Transparent operations, real relationships and constructive disruption | Richard Passmore [ANVIL vol 34 issue 3]

Richard Passmore in Cumbrian hills
Richard Passmore is fresh expressions enabler for Cumbria. He previously worked with Frontier Youth Trust, heading up the StreetSpace community and teaching youth work, mission and theology with the Centre for Youth Ministry. He is the author of several books, most recently Here Be Dragons which was co-authored with Lori Passmore and James Ballentyne and is available via Now in Cumbria he is helping the churches across the region develop a range of regional fresh expressions including Mountain Pilgrims, Maranatha Yoga, Network Youth Church and a host of local variations.

In 2015 I moved from the Frontier Youth Trust to my current role as Fresh Expressions Enabler in the diocese of Carlisle.

This move, from an organisation that has always been on the edge and committed to being in a liminal space to follow a call to work within the institution, was something I was always going to wrestle with.

I knew that if I was going to do so, and have any chance of surviving as a pathfinding dissenter and pioneer, I needed to find a space with an “authority dissenter” and find ways to pioneer into the structure as well as the wider culture. [1] In Carlisle diocese I not only found a great authority dissenter in Bishop Robert Freeman but an ecumenical approach to mission and church that was on the cusp of taking seriously the need to change (see

The county was reorganising around the God for All vision, which states that “by 2020 every person in Cumbria of all ages and backgrounds will have had an opportunity to discover more of God and God’s purpose for their lives, so that they will discover more of Jesus and the Good News and become followers of Jesus within a Christian community”. [2] They were moving towards genuine ecumenical mission communities and reorganising the support systems in training and development around four “Reach” areas:

  • MeReach – ways Christians share their faith and life through the events, encounters and opportunities of ordinary life.
  • InReach – ways to support, strengthen and innovate what churches are already doing (or might be doing) to become more welcoming and attractional, and to make the most of the opportunities that are already there.
  • OutReach – ways to help churches and Christians reach out into their communities and beyond their circle of friendship, and evangelise and make contact through loving service or working for justice beyond the immediate sphere of activity of the existing church. This includes developing “fresh expressions” such as Messy Church and Network Youth Church.
  • BigReach – Cumbria-wide marketing, initiatives and projects that stimulate people to think about where God is in their life, and encourage them to explore further. BigReach aims to connect with people who have little or no contact with church. The four areas of IN, ME, BIG and OUT have helped set the context of evangelism and the establishment of a new training department. A team to support the Reach elements and move to mission communities started the process towards the evangelisation of Cumbria and the turn towards mission so needed in the church.

However, for a church rooted in a structural paradigm, developing a system that was going to be able to respond to the current cultural context and growing understanding of mission in post-Christian culture was always going to be challenging. At my interview, I was honest with the bishop that I thought fresh expressions were the institution’s attempt to control the emerging church. Despite this I was still offered the post and so, coming from an emerging church rather than a fresh expressions background, I needed to find a space to develop a more experimental approach.

Third space fresh expressions

Utilising the growing capital of fresh expressions language, much of my early work was around developing third space fresh expressions that were deliberately not connected with local mission communities and churches. These were set up to be pathfinders, to constructively disrupt, to be innovative, to playfully push the boundaries of orthodoxy and to embrace the heretical imperative of challenging the status quo both in terms of thinking and practice.

Two examples of this are Mountain Pilgrims and Maranatha Yoga. Mountain Pilgrims developed out of discussions with local ultra-long distance fell runner John Fleetwood. The initial project was putting together a Lakeland Pilgrimage designed by John, who knows the Lakes well. As the Lakes lends itself as a great setting for outdoor-focused reflections, the next natural step was the development of Mountain Pilgrims.

Mountain Pilgrims is not affiliated to any church; it has developed organically. Those who attend help shape the focus and direction of the group, whether this is a more family-focused approach, such as 4th Sunday Adventure Mini Pilgrims, or a contemplative edge, such as Abbey, who meet in a little-used rural church building.

