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The new kid on the block

11 March 2016

Pioneer training has had a mixed reception. Huw Spanner reports

Volunteers in Meadow Community Garden: Berni Excell, a pioneer, was given some land by a local church to cultivate as part of a Transition Town initiative

Volunteers in Meadow Community Garden: Berni Excell, a pioneer, was given some land by a local church to cultivate as part of a Transition Town initia...

THE concept of “”pioneer ministry” emerged from the 2004 report Mission-Shaped Church, which considered the weaknessof the Church of England in engaging with a rapidly changing culture, and argued that what it needed was ministers with a different kind of gift or disposition from that of the regular parish priest. The report gave currency to the terms “pioneer minister” and “mission entrepreneur”.

The Church has yet to finalise its definition of a pioneer minister, but that used by the Methodist Church is “someone who, through innovative and contextual mission, is working among non-churched people to form new ecclesial communities”.

Jonny Baker, who developed the Church Mission Society’s pioneer-mission leadership training, has written that pioneers possess “the gift of not fitting in: they see something beyond the status quo or business as usual”. Their other talent, he says, is the ability to build something new. “Inculturation” is the buzzword, but their focus is very much on imagination and improvisation.

The report was well received, and its recommendations were strongly endorsed, but what has ensued has not been so impressive. The theological colleges duly began training ordinands for pioneer ministry in 2007. There are currently 28 ordained pioneer ministers in training across England, with about ten coming through a year — fewer than half the number in 2010. “The Church is talking a good game,” Mr Baker says, “but these numbers are pitiful. In effect, one in five dioceses is putting forward one candidate a year.”

One problem, he suggests, is that there are various “myths” in circulation: that there are no resources or jobs, or that there are jobs, but they could be done by anyone with regular training. Furthermore, he says, the Church is conflicted: “We say we want this, but actually a large part of the Church does not.”


SAM FERRIS, who is training to be a pioneer minister, agrees with this assessment: “As a pioneer, I feel called to work out how the Church can be transformed to be culturally relevant and responsive to a post-modern society. But many in the Church don’t want that kind of change: they just want me to do ‘projects’ on the side, which are supplementary to ‘proper’ Church.

“We’re at loggerheads. To a pioneer, pioneering is the only thing that can save the Church from extinction; to the Establishment, it’s a waste of resources. Many DDOs don’t even mention pioneering to potential ordinands. I have met people at theological colleges who haven’t even heard of it.”

The Revd Dr Katie Miller, who is in her first year as a pioneer curate in Speke, in the diocese of Liverpool, concurs: “Most DDOs try to discourage candidates. Some think the selection process is too complicated, but some just don’t believe in pioneering. Some think: ‘We’re all pioneers, but you think you’re special.’”


THERE is certainly some negative rhetoric around in the diocese of London, the Revd Dr Neil Evans, its Director of Ministry, admits. “I know colleagues who would be dismissive. There is a danger in training people specifically as pioneers, that they will have this wonderful entrepreneurial edge for ten or 15 years, and then they’ll want to go off and be parish priests, having never done a funeral, a wedding, or a baptism. There’s also the question: What do we mean by ‘pioneer’? It’s one of those slippery terms.”

None the less, he insists that there is also “very, very positive rhetoric” at the same time. “We’re always in favour of renewing and rejuvenating ministry, and we expect all of our clergy to be pioneers and entrepreneurs. We have just taken the big step of appointing Ric Thorpe as the Bishop of Islington, with a brief for church-planting, church growth, and pioneer ministry.”

Some dioceses are genuinely enthusiastic. Leicester is aiming to train and nurture 640 pioneers by 2030, and has appointed a full-time team of three to make it happen. Others are watching closely.


ALTHOUGH Mission-Shaped Church observed that our post-modern society is increasingly made up of networks, not neighbourhoods, it is noticeable that most pioneers seem to be working locally. There may be a surfer church in Polzeath, and a Goth church in Coventry, but most “new ecclesial communities” seem to be rooted in neighbourhoods. Two of the commonest forms of “fresh expression” — not pioneer-led — are Messy Church and Caféchurch, which are usually parish-based.

