5 Issues Facing Pioneers Today

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I’m just beginning to get my head round my new role as the RTP hub coordinator, trying to help pioneers and pioneering across the south of England. One of things I think the role can help with is generating helpful information and opinion on the experience of pioneers in the church at present. As an ordained pioneer for the past 8 years I’m not short of opinions on this myself, but I’ve started listening to other pioneers and those supporting them and am beginning to form a picture. So to help develop that picture even further here are my 5 issues facing pioneers today. No doubt there are others issues, these are not necessarily a ‘top 5’. What do you think? How do you respond?

1. Being understood

Despite the wide usage of the term pioneer minister there is still a great deal of inconsistency in the way it is understood. Some would like argue that all ministers should be pioneer ministers, which lessens distinctiveness of the term. There is also a conflation with pioneer ministry of the language used to describe; fresh expression of church, church planting, chaplaincy, community activism, indeed just about anything that is out of the ordinary and on the edge of the standard congregational model.

The Church of England’s working definition of pioneers says this: “Pioneers are people called by God who are the first to see and creatively respond to the Holy Spirit’s initiatives with those outside the church; gathering others around them as they seek to establish new contextual Christian community”

I like this definition. No doubt like all definitions it will have its fans and its detractors. But all in all it seems to me to get a lot right. Pioneers innovate in new contexts, so are often first in that sense. They are seers, with a prophetic ability not just to see but also to act out the emerging shape of ministry in a new context. They are shapers of ecclesial community and that is their prayer and intention from the start. Hopefully this definition can be debated and developed to enable a common understanding of what it means to be a pioneer.

2. Being affirmed

Undoubtedly the affirmation of pioneers has come a long way since the Mission Shaped Ministry report (and other reports in other denominations) with the emergence of vocational pathways such as ordained pioneer ministry, Venture FX etc. However, the experience of so many pioneers does not always match the principles emerging from the hierarchies. Pioneers still feel they are fighting for recognition of the distinctiveness of their call and the freedom and space it requires. They are often treated like those playing something interesting in the wings, whilst the real music is being played on stage. Many are persuaded to come back on stage. Others are quietly forgotten.

Whilst affirmation may well have arrived in the form of ordained pioneer ministry, Bishop’s Mission Orders and the like, what pioneers would really value is being respected and listened to by senior staff and decision makers, listened to in a way that says ‘we believe in what you are doing, we want to understand it better and know we need to learn from it.’

Lay pioneers in particular need affirmation. A huge numbers of fresh expressions (c50%) are led by lay pioneers, many without any formal recognition or training. We need to listen to these leaders and ask them in what ways they would value support, training, affirmation – it probably requires a whole new paradigm of support rather than a cursory adaptation of what already exists for more traditional lay ministries.

3. Being supported

Which brings us on to being supported. It is encouraging to see Dioceses, Regions and Synods creating new posts to support pioneers. However this is patchy and pioneering is often lumped into a general field of fresh expressions, church planting, mission shaped ministry etc. Support is closely related to being understood. Support is perhaps best served by facilitating peer support alongside supervision from an experienced pioneer. It is not good enough simply to find a local experienced vicar, or assume a church leader will provide all the support a lay-pioneer needs.

4. Being funded

Naturally issues of money continue to loom large in the world of pioneers. What can pioneers hope for or expect in terms of funding? I personally believe that the church must find ways of investing significantly in in the kind of church we need to engage with a post-Christian culture. How do we know what that looks like? We don’t. (Though there are libraries of books devoted to the subject). But what we do see is people coming forward with a vocation that is shaped toward creating that church. These are the people we need to invest in. Does that mean paying every pioneer that comes along full-time? Actually, probably not. We might do better to invest in pioneers by investing in those who can create the environment for these pioneers to thrive. Meanwhile pioneers themselves will be shaping the future church in another way too – by experimenting and innovating on ways of sustaining themselves and the new churches they lead. The fabulously expensive stipend, house, pension model is unsustainable, it is not fit for purpose, a new paradigm of funding ministry needs to be discovered and pioneers may well be the people to do it.

5. Being trusted

Pioneers, though growing in number, are still the odd-ones-out at the party. They are sometimes the ‘other’, different, a bit weird, sympathetically misunderstood. With misunderstanding can come distrust. Pioneers can be seen as mavericks, rebels, dissidents. Particularly in reference to the institution, pioneers are sometimes regarded with suspicion, or with anxiety – ‘are they really committed to the structures?’ Yet for most pioneers, standing on the edge of the structures looking outward whilst hanging on by our fingernails to the traditional church, commitment to the structures comes at considerable cost. A great deal has been invested in staying in the institution. If pioneers wanted to leave, they would have done so long ago. So pioneers need to be trusted – and with trust comes patience. Pioneer ministry takes time, it involves risk and therefore failure as well as success. The fruit of pioneer ministry will sometimes struggle to be recognised by the institution, at least on first appearances, but with support and trust these new expressions of ecclesial life will find their place, and we will all be richer for it.

11 thoughts on “5 Issues Facing Pioneers Today”

  1. 1. If you’re lay lay you’re not even a “Pioneer”. And if you’re pioneering something that is not like anything else, even pioneers don’t understand you!

    2. Agreed.

    3. Some types of pioneering are incomprehensible to other types of pioneers. Some people are pioneer activists within a previously-pioneered, recognisable framework. Others are seeking to pioneer new frameworks altogether. Pioneering new kinds of pioneering. These pioneers are likely to be the least understood, affirmed and supported, because it takes a special kind of mentor to “get” this kind of pioneering, and there is no system in place to connect such mentors with such lay lay oddities.

