CONGREGATIONS in parish churches are the chief determinant of whether “mixed-ecology” pioneering ministries succeed or fail, and are the chief source of frustration for ministers, a new study suggests.
The Mixed Ecologists, part of the Ministry Council’s Living Ministry study, is based on interviews a year ago with 17 clergy engaged in “mixed-ecology ministry” (MEM) — serving in parish churches while also developing pioneering ministries and/or Fresh Expressions in their parish. According to the report, an increasing number of people are engaged in such ministries, “feeling a call to extend the reach of the parish”.
Such people are “specifically interested in exploring the relationships between pioneer and inherited expressions of church, and passionate about maintaining their distinctiveness, but will want to hold these together in one local community or ecosystem. This often seems to come out of a desire to reach people who for many reasons will not step over the threshold of the inherited church or who find the transition from a community event to church too much.”
The Vision and Strategy ten-year plan for the Church of England, introduced to the General Synod by the Archbishop of York in November last year (News, 17 November 2020), has “a church where mixed ecology is the norm” as one of its three priorities. The Mixed Ecologists report has a raft of recommendations for the national church institutions, dioceses, and theological-education institutes to bolster such ministries. It is highly positive about them, concluding that MEM is “providing wonderful opportunities to connect with new people in new ways. It has the ability to bring new life to the discipleship and missional outlook of existing ‘inherited’ congregations with the potential to transform the life of the parish.”
A central finding of the report is that the attitude of congregations in “inherited” parish churches is one of the main determinants of whether MEM flourishes. While this ranged from enthusiastic to resistant, it was the source of frustration referred to most frequently by those interviewed, who spoke of a reluctance to change, a lack of understanding of mission or discipleship, and an expectation that clergy should spend all their time looking after their congregation.
The report speaks of “a common need to deepen the missional perceptive and personal discipleship of congregation members, challenging introspection and the belief that things don’t need to or indeed can’t change”.
Many of those interviewed described having to “unblock power structures” in relation to PCCs, churchwardens, and ordained colleagues. Others spoke of hopelessness: “No one believed change was possible, or that their efforts could make any difference on the levels of deprivation or spiritual apathy. They wanted change but felt powerless to contribute and were either resigned or wanted clergy to make it happen. Another factor was lack of confidence in the gospel, or themselves and their ability to articulate it.”
It was common for congregations to see Fresh Expressions as a way of “restocking Sundays”; but these ministries had tended to become separate communities rather than a bridge back into traditional forms of church, where just the leadership, or a few individuals from the “inherited” congregation, provided a link.
Despite this, the report concludes that MEMs can “encourage inherited congregations to be flexible, outward looking and grow in faith and confidence”. Members of Fresh Expressions had often made it clear that they regarded the parish church as “theirs”, too. Almost all the clergy interviewed spoke about the importance of empowering lay leaders; and, in many cases, retired members of “middle of the road congregations” were at the very heart of pioneering activity. But the report says that often those worshippers with “confidence, ability and initiative” were “already busy, committed to other things with limited capacity to engage in pioneering”.
The report comes against a backdrop of a range of central initiatives that seek to develop what Vision and Strategy describes as a “church of missionary disciples”, with an ambition to encourage the laity to “move from attendees . . . to advocates and apprentices who are outward looking and confident in their faith and church” (News, 9 February 2019).
As dioceses face cuts in the number of stipendiary clergy, there is also an expectation that more lay people will assume leadership positions. The Mixed Ecologists suggests that much may need to change if this is to become a reality on the ground. Several of those interviewed described low aspirations and confidence and the importance of “creating a culture of honour and affirmation”.
One of them said of their congregation: “Very few of them understood any concept really of mission or discipleship, and quite a few have shown themselves actually to have no patterns of personal prayer or worship. They were entirely relying on Sunday.”
But investment had paid off: many of those interviewed told stories of “unlikely individuals who had flourished and grown into leaders with such time and support”; for some, it was “the high point of their current ministry”.
Those interviewed came from diverse contexts — coastal, rural, market town, estates, suburban and urban parishes — and their inherited ministries ranged from large urban Evangelical churches to rural benefices with multiple, small, mainstream congregations. They also held a wide range of responsibilities and posts.
The nature of the pioneering ministries developed by those interviewed also varied, from “extremely innovative” initiatives to Messy Church, foodbanks, and toddler groups. One commented: “It’s just what I would call bog-standard parish work that any good Baptist church would be doing, that Catholic priests in the inner cities once upon a time were doing. It’s only pioneering because the Church, [at] both ends of the spectrum, just withdrew when the state took over: that’s the only reason that most of it seems pioneering.”
Hospitality and generosity had been at the core of successful ministries: the sharing of food was a common theme. Several people “spoke of how difficult it was for non-churched individuals to access formal religious activity; it was simply ‘too big a leap’, and the traditional services were ‘just too alien’”.
Fresh Expressions had often attracted the “de-churched” and tended to be “informal, friendly, creative, and relevant to those who were disillusioned, hurt, or bored by inherited forms of worship”.
Although “presenting the gospel in accessible and relevant ways” was the aim of the pioneer ministries, many of those interviewed regarded themselves as were “way back” in the journey to doing this. “They were simultaneously still establishing relationships, building trust with the community, and trying to move the perspective of their inherited congregation, or identify individuals who might be willing and able to take part in outreach.”
Many were keen to emphasise that “getting people into church on Sunday” was not the aim of their pioneer or Fresh Expression ministry.
The report notes that engaging in MEM is “demanding and exhausting”. Several of those interviewed described feeling “misunderstood or lonely, irritated at having to repeatedly explain the rationale behind what they were trying to accomplish both to congregations and fellow clergy”.
Others felt “like second-class citizens” in comparison with church-planters or pioneers. “The resources they were given were paltry alongside the grants and support being offered to other types of ministry. Several considered that this was because what they were doing was slow and relational, in rural or deprived areas — neglected parts of the country.”
But interviewees were also hopeful: almost all spoke about “the joy of seeing people grow, be that in faith, in confidence, or in vision and ministry”.
Among the recommendations is that dioceses “recognise, celebrate and affirm the specific ministry of MEM, incorporating this into their vision casting and policy making, with permission for clergy to stop things and to reshape their roles”.