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  • reimaginingstm

Copowering Relationships in Uganda and Beyond

Updated: Jun 24

In Uganda, we are fortunate that our culture often helps us prioritize relational effectiveness over other kinds of effectiveness. But, we are all called to move toward a primary focus on effective relationships—which often means displacing a primary focus on effective projects. We must learn to slow down and see people as people, rather than as means to an end. If we are to work together on the basis of authentic relationship, we have to learn to ask questions of one another, to listen to each other, and to recognize our different (and complementary) strengths. Only when we take the time to cultivate mutual, interdependent connection can we truly collaborate in the best sense of that word; only then can we move forward together toward common practical goals.   


Nowhere is this kind of intentional mutuality more critical—or more valuable—than in the collaborative work of the Global Church. There is no program or system for STMs that can guarantee copowerment dynamics on the ground. However, critical prior work includes the establishment of healthy relationships between individuals (and over time, between communities: churches, NGOs, etc.), so that future STMs can emerge—if appropriate—from the rich soil of those relationships. Before talk of STM, the original relationship—whether that is with an old friend, or an organizational leader, or an STM participant from a previous trip—must be given some time to grow, so that strong roots of understanding and commitment have time to develop. Only gradually can new people (who will require training and nurturing from both sides) be introduced into that established relationship—often via STM. And these STM do not necessarily have to be about projects! But the projects that are undertaken on this foundation of relationship and collaboration (whether directly involving the STM, or not) have a strong and sustainable impact. Interestingly, they also tend to be pretty effective in terms of resource investment and efficiency.


Through the years, we have watched STM visitors start great projects that were supposed to augment and support our ministry, but in the end proved to be more about their own (usually well-meaning) agendas. Sometimes in those cases, the short-term visitors did not follow through on their intentions to return; a few years down the road, the projects they started (and that were dependent on their support) fell apart. After a number of such disappointments, we eventually realized that their short-term focus was on the accomplishment of their projects, not on their relationships to us as a community. Projects can’t be accomplished in a one-shot trip; they require ongoing relationships. We often have to say no to projects. Some people say, “I have resources, I wish I could do something outstanding.” But resources alone won’t accomplish anything. The real work begins with our friends who have ears to hear when we tell them: No one can do anything outstanding here without a basis of real relationship. And then these friends keep in touch: they write, they call, they hear about our visions, they ask questions, they answer needs, they organize connections . . . and then they return. That’s when the real projects, the real possibilities, begin to come out and introduce themselves to us all.


We have thus become more confident to insist on a relational foundation with our foreign partner organizations: because we believe that this is what is required of the global church in an age of globalization. Since a relational orientation happens to be more ingrained in Ugandan culture, we deeply value our role in the global church modeling these priorities and discipling others to accept them. There are also project and efficiency benefits: a relational orientation does usually lead to better investment of resources in impactful, long-term sustainable programs. However, that’s not the central reason we focus on relationships. Relationships are intrinsically important in a way that no project can be. They are sacred. In fact, we must even be careful to avoid approaching relationships as the first box to check on the project/efficiency plan. Many STM teams come to Uganda thinking “What can I do to better these people?” Relationships are not the first step to finding the answer to that question. Rather, if the relationships are healthy, the question will take a different, more mutual, form. The question as phrased is problematic: an indication that one is starting from a western project/efficiency mindset, and that the copowering elements of the relationship need strengthening. Of course, it is asked in innocence and with love, and it may be answered with grace. But it does not show that “these people” are truly seen. And it does not show an understanding of this important truth: that in a community development equation, each party has something to bring to the table. Unfortunately, some people think that they know it all—and the traditional mission framework has not done much to counter this naïve assumption. If STM visitors don’t learn to really see those who are different from themselves, then they will be unable to surrender themselves to the strengths and insights of others—who in most cases actually have better solutions to their own community’s problems. 


One story that illustrates this copowering dynamic is about a short-term participant who, as a result of her time with us, is now doing wonderful work in Lynchburg, Virginia. She was profoundly shaped by engaging in the work we do here, and formed a deep connection to us. In fact, she became so involved that when she got married, she even brought her new husband to Uganda for their honeymoon—and stayed for three months! We trained and mentored them in the processes and values of the work we do, and in the process became friends. In the end, both she and her husband were confident to say, “I think I can do this at home!” They returned to Lynchburg to start Crane’s Ministry (named after our Ugandan national bird), and are now reaching out to children through sports like ours, yet in their own context. Such stories are not unusual.


Our relationship with the U.S.-based Sports Outreach Institute also expresses our value of mutual formation. The organization has been supporting our sports ministry over many years; rather than insist on building their own projects in Uganda, they work with us to support our work here on the ground. Through the course of our relationship, and through the sending of teams, they too learned from the strengths of our program even as they were sharing their teaching and resources with us. We eventually helped them launch ministries in the US that draw from our model, and they have since expanded to many surrounding cities, taking what they learned (and continue to learn) to reach out to whole communities, and to children and the elderly in particular. And it’s all because they chose to engage with us on the mutual basis of friendship, and allowed themselves to be formed by their experiences in what is often called the “mission field.” 


When we have a right perspective of one another, we can begin to practice copowering relationships and reframe expectations on both sides of the missionary equation.  And that begins with the belief that we are members of one family in God, and partners in the mission of the global church. Though I use the terms, I’m not sure that “sender” (or visitor) and “receiver” (or host) are very helpful in describing this dynamic. No matter who is traveling or to where, both parties ought to be sending and receiving in some form, and both sides should be experiencing change from the process. 




-Robert Katende with Lisa San Martin

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