100 years ago, this question would probably have been turned around. That is, the question would have been, “What kind of partnership can a sending agency have with a church?” 100 years ago it was much clearer that they sending agency role was to come alongside and serve the local church. Sadly, such a stance is rarer today. Besides the understandable slide of organizations toward self interest, there are actually many legal and societal pressures on sending agencies to retain a certain distance and independence from “outside” influence or interference. Such a climate makes church-agency partnerships more challenging to establish.
However, there are encouraging trends. Fueled by ubiquitous access to information and a shrinking world, in terms of economy, travel, culture, etc., mission agencies are no longer the exclusive experts on logistics, communication, and support of workers on far-flung foreign fields. Who could have guessed 20 years ago that a worker in Tibet could have a live video call with a local church 12,000 miles away? Who could have guessed that a missionaries primary means of receiving their support on a regular basis would be through their home city ATM? How could we have known that English would grow to become the most accepted language medium around the world for the World Wide Web, business, media, and the scientific community? Added to the enormous increase in information and management capacity of the local church is the growing willingness of mission agencies to accept a larger role for local churches in their missionary’s life and ministry. We are greatly encouraged by mission agencies who intentionally seek their relationship structure which includes the local sending church in the ongoing shepherding and supervision of their missionary workers.
Different mission agencies are at different stages of understanding and implementation of partnerships with local churches. Most evangelical mission agencies are more than willing for a particular local church to become the primary source of personnel and support for one or more missionaries or a whole missionary team. Some agencies are willing to go a step further. They wouldn’t allow for routine field visits from the pastoral staff. They might encourage the balance of authority and decision-making with the sending church for major allocation or ministry decisions of the missionary involved. All agencies need to maintain their IRS-required control over funds and employment terms of their people. However, many are willing to discuss what shape and color that takes for a particular local church desiring to enter into the life and ministry of their second missionary in order to fulfill the common ministry goals of both the church and mission.
The key here is that the local church must ask the question. The local church must initiate the conversation. If the local church does not ask, then the default position of the sending agency will be that they are in total control of the candidate/appointee once they have signed the dotted line agreeing to membership in their organization. The mission should not be blamed for that default position. Rather, the local church should help the mission understand what we feel to be a more biblical role and responsibility of the local church in the entire process. As we often say in Propempo, “it’s not a problem; it’s a teaching opportunity.”
There is a thorn along with the flower of possibility. Your local church missions leadership and candidate may feel that you have identified the perfect mission agency partner for the proposed ministry, only to discover that the mission wants nothing to do with a local church partnership in the process. You will have to make a decision as to whether or not to proceed with membership in that mission organization. Another possible problem is that the mission agency talks a good game with respect to church partnership but, once the missionary is on the field, actually acts in a completely different way.
Through the lens of experience we have found it most helpful for the church to establish a written partnership agreement with the sending agency. A partnership agreement or memo of understanding outlines the roles and responsibilities of each party and tries to anticipate resolution of concerns before they happen. A partnership agreement should also include routine evaluation as to the effectiveness of the agreement. It should include a means to revise the agreement or dissolve the agreement. We will include one model partnership agreement below.
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