Transforming Partnerships

by Tim Isbell   posted 11/2010

#transformation, #addiction

I was at Supercuts getting my hair cut when a young guy sat down in the adjacent barber’s chair. When the barber asked how he wanted his hair cut, he responded, “I’m getting married in a week-and-a-half, and I want to look good for the wedding.” Over the next few minutes his barber and mine, both Iranians, chatted about how long they’d been married and offered advice. Since I’m a regular, and they know I’m a Christian minister, they drew me into the conversation by asking how long I’d been married. I told them "to my first wife since 1967 - and there is no second wife." The groom turned to me and asked, “Do you have any advice on how to have a lasting marriage?” Caught unprepared for a spiritual conversation, I took a minute to reflect. Soon the Lord seemed to give me this to share: By investing deeply in three relationships. 1) the most important is with the Creator of everything, 2) the next most important one is with wife, and 3) and with another guy in what we call a transforming partnership. This last one started around 1988.

I am writing this web page to unpack the second key: connecting with another guy, or a tiny group of men, with a very intentional focus. It is a great fit for college students through retirees. While most of my experience is using this with adult men, I am aware of some women who also use it.

Dr. Larry Fine, Professor of Spiritual Formation at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas, first introduced me to the concept back in the 1980s. A few weeks later one of my friends, George, asked me to join him in giving this sort of relationship a try. We started weekly, eventually lived far enough apart that we reduced the frequency to every two weeks, and now we live about an hour’s drive apart and meet monthly. We’ve taken a few retreat days, an overnight or two, but mostly we just meet for lunch, staying in loose contact between meetings. Our Transforming Relationship is an important factor in both George and my spiritual and relational growth.

In the 1990s, two new guys at New Life Church became Christians, and I suggested that they set up a Transformation Partnership. After meeting for a few weeks, they came to me saying they felt like the “blind leading the blind” and asked me to join them as a coach for a while. So I started double-timing and met with them as a bi-weekly Triad for a few months before one of them relocated to Texas. We replaced him with a more mature Christian and kept the Triad going for 2-3 more years until the other guy transferred to Nevada. This Transforming Triad also proved to be an important growth factor for us.

Still, later I gathered a small group of three married young men into a monthly Transforming Quad with me. Because of the larger number of guys and the fact that we could only meet monthly, this was a lighter group than the Triad and much lighter than the Partnership. But God blessed it, and we met for 2-3 years. Then my wife began a similar group with their wives, which they tell me worked well.
There’s no doubt that the level of sharing in a Transforming Partnership (2) is deeper than in a Triad (3) or a Quad (4). The more people, the more difficult it is to manage the calendar. More people around the table result in less time for each to share/process life to the deeper levels. And it takes longer for the trust to build. It’s also hard to add new people to such a group because every time this happens the group has to step back in the level of sharing until trust rebuilds with the new person. So a partnership is my first recommendation, so long as you both are at similar levels of Christian maturity. For new Christians, a Triad is optimum, where one is mature enough to serve as the coach. A Quad is about as big as I can imagine this will work.

God loves to grow us up through Transforming Partnerships, Triads and Quads when…

  1. People trust each other enough to open their hearts,
  2. In the spirit of mutual accountability seasoned with grace,
  3. In the context of the truth of Scripture,
  4. And with an honest reliance on prayer.

Transforming Partnerships look something like this:

The ambiance is affirming, encouraging

For transformation, most of us need a high ratio of affirmations for every criticism or piece of unsolicited advice.

Reflective listening is a key way we assist each other in hearing God’s guidance against the backdrop of life’s complexities. By complexities, I mean things like improving our marriage, handling issues with our children (adult and younger) and elderly parents, career issues, financial strategies, addictions, and attachments, etc.
Walking with one another through difficult times affirms and encourages. For example, I had a severe heart attack in 2005, and George and his wife accompanied my wife during the subsequent open-heart surgery.

Participants are very discrete

The depth of sharing needs to be deep for God to transform our lives through this sort of relationship. So it is crucial that the participants keep sensitive information confidential – completely. We do not even talk about the content of these sessions with our spouses.

The logistics

The more often you meet; the faster trust builds. So initially, try for weekly or every two weeks. Later on, every two weeks works fine. After a year or two, you may be okay with once a month.

My experience is to meet at a restaurant or coffee shop, usually for 75 to 90 minutes. Other options are a park (where you can walk together), someone’s house (if there’s a private enough room), a college campus, the lobby of a hotel, etc.

A typical meeting includes elements like these:

Always: Briefly, share what’s going on in life

Sometimes we focus on the past week(s), other times on what is coming up – or a little of both. And we report on how God is responding to the prayers of the group from last time, and to identify how the group can pray for you in the next week(s).

Always: Process some character questions

The extent to which we reveal to others those areas of our life that need God’s transforming touch is the extent to which we invite the Spirit of Jesus to make us new. This flows from the Christian understanding that we are the body of Christ to each other – literally. And when we let the body of Christ minister to the real us, the Spirit of Christ grows us up.
Sharing deeply at the character level is scary at first, “Because if I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it’s all I have.” (John Powell) It takes time and discretion among those in transforming relationships to develop this trust.

So, at the heart of a Transforming Partnership, Triad or Quad is each person responding to some challenging questions. A Partnership will have time for 2-4 such questions; time will limit a Triad or a Quad to 2-3. Our practice has been to go around the group for each person to respond to question 1, then go around again with question 2, and so on. Responses usually open a discussion, so someone needs to manage the clock. After a few months, agree to change the questions. Here are some sample questions that you can consider as you develop a short set that fits the needs of your group.