Canon Dave Male, who, in August last year, was appointed as the Church’s national adviser for pioneer development, confirms that “it’s probably true that pioneering is more geographically based than we imagined it would be, though that geography doesn’t align with the parish system.”

Before she trained at Ridley Hall, Dr Miller, for example, was involved in “a lay-led expression of church” on the Marlpit Estate, an area of high deprivation and unemployment in Norwich. Now in Speke, she has assembled a community choir and developed a community garden, “creating spaces where both Christians and non-Christians have a sense of belonging, and allowing them to create church in their own way without deciding in advance what it will look like”.


IN A similar way, the Rector of St Mary’s, Bletchley, the Revd David McDougall, is about to advertise for a pioneer minister to join his team. “We’re looking for someone to move into a brand new housing estate in Newton Leys, and gather a small community of people there who either have some faith or are interested in faith, which, over five to ten years, will develop into a self-supporting church.” He is being careful, he says, not to prescribe what kind of church that will be, “because we just don’t know. That’s what makes it so exciting.”

He has found his diocese very supportive. “The Bishop of Buckingham and the Archdeacon are totally sold on the idea that we must be willing to try new things. We must hope for success, but, as the Archbishop of Canterbury has said, if necessary, be prepared to fail.” In fact, he says, a similar project in Leighton Buzzard has built a congregation of 70 or 80 in just five years.

One early concern about pioneer ministers, the Director of Ordinands in the diocese of Norwich, the Revd David Foster, says, was what would happen after their first curacy. There were some who felt “I’ve been designated a pioneer, and therefore the only kind of position I will consider is one with the label ‘pioneer’ attached,” he says.

That was not the attitude of the Revd Susan Bowden-Pickstock. “When I was ordained, I got a curacy that was supposed to be 50 per cent pioneering, but was more like 25 per cent. It was a multi-parish benefice of five villages in Cambridgeshire, and in the village that didn’t have a church building, I set up a community café and used it for outreach, with a very simple compline.”

She is now Rector of the six churches of the Saxon Shore benefice in Norfolk. It was not advertised as a pioneering post, but she believes that pioneering is the only way that the Church will survive in an area where half the houses are holiday homes, and the rest are occupied by retired people. She has established some community allotments on a patch of land that was bought for a graveyard but never consecrated, and is hoping soon to start a cookery school for young people.

“I think pioneering is a state of mind, and a way of going about things,” she explains. “As far as I am concerned, it’s about completely reinventing the Church, because the traditional Church is dying, and we need something else to replace it.”


NOT all pioneers are ordained, of course. Berni Excell gave up a full-time job as the manager of a children’s centre in 2012 to do a three-year diploma course with CMS. It was, she says, “absolutely transformative. The very first module I did, on mission spirituality, put my whole world-view into the liquidiser.”

She spent her first year as a pioneer “roaming the streets of Penge, in south London, connecting with whoever I met, in a park or a café, and, through that, developing relationships. Some people would regard me as a wandering priest; some would just see me as ‘a Christian who’s not like other Christians’.”

Next door to Penge is Upper Norwood, which has no shops, cafés, or natural gathering places, but is dominated by a church, St John the Evangelist. “I became involved with the Transition Town movement, which is all about loving and restoring the land, and the priest gave us some church land to use. It was a massive turning-point for me, in terms of the potential for pioneering and ‘inherited’ church to work together within both a physical and a spiritual space.

“The aim of pioneering is not to replace parish ministry, but to liberate ministers, who so often seem to become bogged down in what their buildings look like, and how many bums on seats they get. We have to listen deeply to our local communities, to the people and the place, and grow our response. It’s a shame that so many pioneers burn out, or become detached because the Church does not value them, even though it says it does.”

Canon Male reflects: “We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. My appointment as national adviser — a post funded by the Church Commissioners — was, in part, a recognition of that. Until then, there was no one in the structures of the Church who had particular responsibility for pioneers, ordained or lay. These are people who have key gifts that we need in a growing missionary Church.

Now, I find, there’s a real desire in Ministry Division to get behind them. Things are definitely moving.”

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