The birth pains of pioneer ministry

02 March 2018

Huw Spanner examines why this ministry is needed, what its challenges are, and who is coming forward

Emily Sharman

A Barefoot Wanders gathering in Shepsted, Leicestershire, which now operates across the county, and uses barefoot walking, meditation, nature appreciation, and storytelling to explore Christian faith

A Barefoot Wanders gathering in Shepsted, Leicestershire, which now operates across the county, and uses barefoot walking, meditation, nature apprecia...

IT IS 14 years since the report Mission-shaped Church gave currency to the term “pioneer minister”. And Canon Dave Male, who, in 1999, helped to plant one of the country’s first “fresh expressions of church”, in Huddersfield, is now ensconced at Church House as director of evangelism and discipleship, having been the national adviser for pioneer development.

So, what kind of people is the Church looking for in those it considers to have a pioneer ministry?

The director of mission education at CMS, Jonny Baker, likes to say that pioneer ministers have “the gift of not fitting in”. The Revd Johnny Sertin, a founder member of Earlsfield Friary, a new monastic fresh expression in south-west London, talks of those with “a sense of searching for that elusive ‘another world is possible,’ a longing for home that is rooted in the Christian household, but not as it is now”.

Canon Male says that many personalities and characters are attracted to pioneer ministry, but there are common attributes: “The abilities to propose alternatives; to say, ‘What if . . ?’; to take risks; and to reflect — because most pioneers learn by doing something, and then thinking out why it worked or didn’t work.

“Pioneers are very much connectors and networkers. They tend to love learning, and recognise that there is a lot they don’t know. They are visionary and entrepreneurial.” And Canon Male quotes Jonny Baker, who talks about “dreamers who deliver”. “I think that is key,” he says. “And they love the word ‘first’.”

Andy FreemanThe Home Café funded by members of Earlsfield Friary in St Andrew’s, Earlsfield, where the Revd Johnny Sertin, who co-founded the friary, is a pioneer priest

The Revd Tina Hodgett, who once “messed about on the edge of the Church, experimenting with things and seeing what happened,” is now evangelism team-leader in the diocese of Bath & Wells. She challenges the idea that pioneers are necessarily mavericks. “Some of them need to operate a really long way out from the Church because their way of thinking is so different; but there are many who can hold the tension within themselves.”

With the Revd Paul Bradbury, who supports pioneers across the south of England, she has identified a spectrum of pioneer ministry, whose key measurement is “cultural distance” from the Established Church. At one end of this are “church replicators”, who plant churches on the model of their sending church. At the other end are “pioneer activists”, who operate outside of the Church, seeking “to align a community, network, or industry with the values of the Kingdom”.

In between are three other identifiable types: those who “adapt a recognised model of Church to help create a new ecclesial community” (Messy Church is a good example); those innovators who “venture into a host context . . . and allow the gospel response to shape a new ecclesial community”; and those who “venture into the edges of post-modern culture, exploring spirituality alongside fellow seekers and nomads”.

Canon Male offers a different angle. “There are what we call ‘pioneer starters’ and what we call ‘pioneer sustainers’. Starters love the new, and are great at beginning something, but are not necessarily good at taking it further. Sustainers still have the DNA of pioneering, but are much better at developing and sustaining a new community. Often, now, a pioneer panel tells the bishop: ‘We think this candidate is a fresh-start pioneer,’ or ‘This one is a church-based pioneer.’”

Given pioneers’ urge to break new ground, how does the Church tell whether they are any good? Mr Baker suggests that the criteria are the same as for any Christian leader: “You’re looking for good character, personal integrity, and faithfulness. You want someone who is a good collaborator, who can gather a team and inspire them. And they need to be able to nurture disciples.”

What judgements are made about whether pioneers’ ideas are inspired or hare-brained? That is an important question, Canon Male says, and not an easy one to answer. “I’d be asking: ‘What kind of track record has this person got already? What is their character like?’ That would be key for me in knowing whether to back them. And I’d be looking for some humility as well: ‘I really think this is God, but I want your support and help and encouragement.’”

Mr Baker advises against judging pioneers of fresh expressions of church too harshly, however. “I don’t think they like failure any more than anyone else, but the Church is not going to get creative if you don’t allow some failure. We can’t beat people up if they try things and they don’t work.”


RESEARCH by the Church Army shows that 48 per cent of fresh expressions in 2015 were lay-led. The Ministry Council has now approved an ambitious target: to double the number of “authorised” pioneers in the Church in the next five years, and then double it again in the following five. It is estimated that five out of every six of them will be lay, Canon Male says.

“We are using ‘authorised’ in terms of this ministry’s being recognised in some way by the Church; it could be the local church, deanery, or diocese. This target will need the Ministry Division to help dioceses develop ways to identify and resource new pioneers — mostly lay — with good training, finance and other resources, support, and networking opportunities with other pioneers.”

