I AM not an ordained pioneer minister, but, along with thousands of others, have exercised positions of responsibility in the context of mixed-mode ministry — working with inherited and new communities. It is a model that, I believe, has plenty of life in it yet.
My latest Fresh Expression experience has been deeply sad, however: jointly overseeing a painful closure. As a “standard-track” minister, it has left me open to the criticism that those who are not pioneers by ministry-training label do not have the skills or experience to successfully transition new ecclesial communities.
I have no doubt that this is sometimes applicable, but I find this knee-jerk response problematic and indicative of the continuing need for a deep and thorough engagement with Fresh Expression’s methodology in the C of E.
In this spirit, I would like to offer these observations for all those involved in Fresh Expressions, whether they are pioneer or standard-track ministers.
FIRST, be careful with expectations. Formally applying the label “church” to a Fresh Expression too early sets up all sorts of expectations, which take a lot of time and pain to deconstruct.
Second is the question whether to establish a Fresh Expression discretely or connect with the parish. There may be very good reasons for “going it alone” in the initial stages. No one likes enthusiasm and vision to be stymied. But a deliberate decision not to connect with what is already going on in an established Anglican parish means that there develops all manner of suspicion, misunderstandings, and lamentable missed opportunities to cultivate spiritual growth and missional impetus. It militates against intergenerational engagement, development, and growth. It does lasting damage.
Third is what is happening on the ground ecumenically. Fresh Expressions must learn to listen and to act within what is happening locally across different denominations. It is deplorable that significant resourcing from the Church Commissioners for Fresh Expressions has not always been used wisely in this regard. This can set locally developed missional efforts back years.
Fourth is financial reality and sustainability. How long will funding be available? Is it a sustainable form of funding? What impact will it have on the area and on those who are part of the Fresh Expression? What happens when the funding comes to an end?
Fifth is the establishment and sustainability of a team. Who is on the team? Is what is being built heavily reliant on people at one stage of life, when time and energies are particular to that time? How will the team be affected spiritually by necessary transition, and how will they be helped to be open to and prepared for this?
Sixth is personality. Pioneering can be highly susceptible to changes in leadership personnel. This is because “traditional” pioneer ministry places a heavy emphasis on establishing and building relationships on the ground. Of course, inherited-mode church can also be susceptible to this; however, perhaps structures, checks, and balances act to mitigate this.
Seventh, contextual fluidity or contextual stagnancy? There must be an understanding that context is a moveable feast: vision and strategy move on.
Change, therefore, is as inevitable in the Fresh Expressions world as it is elsewhere. If not, there is the same danger that comfort will trump the diligent continual reading of culture necessary to keep doing God’s best in a changing world.
BY GOD’s grace, we continue to move on here in Duston and Upton, albeit from a place of faded dreams. Many of the Fresh Expression-like activities we are now involved in may not have the Fresh Expression “tag”, but they are both pioneering and relational. We have a vision that, in time, we will develop new ecclesial communities in new-build areas, but we understand that this will take time, patience, and much listening and humility.
I hope that this will be a helpful contribution to wider critical engagement in pioneering practice and methodology. And those who do not bear the official “pioneer” label should not let that persuade them that they cannot innovate, be mission-centred, or be pioneering.
The Revd Richard Kellow is Team Vicar in the parish of Duston & Upton, Northampton, in the diocese of Peterborough. A Fresh Expression, Berrywood Church, which has now closed, was established through distinctive pioneer ministry in the parish of Duston & Upton previously.