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Church partnerships: 7 steps to make big ideas reality

SUMMARY: Uniting your church's efforts with those of a community organization or creating an ecumenical or interfaith agency presents opportunities and challenges. Partnerships can allow your church to expand its reach and do more with its resources. However, partnerships also mean your church is no longer in complete control and expand the potential for conflict.

Your church may have an idea that's too big for your congregation to execute. You may lack necessary workers, financial resources or physical structures. Working with like-minded organizations offers a way to accomplish the big idea - whether it's a summer camp for children, a community food pantry or a daylong event that will draw thousands. United Methodist Communications believes so strongly in collaborating for the better that it is offering Impact Community grants to foster partnerships. Before agreeing to a partnership, though, make sure the groundwork is laid so the big idea comes to fruition.

1. Detail the big idea.
Talk internally before you go outside to seek partners. Begin with the primary oversight group for your congregation (administrative or church council). If the idea involves use of financial resources, church property or potential liabilities, involve the finance committee and staff and trustees early. If the partnership will change the role of existing staff (or add new staff), be sure the Staff-Parish Relations Committee is part of the conversation. Consider sharing the idea with your district superintendent who may know of other churches that have had experience with a similar idea and can share what they have learned.

Then go outside to discuss ideas, attend networking events and talk about the potential for partnerships. Your church may have many big ideas. Pick one to do at this time. Trying to do everything at once can produce results that are mediocre or worse. Put your church's vision for this big idea in writing: What purpose will it serve? How does it connect to your church's mission? Who from your congregation will be involved? What are the cost and the desired outcome?

2. Identify the best partners.
Identify other United Methodist congregations who would like to support your project and are willing to add their own resources and workers in an effort to make a difference in their community. This collaboration of local United Methodist churches indicates commitment and strength of numbers to potential community partners.

Also, develop a list of organizations whose interests relate to your big idea. Identify those with which your church has worked. If your previous interactions went well, you may already have a foot in the door.

Identify individuals within the organization with whom your church or members have contact. Someone in your congregation may work with the organization on a professional level or have a neighbor who is involved with it. Ask around; you never know who knows whom.

Do your homework. Thoroughly research potential partners. Use the Web and Facebook to see other groups or causes with whom they have connected. Decide if you want to eliminate organizations whose missions don't directly match your church's. Use the United Methodist Social Principles as a guide. Perhaps the possible partner is a non-faith-based organization. Will that be a problem? Know what you need in your partner organization. Don't be afraid to ask an organization that handles donor money about its accountability and fiscal policies. Good organizations will be comfortable discussing their accounting practices and safeguards.

Ultimately, narrow the list to the best two or three prospects.

3. Communicate with potential partners.
In this courting phase, use your contacts to reach out to the potential partner. Set a time to meet, preferably face-to-face. Don't just talk about your big idea. Present your detailed vision and how this partner could be involved. Provide a written proposal that the person(s) with whom you are meeting can take back to other parties within their organization.

Don't just present. Ask what your potential partner thinks of the idea. Discuss concerns and ways to address them. It's OK if the answer is "no." The feedback will help as you move to the next potential partner. The declining organization may be able to suggest others for you to contact.

4. Execute the partnership.
With a partner on board, it's time to talk details. What specifically will each organization bring to the table? How will responsibilities be divided? How will resources be shared? Will the partnership create a formal legal entity? This might require filing as a new nonprofit entity. Inform the district superintendent and ask if a special session of the charge conference is required. Detail all partnerships in writing, and spell out policies on decision making, funding and staffing. State clearly what will happen when the partnership ceases to exist. Legal counsel is helpful and advisable in drafting a partnership agreement.

5. Communicate with your audiences.
Most of your congregation, as well as the partner organization's audience, may not be involved in the big idea. Plan how to share news of the partnership with your members, the community at large and the media. Tailor your message to the interests of the targeted audiences. For example, your congregation may have concerns about internal issues that aren't of interest to the news media.

6. Schedule evaluations and follow-up.
With the big idea turned into a big thing, the partnership needs to remain active. At least annually, evaluate what's working and what's not. Make sure a mutually agreed-upon auditor reviews the books annually. Use the evaluation to improve the partnership and clarify its purpose and to make the big thing more effective.

7. Repeat as necessary.
With the successful execution of your first big idea, you can start on the second one. Bring all the lessons learned from the initial process to keep expanding your reach and maximizing your resources.

Finally, don't forget about United Methodist Communication's Impact Community program, a relatively new Rethink Church grant program. Impact Community builds on the partnership idea and encourages United Methodist churches to cluster and strengthen their community partnerships. Learn more in this MyCom article, Sum is greater than parts when churches work together.