What is pioneering? FAQ

The Church of England has produced a useful definition of what pioneers are:

“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.”

So pioneers are called. This is a vocation, which pioneers will have a growing and often deep conviction of. Pioneers have a gift for seeing, for imagination, dreaming, inspired not just by what could be but also by a sense of dissatisfaction, holy discontent perhaps, at the way the church is fulfilling its mission and purpose. And in particular this call and gift is exercised among those not currently engaged in the church.

However pioneers are not just dreamers, they are ‘dreamers who do’, capable of turning dreams into reality, or at least taking the risk to try and do so. Pioneers draw in others to do this. They are leaders capable of gathering people round a vision for a new missional venture and facilitating the ministry of that team to bring something new to birth.

What pioneers are not

It’s also worth saying some of things that pioneers are not. They are not primarily evangelists. They may have a heart to see people become disciples of Jesus, but their primary call is to see new communities of disciples emerge in new contexts. They are not mission enablers with a general remit for mission in a place, their call is more focussed. They are not primarily motivated by particular models of church, their gift is to start with context and allow that to shape church. Pioneers are creative and prophetic innovators with a gift for faithfully reimagining church with the community to which they are sent.

Pioneers may well be the sort of people the established church community finds slightly irritating! They ask awkward questions and want to spend their time with folk beyond the Sunday by Sunday community. They don’t always toe the line. This is not rebellion, this is part of the gift, the ‘gift of not fitting in’, the flip-side of that call to see the church expressed in new places among new people.

Their first instinct may well be to do very little! Except listen – to the community, to God, to the wider church, to the story of a place and community. As they do so they begin to give birth to a vision for how the gospel can be faithfully expressed in this new place. However, this may not be a fully formed vision, with a five-year strategy and an itemised budget. Pioneers are comfortable with emergence, with seeking to follow the Spirit, and allowing dialogue between the gospel and a community he/she may not be familiar with to shape the ministry.

Hence the activity of a pioneer and their team or developing community will take them on a journey toward a new expression of faith. A new church is unlikely to be fully formed immediately, but instead be given time to develop and mature. This may take years. After the listening phase this journey often moves to building community around shared acts of service with the local community, and then, as relationship forms, begins to develop activity that invites people to explore faith and express worship together.

What pioneers do is innovative and context specific. Hence their activity will be different, often surprising, and hard to generalise. Here are a few examples of what some pioneers are doing:

  • building community on a large urban social housing estate through a youth and community hub, within which a fresh expression of church has now been started
  • hosting a whole range of community building opportunities for residents of a new housing estate, such as community gardening, ceramics courses and street parties
  • creating a regular Christian presence at local Mind, Body, Spirit fairs
  • creating innovative expressions of discipleship and worship in a rural multi-parish benefice alongside inherited patterns
  • starting a cleaning company that provides a living wage for its employees

Every church, and every church institution should have a pioneering edge. But not all are called or gifted to be pioneers. This frequently cited question implies that there is an urgency and an imperative for pioneering in our context, and there is. Britain is in many ways a mission field where the gifts and skills of cross-cultural mission are needed. However, the history of the church is an ongoing dynamic between stable congregational life and the innovation brought by pioneers. Both are important. Pioneer ministry is a gift to be discerned in some, resourced and advocated by others and welcomed by all.

Pioneers will express most if not all of the characteristics explained in “What is a pioneer?” They are likely to have shown these characteristics in other fields as well as the church, perhaps in a previous career. They will have a track record of innovation and imagination. They will be self-starters, often buzzing with ideas and drawing others to their creativity and leadership.

We are learning too that not all pioneers are the same. 

Some are more comfortable working from a parish-base, others relish the challenge of making a fresh start in a completely new context. 

Some, those we have called “pioneer adaptors”, are good at adapting practices that are common to many churches for a new community or network. A new Christian community is often the result of this process, eg, cafe church, Messy Church. 

Others, we call them “pioneer innovators”, allow new expressions of Christian community to emerge through experimentation in dialogue with people in a new context. 

Finally some pioneers, we call them “pioneer activists”, are motivated primarily to see the kingdom expressed in innovative ways in their community. They often start new social enterprises with kingdom principles, with a desire to see people and communities transformed by the gospel.

So pioneers may well come with stories and dreams that relate to these different expressions of pioneer ministry. However, the gifts within are often quite similar – creativity, vision, innovation, leadership, team building.

Pioneer ministry is not something that can be taught in a prescriptive manner. There is no one-size-fits-all course that will cover every pioneer and every context for the foreseeable future. Instead training must give pioneers a theological basis for this ministry, help them to develop a spirituality to enable and sustain ministry, and provide them tools to be ongoing theological reflectors in the contexts they minister in.

