Building Collaborative Relationships


As we consider the future of the Baptist family, many of us
are dreaming dreams about what church could be like at local, cluster, regional
and national levels. Financial constraints are focussing our minds on structures
and patterns. I suggest that we also need to look from a different perspective:
that of relationships. I am most grateful for Tony Peck’s inspiring comment in
Voice 25: “When structures are necessarily light and material resources are
few, the forging of collaborative relationships comes more to the fore as
vital.” Likewise for John Colwell’s phrase in Voice 30: “intentionality of
covenant friendship.” I believe that in Baptist circles we need to rediscover
and rebuild these “collaborative relationships” and “covenant friendships.”

Over 25 years of ministry it has fallen to me to work hard
to build such collaborative relationships between congregations of different
traditions, for more than half those years in leadership of local Churches
Together groups and also serving parachurch mission organisations. I believe
that various insights from such experiences may be relevant to ways forward for
life in Baptist Associations and Union.

When there can be no appeal to denominational loyalty, you
need other grounds on which to build collaborative relationships. Such grounds
may be theological: the unity of the one church (1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians
4) and the importance of visible unity in the church’s witness to the world
(John 17:20ff). Less satisfying but often more effective appeals can be based
on the direct benefits to participating ministers and congregations of their
involvement in joint activities. For a Union and Associations of independent
churches, surely we can articulate better reasons for doing things together
than just “because we’re all Baptists.”

Ultimately, local collaboration between congregations rests
not on structures but on relationships. You need trust that those giving the
lead and making the arrangements have the best interests of all the churches at
heart. Trust undergirds a relationship and is also expressed in it. We will do
things for somebody we have confidence in which we will not do for somebody
else. And trust does not come from position, but from relationship. Locally there
is a built-in accountability because if those entrusted to build co-operation
fail in that task for any reason they will simply not be re-elected, with the
fall-out that the congregations distance themselves from each other again. But
the starting point for collaboration is trust between church leaders and that
usually means lots of coffees and lunches getting to know each other. At the
end of the day, it is not about meetings but about friendships.

Attempting to draw together hundreds of volunteers from
dozens of congregations demands effective communication which reaches beyond
the church leaders and directly to grassroots members. There need to be
meaningful relationships between members of different congregations, not just
between leaderships.

In many ways, the process of getting local churches to do
something new together they haven’t tried before is like entering the Dragon’s
Den (the BBC TV programme in which entrepreneurs attempt to gain investment
from successful business people.) You need a good idea and then a good pitch to
capture the attention of the other churches. You need to work hard to persuade
them to “buy into” the new event or activity with time, personnel and finance. All
the preparation and hard work is worth it when the plan is finally realised. But
you can’t presume anything – you have to do the legwork!

Many churches invest a great deal of their time and energy
in collaborative ventures with their neighbours across denominational
boundaries, from united worship, prayer and teaching events to joint publicity
campaigns, from united Good Friday processions of witness to town-wide weeks of
cooperation in mission. Not to forget the many ways in which groups of churches
jointly organise and finance local schools work, food banks, hostels for the
homeless, counselling services, Street Pastors, and so on. In contrast, the
only involvement of very many churches in collaborative mission with other
congregations of their own denomination is simply financial. Relationships grow
from working together. It would be good if we could find lots of new ways for
Baptist churches to actively work together, supporting and partnering with each
other in mission.

And perhaps we need to invest the same kind of time and
effort in building up collaborative relationships within the Baptist Family as
everybody has to do to build such relationships locally between congregations.

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