogan easily applies to global partnerships and relationships. Those with fewer advantages can miss out on certain advances enjoyed by others. To embark on a global partnership means to assist the disadvantaged to participate fully.
We seek a multi-lateral global association based on the assumption that we all have gifts to share and also needs to mobilize those gifts “from everywhere to everywhere.”
The result of partnerships is relationship as characterized by Paul who said, “I have you in my heart” (Phil 1:7). Church members in true partnership love one another, and care when the other experiences difficulty, trauma, distress, etc. We love to spend time together. We don’t mind the costs.
“Guiding principles” are convictions (values) which guide decisions. To reach the goal of helpful and healthy global partnerships, actions will be taken, and guiding principles inform those actions. But we don’t just want to “get things done”—we want to create the culture or character surrounding global partnerships (above). So the convictions (values) we abide by must be carefully chosen so that a preferred culture is cultivated.11
What guiding principles will help us get to the above characteristics and relational culture?
We Embrace our Identity as Mennonite Brethren
In the MB mission effort, once churches are planted a MB national church (conference) is established. MB Mission, as the mission arm of the MB churches of North America, and global partner of ICOMB, is accountable to establish not just “any” churches, but churches that belong to the denominational family. Established national churches become members of ICOMB—the international expression of MBs. This model can and should happen also among non-North American mission efforts.
This has sometimes been unclear. The MB confessional identity has sometimes been hidden in favor of a more general “evangelical” approach. The obvious objective was to convince people to believe in Jesus Christ and then to join the emerging local church. But in fulfilling the objective, the character of MBs as part of the Anabaptist movement was not sufficiently taught. The “Mennonite Brethren” name and difficult parts of the confession have been hidden. This guiding principle was cultivated in North America, where most missionaries originated.
The result was confessionally “generic” evangelical churches whose leaders and members did not know their confessional identity except through the missionary presence. When they networked with other Christian church leaders these associations affected the “heart and soul” of the local church leadership and membership. Eventually the missionaries departed, leaving a very tenuous denominational (family) identity.
Today, some of these churches no longer belong to the MB family. The supportive MB community that sent out the missionaries cannot see the growth of the movement except for isolated independent churches or those which have joined other denominations. This is not our “preferred culture” but serves as an example of where global partnerships can take us if we are not careful to cultivate our identity through strong, positive associations and clear adherence to the Confession of Faith.12 By contrast, ICOMB has a culture of loving relationship and real joy in upholding the Confession. This is the preferred culture of identity.
The Global Partnership Goal is Church Growth
Partnerships should lead to results in the area of mission and discipleship. Development partnerships serve the community and are critical to save lives and make it possible to hear the gospel. Development is often a doorway to interest in Jesus Christ, conversion and church planting. MBs view community development as part of the holistic gospel. Resources accepted from non-church sources (e.g. governments) should not inhibit or compromise a church-related ministry from freely fulfilling its mission.
We Encourage Transparency about Multiple Partners
People in resource-poor contexts typically establish multiple income streams out of necessity, since a single income stream is not usually sufficient for survival. People in resource-rich contexts often view this suspiciously. In North America, for example, a culture against “moonlighting” (having two jobs) was developed in the twentieth century, and still is a subconscious factor even though many North Americans today work two or more jobs to survive.
Generally it is appropriate to bring to the surface all the income streams. This allows for understanding, and even, where appropriate, the chance to use the benefits from one to enhance the other. For example, when a Congolese brother was unable to get access to Canada in 2011 to attend and speak at the Higher Education Consultation hosted by ICOMB, he used his other partner agency to acquire the needed visa papers to come from the United States.
Beware of the violence of speed. In a multi-lateral model of partnership, patience is both a virtue and a critical conviction. Language and cultural differences require understanding, which is borne on long term relationships and the spirit (culture) of mutuality. The issues of “sin” need to be discerned. Some things called “sin” in the colonial era are now recognized as cultural. Some things we might label “cultural” really are sin and must be addressed accordingly.
Control and Accountability
The use of trusted liaisons is critical to smooth over cultural differences. Partnership arrangements should be developed cooperatively with liaisons serving as bridges between beneficiaries and benefactors as much as possible.
Short term development arrangements with partners should include plans for long-term sustainability, including both local and global support as judged appropriate. Long term support arrangements with partners should be trustworthy and reliable to enable both the giving and the receiving organization to plan financially with confidence.
In this chapter we have envisioned a global community that is aware of the condition of the other; a global community that prays for each other and celebrates together; a global community that shares its gifts and serves the world bearing witness about the kind of God that we have. We have spoken about a community that knows Jesus through global partnerships.
This is already happening around the world. And it will continue happening more and more. This is our prayer and our commitment! Come! Join and support our global family! As the song says:
You’re not alone, we are one body…
You’re not alone, we stand with you…
You’re not alone, your time of suffering is our suffering, too…
And I know the day is coming when we will be rejoicing anew.
