Global church partnerships are an exciting idea, but pursuing a genuinely reciprocal relationship across the world can be challenging. Pulpit Rock Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, has been partnering with World Orphans for three years to support a local church in Leku Keta, Ethiopia in caring for the vulnerable children there—single or double orphans living with one parent or without a birth parent in an informal foster family. Local volunteers in the Leku Keta Kale Heywet Church visit these families regularly to check on the children and their family’s overall wellbeing, provide support, and recommend services. They receive “home-based” care, including education provided by the church or financial support for local schools, food stipends, medical support, and training for parents.

The last three years of partnership have served as a path toward discovery of what authentic church partnership means in international missions work. Pulpit Rock’s Executive Pastor, Jonathan Cleveland, shared five lessons they have learned along the way:

1. Prioritizing support of local people and local churches pays off.
Motivated by an increasing awareness of best practices in missions work, as shared in resources such as the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself, and a desire to engage their congregation more fully in international missions, Pulpit Rock’s missions leadership team made intentional choices to increase their support of local Christian leaders in their home countries, “investing in local leaders doing good work,” according to Pastor Jonathan. This transition led them to World Orphans and a partnership with a local pastor in Ethiopia and his small but passionate church. While the process of shifting funding and support to local leaders, rather than a traditional missions model that focuses support through missionaries, has not been easy, the church has been overwhelmed by the results—the impact of this church on its community that they’ve witnessed. Lives have been saved and families restored in ways they could only have imagined. Pulpit Rock Church has also learned so much from this small church halfway around the world. The partnership inspires the vision of the local work Pulpit Rock is called to in its own Colorado community.

2. Choosing an intermediary partner can ensure you are supporting quality programing (and save you some grief).
By working through a trusted intermediary, as suggested in Faith to Action’s publication From Faith to Action, Pulpit Rock has more easily avoided cultural misunderstandings and can rest assured that their partners on the ground are doing quality work. World Orphans’ role is to introduce and enable a quality partnership between Pulpit Rock and Leku Keta Kale Heywet Church. As part of their mission to empower the church to care for orphans, World Orphans seeks out and vets local churches around the world, working with them to develop a vision and create programs that support quality family-based care for orphans and vulnerable children. These churches are then matched with a U.S. church that can engage with their efforts both relationally and financially. World Orphans supports communication and engagement between the partners, while creating financial accountability for both parties. Pastor Jonathan admits, “We would have been lost without them these first few years.”

3. Take it slow to build trust.
Because the culture of Ethiopia is so different and the country is so far from Colorado, the pace of progress in this partnership can sometimes feel slow. However, Pastor Jonathan sites the slow pace as vital to the success of the partnership. He has come to realize that the passing of time allows the relationship between partners to grow and trust to be built. This trust is essential for empowering the local leaders to guide and direct the work that is being done. Pastor Jonathan explains, “There is something that the church partner knows, but doesn’t feel comfortable telling you on your first visit. . . . We [the U.S. church] need to know this because we might miss it in our own assessments.” Patience in the development of this relationship should be fueled by humility—an understanding that the U.S. church is not best suited to lead the work, and has so much to learn from its national partners.

4. Trust your congregation with the messy stuff and God will amaze you.
When engaging U.S. congregations, it may be easier to gloss over the complexities of a global partnership, celebrating only success stories. However, this might rob a church of the opportunity to be transformed in important ways. Pastor Jonathan wants his congregation to know the “whole story” and to ask tough questions. Pulpit Rock recognizes that home-based care is a better option, but it isn’t perfect. They have experienced challenges when families make heartbreaking choices and children struggle. However, when a church engages with the complexity, everyone grows into a fuller understanding and passion for the work. “We have never regretted trusting our church with the truth and the messiness. . . . It hasn’t backfired on us yet,” Pastor Jonathan says.

5. Share stories and be inspired by them.
It is easy for a “donor” church to limit their benefits of partnership. By integrating their global partners’ stories throughout their church ministries and activities, U.S. churches honor the mutuality of the partnerships, acknowledging what they are receiving. Pulpit Rock Church shares the stories of their partnership through preaching, events, and videos that challenge their congregation in their personal lives and the activities of the church. This has resulted in an increased engagement with their local community, including conversations with their city’s sheriff and mayor on how the church can respond to the needs locally.

Pastor Jonathan, Pulpit Rock Church, and World Orphans are leading by example and inspiring many with these important lessons on a global partnership that supports vulnerable families and children.

To discover more examples of how U.S. churches are supporting family-based care, check out Faith to Action’s Journeys of Faith: A Resource Guide for Orphan Care Ministries Helping Children in Africa & Beyond.