Anvil journal of theology and mission
Beyond measure: evaluating the impact of pioneering
by Tina Hodgett
It has always struck me as arrogant to try to measure the outcomes of pioneering initiatives, as though the church were trying to control and direct God, or tell a blackberry bush how many blackberries it should produce, or if it should produce strawberries instead.
“My ways are not your ways,” says the Lord in Isaiah 55:8. “Neither are my thoughts your thoughts. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
At a time when the thoughts of the Christian church are limited, stuck in the tramlines of Christendom presuppositions, this majestic and thunderous pronouncement offers hope of a fresh imagination for the church. The idea that we can navigate ourselves via management approaches into a new paradigm of what church can be for the next decade or century through the efforts of our own human brains seems foolish. What we need to do is to hang onto the coat-tails of the wild, unpredictable, unfathomably knowing Holy Spirit and see where that journey lands us up. It requires of the church an absolute willingness to abandon itself to God’s thoughts as they are revealed, and to follow God’s pathways as we begin to discern them.
This has always been the territory on which the pioneer innovator space of the pioneer spectrum has pitched its tent. Pioneer innovators head out into a given context with a vision or intuition as to what might happen there. Such a vision or intuition is usually a very approximate download of God’s intention for the shape of the local mission; the accuracy of the download is limited not by God’s capacity to communicate but by our human capability to absorb an idea that extends beyond the existing mental models held in human brains of what is possible.
I’d like to offer a story from my personal life to illustrate what I believe happens in this kind of situation. On holiday in Nepal I woke up on my first night with a bright pink plastic jelly shoe running up my body. Or at least that’s what my brain told me was happening; it had no mental model to tell me what was actually happening: that a small gecko was exploring the strange creature in its home (me). My brain did its best to interpret the sensory information it was receiving and convey it to me in terms that were familiar.
I think when God shares the thoughts of the Godhead with us, our brains try to interpret this information via existing mental models. The message we receive serves well enough to set our direction and give us a sense of where we are headed, but we cannot know the exact shape of what is in God’s mind nor know in full the direction of the journey, the people or environment it will impact, how it will impact them or what the long-term effects of this mission will be. Nor can we know how the various missional ventures over time will interrelate, affect each other and create a new paradigm of church.
It is for this reason I resist the impulse to measure outcomes in pioneering in the innovator space. In the Diocese of Bath and Wells nine full-time paid pioneers were appointed to five-year posts within a culture change initiative that was itself pioneering. Each of these nine posts took between six months and a year to work up to a point of advertising a role. It was agreed that the progress of each post would be evaluated against a timeline based on early understandings of the shape and pace of development of pioneer initiatives. Some concrete outcomes were attached to the first post advertised, in terms of numbers of people becoming disciples, but this soon proved unhelpful to the postholder and the mission as a whole: local residents found the information on the internet in the role description, felt it was threatening, and withdrew goodwill from their pioneer neighbour.
The process for setting up each pioneer role was roughly as follows. An individual – usually an ordained person with previous personal experience of being a pioneer or overseeing a pioneer – would propose a context for one of the posts. A long period of context mapping followed, as well as consultation with other local church leaders, community groups and influencers, and conversations with church congregations. Alongside this, the advocate and guardian of the pioneer initiative encouraged people to pray and dream and discern what the Holy Spirit was saying about the possible nature, direction and aims of the post. The role description would go through several iterations and was subject to numerous processes of consultation. Eventually a role would be advertised, followed by a rigorous application procedure, then an appointment, and subsequently a year of listening by the pioneer themselves.
It has been interesting to observe how very differently each of the posts has developed from how they were foreseen in the role description. Without doubt, all the pioneers are actively engaged in the community, discerning the divine breadcrumb trail, growing relationships with those beyond the walls of the church, and laying foundations that have the potential to grow new worshipping communities that will in turn grow new disciples (some of this is already happening two years in). The first six posts, however (those which have developed sufficiently for observers to make a judgement), have developed in unforeseen directions. Partly owing to the pandemic, five of these are building their public presence outdoors; during the appointment process there was no suggestion of this possible route of pioneering in any of them.
