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Dancing with the Elephant: True Partnership in Short-Term Missions

In 2001, I started teaching at Wheaton College, a Christian liberal arts school outside Chicago. I would often start my Introduction to Anthropology classes by asking students about any experiences they had outside their home culture. At previous teaching jobs, my students would talk about a trip across the Canadian border, a Caribbean cruise, or perhaps a neighborhood they had visited in the United States with a diverse population. Occasionally, I would have students with little experience. One woman could only think of one example, eating at a Chinese restaurant. But Wheaton students were different.[1] In addition to my international students, and missionary kids, I had many students who had traveled to such places as urban South Africa, highland Guatemala, Northern Ghana, and villages in the Wales countryside. They had done service work, painted churches, led soccer camps, and taught English. It was somewhat surprising to me, not only the extent of their travels, but the high percentage of students who had such stories. They had all been on a short-term mission trip.


What was most striking to me about my students and their experiences, however, was not the simple fact that such a high percentage were participating, or the wide variety of their travels, but how they spoke about these trips. Common phrases such as “it was a life-changing experience,” “the people were so poor, but so happy,” “I received more than I gave,” were peppered throughout a narrative that frequently almost mirrored the conversion narrative common in Christian life. Once I was blind, but now I see.


In the past 10 years, one of the shifts in STM that I have seen is the development in “church to church partnerships.” These are relationships established between two congregations, or denominational units (dioceses or districts or regions) in which groups develop long-term relationships. These are, in many cases, explicitly developed to counteract a concern that STM can be disruptive, superficial, or even neocolonialist in their execution without some kind of relationship that continues beyond the two weeks. Certainly, in much of the research on STM, the creation of what is known as “linking capital,” or the establishment of relationships whereby resources (human, material, or social) can be transferred from one context to another through the establishment of these social ties.[2] A quick look at a number of STM organizations reveals a number that employ “partners” or “partnership” in their name.[3]


The point here is not to suggest that using the term “partner” or “partnership” is necessarily problematic in itself. As Cyrius, et al (Reimagining STM) demonstrate, partnerships that involve financial and administrative sharing can bring real and lasting shifts in patterns of multinational work. Yet, the word partnership itself can also serve as part of a social imagination that gives the appearance of mutuality, yet without substance. In order to distinguish the veneer of partnership from its reality, then, we should be prepared to interrogate the word. To start, we must ask ourselves: what images and feelings does the term “partnership” bring to mind?


Surely, part of the appeal of the word is the notion of equality. A “partner” is often a peer, colleague, or even romantic/marriage relation with whom a person has a life-long commitment. Partnerships might be symbolized by a handshake, a hug, or another sign of friendship. “Partnership” may bring to mind a business relationship; two people or groups working together toward a common goal. It’s certainly a friendly, if a bit socially-distanced word. For someone who has grown up in the United States, and perhaps is a certain age, the term “partner” might bring up the image of a cowboy riding up on his horse, and greeting someone he may or may not know with a friendly, “Howdy, partner.” Partners are pairs, friends, and likely equals working out their relationship and common goals.


Given these associations—the way “partnership” invokes a particular social imaginary—what this term may obscure in a STM trip are the power imbalances that often, even usually, cohere in these relationships. Those receiving an STM team from a (generally) wealthier, more politically powerful place have more at risk if a STM team is unhappy. As Steve Offut has noted in his study of STM hosts in South Africa, the hosts are often working very hard to anticipate what the visitors want, and trying to provide it.[4] They are not necessarily thinking about their own ministry and what they need, because one of the most widespread needs is for resources; resources they hope this relationship with relatively wealthy Christian visitors might provide. This is not to say that hosts are all mercenary, and visitors all manipulators. Far from it. In my time in the Dominican Republic, virtually every Dominican with whom I spoke was very glad for STM visitors, including those who stood to gain very little in terms of economic or even social capital. Rather they were glad the team would spend time in their community; they appreciated the chance to show them their lives. But they were also quiteaware of the imbalance of power in the relationship. They did not, for the most part, speak of these teams as their “partners.” In her book Cross-Cultural Partnerships: Navigating the Complexities of Missions and Money,Mary Lederleitner relates the comment of an Anglican bishop in Tanzania who told the North American Wycliffe area director that, “You are too powerful to be good partners.”[5] The director understood this to mean not that they could not have a partnership, but that it would take a great deal of work to overcome the power differential and be good partners.


Equality is not something produced by intention, conviction, or moral assertion alone. While a commitment to equality is a necessary condition for partnership, it is certainly not sufficient. Again, as the example from Konbit Haiti demonstrates, for a partnership to create the conditions for mutual flourishing that God desires, the partners must attend to the economic, administrative, and social power at work. If the (usually less resourced) host country is asked for input without giving them meaningful access or control over material resources, they are unlikely to suggest activities that may be less pleasing to the visitors, regardless of the actual needs of the work or risk giving the kind of critical advice the visitors may need.


Partnership is a culturally embedded term that evokes a range of images and associations, but it is never merely descriptive. It is a moral and ethical term. It has a history and even a theology. It must be interrogated if we are to see past what this term evokes in our social imaginary, to see what is actually present in our relationships across cultural, economic, and political lines. It may be wiser, as several chapters in this volume suggest, to create new terms, such as “copowerment,” to produce the kind of social imagination that can reveal the material, social, and spiritual dimensions of relationships in a way that encourage mutuality in ways that terms like “partnership” may obscure.


In her article, “When the Elephant Dances, Mouse May Die,” anthropologist and missiologist Miriam Adeney recounts this story told to her by a West African ministry leader to suggest how the “partnership” of wealthy STM visitors and hosts often proceeds. She writes:

"Would you like to know what it is like to do mission with Americans? Let me tell you a story," said David Coulibaly, a ministry leader in Mali, West Africa.

Elephant and Mouse were best friends. One day Elephant said, "Mouse, let's have a party!"

Animals gathered from far and near. They ate, and drank, and sang, and danced. And nobody celebrated more exuberantly than the Elephant.

After it was over, Elephant exclaimed, "Mouse, did you ever go to a better party? What a blast!"

But Mouse didn't answer.

"Where are you?" Elephant called. Then he shrank back in horror. There at his feet lay the mouse, his body ground into the dirt—smashed by the exuberance of his friend, the Elephant.

"Sometimes that is what it is like to do mission with you Americans,” the African storyteller concluded. "It is like dancing with an elephant."



Adapted from “Rethinking (the Social Imaginary of) Short-Term Missions” by Brian Howell. In Re-Imagining Short-Term Missions, ed. Forrest Inslee and Angel Burns. Wipf & Stock, 2022

[1] It’s important to note that my previous teaching gigs were also mostly working-class, non-traditional students. Wheaton College is almost entirely students in the eighteen to twenty-two year range, and vastly over-represent the top 20% of incomes in the United States. [2] Priest, “Short-Term Missions as a New Paradigm”, 84-100. [3] The organizations on ShortTermMissions.org include “Global Partnership Ministries,” “e3 Partners,” and “Utah Partnerships for Christ.” [4] Offutt, “The Role of Short-Term Mission Teams”, 796. [5] Lederleitner, Cross-Cultural Partnerships, 121-22.

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