Andy FreemanA worship activity at a CMS gathering for pioneers

The Fresh Expressions website lists lay and ordained training opportunities. Canon Male says that the agenda for pioneer ministry is to reach new communities, but recognises that this may lead some to develop their vocation and pursue pioneer ordination.

Ms Hodgett says that Bath & Wells diocese is trying to get away from the idea that all pioneering is ordained. She says that most pioneering is started by lay people, in their own time, whose expertise grows. When they find that they are leading the community, they often move towards ordination so that they can take on this position fully. “But they don’t have to. CMS has a lay-licensing programme, with an actual passing-out parade.”

So why would any pioneer aspire to ordination? “For most pioneer ministers I know, their vocation arose out of their practice,” Mr Baker says: the community was growing, and they now wanted to baptise people or celebrate the eucharist. “It didn’t make sense to bring in a vicar who didn’t know the community.”

Some dioceses are now actively looking for pioneering vocations, he says, but others are still “a bit allergic to the very word ‘pioneer’. That’s what you’d expect with a prophetic movement: there is challenge and so there is resistance, because it threatens the well-oiled structures of the status quo.”

The Church of England, he suggests, is “far too anxious and overly defended. We need to let down our guard a bit and trust people.” Canon Male insists that “things have changed massively in the past 11 or 12 years. There is always going to be creative tension . . . but I think that much more now, bishops are asking: ‘How do we release these people? What are the most effective ways to train and support them?’”

Andy FreemanMembers of Earlsfield Friary, a mission community and fresh ex­­pression in Southwark diocese

Ms Hodgett, too, speaks of an “undeniable” tension. “We’re making things up as we go along. There are huge risks in trying to bring pioneers into the institution, because they need space and freedom and a degree of autonomy, while the institution is a managerial structure that will try to keep things in familiar boxes. We have to try to balance the managerial and the entrepreneurial way of working, or the institutional and the Spirit-led — if you can dichotomise them, which I’m not sure you can.”

But pioneers are not given a free rein. “I think there are more eyes on a pioneer minister than on any parish priest,” Mr Baker says. “They are likely to have a management group, a supervisor, a spiritual director. Even if they are lay and unpaid, there is usually a link to a local church. And, obviously, the Church is paranoid about safeguarding.”

One reason for that might be the scandal of the Nine O’Clock Service group, in the early 1990s, at St Thomas’s, Crookes, in Sheffield. Ms Hodgett was living in that city at the time. “What you encountered in the worship was stunning, but what happened elsewhere was appalling. I know people whose lives were profoundly damaged by it.

“Many churches that might have sponsored more innovative ways of doing things backed off as a result. I think it’s fair to say that the Church has learnt its lesson from that experience. In the posts we’re setting up in Bath & Wells, there is very close and careful supervision, by people who know the terrain and understand that there needs to be both support and accountability.

“Probably there is [most] risk where people are lay-pioneering on the edges of Church, and haven’t declared what they’re doing because they think the Church wouldn’t approve, or they don’t actually think it is of great value. We are saying: we want this stuff to go on, but please tell us it’s happening so that we can link people up as part of a learning network, and, also, we can ensure that they’re practising in a way that is safe both for them and for others.”

Whatever the challenges, she believes the Church needs to press on: “This is a movement of the Holy Spirit, and I sense that it’s irresistible.” She invokes an image of the Church as a Victorian woman who is struggling to give birth. “We need to loosen her corset so that we can let the baby out.”

‘God is already at work out there in the world’ 
Kim Brown has established a fresh expression of church among people struggling with homelessness, addiction, and mental-health problems

I HAD a career as a mechanical engineer, but, in 2004, I was on maternity leave, and I found myself starting a lot of things in the community. I worked with a group of mums on an estate to put in a playground, which involved me getting elected to the parish council. Then I got involved in setting up a Home-Start scheme, which trained volunteers to support parents who were struggling. After that, I set up a foodbank.

Kim Brown

I was in an ecumenical Bible-study group in Cirencester, with three other women, and all of us were encountering people who were on their uppers. We tried to get them to come to church with us, but the churches we took them to couldn’t really deal with them. In the end, we set up a drop-in centre, the Upper Room. We didn’t have any funding initially, but someone was selling a house, and was led to give us some money; so we could lease a building in the town centre. That was 2008.

I was attending an Anglican church in Cheltenham which did a lot of outreach — I’d gone there, strategically, to learn how to do it myself. Someone told me the Church of England was doing this thing called “pioneer ministry”. I watched some DVDs which the Fresh Expressions team had produced, and I was so blown away that I cried myself to sleep.

The church put me forward for ordination as a pioneer. I had had a few strange experiences of calling over the years, but I hadn’t known what to do with them. No one had been able to affirm that what I was doing already was ministry, because, for most people, “ministry” means standing up front, in a church building.