The Mission-Shaped Church report (2004) recommended context-based training that enables students to continually reflect on their study through the lens of cross-cultural mission. Therefore pioneer training, while seeking to be theologically rigorous, leans towards praxis reflection rather than academic excellence. Pioneer training is best done in dialogue with the student’s context, visits to other pioneer projects and case studies. In this way theological and practical content is constantly explored with reference to experience and place. It is also recommended that pioneer training provides the opportunity for conversation with other pioneers in training. The insights from the praxis reflection of others in a learning community is a critical part of the pioneer training.

More often than not lay pioneers do not need to be found, trained and commissioned into ministry, they are already leading ministry, or knocking on the church leader’s door asking to do so. Where we can see someone emerging as a lay pioneer there are number of things that we can do to further enable their ministry:

  1. Give them the freedom and space to pioneer. Especially in a parish or inherited context taking some of the more traditional responsibilities from them and giving them more time and space to concentrate on their pioneer ministry is important.
  2. Name their gift. So often pioneers are doing something that feels natural to them without the language to explain it. Being named a pioneer can be a liberating and encouraging moment. It acknowledges that their gift and ministry is recognised and affirmed. It is also enables them to boundary their ministry more effectively, concentrating on what they now acknowledge themselves is an important gift and part of who they are.
  3. Network them with others. Pioneers can often feel isolated, and ill-fitted to the more traditional ministry going on around them. Networking with other pioneers is really important. It affirms their gift as being part of a wider giftedness in the church and it provides an important context for ongoing learning and development as a pioneer.
  4. Nurture their gift. Training is really important, but discernment is needed in finding the best kind of training for each pioneer. Remaining in context and ministry is important so that training can happen in dialogue with ministry. Training should not primarily be academic, but formational, helping the pioneer instil the practices of prayer, discernment, theological reflection and leadership that form the basis of this ministry.

Church Mission Society is supporting and training lay pioneers through unaccredited training in local hubs which is a good option for people who work full time but who want to deepen their understanding of this ministry. There is also the option of more substantial accredited training which can lead to a pioneer being officially recognised as a pioneer in the Church of England.

These responses to an emerging pioneer describe the ministry of a “pioneer advocate”, an important role in enabling and supporting lay pioneer ministry. In addition, the pioneer advocate often intercedes for the pioneer between them and the more traditional elements of the church. They affirm what they do, create the necessary space and resource for them, help to manage the expectations of the inherited church community and to communicate the developing picture of the church as it becomes a mixed economy of inherited and new.

Ordained pioneers will share the same gifts and characteristics as lay pioneers. However a pioneer might be selected for ordination for a number of reasons:

  1. The gifts and vocation of a pioneer are clearly recognised as a gift to the church beyond their current context. Ordination ultimately gives the pioneer a licence to offer their vocation to the wider church.
  2. The ministry of a pioneer is recognised and affirmed in their current context and has developed to a point where sacramental life is developing. Ordaining the pioneer in their current context enables this community to continue to grow and develop.

A pathway for selection and training for ordained pioneer ministry (OPM) was created by the Church of England in the wake of the Mission-Shaped Church report (2004). Ordained pioneers must go a Bishops’ Advisory Panel and in addition attend a Pioneer Panel. Prospective OPMs who have successfully attended a BAP can also attend Pioneer Panel up to one year after starting their training for ordination. We would recommend someone with a sense of call to pioneering to emphasise this through the discernment process and go to a Pioneer Panel. This keeps all training options open and gives someone a stronger argument for pioneer-specific training at college and in curacy. Ordained pioneers are selected and trained with the same criteria as all other clergy, but must fulfil the pioneer criteria in addition. They are therefore free to be deployed in all areas of the church, including ‘standard’ parochial ministry.

Those selected for OPM train alongside other ordinands in the various colleges and courses with a number offering pathways specific to pioneers. CMS is the only training institution to cater its training specifically to pioneers, though it trains other ordinands too. OPMs then continue their training in their diocese as pioneer curates. There are now Church of England guidelines on how to set up and provide a good pioneer curacy.

No! While we have many students from the Church of England, we welcome students who are in independent churches and any other denomination. We do have a partnership with Regent’s Park College so if you a Baptist Pioneer there is a creative training option available for you.

A pioneer curacy will invariably be based in a parish and involve a blend of traditional and pioneer ministry. At the end of a pioneer curacy the curate must have satisfied all of the criteria for a standard curate, as well as those for a pioneer.

A pioneer curacy is designed to recognise the particular vocation of the pioneer curate. The Church of England guidelines recommend that a pioneer curate spends at least 50 per cent of their time developing one or more fresh expressions of church. This may start as a 50:50 split at the outset and develop toward 60:40 and then 80:20 (or even 100 per cent) in favour of pioneering as the curacy develops. Our experience suggests that it’s really important to confirm these proportions in a working agreement each year to try and ensure that the space for pioneer ministry and development is protected.

A good pioneer curacy will be one where a pioneer and incumbent work together to enable the pioneer to develop their vocation through the opportunity to explore their ministry and reflect on it. To this end it is really important that the training incumbent (TI) for a pioneer is someone who understands and values this ministry and is willing to act as a pioneer advocate for their curate. It may also help for the TI to ask for a pioneer mentor to support the curate in the development of their pioneer ministry.

