Postcards from England: Training Pioneers

In the UK church the word pioneer is everywhere. I think there’s barely been a conversation I’ve been in on this trip that hasn’t included it.  And like many words in common use, it’s not always clear that all parts of the church use this particular word in the same way.

For some, anybody doing something new (like planting a church, or starting a missional community) is a pioneer. For others, it’s a leader who is genuinely breaking new ground, helping the church find its way into contexts and situations that it has never been before.

Every college, every training program, ever denomination I’ve encountered is thinking about pioneers.

To some degree maybe it doesn’t matter much that the word is being used in a range of ways – as long as the sense that the church is moving in new directions, and releasing and supporting leaders to help make that happen is real.  There’s just a slight anxiety for me that if everything is pioneering…then eventually nothing is, or at least the word (and the philosophy behind it) loses something.

All that aside, today I visited Jonny Baker at the Church Missionary Society in Oxford. CMS is an order in the Church of England, and at Oxford (along with running a range of global initiatives) they’re embarked on training pioneers – both lay pioneers and ordained, and in both undergraduate and postgraduate streams. By my understanding they’re using the word pioneer to mean one who helps take the church into genuinely new, genuinely innovative places.

Jonny is quite clear that what is now described as pioneer ministry actually emerged from a community of practice in youth ministry in the 80’s and 90’s.  In other words, this is no new invention that has been dreamed up out of thin air, but an evolving practice that now has something like 40 years of contemporary practice and development. In that time-frame its emerging practice has unfolded alongside post-modernism and the post-christian environment. When the Mission Shaped Church report came along in 2004 (and with it the language of fresh expressions) this was tapping into a long emerging practice, but putting language and concepts around it that were accessible to the wider, institutional church.

The kind of pioneer training that CMS are up to, particularly of the ordained leaders, seems to have evolved quickly in the time they’ve been at it.  Early ordained pioneer ministers were trained alongside “normal” ministers and then given a little extra – I’ve heard it described (more than once) as “Priest +”.  That seems now to have evolved into a quite specialist form of training.

The philosophy of training pioneers at CMS seems to be around training them “in place”. All the coursework happens on a one-day-per-week basis, meaning the students can remain embedded in their local context (as opposed to a more traditional theological training where students are effectively set aside for the period of their training). In this regard at least, CMS’ approach mirrors that of St Mellitus that I visited yesterday.

The challenge for graduates of the course might just be to find places to put their skills to use. Or perhaps that challenge is better put in another way – the challenge for the church is to be bold enough to deploy pioneers into new contexts – and to provide the permission, support and encouragement for them to do what they’re called, and trained, to do.

My ears particularly pricked up when I heard Jonny talk about a “Mission Entrepreneurship” intensive that happens during the course (and that I think is open to others) in a partnership between CMS and Shannon Hopkins of Matryoshka Haus and Pickwell Manor.  The intensive helps participants go from an ‘idea’ to a ‘plan’ in terms of a new missional idea. Ideas might be church related, or they might be about the common good (such as a new London based cleaning business called “Clean for Good” that evolved during one of the intensives a couple of years back and launched this week while I was in London.  It caught my attention because Paul Wetzig (Queensland Churches of Christ) and I have been mulling over just such an idea for the Queensland context. I’m encouraged to revisit that conversation and see whether we might ourselves move from idea to plan.

I’ve met Jonny a few times now, and the conversations are always rich and provocative. This one was no different. Delightfully today we were joined by Shannon from the FX USA team who I’d met at the ILC last week, and by the ever inspiring Michael Moynagh who just happened to be visiting CMS to be a guest lecturer for the day.

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