Misunderstandings of Patron/Client Relationships

by Janice Loewen

We had lived and worked in a particular country for several years and had learned and adjusted to much of the culture. Most days we loved being there, sharing our lives and the gospel. But there were also occasions of difficulty. Some of our new friends seemed to often need financial help along the way. We wanted our friendships to be genuine and free from the complications of lending and borrowing money. So, we decided right from the start of our ministry that we would not give out loans. After all that would put our friends under the burden of debt and paying us back.

When these requests for financial help came up, we did our best to explain to our friends that this was against our policy or our understanding of friendship. Sometimes the request for money seemed way more than we could afford. On the rare occasion, we would sit down with our dear friend and discuss the possibility of a loan and how they could pay it back.

But the results were not quite what we expected. If we didn’t give a loan, we found that our friends began to drift away or even suddenly walk out of our friendship. We began to doubt their friendship or their interest in the gospel. Were these friends just “treasure” seekers? Did they see us simply as a rich foreigner who could dole out money like a bank? We didn’t want to think badly of our friends, but the questions were there.

At other times, we did give out loans and had to work at getting it back. Here again, the friend would simply stop seeing us or suddenly disappear. It was very discouraging at times. What was going wrong?

These are just a few stories that many missionaries have experienced while working in another country.

Our friendships with the national people seemed to be moving along and growing deeper but once the issue of money was brought up, the friendship was weakened or suddenly shattered. It would have been very helpful and wise to have had a deeper understanding of financial ways of living and depending on each other before we entered these relationships.

In our orientation classes, we learned many practices and social norms before we encountered this new culture. Things like food, language, dress, interaction between the sexes and many other new customs we would have to learn to relate to. But what about money?! We hardly take a good look even at ourselves when it comes to understanding the role money plays in our lives and in our interactions with others. How, then, can we begin to understand a completely different way of looking at money and its relationship between us and the national people?

We had a lot to learn in this area if we were to grow deep and lasting friendships, especially with national brothers and sisters. We would have to be willing to come out of our own culture and mindset and relearn how to use our material wealth in a godly way and in a way that would bring honour to the situation.

This was easier said than done. It quickly became evident just how much we put our confidence and trust in riches.

The problem is that cultures approach money and relationships very differently.

Here in the West, we have become a culture of equality. If you work hard and discipline yourself, you can basically become anything you want to be. You just need to put in enough effort and hard work. You can succeed and move ahead just as well as the next guy. Just stop being lazy or a procrastinator and get on with the job!

We also believe and strongly promote the virtue of independence. “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” This is an ideology we live out in our daily lives. Years ago, borrowing something from your neighbour was common practice. Today, this practice has all but disappeared. Most homes have everything they need, and one doesn’t need or want to depend on a neighbour to help out. One of the reasons we can be so independent is because of equality we have in our countries, but also because of the many formal institutions at our disposal, such as social security, welfare, unemployment wages and insurances.

Equality and independence are the virtues that lie at the core of our cultures in the West.

However, most of the world lives in collective cultures. They are not focused on independent living or individualism. Equality often does not exist in their part of the world. Many people live a hand to mouth existence and don’t have opportunities to improve their situation. These cultures function in a patron/client world. When we from the West enter this world, we cannot figure out how it works, and we don’t know how to function in this world. The result leads to huge misunderstandings and disappointments.

In most of these collective cultures, there exist huge socioeconomic inequalities and a lack of formal institutions to help people out. In many of these places there is no welfare office, no retirement plan, no unemployment benefits and so on. Out of this evolves the patron/client society, where rich people are expected to help meet the material needs of poorer people and the poor people in return are obligated to repay with honour and loyalty. This is how collective societies work.

Patronage is not a system of dependence, but a model of relational interdependence.

Reciprocity and interdependence are the virtues that lie at the core of collective societies.

So, when our western virtues of equality and independence crash head on with these virtues of interdependence, we misjudge relationships and stumble through financial situations.

For example, the western mindset keeps money out of friendships. There is a clear divide; banks are for money and friendships are for fun.

We from the West see the client as someone who is “using” us or someone who is looking for an opportunity. We feel the client may have false motives for being our friend. Shouldn’t this client be more mature and responsible by this time?

On the other side, the client sees the Western person as a patron who should be using their influence and wealth to ensure other people’s security and survival. If they refuse to do this, they are seen as stingy. It is a sin for a patron to be stingy, just as it is a sin for a client to be ungrateful. In return for financial help and material favours, the client will sing your praise and be loyal and faithful to honour you.

The Bible is written and lived out in a patronage society. Throughout the Old Testament we see God as the Patron for the children of Israel. God is faithful in providing for them, caring for them, and walking alongside them. Many of the psalms sing out the praises of the clients as they honor their Patron. But the clients were not always faithful to their Patron. Many times they rejected him or spent their days grumbling.

In the New Testament we see Jesus as the Good Patron. He goes about doing good for the people, feeding them, healing them, and providing for their needs. Jesus grew up in a patron/client society; his ministry was completely centred on a collective society. All societies, whether collective or independent, will have good qualities and bad. In Jesus’ day there were many corrupt patrons—both in the business world and the religious elite world. Jesus spoke out against the corrupt patrons. But Jesus did not do away with patronage; rather, he transformed patronage to be God-centred, life-giving and full of grace.

How can we as Western people react to a patronage society?

We can reject it—we stay in our ethnocentric way of thinking and ignore the culture we have come to work among. In rejecting it, we work hard to change the collective thinking person to become like us. But rejecting it means you are rejecting friendships.

For the sake of the kingdom, we can adopt the good aspects of this collective way of thinking and doing things. We begin the game of picking and choosing what is good and what is bad.

Or with time and maturity, we try to transform the patronage ideas by keeping them God-centred, life-giving and full of grace. We work hard not to shame those who live and breathe the patronage/client way of life.

Patronage means using the role of respected leader who blesses and benefits other people. Ignoring this fact can cause others to view you as a shameful person or causing shame, regardless of your noble intentions.

As I read through the psalms, I am challenged by this idea of a patron. Do I realize just how much God, our heavenly Father, is a patron for us? Reading Psalm 28 and many others, I am reminded that it is God who has heard me, who has helped me, who has lifted me up. Therefore (as a good client), I will bless and praise the name of the Lord, I will boast of his goodness!

I, too, have been in great need and despair. It is my Good Patron who has lifted me up and blessed me. May I never forget that as I live in a society that values equality and independence and as I enter the collective world with all of its needs.

Janice has worked with her husband overseas in a cross-cultural setting for most of her adult life. They currently continue their work from Canada.

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