I found the selection process quite hard. The Pioneer Panel was brilliant — we were all talking the same language — but at the BAP interviews there were people who didn’t necessarily agree that pioneering was a good idea.

I did three years’ mixed-mode training with CMS at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, from 2012 to 2015: I was in their first cohort. My curacy is linked with the Upper Room, but I spend a day a week in two parish churches, to learn a bit more of the traditional churchy stuff.

The Upper Room reaches out to homeless people, addicts, people with PTSD, or quite severe mental illness, none of whom would darken the doors of any church in Cirencester. We run a drop-in twice a week, and some people come because they’re lonely, some because they’ve had a nasty letter from the council, some because they want us to pray for them.

We have become a community: we eat lunch together, we celebrate birthdays together, we take communion together. Loads of people have come to faith and been baptised there.

At the beginning, we didn’t have any oversight, though I suppose my vicar in Cheltenham kept an eye on us. Once I went forward for ordination, we were brought on board formally — in fact, we got the first Bishop’s Mission Order in the diocese. I now have a licence, a council of reference, and a Bishop’s Visitor, and am subject to all the usual safeguards and regulations. The Upper Room is a registered charity, with a board of trustees, and we are supported in prayer by the Benedictines at Mucknell Abbey.

When my curacy ends, I will probably self-support and stay where I am, because that is my vocational call. God is already at work out there in the world, and all we are trying to do is follow the trail of the Holy Spirit, and connect with people and help them find out where God is in their story. We’re not trying to get bums on pews, but we hope that people will make a faith journey, and we’re trying to connect with them, and make that journey with them.


 Dave HoganPeterson Feital

‘Some of the stuff the Church does, it literally doesn’t make sense to us’

Peterson Feital has found both creativity and structure through ordained pioneer ministry, to support his work among London’s creative community

I WAS already ordained in the Congregational Church in Brazil. I had been an itinerant evangelist, working in prisons and psychiatric wards, in the LGBT community, and among people in profound poverty, trying to make sense of the story of Jesus to people who had been marginalised by the Church.

I had had a traumatic childhood myself: I was badly abused, my father was very violent, and, when I was five years old, I tried to take my own life, and then ran away from home. I became a Christian, and I preached my first sermon when I was six.

My church was a very traditional one — not Pentecostal at all, but someone had a “word” that God had a mission for me in England. I came to the UK in 2002, and, four years later, I was spotted by Tony Porter, the Bishop of Sherwood. I was working in Nottingham as an evangelist based at St Giles’s, West Bridgford; the Vicar gave me permission to dream, and set me free to be really adventurous. I am 100 per cent about taking risks. As the Arabic proverb says, men learn little from success, but much from failure.

[Bishop] Tony is a great innovator himself, and he wanted to send me for ordination as a pioneer minister. On his recommendation, I went to Ridley Hall.

I was doing a Master’s degree on fresh expressions of church when I realised that my passion was theology of the arts. I began to see that one of the struggles of the Church in the 21st century is the lack of imagination, the lack of understanding that art is essential to its mission.

The millennial generation and the new generation we call “centennials” communicate visually all the time. Theology is about storytelling. I felt I had finally arrived. I finally understood the theatricality of the Church’s rituals. I am now doing a Ph.D. on theology and fashion.

In 2015, with the support of the diocese of London, I launched Haven+London, the first charity in the world dedicated entirely to supporting the emotional, spiritual, and mental well-being of artists and other creatives. This is a vital but fragile community, in which debt, addiction, depression, self-harm, and suicide are rife.

Our work is international. In the Church of England, we still think very much in terms of parish boundaries, but our parish is global. Whatever happens in the creative industries in London now has echoes in Paris, in Manchester, in New York.

The Church as an institution may be in decline, but I see growth everywhere. It is so often said that people today “reject the traditional Church”, but that has not been my experience at all. They have problems with the institution, as we all do; but if you communicate with them clearly, and imaginatively, and open up a dialogue, they will engage and will come.

I still suffer the same challenges as any other pioneer in the country. Although my work is not local, I suffer the same isolation and stigmatisation: the Church of England tends to shy away from anything that it can’t understand.

I have been so hurt by comments from so many people about my dislike of boxes: that I don’t really want to follow the rules. We pioneers are mavericks not because we want to be rebellious or difficult, but because our mind-set is always to ask “Why?” Some of the stuff the Church does, it literally doesn’t make sense to us.

It’s all about resilience. The big question I ask myself and all the other pioneers I know is: “How much grit have you got?”

Forthcoming Events

5-6 May 2018
Church Times Festival of Poetry
With Sarum College, Salisbury.
Speakers include: Rachel Mann, Mark Oakley and Michael Symmons Roberts, among others.
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