Reading this post by The Nomad Disciple the other day reminded me that I had a ½ finished post about some of the potential issues with pioneers and the training of the same.
The college I attended as an ordinand tried to train identified pioneers alongside those called to the more traditional forms of priestly ministry. This is the only way forward in my opinion, but does bring with it a number of significant difficulties to overcome.
Firstly, the language itself is problematic.
While Pioneer Minister is probably an appropriate title, it must be noted that most ministers of God’s church are pioneers, albeit in a range of ways. There is a sense that some, from either camp, see the two roles as mutually exclusive and in direct competition with each other.
Archbishop Rowan Williams uses the phrase “mixed economy” to illustrate the idea that different models of mission; gathered community, worship and other aspects of Christian life are often ministering to different types of people – and as such are co-dependent on each other.
From my experience, the Church has a significant journey yet to make in order to live this as reality. Most pioneers I speak to may struggle to personally engage with some forms of expressed church life, but all are eager to see such forms living for as long as they help people in their individual and communal journeys with God. This is no doubt true for many who would not label themselves in this way, but often it seems that obstacles are put in the way of those of us who want alternate models to thrive alongside existing ones.
Secondly, the understanding of role is extremely varied.
Any place of learning will have a dominant culture that, often unconsciously, promotes one way of understanding above others. In my college, this was a certain model of church planting, sometimes referred to as grafting. This is the “default setting” in the college for models of missional church, and the lens through which others are filtered, but is a million miles from my own sense of call and my gift set. The culture was dominant enough to become invisible, like the water the goldfish swims in, and brought with it a large number of assumptions about how things were done, and why.
As with more traditional roles of priestly ministry, there are actually a multitude of ways that pioneers may operate – some will work closely with existing forms of church, and others will not. Unsurprisingly, the former are in for an easier ride.
Thirdly, and linked to the above, there is an understandable institutional imperative to somehow capture and de-construct new forms of ministry.
The Church of England, in partnership with others, now has a “Fresh Expressions” department. This is a brilliant resource for pioneers and other ministers, but almost by definition is limited in scope. By that I mean it exists to help those within the institution understand those on and beyond the edge of existing church communities, and vice versa.
It therefore has a default drift towards things that are easily articulated, measured and resourced. Many of the (important) initiatives that the Fresh Expressions team promote are fantastic ideas of ways that existing church communities can do life and mission better; there are less examples of how people can engage with those for whom such community life is a few steps too far. CMS and Church Army, among others, have looked at this problem, and are working out what solutions may be offered.
The ongoing, possibly unsolvable, problem remains how to help the pioneers be pioneers, while helping them and the wider church understand how to relate to and support each other. At the moment, unsurprisingly, the pioneers who are thriving tend to be those who are more comfortable within the institution (in lots of different ways), and those who feel called to help that institution change from within. Those who are more comfortable on the outside, and perhaps even more so those of us who have a foot in each camp – and therefore don’t quite fit either – have a real struggle on our hands to articulate our worth to some on the ‘inside’, and receive the support we need to do the ministry we are called to.