Is Pioneer Ministry a dirty term? Fresh Expressions and the local context, wider church and its future in the parish system.

The following are thoughts and reflections rather than in-depth theological study.  Hopefully it may stir some questions and discussion, if it does please respond so that the learning may continue.

Not everyone is a pioneer.

There have been many times since I was ordained 8 years ago that I have smiled politely and said nothing as well intentioned people have told me that they do not believe in pioneer ministry and that  “All priest’s are pioneers!” that “Fresh Expressions of church are just what they were doing in the 1980’s re-branded as a new fad within the established church.”  I don’t respond to these comments when I hear them, mainly because they show an established negative bias to the Fresh Expressions movement and someone like me arguing the toss would probably just compound what they are already thinking.

However, I do believe that there is some truth in these statements.  Moreover, there are also deeper questions that need to be explored by both critics and practitioners alike, but this exposition will more than likely lead to both groups becoming slightly uncomfortable at the probable answers, these issues however, need to be explored to the long term benefit of the local church in the context in which it finds itself ministering.

The first question has to be viewed from the hard facts that are at hand.  “If all priests are pioneer minsters why has the church defined a specific role over the past ten years for this role of ministry?”

I strongly agree that all God’s people should be innovators in mission and ministry, effectively engaging creatively with both gospel and culture, but this does not seem to be the case across a high percentage of local church life.

There are many different reasons for this.  First of all let us look at the role of the Vicar of the parish church.  (I don’t believe at this point that I have to go into what defines pioneer ministry from that of the role of being a Vicar.)  The Vicar can be a leader in mission and ministry, they can spend time creatively connecting with those within the parish, they can lead seeker services, alpha courses, events and connections with local people that will allow faith to grow and develop but, can a Vicar afford the time energy and resources to go out and stay out? To listen, connect, engage, develop, grow and sustain new communities of unchurched people?  It is a fundamental question about adopting an attractive come to us model of ministry or a ‘go out and stay out’ model of ministry. If the church is going to connect and engage with those who do not already do so.

Our understanding in many of these circumstances has been that the curate gets to do this sort of ministry.  They do not have the responsibilities that come with being an incumbent, but the main issue with this is sustainability.  Curacies by their nature are a transitional role, this is the exact opposite of what newly emerging community needs.  It is my conviction that if this ministry is undertaken by a pioneer in their curacy then they should have extended time to listen, engage develop and grow communities of new Christians beyond the traditional 3-4 year term to 6-7 years instead.  I also believe that in this context pioneer minsters in curacy work best alongside the inherited church (if the inherited church is healthy) so that both Vicar and pioneer should enhance each others ministry and the kingdom in that place.  But these are very different roles

So on reflection, one issue is about role the other is about what defines the role of the pioneer in a parish setting.  Studies show that those who are engaged in pioneer ministry have a high tendency of being entrepreneurial.  This of course is a great thing to get things going.  Pioneer’s are great people if they can listen, evaluate and respond contextually to allow the Gospel to be heard by those who would not usually hear it though the life and ministry of the local church.  But in order to sustain such initiatives I believe that a grounding with in the local church and parish systems gives accountability, structure and ultimately sustainability as new emerging communities develop.

It does not seem to me that there is any other reason other than legal status that the role of a pioneer minster cannot be recognised alongside other clergy fulfilling other roles such as Rector, Vicar or Priest in charge.  If pioneer ministry is recognised in this way legally within the church it would give substance that the role of the pioneer minister is a role that works with in the current parish systems in order to work with and alongside priests and deacons to enhance the life and work of the established parish church as well as pioneering fresh expressions of church.  This would allow a healthy cross over of ministry for those new to faith and for those from the established church to experience engaging in mission and ministry.

In conclusion, not everyone is a gifted pioneer (not everyone is a gifted Vicar) but the church has recognised and identified men and women over the past ten years who can bring gifts to the table that previously have not been recognised and embraced within ordained ministry.  These people will not always fit neatly into the parish systems, but they should enhance it!  They need to have a track record of getting the job done, they need to know how to be a parish priest and know how the church works in order to work with and alongside it when it is needed.  They should be given high accountability through the existing structures of the church and low control in order to get on with what can be at times a very unclear role.

