“Find a partner, everyone!” Those three words – spoken by my elementary school gym teacher – didn’t make me feel the least bit enthusiastic. In fact, they filled me with terror.
I wasn’t exactly what you’d call “athletic,” so I often found myself standing alone, unable to pair up. My classmates wanted to succeed at the task – to win the race – so they wanted to link up with the strongest, most agile partner possible.
Childhood insecurities behind me, I can understand those other kids. Forming partnerships is tricky business. We seek out the best, most compatible partners.
“Partnership” is one of the newest buzzwords in Christian circles, showing up in Mennonite Brethren conversations about church planting, compassion ministries, summer camps, seminary, and much more. And no wonder. Our world is increasingly complex. One way to faithfully navigate that complexity is to find travelling companions, partners, co-labourers – from other churches, locations, and even denominations.
But while partnerships can be helpful, they also present challenges. (Read 2 Corinthians 6:14 for a clear word about the pitfalls of business and ministry collaborations.)
We can’t work with you!
In January, a dynamic Christian leader named James MacDonald resigned from the Gospel Coalition – a network focused on equipping the next generation for ministry, and promoting church reform and culture transformation. MacDonald’s resignation created quite a stir online.
Why? MacDonald was displeased by the coalition’s refusal to partner with T.D. Jakes, pastor of a 30,000-member megachurch in Texas, due to his views on the Trinity. The coalition was concerned enough about Jakes’ theology that they decided to unlink arms with him.
Partnerships can ease our load and serve as helpful support systems. But they may also influence us in negative and unwelcome ways – pressuring us to do, say, or believe things we’re not comfortable with.
Wisdom and prayer are essential. As Mennonite Brethren, we’re experts at trying new things and “diving in,” but perhaps some caution and a few key directives will help us form appropriate and healthy alliances.
1. Understand what we have to contribute.
Partnerships can be rich and rewarding. But I wonder: Is it healthy for churches to post statements of faith from the Gospel Coalition or Acts 29 Network on their website, rather than their own denomination’s confession of faith? In order to be an effective and contributing partner, we must understand what we have to offer. It’s important to fully engage with our own community before embracing others. We’re stronger if we don’t try to become copies of each other.
2. Be clear about the outcomes we want to achieve.
Not all alliances are appropriate for the tasks we want to accomplish. When it comes to Christian ministry, we need to be honest about differences in theology and doctrine, and ask if these are significant enough to withdraw from an affiliation.
During one of my seminary classes, we visited the Crystal Cathedral. With its thriving TV ministry, opulent campus, and clear Christian mandate, it seemed silly to question whether any of my classmates would jump to partner with this church, given the opportunity.
But what about the Crystal Cathedral’s posture toward health and wealth? And their drive-up church services, where attendees could sit in their car and avoid all contact with other people? Did these fit with our evangelical Anabaptist theology? Would they prevent us from working together?
Not all activities and goals are the same. Running a soup kitchen, planting a church, or sharing communion – each has a different end goal and requires different considerations. There’s more to think about than surface success.
But we may be surprised by who we can work with – including people we originally may have ruled out. Not more than 50 years ago, MBs hesitated to partner with other Mennonite denominations, often viewing them as non-Christians. This led to conflict, excommunication, and wounded people.
In 1986, MB leaders issued a public apology: “Some congregations and leaders interpreted one of our conference principles to mean that if an MB member married a member of the General Conference Churches, now Conference of Mennonites in Canada, then that MB member should be excommunicated. Fortunately the practice was not widespread but it did take place and for such action we are sorry and ask for your forgiveness.”
MBs now stand side by side with other Mennonites in many ministry settings (and marriages!), realizing there are more theological similarities than differences.
Partnerships must always remain open to evaluation. The key is to know our strengths and values, and to be clear about our end goals.
Going back to my elementary school days, it turns out I was a pretty good partner. Not in gym class, mind you. But, with my strong public speaking skills, I was welcomed wholeheartedly by the debate team!