    4. My particular attempt at a new framework and methodology, for church in a different dimension, doesn’t need any funding in itself, but I wouldn’t have minded having some support towards my self-funded training at some point, or to alleviate the fact that i’ve given up paid work so as to focus on the church of Jesus out there.

    5. Think you’ve probably hit the nail on the head there. I’ve all but given up trying to be trusted by Christians, let alone the institution! Ironically, what really matters for the institution, is that new initiatives of church may be trusted by those *outside it*, and luckily, what with needing no funding or recognition, that’s my focus now.

    • Thanks for your comments. Particularly struck by your last comment. How many more people are in this position, having tried to relate to the institution but given up?

      • This was a term coined by the Church Army Research Centre in their report ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’ – it refers to lay leaders of Fresh Expressions who have no official license from the church, and have had no training, they are just getting on with it!

  2. IHi Paul, hope this isn’t too much of an essay, but here are my thoughts on your post.

    Being Understood. I think definitions can certainly help. I’m ‘pioneering a church plant’ and part of the early stages of this ministry is working out what this means and helping to manage the expectations of those who are supporting it. I do find in the churches who are supporting this new project that there is little real understand of what pioneering means. That includes lay and ordained people. While I can describe a process for pioneering at this stage I can’t and won’t be definitive about what it will look like because the new Christ centred community has yet to emerge.
    This lack of being understood can lead to a sense of isolation among pioneers, particularly those who are lay. An ordained pioneer has access to the various clergy networks depending on the denomination(s) they are working in.
    Defining the goal of a mission activity might also help . For many the longer term goal is to bring people to church while pioneering is about enabling church to emerging among people.

    Affirmation. May be even more of an issue for lay pioneers, but even so as an ordained person with 10 years experience in parish ministry, I have found people assuming I’m a curate or doing something different before going on to the real grown up work of running a parish. Perhaps it might be described as ‘sowing one’s ministerial wild oats before settling down to the real thing. Pioneering can be perceived as a ‘junior role’ when the reality is that is not less but different. Ironic in that there are many mature individuals involved in pioneering. I think this is linked to being understood. If what we do is not understood, it is difficult for non pioneers to affirm it. And because our contexts are so different we may not all understand one another. A case perhaps for us to ensure we affirm one another.
    We talk about the importance of telling stories and within pioneering there are stories being told, but perhaps we might find ways of telling more of these stories within mainstream church to help bridge the gaps.
    Of course inherited church can be so demanding and absorbing that there is little energy left for things that are different.
    Affirming lay pioneers through funding education and training would be an important way of affirming them. However it would important to think about what kind of education and training would be helpful. Not every pioneer is an academic or needs to be.

    Being supportive. Agree. Local learning groups can be helpful. Not all pioneers are word based social media types. Face to face communications help to shape thinking and ideas. Also clear definitions can help to clarify the type of support required. The support required for setting up a messy church is different to the support needed to pioneer a brand new expression of a Christ Centred community.

    Funding. Agree it needs to develop and change. Although I am currently funded by the diocese there is a limit to the funding available for me and the new community will be need to financially viable in the long term and that is a factor as the ministry progresses.
    Being trusted. So many of these questions seem to be linked to being understood. It takes time and good communication to build understanding and trust. Pioneers can be perceived as critical and damming of inherited church and this doesn’t help build trust. Affirmation of the mixed economy and an understanding of our places in the wider church can help. Also would help long term to have pioneers in more senior roles within the institution, although therein lies a paradox!!

  3. Thank goodness for that! It’s such a relief to see it out there and to feel that it’s not me just being a whinger! There are times when, even with the apparent recognition of OPM and a BMO, it feels as though we are unwanted aliens and an irritant to others in the structures. It’s quite exhausting.

  4. A lot of this resonates with my experience both as “lay lay”, “lay” and now training for Odrained Pioneer Ministry.
    … misunderstanding by local church leaders, who seemed to view my ministry as a threat to the existing church.
    …. the pressure to ‘come back on stage’ and just fit into the system, especially during discernment process for ordination training.
    … also opposite pressure of some people projecting unrealistic hopes and expectations on pioneer minister, as if they are some sort of super heroic leader who can offer a quick fix to reverse numerical decline
    ….Thankfully, in my experience there have been just enough others, both practicing pioneers, parish priests, and even a DDO, who have offered a good balance of affirmation, trust, challenge and support to me so that I’m still with the C of E, living with the inevitable tensions.

  5. Pioneer Ministry does not need to be justified by the Church. It needs to be justified by Jesus Christ and his example. The Church didn’t understand him either.

  6. I totally agree with Phil Blake’s comment. In my situation, I see a very affluent town with many busy and hardworking people who under the skin often have a spiritual hunger but absolutely no desire to get involved with traditional church and all its perceived rules, opinions and fussiness. Show them Jesus and they sit up and take interest, but they run a mile at the thought that this may draw them into church more than at Christmas. The consumer society is absolute king and if your needs can’t be met on your terms you seek an alternative. The biggest challenge – persuading those who currently populate and lead our traditional churches that their own brand of consumerism may not always be helpful either but if they won’t re-examine themselves they could at least recognize and support us lay mavericks whose desire is to reach out in different ways to and to feed the spiritually hungry in our communities. Thank God even as Pioneers that we only ever follow in Jesus’ footsteps.

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