At an event I met Christine, a yoga teacher who had faced opposition to the idea of yoga in a Christian context in the past. By supporting and encouraging Christine, Maranatha Yoga was born and we now have regular monthly groups in Kendal, Cumbria. Christine has also put her knowledge and extensive experience of practising yoga as a Christian into a book on Maranatha Yoga, which we hope to have published soon. The Wheel of Yoga have requested a postgraduate module be written to train others in Maranatha – how’s that for a bit of constructive disruption?

Fostering innovation in the whole church

The growth of these early developments made clear the need to invest in developing work with people outside of the structures and possible cultural reach of church as we know it. An increasingly pressing question was how to foster an appropriate space and climate for pioneering to thrive that benefits both traditional church and those outside.

To foster the innovation needed two key levers; transparent operations and real relationships were utilised. Most missiologists would suggest the maximum reach of the church (due to cultural and sociological ties) is around 5–15 per cent of the population within which the church exists. This is because IN reach is based on people reaching out to their friends and family, and them in turn reaching out. However, as people like to meet people with similar interests and values, this reach is limited.

Pioneering is about the space beyond the IN reach that is possible through traditional church and the transformation of the world outside. Currently the church still gives the impression that ministry is an “in church” activity rather than a gift for both church and world. Pioneer ministry is ministry at the liminal edge between church and world. It’s about engagement with the unchurched and dechurched majority.

As such it needs a different structural organisation than the more hierarchical operating system often used by the church, and the third spaces hinted at what this might be. The majority of pioneer ministers so far identified by the church are lay, and this emphasis fits in well with the “God for All” strategy. Historically, the church functions best when these “sodal” mission-focused ministries work alongside the “modal” organised church. [3]

The growth and focus meant that in Cumbria we quickly reached a stage of development where it was vital that strategic choices were made about the kinds of pioneer ministry that should be prioritised for resourcing, and how they should be nurtured, supported and reproduced.

Implementation of “God for All” led to a growing appetite on the ground for resources, and training, particularly targeted at people in groups and settings that would be seen as pioneer contexts. The use of transparent operations and real relationships has led to a distinct correlation between the growth of the third space fresh expressions and local churches becoming bolder and more imaginative in reaching the fringe – so much so that the growth of fresh expressions has surpassed expectations with roughly one new FX bubbling up every month with a growing diversity. The challenge ahead is how to not only nurture the breadth of growth but establish a depth to the pioneer charism that is sparking into life, and nurture discipleship within fresh expressions.

Growth within the existing operating and organisational system

Thus far, significant resource investment in reach and training has created supporting structures for the process of transition to mission communities. This has seen the church begin to expand into the potential 15 per cent of its reach, using existing structures that have been described by John Kotter as “Operating System 1” (hierarchy). [4] While it is important that we encourage all people and clergy to be more pioneering, we must recognise that pioneering outside the church is a particular gift, and spotting the gaps outside the church and making the most of them is also a gift to church. As pioneers are released to act on the opportunities, they themselves are pushed towards the edge, and ever more towards creative imaginative mission that in turn helps the church move.

Developing the right operating and organisational system to support pioneering

Arbuckle argues that “the new belongs elsewhere” [5] and while the evidence on the ground across Cumbria is that fresh expression ministries are growing, there is also clear evidence that when pioneering is nurtured and supported in its own dedicated space or community both the depth and breadth of evangelism can flourish, particularly when in relationship with other churches and networks. [6] These spaces have often been seen throughout church history as religious communities, with a second order of formation and discipleship. Kotter would suggest that in times of huge change an organisation also needs a second Operating System (see figure 1): a system that makes the most of the opportunities as they present themselves, doesn’t take no for an answer and finds new ways to reach new people. The second system is akin to what Rooke and Torbert call the Alchemist leadership approach; “What sets Alchemists apart from Strategists is their ability to renew or even reinvent themselves and their organizations in historically significant ways”. [7] This is something the church needs to do and if Phyllis Tickle is correct in her book The Great Emergence, it is something the church is in midst of anyway. [8]

