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.