Viewing Missional Collaboration as an Ecosystem
Seeing ourselves as part of a missions ecosystem equips leaders to effectively navigate and collaborate in today’s Great Commission context.
We have entered a crucial period in the progress of the Great Commission, which will be marked by uncertainty, complexity and the inability to predict or respond to overwhelming changes in our world. The global Church and its missions movements are vast, complex, and diverse. Acting with biblical commitment in this complicated situation requires individual and collective wisdom.
In this new decade, participating in collaboration will be essential, and it will change missionary work. This next missional environment requires reinterpreting how missions organizations and churches from everywhere fit into a larger context, and knowing how these parts can behave, connect and interact better with each other.
Most of us have been influenced to think from a mechanistic view, where individual parts are each examined to see how they work towards a common goal. However, biologists, urban planners, sociologists and software developers realized that when they look at the parts as a whole and how they relate to each other in a given context, other complex and multidimensional dynamics are identified, thus overcoming a mechanistic vision. They use an ecosystem approach.
Because of the multifaceted and collaborative nature of modern missions, I believe this ecosystem perspective provides a better way to view the dynamics of today’s missions context.
Ecosystems – Living Environments and Functional Relationships
An ecosystem is "a system, or group of interconnected elements, that interact as a community of organisms within its environment."1 Found throughout nature, these form from various living beings and environmental factors. Each organizes in organic processes, where the parties interact in different ways with each other and with their environments, creating a new combination of networks of relationships.
They are organic environments designed by God (Colossians 1:16a) to maintain and promote life. They are masterpieces from God from which we can learn. And, the qualities and behaviors that characterize ecosystems provide insight into how collaborative organizational systems work.
Ecosystems have a habitat and are made up of a diversity of reproducible organisms. They have a complex network of relationships between parts and each is in a dynamic balance. An abrupt change could produce imbalance or even the extinction of the ecosystem, but at the same time ecosystems have the capacity to adapt to environmental changes resulting in resilience for their sustainability.
The interaction of resources and information between and among the parties can generate new possibilities or capacities that cannot arise from the individual parties. Healthy interactions in an ecosystem – such as mutualism, symbiosis and commensalism – benefit all the involved parts. On the other hand, unhealthy interactions in an ecosystem, like competition, parasitism and predation, could result in one part could being destroyed by another.
These interactions go on to develop their own structure which adapts over time, to the extent that learning occurs, and information is exchanged.
Mission Environments as Ecosystems
Most people and organizations are part of several ecosystems at once, such as networks of interpersonal relationships (including social networks), and networks of ministries or a missions movement. For example, in Latin America missions networks like COMIBAM or the Wycliffe Global Alliance include churches (local and denominations), agencies (with multiple modalities and histories), training centers, theological institutions, and other local, regional and global mission networks. All interact multidimensionally and within diverse contexts: theological, denominational, religious, economic, political, social, linguistic, cultural, ethnic, geographical, etc.
Applying the science of ecosystems to missions and church environments, what can we learn? This question invites us to reinterpret life in the Body of Christ in terms of identity and behavior, understanding that, in itself, the Body is also an ecosystem.
There are key organisms. A ministry ecosystem has a variety of people and organizations from which some emerge as key parts offering the ecosystem essential dynamics that promote overall sustainability. The implication is that if an ecosystem is not working well, certain components may be missing. Identifying, honoring and inviting others to participate are, therefore, essential ecosystem functions. The diversity of the parts is a characteristic of the Body of Christ, and in the same way an ecosystem is a diverse community.
Organisms in an ecosystem interact. When leaders of organizations within the ecosystem behave in a relational manner, according to the Gospel of Jesus, this improves the benefits obtained through mutually beneficial interactions, and reduces the damage created through antagonistic interactions. Also, the strength of an ecosystem is proportional to the diversity of its members because greater diversification decreases dependence on a particular function or organization.
The ecosystem is adaptable. In a world where change is irregular and unpredictable, the habitat undergoes harsh transformations. For example, an unexpected social event or the departure of a key organism from the community can force a quick change. It is important to have the ability to manage change. Unlike species in biological ecosystems, leaders can forecast future conditions, and create strategies and structures designed to reduce damage and uncertainty. Intentional missiological reflection helps analyze the habitat and discern routes to the future.
Just because there is an ecosystem does not mean that it is healthy or functional. Networks and strategic alliances can become sick. Leaders are the guardian of community health, and they should promote actions that promote life in biblical peace and spiritual unity.
The sustainability of an organizational ecosystem involves healthy collaboration. Values that generate harmonious behavior and satisfactory engagement among organisms must be adopted. A shared vision needs to unite them.
Do you see yourself as part of an organizational ecosystem? How can you discover if you are in one and if it’s healthy? Consider these questions:
- Does each organization identify itself as part of the community or habitat and manifest a sense of belonging?
- Do they value diversity and promote others to be part?
- Does each organization have clear multidimensional functions in the environment?
- Do parties behave and collaborate as expected?
- How do they sustain life and promote healthy relationships?
- How do they deal with unhealthy relationships?
- How do they react to unexpected changes?
- How do they relate to other mission ecosystems?
- What collective wisdom is being put into action?
From the perspective of ecosystems, there is much to learn. From this context, we are each a part of a larger organic whole. Life is organic!
Considerations for Collaborative Ecosystems in Missions
Understanding our missions environment (whether network, movement or other) from an ecosystem approach and behaving accordingly, can bring new relational and collaborative dimensions that enhance Great Commission efforts. This can also help us make greater use of collective wisdom and solve pending challenges Organizations desiring to model ecosystem principles should consider the following:
- Developing awareness that missions and church life is organic and not merely transactional or business. We are part of a whole, and it is not just your organization.
- Overcoming the philosophy of utilitarianism that has done so much damage. Interactions between organizations must be born and maintained within the Great Commandment of love of neighbor.
- Identifying the behaviors that build an ecosystem culture and commit to acting on those – collaboration, information flow, and resource sharing.
- Mapping ecosystems to discern the environment; to know the diversity of the parties and their functions, relationships, and missions processes; to study how they behave and interrelate; and to discover what is missing.
- Dealing with unhealthy interactions, such as organizational ego, individualism, indifference, competitiveness and predation.
- Adapting for change and community learning. Experiences and knowledge must be combined to respond well and innovate.
- Reflecting on the implications of an ecosystem where there are relationships with organisms with important influence on decisions, economic power, and varied cultural background.
The concept of ecosystems is a useful metaphor for discussing the multidimensional conditions, characteristics and dynamics that influence missions communities. Going deeper on this issue can take collaborative networks to another level as the ecosystem concept challenges the way in which a community participates.
The wisdom achieved together encourages innovative solutions. It enables shared commitment and vision in God's mission with others. The ecosystem concept encourages us think like biologists as we study, care for, and promote Kingdom life and catalyze processes that benefit networks, movements and the missions environment in which we participate.
We should not allow the next decade to be determined by our inaction, but rather by the way we work together to shape of the next ten years of missions. Each organization must identify the ecosystems of which it is a part and make collaboration a priority.