Partnership: A different way of relating to churches

Partnership: A different way of relating to churches

February 28, 2003
Written by Staff Reports


Barbara Brown Zikmund

A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ

We love our children and we want the best for them. We have jokes about the dangers of "apron strings," but it is no joke when a child is kept in a dependent relationship too long.

The story of the church is filled with relationships. The United Church of Christ came into being in 1957 because of relationships between leaders in Congregational Christian churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. These two denominations were themselves products of relationships—nurtured when colonial Puritans wanted to escape from oppressive relationships, when frontier settlers insisted on more simple relationships, when immigrants sought to maintain relationships, and when European union and mission efforts supported new relationships.

In our history we have reached out through global missions to form new relationships. Yet sometimes that effort created dependent "younger churches" and made us into overly protective "parent bodies." Sometimes our missionaries failed to let God shape the church in new settings. Sometimes sending churches ignored God's mission while promoting the mission of the church. Sometimes mission boards and younger churches could not "cut the apron strings."

The United Church Board for World Ministries saw these problems, and in the 1980s proposed a new way of thinking and talking about UCC relationships to churches around the world. The UCC committed itself to "Partnership"—"a mutually agreed upon commitment by two or more church bodies to relate as parts of the body of Christ and to work together to fulfill the mission of Christ in the world."

During the past 20 years the UCC has intentionally cultivated Christian partnerships based upon the biblical affirmation of the "unity of God's people," and the call to engage in Christian mission to bring about Justice. Partnership has replaced the historic idea of "one church" as the object of mission with a vision of interdependence and community.

Yet there are serious barriers to interdependence that continue to make partnership difficult, such as unequal financial resources, artificial hierarchical structures, and cross-cultural insensitivity. The characteristics of mature partnership—mutual trust, respect, acceptance and a sense of the spiritual unity of humankind and creation, are difficult to achieve. A paper written in 1988 for the UCBWM explained why. "Mutuality in mission depends on mutual acceptance and sharing; it means much more than giving or receiving because acceptance is the key to power sharing."

Church historian the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is the series editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ.

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