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Helen Fernandes Ola Fou

Creating space for grace in partnerships

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Tearfund's Helen Fernandes explores the unique dynamics of Gospel-centred transformational development.

At Tearfund, we believe transformation is at the heart of the Gospel; thus, transformational development is one way that God’s kingdom breaks in here on earth. When we talk of transformational development, what immediately comes to mind is the transformation that we pray and work for at community level – that people, families and communities flourish in their God-given potential. What doesn’t immediately spring to mind is God’s heart for transformation for us – those of us working at Tearfund, supporters of Tearfund and for Tearfund partners – those present in communities, walking alongside them and demonstrating God’s love.

I am grateful for my role at Tearfund and feel humbled to journey with some of our partners as they grow in their own right as organisations – locally positioned, well-equipped, called by God to respond to needs, in their own way, in their own contexts.

Through this I have also been on my own journey of change. Change in the way I understand God’s Kingdom and God’s family across different places, change in my over-reliance on my own knowledge and education, and an increased awareness of the need for God’s presence in this work. A journey I am still on …

Helen Fernandes with Ola Fou staff
Helen Fernandes from Tearfund leading a workshop with Solomon Islands partner Ola Fou.

Over the years I have wrestled with some of the training, literature and resources I have read – all outlining guidance, instructions and standards for how to become a successful organisation. Most of these are sort of a self-help instructional manual for how to build and run a well-functioning organisation. These manuals have some pearls of wisdom and certainly include all the discernible elements of a strong functioning organisation. But in the emphasis of these technical components, sometimes we lose sight of the less discernible elements – God’s people and God’s presence in organisational change. This has been a meaningful lesson for me.

Our work in supporting partners in their organisational development process, has evolved over time, as we’ve learnt more about what it looks like to integrate faith into areas like governance, leadership, strategic planning, and other organisational development processes. A key shaping resource has been Space for Grace which “is a way of working; a… theology of change. Space for grace is about integrating a spiritual dimension into change processes, in ways that bring life and acceptance. Creating space for grace is important for individuals to change; for organisations to develop and also to strengthen partnerships”.

Helen Fernandes and Papua partners
Helen with partners in Papua.

Early on in my time at Tearfund, I thought that this approach was about prayer at the beginning and end of workshops with partners, but I am learning that there are times where space for seeking God, seeing God and listening to God can be integrated.

So, what does this look like in practice?

It looks like sitting down with partners, their boards, leaders and staff to listen to what is front of mind for them – in their contexts and for their work with communities. This means allowing time to see what other change is happening and not overcrowding that with policy, skills and knowledge expectations and training.

During my time supporting partners ... I have felt deeply humbled to hear highly faithful partner staff reflect on hardships, stress, lots of different aspects of their work and their continued seeking of God.

Helen Fernandes

It looks like carving out time and space for organisations to engage prayerfully with questions like ‘where is God already working?’; ‘how have we seen God’s faithfulness to us over the past season?’; ‘what is our organisational mission and does that still hold true to what God is calling us to?’.

It looks like inviting God into those discussions in ways which inform how teams relate to each other; build trusting partnerships with communities and enact their organisational values. This approach emphasises the place of relationships, trust, culture and context, room for listening to God and prayer.

During my time supporting partners through this approach, I have felt deeply humbled to hear highly faithful partner staff reflect on hardships, stress, lots of different aspects of their work and their continued seeking of God. What has been transformational for me has been having a small glimpse into the dedication, passion and love partner staff have and strive for in bringing about change in their communities. Hearing the hearts of our partner staff in singing songs as prayers for God’s spirit to move in their countries; hearing reflections from staff on how they are seeing God work in their own lives and in the community has helped me to understand that God’s design for organisations goes beyond becoming versions of successful organisations as described in those business and organisational development manuals, but as thriving collectives in their own contexts.

Helen Africa workshop
Helen at a workshop with Africa partners.

Recently one partner who has been involved in this organisational development journey shared about the personal growth amongst their leaders. This organisation works in a challenging context with ethnic conflict and frequent retribution killings. Over the last five years they have created space to understand their role as Christian leaders, supporting women leaders, strengthening their team through a retreat and Bible studies together and having external support to process the violence they have seen and experienced in their context. As they grappled with how to continue their work in this setting, they shared with me:

“Christ means peace and we have to be an example internally and outwardly of that.”

Another Tearfund partner shared with me that “through these times we are
not just thinking about the body [of our organisation] but the spirit and the soul.”

For me being involved in this work has been deeply humbling. To see God’s hand on different groups of people in very different contexts all passionate about responding to show His love in their unique ways. Joining in prayer with and for our partners does bring us together in a real way, that allows us to share in the partner’s journey even when we
can’t be present. I have also learnt and continue to learn from our partners about the importance of inviting God into those change processes and spaces both for me personally and for us as Tearfund.

Helen Fernandes is part of Tearfund’s Effectiveness Team and an International Program Officer in the Africa Team.