Enabling pioneers to flourish: a formula for leaders

Group of smiling people on footbridge among greenery

Helping pioneers flourish: the Rev Tina Hodgett (centre, red scarf) with pioneers on the CMS Certificate course at the Holy Rumpus! pioneer training hub

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Tina Hodgett, evangelism and pioneer team leader for the Diocese of Bath & Wells, offers some advice for those leading teams which include pioneers, whether lay or ordained.

A formula for enabling your pioneer to flourish might be:

Autonomy + Access + Advocacy

×

an environment of high accountability and low control

=

a flourishing pioneer and great possibility

Autonomy is important because pioneers are often activists who work on the basis of dream, intuition and hypothesis. They need space from ‘things as they are’ in order to think, and thrive on freedom from enclosing structures. They are self-starters who prefer to make mistakes and learn from them rather than follow well-trodden paths and stay safe in a known world that could be changed by trying a few things out. This does mean for the supervisor you are more likely to have to pick up the pieces if the pioneer makes a mistake than you are to prevent the mistake from happening in the first place.  This can be an uncomfortable place to be, but if the pioneer feels trusted she/he is more likely to ask for advice and support when thin ice appears. It is also why it’s important to offer access:

Access to decision-makers is important for pioneers within an existing system. When they sense their instincts may be too disruptive of the existing order or threaten relationship, or that they may be taking too great a risk for the supervisor and institution to manage, they want to touch base with authority figures for a steer. Access balances autonomy; a pioneer can work a long way from their supervising structures, but use a hotline for those occasions when decisions need to be made at a higher level of authority, or where reassurance is needed.

Advocacy is part of the pioneer vocabulary. For a short and helpful read on this, see The Role of Local Pioneer Advocates by Greg Bakker on this blog. The author, a parish priest in Portsmouth Diocese, claims that even though pioneer mission may attract attention or be (as one theological educator put it) seen as ‘sexy’, the vast majority of all the church’s resources are still directed towards inherited church, and church legal and organisational structures uphold the status quo. Pioneers need supervisors to be advocates for them and their work at the next level of responsibility. Like other minorities, they need to have role models, and feel ‘seen’ and understood. If they have to expend energy on advocating for themselves in the church it will reduce the energy and attention they will be able to give in mission.

(Author’s note: It is probable that many other workers would thrive in an environment characterised by the above three values. However, without these gifts a pioneer may not survive in post.)

The gift of autonomy is not a means to escape authority and accountability; most pioneers appreciate the need to be accountable and will have high expectations of themselves, while wanting to avoid questions about quantitative outcomes of their work because of the risk that such outcomes drive decision-making and prevent missioners from following the lead of the Holy Spirit. It can be difficult for others to understand this apparent paradox. Pioneers appreciate good questions, and may occasionally need to be helped to listen to themselves when they are in dreaming mode and allowing enthusiasm to outrun wisdom.

High accountability includes such things as:

  • a commitment to be in good relationship with the supervisor and inherited church and its structures
  • an understanding that spiritual discernment belongs to the whole church
  • the willingness to accept the authority of the supervisor when necessary
  • professional standards as contextually appropriate
  • commitment to safeguarding principles and practice
  • commitment to risk management and matters of health and safety
  • willingness to play a part in resourcing the work if appropriate

Mike Breen categorises the environment of high accountability and low control as one which allows new things to emerge. As such it is the air pioneers breathe and it would be useful to further the associated awareness, practice and skills needed to provide this kind of space as widely as possible for the emergence of a God-inspired newness.

Support

I haven’t included ‘support’ in the formula, but support for the pioneer is crucial. Pioneering can be a lonely and challenging path to tread, even with a local team and a good supervisor. I recommend you discuss with your pioneer what kind of support they hope to have. Often they will have their own networks, but a local network will be useful. Each pioneer will have their own ideas about what constitutes support – it might be the opportunity to offload, it might be a family to belong to, a prayer triplet, supervisor and/or congregation members showing an interest in how the work is progressing, it might be signposting to other places where pioneering stuff is happening. I recommend finding out rather than assuming what will be helpful and making a point of negotiating this on a regular basis as circumstances change.

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