I have always been terrible at learning new languages. I blame mild dyslexia but my attempts at both modern and ancient languages to date have been less than inspiring. Yet in a strange way I seem to have, by immersion, become unknowingly bi-lingual. That is by sitting in both Church ministry positions and in Church Care Agencies I have come to have a great appreciation for both but an equal appreciation for the fact that we don’t always speak the same language.
Both are desiring the outworking of the Kingdom of God- to see justice done, to extend mercy and to see people experience abundant life. We therefore should find collaboration easy. The language we use and the means that we prefer, however, often frustrates communicants to the point they retreat to their preferred worlds and dismiss the other out of hand.
My new role is in many ways about bridging this gap and so I thought one helpful way to begin would be to provide some tips from my experiences of successful collaborative action.
So here are 5 of my top tips for building good relationships and communicating well between Churches and agencies:
- Centralise around a common purpose. Find an end goal to which all parties can be inspired and excited to work towards. Issues of justice, compassion, and human flourishing are all common motivations. (eg. a common purpose may be working towards a more connected local community- thereby reducing social isolation.) Continuing to draw from, refer back to and centralise conversations around this common purpose as you move forward will support the growth of the relationship.
- Find common language. As I have hinted at above- almost as significant as finding common purpose is finding common language. Be willing to lay down unhelpful language. While certain words might be significant to how you understand your organisation’s mission they may not always be helpful. The unhelpfulness of certain words to this specific conversation does not dismiss their significance. Being sensitive to how people are responding to/understanding certain words and being willing to modify language (without sacrificing meaning) is true humility!
- Articulate clear expectations and outcomes. I appreciate that Churches often want to avoid hard measurements because they sound too clinical. Agencies, on the other hand are hardwired towards data. I can appreciate both positions (I once had a sign above my desk that said “In God I trust everyone else will have to bring me data”). Regardless of your preference can I encourage you that having some agreed ways of measuring success (of knowing if you are making a difference) can be incredibly encouraging for participants and Churches. The data should serve the people not the other way around. It’s important, then, to find suitable ways of measuring this that do not unnecessarily encumber outworking the central purpose.
- Commit to celebrate different means and create space for them. There is not one right path. Until we can learn to celebrate that both Churches and Agencies contribute something irreplaceable and unique to the betterment of the community and indeed the furthering of the Kingdom of God, we can not work together. Just as a body has many parts; so different means of supporting our community must be celebrated. Continue to centre on the common purpose but allow all partners to contribute their unique means of coming at that end goal.
- Most importantly of all: Commit to open and continuous communication. Focus on using communication to building trust, assuring mutual objectives and above all encouragement of each other. Don’t be surprised when this is a challenge to begin with particularly if there seems to be a tug-of-war over control. It is important that as trust is built opportunities are given for each groups cards/concerns to be laid on the table. We can’t truly collaborate and move forward until we trust each other enough to air our concerns. Common concerns may be:
“we are concerned that the agency only cares about the social and not about the spiritual”;
“that the fact that the agency receives money from the government will prevent them from supporting us in our primary purposes as a Church”;
“that the Church may not have the right regularly systems in place to ensure the protection of our most vulnerable clients”
… whatever the concerns are we can only get past them once we have articulated them. We can only articulate them once we have built the trust to know that, by articulating them we are not going to irrevocable offend the other party and destroy the potential partnership.
Have you engaged in successful collaborative projects between an agency and a Church congregation? What made these successful? What challenges did you experience? Please leave your thoughts and comments below.