Pioneer Ministry

National Adviser for Pioneer Ministry Dave Male writes..

Do we need Pioneers?

Pioneers are particularly gifted as entrepreneurial leaders and agents of change as research commissioned by Ministry Division highlights. If we are serious about wanting to dramatically increase the reach of our churches into the vast areas of our nation, where we have little meaningful contact, then the role of Pioneers and pioneering is vital.  Their skills are vital and need to be fully utilized. But the present danger is that Pioneers could be viewed as exotic extras, misunderstood as mavericks or re-deployed in existing pastoral roles. At a national level we struggle to have a clear national narrative about the role of Pioneers. While it is becoming increasingly clear that many dioceses, deaneries and parishes struggle to identify, train and deploy Pioneers because they do not understand who they are and what they do.

Who exactly are Pioneers?

There is confusion and lack of clarity concerning the term ‘Pioneer’. The present confusion is inhibiting the role and ministry of Pioneers and therefore the growth of the Church.  In light of this, it is not surprising that many people are still unsure about the whole Pioneer endeavour. This lack of conviction severely hampers the selection and effective deployment of Pioneers at diocesan level, both lay and ordained.

It is important to acknowledge that theologically the roots of the word are exclusively Christocentric.  The term pioneer is used four times in the New Testament and each time applied to Jesus only. It also has a cruciform dimension which relates the term to victory through suffering and endurance. The Greek word archegos translated as pioneer primarily signifies someone who takes a lead in, provides the first occasion of anything or leads into a new space. As the Bishop of Coventry commented to me, ‘So the New Testament reveals Jesus as not only prophet, priest and King but pioneer also.’ It reminds us that our pioneering is derived from the true pioneer who leads us into a new space through his death and resurrection.

At the heart of this term Pioneer is the idea of firsts and of leading into a new space for and with others. (Of course ‘first’ will mostly be relative, not being the first ever to do something but the first to do it in that particular area, context or situation.) It combines well the ability to see a new future but also the skills and gifts to make the future accessible now. There is a danger of making a too tight and simplistic definition of Pioneers but our present situation requires a clear sense of what we mean by this word.  The working definition for Pioneers recently agreed by Ministry Council is therefore;

Pioneers are people called by God who are the first to see and creatively respond to the Holy Spirit’s initiatives with those outside the church;  gathering others around them as they seek to establish new contextual Christian community. 

In terms of practice the Methodist Church’s expectations for Pioneers is very helpful to make the role clear.

  • This is the main focus of their ministry. It’s not a marginal or minor activity for them.
  • Most of the person’s time is spent with those outside the Church
  • There is an intention to create a new ecclesial community. It may not always happen but this is the aim.

Two ways of Pioneering in a Church of England context

I received an email from a Pioneer very recently in which they said, ‘I love the church and I am called to love and serve the Anglican Church – but I don’t know how to breathe within its structures and self-understanding. So much of the church definitely doesn’t know what to do with us.’ The biggest cry heard from Pioneers is that they want to be released to pioneer not redeployed in existing roles.  This is clearly echoed in the 2005 Guidelines which commented that ‘It is important Pioneers are not pressed into becoming ministers of existing churches but are deployed in pioneering contexts.’  The 2013 report to Ministry Council from Graham Cray said, ‘The Pioneer Panel recognises that there are various types of Pioneer Ministers. The Panel need to identify what kind of pioneer.’ Part of this identification concerns ‘from where’ does the pioneering happen. A differentiation between these two key types of pioneers below would be hugely beneficial for identification, training and deployment purposes.

Fresh start Pioneers. These are classic pioneering types who start new things, love firsts, and enjoy working from a blank canvas. If ordained they need to be released from expectations of an Incumbency type Parish role and allowed to pioneer in places where the Church is not present while remaining closely connected with the diocese.

Parish based Pioneers.  These pioneers want to work from a parish base but from there develop fresh expressions of church in a mixed economy way expanding the growth and reach of the local church .

It is vital that we also recognise an important category of clergy and lay leaders who are not Pioneers but are key to the whole endeavour who I have termed ‘Sustainer enablers’. These are key people for the future of the church but are not themselves Pioneers or not necessarily even particularly innovative or creative. They may do some pioneering work as a part of their leadership role, for example helping to lead a fresh expression within their parish. But most importantly they understand the importance and the role of Pioneers. They have the vision and the self-confidence to engineer opportunities to resource, release and protect Pioneers within their own context. We need to be encouraging more of our clergy within the mixed economy church to be leaders who empower and release Pioneers.

Pioneers have a unique and particular vocation and gifting for a missionary Church says two of our own recent studies administered for us by Kings College London. It is crucial therefore that this resource of Pioneers is not dissipated or diminished because of confusion. The 2013 Experiences of Ministry Survey ‘report some of the most positive attitudes and experiences of all clergy groups in Pioneer Ministers’. They report:

  • Pioneers spending a greater proportion of time engaged in community leadership roles, intentional outreach and using social media more than other stipendiary ministers.
  • Engaging in the highest levels of role crafting.
  • Some of the highest levels of autonomy and feedback
  • Being least likely to look ‘solely to the diocese’ for CMD.
  • The greatest willingness to make sacrifices, and the greatest frequency and size of those sacrifices. They also report the highest level of those sacrifices being deemed worthwhile.
  • The highest levels of attendance growth and discipleship growth.

Furthermore it is important to note the growing importance for the growth of the Church of lay pioneers. From George Ling’s initial research on Fresh Expressions in ten dioceses he discovered 52% were lay led. Of these 9% were Readers, and 3% Church Army evangelists. The vast majority were lay people with no official authorisation for their role. 37% of these people had no training input for their role. The rise of lay pioneers is crucial for the future but the same issues apply concerning definition to help dioceses consider how they can adequately provide effective training and support to ensure the long term sustainability of these lay leaders.

Dave Male is the Church of England’s National Adviser for Pioneer Ministry.  You can find out more about him and his work at Church of England Pioneer Ministry website.