Diagram and text showing networked leadership


Figure 1

While this paper is not specific to a particular pioneering community, evidence from a recent report on the CMS pioneer leadership course shows that dedicated support of pioneer leaders directly impacts growth of that ministry. 40 per cent of the pioneers started something new and 50 per cent added something new to their existing work. CMS pioneers spoke of a growing confidence, community, language and tools for imaginative mission. They also reported a growing sense of vocational awareness and that CMS was an environment in which they could flourish. [9] These outcomes come from the sense of community that grows through the time spent together, the theological education and formation process that a dedicated programme and space of support offers.

This type of experience was often mirrored by what we were seeing in Cumbria. One minister stated (referring to one of the third space fresh expressions), “I might not be doing anything as mad as Richard, but I’ll give this a go!” So to be effective in reaching the 85 per cent of the population of Cumbria beyond the church’s immediate reach we are now fostering a second operating system, which maintains good relationships with the first but is creating and nurturing the pioneer charism that is evident. By operating the third space fresh expressions in such a transparent way, and nurturing real relationships with local churches and then ensuring the stories from the frontier are fed back, we hopefully will continue to see confidence and innovative mission action locally.

Pioneering a pioneering operating system

We are now developing a multichannel network of pioneer practitioner enablers and a new northern pioneer learning centre to support a pioneer ministry that mirrors the agility and imagination that it seeks to encourage. However, we know that it needs to maintain close links with, and be of benefit to and benefit from, the inherited system we are seeking to evolve. Indeed, you could argue that church history shows us that the inherited system cannot evolve without an effective sodal enterprise. This is important as the pace and scale of change being sought locally will mean any system supporting pioneers will need to be able to pivot according to needs and developments as they occur and cope with the scale of growth being experienced.

While the new system will focus on Cumbria, learning from other established pioneer communities also shows the need to foster a community that is more regional and highly networked. The Church Army reports highlight many of the issues raised, and the report by Andy Weir particularly raises the need for structure to be more creative, imaginative and discerning in the way it uses money and other resources to support fresh expressions of Church. [10] It is also clear that the context and demand for pioneer work offers a unique opportunity to foster pioneer networks across the north that will improve the reach and sustainability of pioneering locally and help mission communities turn towards mission as the two operating systems work together.

[1] Gerald Arbuckle describes dissenters as those “who offer alternative ways of acting to a group”. Pathfinding dissenters are those innovating and pioneering in a more local context within the framework of a particular institution. “Authority dissenters” hold appointed positions in institutions and have the power to give permission for innovation and change. They are key to enabling pathfinding dissenters to fulfil their call. See Gerald Arbuckle, Refounding the Church: Dissent for Leadership (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1993), 6–7, 110.
[2] “God for All – Our Vision,” (accessed 20 September 2018).
[3] See for example Ralph D. Winter, “The Two Structures of God’s Redemptive Mission” (accessed 20 September 2018).
[4] John Kotter, Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2014).
[5] Arbuckle, Refounding the Church, 119–20.
[6] Good examples of this happening elsewhere are Church Mission Society, StreetSpace, Incarnate.
[7] David Rooke and William R Torbert, “Seven Transformations of Leadership,” Harvard Business Review, April 2005 (accessed 24 September 2018).
[8] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2012).
[9] Andy Schofield and Liz Clutterbuck, “Pioneer Mission Leadership Training: Five Years On – An Evaluation for CMS,” Cocreate Consulting, Sept 2015.
[10] Andy Weir, “Sustaining young Churches: A qualitative pilot study of fresh expressions of Church in the Church of England” (Sheffield: Church Army Research Unit, 2016), available at the Church Army website (accessed 24 September 2018).

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