Many members in this body that we know,
Some are great and some are small,
Eyes and ears, and hands and just a little toe,
One God who activates them all…
One body, Spirit formed and Spirit fed
Men and women, rich and poor
A banquet where the least sit at the head
One body broken for the world13
Appendix—Partnership Principles: A Case Study from ICOMB—MB Mission
In a Memorandum of Understanding between MB Mission and ICOMB the following principles, based on concepts by Phill Butler, were outlined to characterize this relationship:
By working together, we encourage each other to greater faithfulness, desire God’s best for our partners, and maximize the use of the resources, gifts, and abilities God has given us. Partners are released to focus on their strengths, work within their passions, and maximize their contribution. (Phil 1:9–11; Matt 25:14–30).
Encouragement, refreshment, and hope replace loneliness and despair when God’s people work together (Ps 133; Heb 10:23–25). Independence increases risk and threatens perseverance. There is synergy in shared calling, shared vision, shared burdens, shared information, and shared resources.
Effective partnerships are built on relationships characterized by affection, trust, transparency and mutual concern. Partners need to know, understand and value each other. The most acute challenge to international cooperation is the absence of healthy relationships between the West and North and the growing majority churches in the East and South.
Effective partnerships begin by identifying key felt needs among the people being served before discerning kingdom priorities, barriers to spiritual growth, and available resources.
Partnerships are a process, not an event, which requires investment in relationships, consensus building and effective management.
Effective partnerships are made up of partners with clear identities (calling, vision, values, ministry objectives, etc) who know what they are able to contribute. Partnerships motivated by weakness (we need money, know-how, missionaries, etc.) are unhealthy.
Effective partnerships recognize and honor all participating groups: the people being served by the partnership; the partner agencies, churches, conferences; the supportive constituencies (prayer, finances) of the partners; and the partnership group itself.
Effective partnerships value worship, prayer and communion as essential elements for oneness in Christ. It is essential to sustain the partnership with an active prayer support network (it is not just vision, strategy, and interdependence).
Effective partnerships demand sacrifice (time, finances, personnel, etc.).
Effective partnerships expect problems and deal with them proactively (changes, exceptions, disappointments, unfulfilled commitments, etc).14
Phill Butler has a somewhat more comprehensive list, which include several valuable principles that are appropriate to add to the above.
Effective strategic partnerships have to be driven by vision—beyond the capacity of a person or agency to achieve alone. It’s the essential purpose of having a partnership that takes it beyond simple fellowship.
A lasting partnership requires a facilitator to bring it to life and keep it going. A facilitator will bring patience, tenacity, and a servant heart. There also must be a champion from each participating agency. This set of champions become ongoing facilitators.
Broad ownership is critical. A hierarchical relationship or structure is not a true partnership. We want people to actively engage in the process of setting objectives, making decisions and ongoing communications.
Celebrate differences. A partnership starts with what groups have in common, but the mature relationship comes to admire and value the contribution that comes from differences.15
César García is General Secretary of Mennonite World Conference. David Wiebe is Executive Director of International Community of Mennonite Brethren. This article was first published in The Church in Mission: Perspectives of Global Mennonite Brethren on Mission in the 21st Century, edited by Victor Wiens (Winnipeg, MB: Kindred, 2015), 673–88.
Cited by John Lapp and Ed van Straten in “Mennonite World Conference 1925–2000: From Euro-American Conference to Worldwide Communion,” Mennonite Quarterly Review (January 2003): 8-9.
C. Norman Kraus, The Jesus Factor in Justice and Peacemaking, Theological postings series (Telford, PA.: Cascadia Pub. House, 2011), 114.
Javier Giraldo, Derechos Humanos y Cristianismo: Transfondo de un Conflicto, 2nd ed., Religión y Derechos Humanos (Bogotá: El Búho, 2008), 229–30.
Oliver Davies, A Theology of Compassion: Metaphysics of Difference and the Renewal of Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2003), 233–34.
J. Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
Pakisa Tshimika and Tim Lind, Sharing Gifts in the Global Family of Faith (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2003), 24–25. Their observation about Time as a gift is insightful. “It is as though, in some parts of our world, time has been fully transformed from gift into a commodity”—i.e. from immaterial to material! (28).
T.J. Addington, Leading from the Sandbox: How to Develop, Empower and Release High-Impact Ministry Teams (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2010). We have used and modified Addington’s concepts for this essay.
“ICOMB Confession of Faith,” International Community of Mennonite Brethren, accessed March 18, 2014, http://www.icomb.org/confession.
Words and music by Bryan Moyer Suderman (SmallTall Music, 2005).
Memorandum of Understanding for Partnership between MBMS International and the International Community of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB), unpublished document, 2009.
Phill Butler, Well Connected: Releasing Power, Restoring Hope Through Kingdom Partnerships (Colorado Springs, CO: Authentic Publishing, 2006), 16–18.