Particular provision for the pioneer curate within their ministerial education (IME2) is also expected and CofE guidelines recommend that 50 per cent of this training is focussed on pioneering. This may require some dispensations from the standard IME2 programme in a given diocese. The CMS South Central Pioneer Hub now offers two days each year of IME2 training for pioneer curates in the south of England.

The number and variety of ordained pioneer roles is developing all the time. These roles tend to fall into two broad categories:

  1. Parish-based roles that have reshaped an existing post into something with a clearer pioneer focus
  2. Parish-based and/or fresh-start fixed-term roles created with a new source of funding

With the former type of role there is greater degree of security. However, it may be more challenging in terms of creating the space in the midst of inherited patterns of ministry to focus on pioneering.

With latter type of role there is the advantage of having a clear and focussed pioneer role. However, time-limited funding and the expectations that can sometimes come with it can prove to be a challenge.

Other ways of creating and sustaining pioneer roles are developing, for example, house for duty and self-supporting. Both of these can create the freedom from parochial responsibilities that enable innovative pioneer ministry.

The greatest support you can give a pioneer is to listen to them and understand their gift and their ministry. Often pioneers can feel unsupported through a mistaken set of expectations, in particular an expectation that their ministry will bolster the Sunday morning congregation. Pioneers feel valued when they are affirmed for who they are and the vocation they are pursuing rather than the ‘results’ they are getting.

In the early years of pioneer work it may be really helpful for a congregation to offer prayer, financial and practical support as things get started. This support can decrease over time as a new fresh expression of church begins to develop.

Maintaining a supportive dialogue between the inherited forms of church and the new is also really important, in particular in helping a new Christian community find its place among the family of churches in the parish, deanery or district.

This is very much a live question. The church is acutely aware that the current model for resourcing stipendiary ministry is very expensive, and is under huge pressure in many places. The majority of stipendiary or salaried pioneer ministry is at present paid for from outside of the central share system of most dioceses, and funded instead by funds such as the Strategic Development Fund (SDF) of the Church Commissioners.

There are a number of ways in which pioneers are finding ways to continue to resource their ministry, particularly when time-limited money comes to an end:

  • finding a part-time secular job
  • working in a bi-vocational way, perhaps a mixture of pioneer/parish or pioneer/mission enabler
  • House for Pioneer roles where the church/district provides a house to enable ministry to be developed
  • social enterprise models where a business such as a community cafe generates income to fund the role of the pioneer

Mission-Shaped Church (2004) recommended that deaneries think creatively to identify and resource pioneer opportunities collaboratively. This might also be something that can be done ecumenically as churches in an area respond together to a particular challenge or opportunity.

The Church of England has set a target for doubling and doubling again the number of pioneers by 2027. This would grow the number of pioneers to around 6,000 with some 5,000 of those being lay. So while finding a way of resourcing stipendiary pioneer ministry will continue to be an issue, perhaps more critical will be looking at ways in which lay pioneers can flourish. Some models for this are emerging. For example, missional community houses where pioneers live together to engage with a community, working part-time to resource the costs of housing and the resourcing of the missional community’s life and ministry.

Each denomination will have its own way of recognising lay ministers so you will need to refer to your church’s approach. CMS is a religious community of the Church of England so we largely engage with this question for that church. The CofE deals in two ways with lay ministry.

  1. There is local authorisation – this varies from diocese to diocese but it is the local bishop authorising someone to do lay pioneering in their local situation. To do so there would likely be some training. The CMS Certificate used in hubs is the training that Chelmsford Diocese use for example.
  2. There is licensed ministry in a national order of ministry. The word order means category and what is significant about it is that it is national, so if you move to a different diocese you are still in that order. The two orders for lay ministry are currently lay reader and lay worker. You can be a pioneer in either. There are two steps to it. The first is being admitted to the order. This is a discernment process either through a diocese or through CMS against nationally agreed criteria. CMS can do this for members because we are a community of the CofE. We have found pioneers quite like this because it gives a way to belong to CMS, which they identify with. The second step is licensing. A license is given to a particular ministry by the bishop where that ministry is taking place. So for example Jonny Baker is a lay pioneer through CMS and licensed locally in London through the Bishop of Willesden.

For the first one you need to work through that with your diocese. For the second you could do that through your diocese or through CMS (and we would consult with the diocese as part of that process). The second rightly requires a level of understanding and practice – for example if you do a diploma or 180 credit certificate with us, they have been approved by the CofE as covering the base of the criteria. At CMS we use the lay worker category because that fits pioneers better. But some dioceses prefer the category of reader. In the end it probably does not matter too much. The key thing is that you are recognised as a lay pioneer in a national way by the church which can be really helpful for building trust and for finding a way to relate to the structures of the church.

If you are in another denomination there will no doubt be a similar process and if we can help you meet the criteria through training we would love to do that.

Contact us if you are interested in discussing this further (vro@churchmissionsociety.org).

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