The posture of pioneer advocates | Greg Bakker [ANVIL vol 34 issue 3]

Portrait of Greg Bakker
Greg Bakker is vicar of Sholing in Southampton. He is committed to nurturing and negotiating space for pioneers and pioneering to flourish.

Pioneer advocates are “key people for the future of the church”. [1] This is a weighty affirmation for all those who labour within parochial settings.

This paper will outline the important role of advocacy by exploring the posture of pioneer advocates and describing the challenges of perception they may experience.

Outlook and attitudes

Posture, metaphorically speaking, is about the outlook, attitude and behaviour of a person or an organisation. Initially, I thought of pioneer advocacy in terms of strategies and techniques to be mastered. I quickly discovered that this role is far more about posture. The way in which advocates see and act defines their role in supporting pioneers.

What does the posture of pioneer advocates look like? Primarily, pioneer advocates seek to influence, support and resource pioneering through the influencing of parochial and diocesan structures. Pioneer advocacy involves commitments to the following:

  • championing equality within the mixed economy
  • building bridges between established and new forms of church, and
  • wrestling with personal perceptions of pioneer ministry.

Championing equality within the mixed economy

Pioneer advocates champion equality between the established and new expressions of church. While there has been much talk about the mixed economy since the release of the Mission-Shaped Church report, the weight of privilege, status and resources is still heavily tipped in favour of the inherited structures.

In her book, Barbara Brown Taylor writes of her experience of Leaving Church:

If I developed a complaint during my time in the wilderness, it was that Mother Church lavished much more attention on those at the centre than those on the edge. [2]

The inherited church often pulls inordinate amounts of energy, talent and finances to the centre in order to meet its own internal needs. Even when parish churches start supporting fresh expressions, there can sometimes be the underlying assumption that pioneers will fill the pews for us again. It is difficult for those in the centre to conceive that the parochial organisation may not directly benefit from any pioneer project.

Pioneer advocates seek to rebalance the level of attention given to those on the inside of a church community. They take up this challenge by redirecting people and financial resource towards the engagement of people on the margins. They are robust in asserting that pioneering projects and fresh expressions are not extensions of the parish church nor for its benefit. Pioneer advocates insist that fresh expressions have a “legitimacy of existence” in their own right, regardless of their stage of development. [3]

Invariably, giving greater attention to those on the edge will make some at the centre deeply uncomfortable, perhaps even leaving them with a sense they are no longer important. To adapt an old adage, “When you’re accustomed to all the attention, equality feels like oppression.” [4] Pioneer advocates will need to employ multiple strategies when championing the rebalancing required to reach greater parity within the mixed economy: gentle reassurance, patient listening, recognising ordinary problems as amazing opportunities, relentlessly inviting parish churches to look outward and shaping a new consensus.

Ultimately, the commitment to championing equality within the mixed economy means that advocates will think strategically about what can be done for pioneers and fresh expressions to receive the “gifts of security and assured identity”. [5]

Building bridges between the established and the new

The expectation of the institutional church has been that pioneers are the bridge between the established and the new. Often this meant that pioneers were held responsible for managing the relationship between fresh expressions and the inherited model of church.

More recently, some pioneers have begun to challenge this assumption. Jon Oliver, for example, asserts that it is appropriate for advocates to be the bridge, for they understand the structures of the inherited form of church and appreciate the need for the entrepreneurial spirit of pioneers. [6]

As bridge builders, pioneer advocates then take the lead in creating space for those participating in the inherited and new models of church to engage constructively with one another. From these conversations flow the possibility of shared understanding and appreciation for the other expression of church. Even more importantly, this engagement may reveal ways in which both models of church may be able to support the other in fulfilling its missional call.

Wrestling with personal perceptions of pioneer ministry

Collaborating with pioneers requires advocates to deal honestly with the discomfort that often arises when working alongside pioneers.

One widespread complaint about pioneers and fresh expressions is that the inherited church is no longer valued. In fact, some parish clergy feel redundant and marginalised. For advocates, it can be deeply painful on a personal level to see everything through the eyes of a pioneer. Yet the parochial still has a significant role to play. Pioneering ideally should inspire vibrant parochial ministry. There are ample opportunities available to us if we dare to work through the questions of value/significance and rise to the challenge of greater outward-looking ministry.

In addition, advocates can often feel lonely within the inherited model. When I describe how I collaborate with pioneers, I frequently get pushback from those working exclusively within parochial circles. Pronouncements generally come in the form of assertive questions:

  • “How can you let pioneers get away with that?”
  • “What gives pioneers the right to do that? Who do they think they are?”
  • “Why aren’t pioneers committed to the Church of England’s worship and structures?”
  • “Why aren’t your pioneers helping you with services and occasional offices?”

Advocacy means working constructively through the isolation that comes from engaging with others who are perhaps feeling vulnerable about their own roles.

Another common complaint within parochial circles is that pioneers are sheep rustlers, stealing the best volunteers. Often, this isn’t the case at all. What many pioneers do well is sell a vision. In my particular case, volunteers approached our pioneers because they were excited about the opportunities on offer. No requests for volunteers had been made. It is easy to blame pioneers for being attractive. There is a simple solution for the parish church: raise your game.

Lastly, there is a perception among parochial clergy that pioneers have a better quality of life. Often while looking at social media, I glimpsed how pioneer colleagues were enjoying their lives. It looked like pioneers have a pretty great gig. They had all kinds of space for friendship, people and weekend outings to beautiful places. My response was grumpiness. Initially, I turned off social media so I wouldn’t see it any more. Then a better solution occurred to me. If I want more of the things that feed me as a person, I have to work less and say “no” more.

Significance

Pioneer advocates do indeed play a key role in helping to shape the future of mission. Advocacy is a vocation to release, resource and protect the calling of pioneers.

Advocacy presents challenges that call forth the best in those who engage in its work. The role also demands an authenticity about dealing with the personal perceptions around pioneering that naturally rise to the surface. Pioneer advocacy is a deeply uncomfortable vocation. Yet I now recognise that pioneer advocacy is the most significant role I’ve ever undertaken as a leader in supporting God’s mission.

[1] Dave Male, “Pioneer Ministry: Proposal for a working definition of pioneer” (London: Archbishops’ Council), 4.
[2] Barbara Taylor Brown, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2011), 175.
[3] My pioneer colleague Jon Oliver often uses this phrase in conversations with those working in the established structures.
[4] Based on an unattributed quotation. See Chris Boeskoll, “When You’re Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Feels Like Oppression”, Huffington Post, 3 December 2017.
[5] George Lings, Encountering The Day of Small Things (Summary Volume) (Sheffield: Church Army, 2017), 24–25. Lings reveals that 88 per cent of fresh expressions have no legal status. One all too common problem is what happens to fresh expressions in a parish context when a new incumbent arrives. Some new incumbents assume the role of “the wicked step-father”. An alternative metaphor employed by the Church Army Research Unit to spark discussion on this topic is to describe fresh expressions as “ecclesial immigrants”. Fresh expressions are “immigrants doing good work who have not yet been given leave to remain, let alone acquire British citizenship”, Church Army’s Research Unit, Church Growth Research Project Report on Strand 3b: An analysis of fresh expressions of Church and church plants (Sheffield: Church Army, 2013), 95.
[6] Jon Oliver, Pioneering & Participating (2017) (private paper).

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