5 Issues Facing Pioneers Today

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.

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