‘How to Pioneer (even if you haven’t a clue)’ by Dave Male.
It’s a fine line: the balance between being ‘the voice of experience’ and acknowledging that one doesn’t have all the answers. How to advise, resource and teach with an awareness that there may not be one ‘right’ approach and different people work things out in different ways. I wondered, when I first read the title of Dave Male’s book, how he would handle this balancing act – surely, I pondered, there is no one way to pioneer? Surely there are as many kinds of pioneers as there are people – isn’t that the point of pioneering, to do something new?
Dave, it turns out, walks this line nimbly and astutely – calling on experience to propose guiding principles for pioneering and referring to case studies to illustrate principles in practice, whilst also leaving space for the reader to think about their own context and take the pioneering plunge in their own way. “There is one thing this book does not do,” Dave writes in the introduction, “It will not give you a step-by step, ‘one size fits all’ model you slavishly follow…You will need to do the work of taking [these] principles and working out with others how they apply in your particular context”.
So, who will benefit most from this book? The ‘…even if you haven’t a clue’ part of the title is a good indicator. The book is accessible and readable, assuming no deep theological knowledge or pioneering experience. It seeks to dispel any notion that pioneering is only for the ‘super-spiritual’, professional or ordained person – and Dave provides many examples of people who have seen a need, felt a call and responded through pioneering fresh expressions from all walks of life. Theology offered throughout the book is simple and straight-forward, it assumes an experience of God and the sense of call to pioneering rather than an intellectual approach requiring years of study and preparation. This is a book which could be safely put in the hands anyone who felt the call to pioneer ministry without fear of making them feel inadequate or under-prepared theologically.
One of my favourite parts of ‘How to Pioneer’ comes in chapter 4 – ‘The Art of the Start’. Dave explains that pioneering can often be approached as a process whereby we create something new for people to join, and through that plan to relate and – eventually – grow to love and serve them. This approach is the wrong way around, ‘How to Pioneer’ argues. Instead the pattern should be ‘Love – Relate – Create’. In other words, create the new community only after relationships built on love and service are established. Create what is needed for the people you have got to know and in response to the need you see, rather than trying to attract people to a community you have already forged ahead with.
Other highlights in the book include some solid, practical advice on issues such as how to build a team, and how to manage expectations and measure the ‘success’ of pioneering work. The guidance is practical and to-the-point, and the authentic voice of experience and hindsight helps the reader feel that they are in the safe hands of one who’s walked the road before them. I also enjoyed the focus on experimentation – the message of the book is that it’s OK to have a go, to try things out, to see what works. FX reflections on failure recently suggested that an experimental lens is useful for pioneers – moving away from the idea of getting it right or wrong, and instead viewing our pioneering as faithful experiments rather than end points to aim for.
Anyone experienced in pioneering or entrepreneurial ministry will nod their head sagely at chapter 9 – ‘How to avoid rotas and other useful advice’. The chapter covers “life-giving rhythms”, and how to identify and accept different seasons in your pioneering ministry. There are also useful, practical tips for avoiding burn-out in leaders – including a check-list to help self-identify a time of ‘running on empty.’ This is a helpful and honest look at some of the costs of pioneering – and the chapter is useful in flagging these for those setting out in ministry.
‘How to Pioneer’s short-comings are perhaps inevitable – as Dave notes, every situation is different and so advice is general and may leave some looking for specific support feeling unsure of the next practical steps. Whilst detailed advice and guidance is provided to support the individual and emerging community, some of the nuts-and-bolts of sustainable entrepreneurial activity are absent. For example, whilst funding issues and denominational support are touched on there is no practical help on how to structure approaches for financial or other support, and how to seek funding within existing frameworks. Likewise, whilst creating strong teams is addressed by the book, there is no guidance provided for how to establish good governance and management structures. Perhaps these areas would be more appropriate for ‘How to Pioneer: the next stage’, but some early flagging of these issues could be a help to pioneers.
The book is rich with guidance and how-to’s. The advice is presented mostly through listing, which – whilst breaking each section down nicely – can lead to the book feeling repetitive and a bit ‘list-heavy’. Whilst Dave suggests that the book can be used in a variety of ways, my feeling was that ‘How to Pioneer’ would be best appreciated through reading over a period – one chapter at a time. Reading in one sitting could feel a little overwhelming with the amount of information and the number of lists and sub-divided areas presented. That said, with each section read and considered by a team or individual at the time when it became relevant, the listing technique is an effective tool in presenting lots of information and advice in an accessible, useable way.
The unavoidable short-comings of any book which tackles a topic as wide-ranging as ‘How to Pioneer’ do not in any way detract from what it offers. For the right reader at the right time, this book could offer the support and encouragement needed to take the first steps in pioneering. The book will not alienate or disempower, but will build up hopeful pioneers who feel that they are walking a well-worn road with help and resource available from those who have passed that way before. In this, the book is a helpful addition to any new pioneer’s library – the first step is often the hardest, and Dave as a friend and companion for the journey provides a framework as we step out in faith.