In this innovator space a pioneer has no control and little influence over any of the variables, most of which are human. The pandemic was unprecedented, but one of the features of being a guest in an environment is that any number of factors make a pioneer trajectory more like a that of a ball bearing in a pinball machine than a smooth growth curve from A to B. The posture of a pioneer in the innovator space is one of laying aside the natural desire for tangible results, managing the need to justify one’s existence, trusting in the faithfulness of the God whose ways are often swathed in mystery, waiting to be surprised by the unexpected divine intervention from left field that may reveal a deeper purpose, and much greater commitment to a wide-angle kingdom outcome over a longer time span than could be humanly anticipated.
Having observed this characteristic of pioneering in the innovator space over four years, and experienced it myself at first hand as pioneer team vicar in an Anglican parish, I have come to the conviction that the focus of evaluation should take place at the beginning rather than the end of such initiatives, thus allowing them to escape the restrictive measurement values placed on them by our limited perspective on what mission is and what God might have conceived for it beyond our utilitarian imaginings.
Three of the models that are offered to us for church in the New Testament – the vine, the human body and the Temple – depend on optimum environmental conditions at the start of their life for healthy growth. The vine requires the right soil, climate and position to grow. A human baby needs a mother who fashions her daily routine around creating a healthy, hospitable and nourishing environment to maximise the baby’s well-being at birth. A temple needs its foundations to be laid in an appropriate situation according to engineering principles that will ensure the remaining structure will stand firm for generations. In each of these circumstances, the quality of the preparation period is a good predictor of future health and sustainability.
Taking the planting metaphor further, the Royal Horticultural Society website outlines all the factors a gardener needs to take into account when putting a new plant into the ground. These include choosing the right soil, including drainage, level of nourishment and acidity. It requires considering the position of the plant in relation to sunlight and ensuring the local climate will allow it to flourish. It’s important to plant at the right depth, and to provide something for a climber to grow up. The RHS advice is to not over-fertilise the plant: not to rush, hurry or force it to grow as results will be rare for two to three years while the plants grow good root systems. It reassures the gardener not to worry if the plants die: “it may be due to nothing that you could have controlled”.
Given the unpredictability of the outcomes of pioneering in the innovator space – the unpredictability of the timing, scope, direction and character of the work – it seems logical to focus the evaluative lens on the process of how an initiative came into being (if it is a grassroots initiative started by a pioneer independently of any organisation) or on how it was set up (if part of an organisational strategy or programme).
If time has been given to prayerful discernment, consulting with relevant stakeholders including those on the margins, researching the local context, learning from other initiatives in similar situations, and allowing the base hypothesis incorporated in the proposed initiative to be scrutinised and amended as appropriate, then all these factors will help establish a positive foundation from which healthy outcomes are likely. If a pioneer leads on the initiative who has the vision, gifts, skills, spiritual maturity and personal support to engage in God’s mission, this stands as another factor in doing everything to ensure that the mission flourishes even when the God-ordained desired outcomes may be hidden from view.
It may seem naïve and even irresponsible to focus evaluation on the early stages of the project rather than on the end, but the metaphors from gardening, agriculture and the natural world (a source of rich wisdom for Jesus in the Gospels) suggest that a plant with the DNA to grow a particular kind of fruit will normally do so if the conditions are right. The reason for a particularly fruitful or disappointing harvest will often be at best speculative. A pioneer goes out with the intention of joining in with God in God’s mission, attuned to follow where the Holy Spirit leads and committed to follow that call to the best of their human ability, however twisty the path or apparently fruitless the harvest. Judging the outcome in a framework determined by human standards of success risks putting God in a box, disempowering pioneers and limiting the possibilities of mission.
About the author
Tina Hodgett is pioneer hub facilitator for the Southwest Region Hub for the CMS Pioneer Certificate and for the South Central Regional Training Partnership. She is co-author of the Pioneer Spectrum and formerly leader of the Pioneer Project in the Diocese of Bath and Wells. She finds joy in encouraging people in creativity, imagination and innovation, and fostering culture change in the church through pioneering.
More from this issue
 Isa. 55:8–9 (KJV).
 Pioneer Spectrum, www.pioneerspectrum.com.
 Susan Appleget Hurst, “Grow the Most Gorgeous Perennials Year After Year with These 11 Essential Tips,” Better Homes & Gardens, 30 March 2022, https://www.bhg.com/gardening/flowers/perennials/how-to-grow-healthy-plants/. Other advice from rhs.org.uk.