By Libby Jewson
Change is not easy and can bring fear, uncertainty and insecurity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many changes to our home, work and worship lives, including some that we would have thought unimaginable just 18 months ago.
It has put further pressure on our faith communities, too, through church closures, ongoing but ever-changing restrictions, increasing compliance requirements and the need to re-think and adapt how we conduct and take part in worship and how we engage with and serve the communities around us.
I believe this has left many people weary – especially in my home state of Victoria – and, in some cases, they are disheartened about life and church.
Even before COVID, some people within the LCANZ expressed fears that change in the world around us would threaten the very survival of our church as we have known it. Others believe a viable future for the church comes down to whether or not we are prepared to change to connect with and minister to that ‘world’. Coupled with already-dwindling attendances in many mainstream churches, including ours prior to 2020, we may feel that we face the multi-pronged attacks of hostility from without and division within.
But it’s not all doom and gloom – far from it. We are all God’s children, and his unfathomable love is the one constant, unchanging reality for the world. Also, our Father, Son and Spirit have promised to be with us, walk alongside us and hold us in loving arms as we face the trials of life, including unexpected and unwanted changes.
And many great things are happening across the Lutheran community in Australia and New Zealand. There are indeed differences in thinking across the church about how and whether we need to change to not just survive, but thrive as we seek to further God’s kingdom. But I believe we can work together to address these differences. And I am hopeful we can do this collaboratively in a spirit of trust and respect.
From my experience in both church and professional life, I believe that managing change well and coming through the other side stronger is all about working in respectful partnerships with others, including – and even especially – those we may disagree with.
One image used to describe this partnership of ‘opposites’, is that of the place where the river meets the sea – fresh water and saltwater mingling into one body, but each still existing in its own right. It’s an image evoked in the Archie Roach song Liyarn Ngarn which, translated from the Yawuru First Nations language, literally means ‘a coming together of spirits’. It is a place of richness and vitality. It is also the metaphor used for the theme of the LCA’s Reconciliation Action Plan website (www.rap.lca.org.au).
Such collaborations of disparate partners suggest that, when we are open to and respectful in working with people of different viewpoints, each can learn from and be enriched and blessed by the other.
We also may come to humbly recognise that each person is individually gifted by God and has a role to play in bringing the good news of Christ’s saving sacrifice and love to the world, as we read in 1 Peter 4:10 (‘Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace’), 1 Corinthians 12:14 (‘For the body is not one member, but many’) and elsewhere. I am an accredited partnership broker and partnerships and system change have been passions of mine for more than two decades. Perhaps more helpfully described as a change-maker, bridge-builder or servant leader, a partnership broker is an active ‘go-between’ who supports partners in navigating their journey together by helping them to create a map, plan their route, choose their ‘mode of transport’ and change direction when necessary.
Partnerships can be reactive, adaptive or transformative. Reactive partnerships are formed as a strategy to deliver outcomes within the framework of the existing status quo – in other words, without significant change. Adaptive partnerships are designed to deliver development that occurs somewhat separate from, but alongside, the mainstream – so it will involve some change, though not likely fast or revolutionary. Transformative partnerships are intentionally created to challenge and change mainstream systems and mindsets.
The world’s longest-established organisation dedicated to multi-stakeholder partnering, The Partnering Initiative (https://thepartneringinitiative.org/), outlines the ‘partnering cycle’ in The Partnering Toolbook. This cycle goes through the phases of scoping needs and building relationships, managing and maintaining such elements as governance arrangements and partner capacities, reviewing and revising the partnership effectiveness and collaboration agreement and, finally, sustaining outcomes within partnerships. The cycle can then continue as the partnership matures and develops.
Many things can threaten productive partnerships, according to the Partnership Brokers Association (PBA), the international professional body for those managing and developing collaboration processes.
Challenges that partnerships commonly face include anxiety about differences between the partners, power imbalances, hidden agendas, competitiveness and uncertainty. In each case though, the PBA says there are core principles the partnership can adopt to address these, and benefits that result from them.
Some relationships don’t reflect partnership behaviour – there may be an imbalance in communication between the members or the intent of partnership principles may not be understood. These are simply about exchanging information or are more operational.
A genuine partnership features mutual accountability and shared risk between the partners. The partners are equal and develop goals and strategies together, paving the way for exciting and often unimaginable outcomes at the start of the partnership journey.
Of course, there are many benefits and blessings that can flow from working together in genuine partnerships, including in our church. We gain knowledge, capabilities and resilience in the face of change. Partnerships can also help each member to develop a healthy curiosity about the other member/s and a willingness to understand and learn as they work together. This helps to get rid of rushing to judgement about other ministries. And this is not a new concept; there are many examples of this happening already.
In a simple example, when congregations and families team up, aided by resources and support from district and churchwide child and youth ministries, the faith of our youngest members is nurtured. For many years, congregations have established and partnered with Lutheran schools, and work with them in mission. Partnerships can also exist between churches located in the same region, as through this collaboration they discover opportunities for projects and ministry that haven’t even been thought of yet!
So how do we use the same strategy of working in genuine, equitable partnerships when we face far more complex questions, uncertainties and change together as a church? The development of a partnership agreement derived using a collaborative process and the framework as outlined allows for this. Once the partners begin to follow the principles and work together, there is no end to the projects that could develop and exciting opportunities that may arise.
The key is to recognise that it is only through God’s grace that we can hope to put aside our will and prayerfully seek to follow his leading together, especially when circumstances change. Then we can explore ways in which partnerships could provide opportunities for the unforced rhythms of grace (Matthew 11:28–30) – continually coming in to Jesus’ rest and going out in his grace. Working together is always more effective than working in silos.
We will hear God’s voice through the partnership as we put aside our differences to work together and seek to do his will. Are there more opportunities that we have not yet taken up as a church where we can adopt a partnership approach?
A member at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church North Geelong, Victoria, Libby Jewson has worked in organisation and systems design, agency partnerships, leadership and management and, most recently, leadership in the family violence sector. She also has extensive experience in multi-sector and multi-organisational partnerships. She is the chair of the Greater Geelong Lutheran Forum, which brings together the leaders and pastors of three Lutheran parishes, Geelong Lutheran College and Araluen Lutheran Camp, to explore opportunities to do things better together that they can’t do alone.