  • Have your conversations honored God with a mix of grace and truth spoken for the benefit of the hearer (Ephesians 4.29)?
  • What kind of evil do you need to resist these days? How are you resisting it? (1 Corinthians 10.13)
  • Have you harbored anger, resentment, or wished for someone's misfortune?  (Ephesians 4.26)
  • Have you dwelt upon sexually alluring material or thoughts or given into addictive behavior?  (Matthew 5.27-28)
  • How is your marriage – really? (You can ask this about relationships with kids, parents, boss, coworkers, neighbors, etc.)  (Ephesians 5.25-33)
  • How are you doing the work and courage of love with your spouse, or child, or parent, or whoever is your current focus?  (See M. Scott Peck's A Road Less Traveled for an explanation of the Acts of Love.
  • Have you slipped in financial integrity?
  • Are you coveting something?  (Exodus 20.17)
  • How are you keeping a Sabbath?  (Exodus 20.8-11)
  • Are you growing spiritually, as measured by an increasing love of God and others? What is contributing to this growth?  (Matthew 22.34-40)
  • What has God been talking to you about this past week?
  • What character traits or fruit of the Spirit are you asking God to build into your life these days? How is it going?  (see Galatians 5.22-23 for a listing of the fruit of the Spirit)
  • How has God made his presence known to you?
  • How have you served others or Christ’s church?
  • Has God provided any opportunities for you to share your faith?  (1 Peter 3.15)

Always: Include prayer or, at least, take prayer requests

God designed the world so that some things only happen in response to our prayer. So if it is appropriate in the setting, take a few minutes to pray. If you are in a restaurant or someplace where you feel that this is inappropriate, at least summarize how your partner(s) can pray for you until the next meeting. Write down the requests so that you will remember to pray for them until the next meeting. At the start of the next session, invite guys to share how God is dealing with their prayers.

Often: Read a scripture, briefly share your reflections on it

You can simply select a scripture, or you could have a system of rotating around the group so that someone different brings a scripture at each meeting. For ideas, see Bible Reading Strategies. I don’t mean to have a Bible Study; you won't have time for that. But it's always helpful to bring a little scripture to these meetings - especially if it is one that means something to the one who brings it in.

As needed: Make a confession time (usually by request)

Occasionally make time for confession. In the case of my partnership with George, the one needing to confess tips off the partner ahead of time. This allows the one who will receive confession to prepare, usually by praying and re-reading John 20.21-23 and James 5.16. As for the particular process of giving and receiving confession, George and I take these quite literally. Another preparatory step for me is to re-read Confession, which I wrote several years ago when George and I were learning this spiritual discipline.

In our time together, if George speaks words of confession to me (standing in the place of our Lord Jesus), I must resist the temptation to minimize his guilt by saying something like “Oh, that’s not so bad…” I only ask questions for clarity, if necessary. After the confession is clear, I wrap up this confession time by saying something like, “In the name of Jesus, you are forgiven,” and then pray briefly for him.

Beyond the meeting times

Keep in some level of touch with your partner(s).

Agree that when a partner is in a challenging situation, especially when they face a strong temptation that they are very welcome to phone/email/text to ask for support and prayer. When they make contact, they’ll know that you’ll drop what you are doing, pray, and help in other appropriate ways

When you sense that another guy is going through a tough stretch, ask God to show you some practical way to support them. 

One last crucial item:

Transforming Partnerships are more about grace than accountability.

There is a place for accountability in Transforming Partnerships. But if accountability is the primary element, George and I discovered that it just temporarily suppresses our problems.

George and I recently looked back at the areas where we struggled 25 years ago, struggles that are now mostly gone, and analyzed how this happened. Soon we realized that transformation did not come primarily from holding each other accountable in areas of behavior or attitude, hoping we could satisfy a distant God. More important, as we two guys stumbled forward together with God, we experienced his grace and shared it with each other. Occasionally we received a glimpse of the love God has for us, especially in our struggles. As we experienced God in these ways, we couldn't help but fall deeper in love with him. Despite our stumblings, he not only stayed with us but when we fell, he lifted us up. Sure we are aware of God’s desires of holiness in our lives, but this even makes us more aware of his grace. After experiencing God over time, and sharing our experiences with each other, the scripture rings true, “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.” (Ephesians 2:10). We are forever disappointed if our primary focus is to create our masterpiece. Over decades in partnership with God, we've come to realize that “We do not belong to ourselves, for God bought us with a high price.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). We are his treasure. And we value this position he has granted us in his Kingdom/Family so much that the old sinful desires tend to fade into the background.

Another way of looking at this is that George and I haven’t been in a Transforming Partnership with each other; we've been in a Transforming Triad with each other and God (as our coach, and much more).

Related Links on this site

As you might guess, I have addressed this topic of Transforming Partnerships in Christian Teachings as well as the Preaching Resources on this website. Some of these are linked above, and here are a few more that go with this same concept of Transforming Partnerships.

Christian Teaching

Beyond Conversion


Freedom from Guilt, Shame, and Bad Habits

Overcoming Temptation


Sanctification in the Gap This is the second in the three sermon series: Managing the Gap.

Renovation of the Mind This is the second in a five-sermon series: Renovation.

Courage in the Face of Fear. This is the third in a four-sermon series: Courageous Living.

Sexual Purity This is a stand-alone sermon, though it is part of the Interactive Messages on Character and Conduct in the New Life.

Grace, the Differentiator.

Temptation - Learning from Saint Paul



(Edited with Grammarly)

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