How to Start and Sustain a Partner Church Relationship
One effective strategy for moving toward racial reconciliation is to develop a partnership with a congregation in your city–one whose predominant membership is racially/ethnically different than your own. Like friendships, such partnerships take patience and time. Use the following suggestions to stimulate your own imagination. No doubt there are many other ideas which can emerge in your particular situation.
- Build on what’s already been done. Many congregations already have some level of contact with another local church of a different racial/ethnic background.
- If not, explore the acquaintances which clergy or lay leaders have with individuals in other congregations to see if a corporate relationship could develop.
- Check to see if an ecumenical agency in your city is presently fostering such partnerships. Helpful mechanisms or structures may already be in place.
- Pairing with another congregation in your own neighborhood brings distinct advantages, giving you the opportunity later on of acting together on an issue that affects your neighborhood.
- Be accountable to your own congregation’s leadership. Check in with appropriate congregational entities: pastor, missions committee, deacons, etc. Explain the idea and get their reactions, and hopefully, their blessing. The advance work can be done by one person (or small group), but eventually the entire congregation needs to “buy into” this relationship.
- Move forward with determination, but not necessarily with speed. Once again, friendships take time to develop.
- Whether starting from scratch or building on an existing relationship, your church should assign one or two leaders (clergy or lay) to explore an expanded relationship with counterparts at your “partner” church.
- Articulate why you feel such a relationship would be beneficial for your congregation. Have in mind, too, a few ideas–concrete ways the two congregations might relate. Mention them in your conversations with leaders from the other congregation as a way to illustrate what you have in mind.
- Most importantly, be prepared to listen at least as much as you speak. Remember, you’re seeking to build a relationship, not a program.
- Don’t be afraid to start modestly. Pulpit and choir exchanges can be an effective way to begin. Just don’t let your relationship stop there.
- Consider a ritual acknowledgment of your partner church relationship. For example, include an announcement and prayer of blessing for the partnership in a Sunday morning worship. Have members of your partner church present and involve them as worship leaders.
- Plan a joint meal to share brief histories of both congregations and to provide an occasion members to meet and mingle.
- Plan one or more joint special services together around special dates, like Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Holy Week, Thanksgiving, Advent, etc. Partner church relationships can serve to educate church members about other cultures. Search the calendar for other dates of special significance.
- Use patriotic holidays to celebrate the nation’s multiracial character.
- Plan a week-long simultaneous Bible study.
- Both congregations should have a “key contact,” someone to whom information about special events in each church could be sent for dissemination in the other congregation. For example, if your church has a special worship event, appropriate information can be promoted in your partner church.
- If your church has a newsletter, make sure one or more in your partner church is included on the mailing list.
- If your church has regularly scheduled meetings of special interest groups, encourage attendance from members of your partner church. Plan occasional joint meetings.
- Coordinate and plan joint meetings, trips, and other activities for the congregations’ youth groups.
- Create special worship banners which list the names of both congregations and which are prominently displayed in both church facilities.
- Pray for your partner congregation on a regular basis in worship.
- Involve your partner congregation in mission projects and community ministries.
- Start “meals groups.” Pair members from each congregation to eat in each other’s homes once a month for a year. As one Texas pastor said, “there’s more Kingdom work done around the table than in pulpits and pews.”
- Ask for a few volunteers in your congregation to commit to attending Sunday worship (or other regular gatherings) of your partner church. For instance, four or five from your church would worship with your partner church once a month or once a quarter for one year.
- If your partner church is aligned with the same denomination as your church, join them in participating in denominational programs or activities. If the partners are from different denominations, get to know the other congregation’s denominational history and emphases.
- Find out what issues most concern your partner church and educate your church accordingly.
- While programming and planning can be helpful, recognize as well the value of simply having unstructured occasions for members to be together.
- Prayerfully determine what you want from the experience, and be sensitive to very real differences among churches and congregants. Racism leaves deep scars on communities which no amount of goodwill will eradicate quickly.
- Honesty in communication is essential. The deeper the relationship, the more frank you should be. Don’t dodge the tough issues where disagreement might emerge.
- Partnership involves mutual respect. As one church leader cautions: “It is inevitable that when we go to their meetings, work on their projects, get on their schedule, and become concerned with their needs, we want to ‘improve’ the way things are done. But it is not ours to change, and we are not in control. It is healthy for us to experience being on someone else’s agenda.”
- Don’t be surprised at perceived “inconsistencies.” Some congregations may be very traditional in some areas, very innovative in others. Consistency, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
- Finally, ask yourself if you’re willing to enter this relationship not to “help somebody,” but to have God help you, to allow the Spirit to shake up the way you view the world and God’s presence therein.
Adapted from Walk Together Children: An Ecumenical Resource for Congregations in Partnership Across Racial Lines (Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America).