May 7, 2013
The Potential of Partnerships
Is collaboration the American church’s next great movement?
Enjoy this post from former Obama faith staffer Michael Wear. Be sure to also read Ur’s recent interview with Michael.
Today, partnership—a simple, benign idea in general—is perhaps one of the most counter-cultural concepts in practice. Division and polarization are now common themes in our lives. This is certainly true in our nation’s Capitol, where our politics is too often characterized by seemingly institutionalized gridlock and partisanship that prevents action on the issues that matter most. However, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that this spirit is not just confined to Washington. In our culture, our media, even our relationships, we often find it easier to retreat to spaces that only reaffirm our existing beliefs, rather than sincerely seeking to understand the perspective of those with whom we may disagree.
I served the President during a time of great change and challenge in this country, but I left with a greater sense of optimism and hope for our future than when I began. Through my work at The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, I learned about the incredible power and potential of partnership.
There was little we didn’t tackle in partnership with faith-based and non-profit groups: the global plague of human trafficking; nuclear disarmament through the New START agreement; strengthening fatherhood and promoting mentoring; supporting adoption; feeding hungry school-lunch kids through the summer vacation; coordinating relief efforts in natural disaster upon disaster; building a movement of students committed to service through the President’s Interfaith Campus Community Service Challenge, and so many other pressing issues.
One event each year was particularly meaningful to me as a picture of what is possible when Christians pursue genuine partnership: The White House Easter Prayer Breakfast.
The event is a new tradition created by President Obama to bring together religious leaders from across the country around Christianity’s most important holiday. It was an unusual event in several ways. Perhaps most unique for Washington is that while most event guest lists are created through a process of cold political calculation, this event was instead about bringing together church leaders who were doing good in the world regardless of their political leanings or influence. Instead, in what may be unexpected for a President not known for talking regularly about his faith, the President typically opens the event with brief remarks reflecting on what Easter means to him (Last year he seemed particularly moved by Jesus’ declaration that “I have overcome the world”), and then a handful of pastors lead those gathered in prayer.
In other rooms and at other times in Washington, people with such diverse political views might never end up in the same room together. Yet on this day every year, they would join in prayer and worship. There is something about faith, something about Jesus, that can bring people together for good. Those breakfasts have been a reminder to me of the power Christians can have when they bring glory to Jesus in unexpected places and with unexpected people.
This should not be taken to mean that partnership is easy. When you work with others to meet difficult challenges, the brokenness of the challenge can be complicated further with the brokenness of relationship. The problems of fatherlessness or kids without families, as the President has said, are not solved with “ten-point policy plans.” The greatest problems we face are systemic and generational, with no quick fix and with which signs of progress are sometimes hard to find.
Moreover, as a Christian who holds his faith closer than any political ideology, my experiences have left me with a greater sense of the social, political and policy challenges that we will face as Christians and as Americans in the coming years. So many of the assumptions I had going into the White House about how to address these issues were tempered through my experiences, but one belief proved true: that partnership is both a powerful tool for public policy, and a particular kind of spiritual fidelity.
It may be counterintuitive to think that part of our personal obligation to God and to others can only be lived out in community and in partnership. Yet after walking the Way of Jesus through the halls of the West Wing, I know that partnership is not just a necessary aspect of a fully-lived faith, but an essential part of the response to so many of the pressing issues of our day. We know that a spirit of partnership does not preclude areas of principled disagreement, but we also understand that a spirit of opposition will often eliminate the potential for partnership and peace.
This ethic is fueling the next great social movement of the American church, and it is at the core of Values Partnerships—a new social enterprise I have launched with my friend and White House colleague, Joshua DuBois.
Building on our experiences at the intersection of religion, culture and social change, Values Partnerships will help public, private and non-profit organizations form innovative partnerships to advance the common good. We will counsel churches, ministries and religious leaders on how to best navigate our complex and rapidly changing media and cultural landscape. Together, we hope to serve the church in its work to serve others, and to build creative partnerships that strengthen those efforts.
Partnership may be counter-cultural in politics, but the church is supposed to be different. It was born out of a timeless, radical idea: that people of different gender, race and backgrounds, could be united by something greater. This is the church Jesus is leading and building today.
And when the church cares about what Jesus cares about, we can not help but live that out in ways that mystify the world. We can be known by our passion for the welfare of others that motivates an eagerness to work with anyone who shares our practical goals. These commitments are not mere political pragmatism. They are, in fact, our spiritual testimony to the God who has called us to partner with Him in pursuit of justice and the good of all.
Michael Wear is Senior Vice President for Strategy and Communications at Values Partnerships. Michael is one of America's top voices at the intersection of faith and culture, having served as President Obama's National Faith Vote Director on the 2012 Obama for America campaign and as a leader in the White House faith-based initiative.