The rhythm method

Back in 2003 I discovered Celtic Spirituality, in particular the lives of St Aidan and St Cuthbert. These chaps have had a huge influence on my spiritual journey not least because of the idea that they had of living a rhythm of life that stemmed from their monastic heritage.

Fortunately I have not had the call to go and live life as a monk, although i have spent quite a bit of time with different men and women who live the religious life and whilst i am in awe of their commitment and discipline to living out their calling in this way, I am convinced that God’s allows people to have a DNA that allows this vocation to be lived out. This is not part of my DNA and i feel called to live out my faith in very different way. But that does not mean that there are not lessons to be learnt, developed and taught from this way of life.

Over the years i have developed a philosophy of living that has been based on an understanding that we are created to be creatures that live in rhythms. Let me explain what i mean by this ….

The best way to think about this is to look at the Island of Lindisfarne (otherwise know as Holy Island) this is the place that first of all St Aidan chose to live and later St Cuthbert. But this is no ordinary Island (in many ways) but when the tide goes out twice a day it is attached to the main land by a causeway, when the tide comes in it again becomes an island cut off by the sea. Aidan chose this place because of the forced rhythms it creates. There is a natural ebb and flow which allowed life to take these rhythms of busy times and peaceful times. In the days of these saints the best way to travel would be by sea (it was much safer than to risk going by land with robbers and strangers at every point) so high tide would bring many visitors coming and going, where as low tide meant that not many traveller would brave the quick sands that surrounded the island (and still do!)

In our modern age rhythms in life are not something that come easy to us, or if they do they are distorted to make us fit the mould we are conditioned to (work or other demands) For example i know many teachers, they work very hard, they look forward to the holidays but many of them when they do finish work spend the first week or so being ill. Moreover, although i don’t have the hard facts i know it to be a common feature that when people reach retirement they die within two years of finishing work.

this concept of working until we stop is not a rhythm that allows us to thrive as human beings. We all face busy times, we all have demands that will take it out of us, but here is what i am suggesting, if we see our lives as being in a rhythm between busy and stillness, if we know that we are going to have times of stillness within the busyness we will be much more refreshed more often. What this might look like is for you to work out in your own journey. But Stillness and silence needs to be as important in our lives as eating and drinking. It is a discipline and something that needs to be worked on. I wonder if we all embraced life in rhythms how much more healthier, fulfilled and at peace we would be?



So what am I doing here?

So I have had a pig of a week! mainly plagued by my over active and sporadic mind. I thought I would try and write down some of these thoughts in order to try and make some sense of them.

The main thing that has been bugging me is my role as an Army Chaplain, I really cannot get my head round it… at all…

What i mean is, i have felt called to this ministry for many years, i cannot really explain why, it has just been like a constant itch at the back of my mind that has never gone away, until the point that I thought i had better scratch it and see if this was really somewhere God wanted me to be. Having gone through the selection process and being accepted i realised that this was probably somewhere that God wanted me to be. But if i am totally honest i feel completely inadequate to do this job. Let me tell you why. First of all my DNA is that of being a missiologist, meaning that by my very nature i have always needed to know and understand a culture in order to then subvert it, ask the questions that need to asked so that people can begin to see God within the world in which they move. I believe that as a priest, evangelist, pastor, my role is to allow people to begin to see and understand God in their own context.

When it comes to the Army I have no idea! It is a different world and I am an Alien within it.  I often wonder what it was that those who confirmed my calling into this ministry actually saw?  When i look around me at the other Chaplains with in the department I don’t think that I am anything like them, I don’t say this with anything but the very highest respect for those who are serving in this way.  But in my civilian life I am not a Vicar I am a pioneer minister and there is a very good reason for this but when it comes to the Army I am not sure how to utilise these gifts…..

