“Patronage”: A Quick Definition

For the upcoming Patronage Symposium we developed this document “Patronage—A Quick Definitions Sheet.” Since “What exactly is patronage?” was a common question that people asked in the patronage survey, I figured this resource would be worth sharing more broadly. 


This definitions sheet is for all participants to be familiar with the basic concepts and terms. This is of course a starting point. You should not feel bound by these definitions. Speakers may feel the need to clarify their precise nuance, local specificities, or otherwise disagree with these definitions. We should also note that various expressions, metaphors and language formulas are used in particular languages and cultures to evoke patronage expectations (e.g. father and son, shepherd and flock).

The Patron-Client Model and Terms

Patronage is a social model used to describe a certain kind of relationship. It is also often called benefaction. Patronage occurs in many forms and varies considerably. The use of models oversimplifies, but does enable us to make some general descriptions of the characteristics of patronage/benefaction.

Patron-client relationships are asymmetrical relationships which exist between more than one unequal party. What distinguishes patron-client relationships from other asymmetrical relationships, is that they are voluntary, so not formalised in law. There are (usually) no treaties or legal documents, but a set of informal reciprocal expectations. Patron-client relationships are usually not one-off exchanges, but relationships maintained over a period of time.

Patrons are the stronger party. They provide benefits (or favors) to the weaker party. These benefits may be in the form of finance, material aid or other material items, but they often also include non-material benefits, such as social capital, connections, protection and other things the weaker party requires.

Clients are the weaker party. They receive benefits from the patron, and reciprocate with other favours, such as the giving of gratitude; expressions of thanks, loyalty and obedience, as well as other things.

Reciprocity is a key feature of patron-client relationships, which are based in expectations of gratitude, obligation, faithfulness, allegiance, and honor.

Brokers are agents who function between patrons and clients. Patron-client relationships are rarely only between two parties. There are often intermediaries or a chain of patron-client relationships. Brokers are often a client of a patron, as well as a patron to their own clients.

3 Other Explanations

Hereare definitions from three academics that paint a similar picture of patronage:

1. A commonly-referenced description from a Roman historian and classicist:

“First, [patronage] involves the reciprocal exchange of goods and services. Secondly, to distinguish it from a commercial transaction in the market- place, the relationship must be a personal one of some duration. Thirdly, it must be asymmetrical, in the sense that the two parties are of unequal status and offer different kinds of goods and services in the exchange—a quality which sets patronage off from friendship between equals.” —Richard Saller, Personal Patronage Under the Early Empire (Cambridge, 1982), 1.

2. A functional, descriptive explanation by a missiologist:

“The patron, like a parent, is totally responsible for the welfare of his clients. … Clients in fact can ask a patron for whatever they think he may grant, but this is not considered begging—no more than Christian think they are begging when they ask God for help. Clients for their part, must be totally loyal to their patron. … The patron gains power and prestige within the society, and the client gains security.” — Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Baker, 1986), 124.

3. A broad, generic definition by a biblical scholar:

Patronage is a form of exchange that is personal and that involves someone with superior status giving something to those with inferior status, leaving the inferior party owing honor and loyalty to the superior party.” — Zeba Crook, “Benefaction/PatronageOxford Bibliographies (June 2015).


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6 Comments on ““Patronage”: A Quick Definition

  1. Hi. Recent news is full of horrible, heartbreaking stories of church leaders abusing women (mostly women) and using their power and the prestige of their ministries to get away with it, I feel a bit anxious that this definition of patronage makes it very possible or almost expected for the patron to require/encourage sexual favours from his (or her) clients.

  2. The catechism tells us that the chief end of man is to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever”. The Psalms tell us to delight ourselves in the Lord. I recall that after some lean years we experienced unusual prosperity. We prepared what to us was a lavish Christmas meal for our grown children and their families. Our great joy was to see our family enjoying the meal and each other. Our joy would have been dampened if they had tried to repay us for the meal. Our motive was simply to share our blessings and joy with them.

    Is this the motive of a true patron? That the clients might enjoy the gifts? Is this not our motive when we give our children gifts? Do we give so that they will reciprocate or simply that they might enjoy?

    God has given us lavish gifts, yet we often complain rather than enjoy what He has given. Does our patron God bless us that we might repay Him our of a sense of duty, or simply that we might glorify and enjoy Him out of the depths of our heart?

  3. I am really trying to understand this and struggling. Somehow I’ve come into a place where I am seen as a patron and while I do desire to be a blessing and serve, as much as I try to understand this, I just end up feeling used for money and social capital and feel like I’m expected to give more than I have to give and fear that the influence I have is based on the source of income that I am rather than being based on the Spirit of God in me or the wisdom He has given me. I have studied and tried to understand but can’t seem to feel comfortable with this role. Can anyone offer any wisdom or correction for me that would help me please God and have a right heart in this?

    • I experienced a break-through when I learned to ask for something that was within their ability to give (a chicken so we could share dinner). They were honored by the request and our relationship grew to a new level.

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