Being a (Pioneer) Priest Today

As an ordained pioneer minister I sometimes get referred to as a ‘pioneer priest’. I always find this a confusing term.  I mean, yes, I am a ‘priest’ in the Church of England. As ‘vicar’ of our fresh expression of church I have conducted a couple of weddings, carried out a number of baptisms and will at some point perhaps officiate at a funeral of someone from our community. No, of course,  taking those kinds of services is not a definition of priesthood. But then I don’t think that ‘priesthood’, or being or a ‘priest’, provides a full enough understanding of what it means to be ordained in the Church of England.

We are confused by this word ‘priest’ – and when it comes to understanding and affirming the vocation of pioneers, this is pretty important. In particular, if we use the word ‘priest’ as shorthand for someone ordained as a leader in the Church of England we are limiting our vision of that role. The word ‘priest’ too often tends toward a view of ordained ministry that is focussed through two powerful lenses – the parish lens and the stipendiary lens. In other words when we use the word ‘priest’ what we often mean without thinking is the (usually) stipended leader of a parish congregation. ‘Pioneer priest’ in this sense then is something of an oxymoron. As a result, I have heard many stories of people with a strong calling to pioneer ministry who feel they haven’t been selected for ordination because they weren’t able to articulate their calling as a ‘priest’ very well.

But what is ordination? Is it to the priesthood? Or to some expression of leadership within the church? Surely it is the recognition, and affirmation of a person by the local and wider church of the calling, competence and character necessary for leadership. When we ordain someone, in a public service or worship, we say ‘yes!’ ‘Yes!’ to God and to that person’s ‘yes!’ to God. ‘Yes!’ together, as ordinand, and as leadership, as friends, family, and local Christian community, to a common sense of God’s calling on a person’s life. And we say ‘yes!’ to the sense that this person has something special to offer to the church of today and the church of the future. There is a future orientation to ordination. The person ordained is being led into the future by God’s call, they will also help lead the church into God’s future.

I have recently reread a couple of books in thinking about this issue. The first is ‘Ministry in Three Dimensions’ by Steve Croft. His argument is that the leadership the church needs for today is not simply a one-dimensional priestly leadership that is focussed on preaching, prayer and the sacraments. Instead this needs widening to a three-dimensional kind of leadership, a much more Biblical leadership, which is a dynamic blend of servant (diaconal), priestly and overseeing (episcopal) leadership. In particular Croft argues that the missional task we face desperately needs a broader vision of leadership than that offered by a priestly paradigm of ordination.

The other book is ‘The Widening Circle’ by Graham Tomlin. Tomlin carefully argues that the nature of priesthood is the calling of a part to bless the whole. This principle is worked out in a series of circles of blessing. Humanity is called to bless all of creation. The church is called to bless humanity. Priests are called to bless the church. So, priesthood is not about particular intermediary functions carried out by those ordained to it. It is primarily about leadership that blesses the church to fulfil its own call, which is to bless humanity. Priesthood therefore has a fundamental missionary character.

When we see priesthood in these terms we can then see how the three Biblical dimensions of leadership relate to this wider vision. Blessing the church to bless humanity is not a solo effort. Leadership toward this vision is cooperative and facilitative, like a parent at the heart of a family, or a gardener in the midst of an allotment – it is about leadership which gives the right environment and sufficient space for others to flourish.  There is an intercessory (ie priestly) element to this vision of leadership, but there also a great deal of service and oversight required for the vision to be realised.

In my experience, the dimensions of leadership that Croft describes shift in dominance as a pioneering ministry develops. Initially there is a good deal of diaconal ground-work; listening, serving, building community – though with a significant element of episcopal discernment as a small missional community begins to emerge. Deeper into the process the priestly functions of prayer, word and sacrament rise in prominence. However, at the same time the maturing of the community also requires constant episcopal oversight and (if the community is to be sustained beyond the leadership of the founder) a strong episcopal ability to enable the leadership contribution of others to flourish.

So in terms of being ‘pioneer priest’, it is not so much what the priest does, but where they do it. The call of the pioneer priest is a particular call to help the church flourish in the margins, the vacant, disconnected, uncharted areas of our land and culture where the church currently is not or where it is struggling to be. A critical call in our own present missional context. Those called to this ministry will likely major in the diaconal and episcopal gifts such as listening, discernment, service to the community, enabling the gifts of others. They will be good at articulating these particular elements of what it means to leader in today’s church. That doesn’t mean they’re not called to the priesthood, in the sense of shorthand for ordination. It means they are called to lead the church somewhere where it is not and in doing so lead the church of the present in its becoming the church of the future.

4 thoughts on “Being a (Pioneer) Priest Today

  1. This is a fantastic article and a huge help in articulating the call to pioneer ordination.
    Thank you so much for this!

  2. Thanks for these words of encouragement/wisdom really appreciated and therefore I will need to take steps to move towards Pioneer mission.

  3. As a Pioneer Ordinand heading to be a self-supporting permanent deacon I already feel I won’t be fitting into a congregational priest stereotype. Not that the training makes any distinction. And training incumbent and DDO are struggling to define a curacy.. While I agree that Croft’s Three Dimensions will inform different parts of the journey and my role in other people’s stories, being a deacon is sent servant especially relevant in the world and the margins outside church. So Pioneer ordained deacon is a double helping of listening to alien and chaotic contexts in the wold and its liminal spaces.

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