While it may be true that pain is the best teacher, it would be foolish to make missteps in ministry or any other area of life when someone is willing to guide your way. In recent years, I have made some grave mistakes in the practice of collaborating that put our ministry in peril, caused me great personal anguish, and even emotionally upset my children. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, let alone my esteemed colleagues. So I am compelled to caution others to put well-planned and defined boundaries around any of their collaborative work.
It is definitely true that more gets done when we aren’t concerned who gets the glory, but Christians are still prone to sin, so it is extremely wise to get things in writing. A collaboration can begin with the best of intentions, but turn south quickly when people’s human side begins to dominate. Smaller organizations are especially vulnerable in this type of situation because there is such a need for manpower and fewer financial resources. This can make collaboration an attractive, viable solution to those challenges. But make certain you have good boundaries going in to the relationship.
Anyone familiar with the popular Boundaries book series by Drs. Henry Cloud & John Townsend will recall that they give a visual example of boundaries as a fence with a gate. This allows us to keep out the bad and let in the good. Having such a framework around our collaboration can make the work far more beneficial and less threatening to everyone involved.
Here’s what I recommend:
- Set a lifespan for the collaboration with the other organization involved. This will help both parties to have the security of remaining as their own operation and having an “off ramp” if the collaboration isn’t a good one. The two or more parties can always establish a new term for partnership should this prove to be a positive one.
- Talk finances with one another. Firmly decide who will pay for what. If grant money is involved, give careful thought to how much of that grant money can be dedicated to this collaborative project. One organization should not have proportionately more skin in the game financially than the other. This can lead to sour feelings or one of the two sensing that they gained nothing from the partnership. When you talk finances, be certain you are detailed with everything from refreshments to advertising and employee pay.
- Determine what the insurance situation of each organization is, and how you will move forward in light of that information. All insurance coverage is not created equal. You do not want to leave either party vulnerable to serious loss in the event of legal action. Assuring that each of you are doing background checks on employees if they are handling vulnerable populations is also critical.
- Agree upon emergency plans and procedures for anything on which you collaborate. It is true that emergencies tend to happen when you least expect it. Both organizations will have a chance to shine if you handle the unexpected appropriately.
- Division of labor can be another sticking point in working with other partners. Have well-defined roles that are distributed in a mutually agreed upon manner. Leaving this part to chance can leave one disgruntled with another over who is bearing most of the load in the collaboration.
- Review one another’s public policy positions, statement of faith or anything in writing that might come into conflict with your ministry’s core beliefs. People are acutely aware of value systems and faith statements. Be prepared for them to question you if they sense that you have aligned yourself with anyone or anything that conflicts.
- Get all of the above in writing. Do not make one move forward before you have gone through these topics and come to an agreement. This will assure that you are able to hold one another accountable or quickly dissolve the relationship should anything seriously violate those boundaries.
My friends, God graciously saved our ministry from disaster after some ugly happenings in our failed collaboration. In fact, our organization has emerged from the situation better than ever. Nevertheless, we had to go through complete turmoil and stress in recovering from the situation. And I, as a leader, am still dealing with repercussions and questions around the other parties involved. Do yourself and your ministry a huge favor. Do collaborate. But when you do, collaborate with care.