Also with all of this I am not sure what it is a have to offer and what i have to say, in fact I am totally lost when it comes to the idea of War….  This bothers me greatly.  I would love to be a pacifist but i don’t believe that I am. I do believe that action does have to be taken in some circumstances that at times we have to both posture and act in order to bring peace.  But I also strongly believe that God has a lot to say and do when it comes to setting wrongs right.  So what am I doing here? A good question to ask at every point in life i guess!


As I conclude this mumble with no real answers, I am again reminded by the scripture I found when asked the same question finding myself at Jesus School for the first time in 1999, again not really knowing what i was doing there!……

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

Isaiah 40:31

Maybe it is in the waiting that i will know God’s will and call….

Running into 2014 ….

I wanted to blog about running, not because i am an expert, have vast knowledge or wisdom to share on the topic, but i have found that the biggest motivator for me has been other peoples achievements, thoughts and wisdom.  So i am hoping by a few words i might pass on the inspiration to others that  have found in those around me994604_10153325606950160_2125413252_n

Some of you may know that started running last May after watching a good mate running the London marathon that year.  The experience of cheering people on was truly remarkable and really inspired me to dig out some old trainers.  I soon found that i could not run a mile without thinking that suddenly the whole world had been some how bereft of all the air, as it seemed SO hard to actually take in a lung full of oxygen.  I have always thought that i was in good shape and that running would be easy to pick up! I began at this stage at running at a pace of over 10 mins a mile.

– Your mind will quit a 1000 times before your body ever will –

Within a month i was running regularly, not every day but clocking up 9 runs in month 2 with a total of 32 miles in the June of that year.  I then had a casual conversation with a another good mate about attempting to run the Great North Run Half Marathon in the September of that year.  I found that this really made a huge difference to the way in which i thought about running.  Suddenly i had a goal and something to aim for.  I remember thinking that this was something that was totally beyond me and that i was actually fooling myself thinking i could actually do this, but it made all the difference, especially when it came to the times that i thought i just don’t want to go !

I booked in to run a local 10k race the week before the GNR, and i was so glad i did.  I was SOOOOOO nervous before hand, i have no idea why, maybe it was because i was running with so many other people who looked as though they knew what they were doing, maybe i thought i was suddenly going to be found out and people would stand and laugh at my attempt to run a race.  Maybe it was the fear of failure.  But i think on reflection it was just all psychological! Physically i was fit and well, i had been training hard and everything was fine on the morning.  I finished the race in 58mins which for me at that time was about 10 mins slower than i had hoped for.  But it was a hot day, i started amongst lots of people and the nervous energy had taken a lot out of me.  It was a really good experience to do and get a lot of things out of the way before the GNR the week after.

– The vision of a champion is bent over, drenched in sweat, at the point of exhaustion, when nobody else is looking. -Mia Hamm –

The GNR was an amazing experience i had trained as hard as i could before the race, which on reflection could have been harder, but to be honest i didn’t really know what i was doing ! i had done one 11 mile run before the race as my longest run so this would have been the longest i had ever run.  I finished in 2hrs 08mins, but it was the finishing that i was totally amazed by! Crossing the finish line i couldn’t understand why everybody hadn’t stopped to cheer for me ! LOL !!! i do remember thinking that no one could ever take it away from me now i had actually done it! I did it again in 2013 getting a time of 1hr 54mins, i was disappointed with this as i had done a 1hr 48mins in training, but it gives me a goal for next year.

More than anything else i have found that running makes me ask myself questions every time i go out, “Can you do this?” “Have you met your limit?” “Are you strong or weak?” it has helped immensely with my mental health and dealing with difficult situations i find in my job, I am obviously fitter and stronger and have more belief and self esteem.  I don’t always enjoy it and and there are times before and during where i wish i could be doing a million other things, but i have never regretted a run after i have done it !

So my next goal is my first Marathon in London in April, raising money for the Children’s Society doing amazing work with vulnerable children and teenagers. This is again something that i feel is out of my reach but then i will never know unless i put one foot in front of another !…..

If you have any questions or advice about running i would love to hear from you


My just giving page is here



2013… a year in review

This blog seems to be just a year in review with nothing much said in-between, but then i guess that has been testament to the sort of year it has been! They say that time seems to go quicker the older you get, well if that is the case then this year i feel about 90 years old!  With joining the Army as a Padre and taking up the role with The 4th Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment i cannot even begin to articulate the pride I have experienced to be able to serve the men and women who are doing an incredible job for our country

So here are the Best’s from this year of living on Planet Norton…..

Book – Leading from the front – Sir General Richard Dannatt, He was the head of the Army and a committed Christian, I found it really interesting thinking about how these two things stand together, not that i have got my head round it yet but it was good to push some buttons.

Television – Game of Thrones, this has been great fun to watch. Sad thing is I think I know more about the politics of Westeros than I do about the UK!

Album – Bastille – Bad Blood – fell in love with Mr Bastille’s voice, seriously that guy could sing the phone book. Great album hope they bring out more stuff next year.

563921_10153187948455160_525681161_nMost inspiring person – I think it has to be 77, for Father Pip as everyone else knows him. Met this chap on my Army Interview and we shared a room together. We clicked straight away and got each other though it. But his inspiration is his faith and the way in which he goes about his job. Giving so much up for the sake of he Gospel really inspires me.

1235125_10153322005540160_26364630_nJoshua moment – watching Joshua complete his first competitive road race by doing the Junior Great North Run 4k. I was so proud, I guess I felt like my dad did when he encouraged me to run all those years ago. Joshua made a sterling effort and as with everything else in his life just got on with it! Legend !

Caleb moment – I have never seen Caleb so excited and animated about anything as much as he was about his speaking role in his school Christmas play.  He absolutely nailed it by saying in a very load clear voice, “Christmas time, excitement everywhere!” and “Suddenly the snow storm stopped, and the sun came out?” which as you can imagine in a broad Hull accent sounded fantastic! – I would have put a picture up here of him but there are too many rules about posting photos of school plays – but i am sure you can imagine!

Norton-fam-2013-242 (1)Martha moment – Martha started school this year and has taken to it like a duck to water.  But this has meant an end to our Friday morning shenanigans… of baking, swimming, painting, reading in the library, going for juice and massive biscuits and of course eating cheese straws ! and yes that was usually all in one morning!

Becky Moment – Again, really proud of Bex for so much this year, especially getting her new job that she starts at Easter 2014.  I loved taking her to her first Officer’s Mess do, she looked Amazing!!!! But to be honest just journeying though life with her is the best bit, all the small moments that we don’t always remember and more often than not take for grated are actually the times to be treasured and enjoyed as the years pass.Norton-fam-2013-060

Norton-fam-2013-080Welcome to Winston – In May after 12 years of nagging I finally convinced Bex that getting a dog was a great idea, and with the hound we found i don’t think i was wrong.  We got Winston from a charity called stay aid.  We knew nothing about his past other than he was about 18 months old and huge!!! he continues to grow ! But its to have him with us and he has fitted in really well, even with muddy paws and a love for lying in puddles !

My best tweet – Ben Norton @tinymind 3 Jul – We will be changed as we embrace one another.

My Best FB Status – Hey kids, if you are board this summer then take some advice from your wise uncle Ben, Don’t… I repeat Don’t prod a wasp’s nest with a big stick to see how many wasps come out! They will probably sting you.. more than once… and on the bottom! (hangs head in shame!)

Although the year has been busy, we are all feeling really settled in Middlesbrough, I am sure 2014 will again bring many new things, not least lots of travel with the Army!  Thank you to friends and family who have prayed and supported us a family, I know i am a very blessed man to have so many fantastic people i can ring and moan, laugh mock and be mocked by at any time!  I’ll leave you with a few pics from the year that would be too boring to write about

So may the Blessings of the Christ child be with you and all those whom you love, this Christmas time and into the new year!

Grace and Peace




So again its been a while since I last blogged. (new years resolution not going so well so far!)

But I thought I would try and get back into it as some folks do give me nice messages when I do ! Thank you!

So recently I got to thinking about what we listen to. By that what I mean is I think it is harder and harder these days to actually listen to very much that has any real meaning. Advertising is a multi billion pound industry that craves your attention every moment of every day. We are targeted so well that we cannot fail to see, hear and inwardly digest tons of info that we don’t really want, (heard any tunes in the adverts from you teenage years recently? BOOM! They want you to feel good and remember their brand)

So as someone who spends his living talking to people about life’s BIG questions how, where and when do I start? I mean stuff has to be new to get peoples attention, the NEW iPhone, that’s cool, people will listen to the rhetoric about that because its brand new, but think about what people who say if Apple started running ads for an iPhone from 2 years ago…. lets say the iPhone 3gs that is just so out of date. no one wants to hear about that!

But the 1st generation iPhone that’s kind of retro, “I remember them, they were so cool at the time…. I remember when I got one of those…”530201361437PM_635_Apple_iPhone_first_gen

So start to speak to someone about faith, about a man who lived over 2,000 years ago…. Retro cool? Not really !

Religion has a bad wrap these days, and TBH it’s understandable, some wierd people are doing some crazy things in the name of faith. It’s enough to put me off. But most of the people I speak to have an opinion about faith one way or another. I haven’t met many people who have never really thought about things, but the forums for debate, for a proper in depth discussion for a safe place for people to ask questions and listen just don’t exist.

I guess what I am saying is… I have a question and the question is this – “How, where and when should faith be engaged?”

There is no possible way the Church can engage at the level that Apple does, neither, in my opinion should it. But there are millions of people out there who do want to engage on one level or another, “What would work for you?”



Big News ! ……..

ImageIt is my honour and privilege to make able to announce that I have been offered and accepted a commission with the British Army as a Chaplain to the Forces (CF).  I have taken the commission to minister to the Army Reserve (Territorial Army) over the next few years.  This will mean in practical terms, that I will continue with my ministry as a pioneer minister in Marton and Coulby Newham but now as part of that I will be assigned to a local Reserve unit and get involved with all that this role will demand and offer.

I have felt the call to minister to the British Army for many years, but every time I have asked God the question if I should explore this call, the timings have just not fit with everything else that is going on.  Moving up to Teesside last year I had a conversation with a friend who asked me if I had ever thought of becoming a Padre, I explained that I had but the time and circumstances of full time Army Chaplaincy had never seemed right.  “What about the Army Reserve?” he asked. This was something that I had never thought of.  So over the past year I have been pushing the door to see if this really was somewhere God was calling me.  There have been a number of obstacles to over come along the way, namely fitness, as those of you who know me well my knees are, well shall we say not my strongest point! I received the all clear for both knees and I have also been un-diagnosed with Asthma! When God’s got a plan “Impossible is nothing!”

Talking very early on in the whole process with Becky she told me that she, surprisingly had a real peace about the whole idea, which of course made me think that this call was not just mine but hers as well.  The possibility of being deployed on active service is high and one that I will respond to positively if requested.  This will obviously have a big impact on family life so I would like to ask for your prayers for both Becky and the children so that if and when this comes round we will be able to face this with the love and strength of God and all those around us.

As the final part of the discernment process on the 10th June I travelled down to Westbury to the Army Officers Selection Board (AOSB) for three days of very highly pressured and intense interviews.  Testing my resolve, character, mental, physical, educational and spiritual aptitude. I came out of the other side (just) knowing that I had given my all and that if the answer was no then it was defiantly God saying thank you for being obedient but you are needed elsewhere.  That wasn’t the case, I received a phone call on the train coming home to say that they were impressed with how I performed and that they were offering me a commission.

I am at this point, very honoured to be able to be in a position to be able to serve those who serve us in this unique way. I know that I am going to need the wisdom and love of the Holy Spirit to be able to do what is being asked of me over the next stage of this ministry.  I have a lot to learn about the Army and those who offer their lives for our security, but I relish the challenge.

Again thank you for your constant love, support and prayers.

Revd Ben (CF)

P.S. I am also dead excited about the new dressing up clothes I get to wear! (with clergy its all about the costumes!)