Pioneer, pastor or manager?

24 09 2009

748066_ihs_iiMark Berry started an interesting discussion recently. He was expressing a degree of frustration at the extent to which he finds himself having to engage in managerial and pastoral tasks when he really wants to be pioneering. I know how Mark feels. And I too appreciate his honesty. The whole idea of creating a new ministry stream was to set innovators free from the administrative and pastoral responsibilities of parochial ministry so that they’re free to experiment and spark off new forms of mission.

It’s maybe a bit ironic then that it was reported recently in the Church press that there are lots of people who have trained as ordained pioneer ministers who have been unable to find pioneer appointments. For some, I’m guessing, that’s because they’re looking for a ready-made fresh expression of church to look after. And I’m not dissing them for that. We need people like them. These will be the people that will release the really adventurous mission entrepreneurs to move on and try something new. But I think calling these people ‘pioneer ministers’ is muddying the waters a bit. Maybe ‘pastor to an established mission community’ is more descriptive if a little challenged on the catchiness front. The majority of those people will be ordained, I guess, especially if those communities are to receive sacramental ministry — pretty fundamental to any recognisably Anglican ecclesiology.

Mark Berry often wonders out loud about the necessity of ordination. He often talks about ‘models’ of ministry and ‘models’ of church. So do I. But I am decreasingly comfortable using this language. It suggests that the forms of ministry we have inherited were established as pragmatically determined forms that got stuck. That’s a very post/evangelical perspective, I think. The more I engage with thinking from a more catholic perspective, the less satisfied I am with approaches that ignore the ‘Tradition’, by which I mean the received form of the church. I am a pioneer through and through but I don’t think I’m free to ignore the Tradition. In my view it’s as important a source of authority within Christian faith and practice as any other — including Scripture. I want therefore to face up to the deeply searching questions that it asks of the emerging church, fresh expressions and pioneer ministry. That doesn’t mean I am ready to give up the adventure of reimagining mission and ministry for the 21st century but neither does it mean I can ignore the deep insights and experience of the previous centuries.

So, much as I think the Incarnation should inspire us to fashion indigenous forms of church, I also want to affirm that any ecclesial community is a local expression of the church catholic. Catholicity is something I am taking increasingly seriously. And the holy orders of bishop, priest and deacon are part of what ensures we are genuinely connected to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I’m attracted by Mark’s idea of ordination for a time and a place but I think it reduces ordination to something functional and ignores the ontological dimension of priesthood particularly that has been part of the traditional understanding.

But then of course, I would say that wouldn’t I? I’m part of that cadre of religious ‘professionals’. But once you’ve had your consciousness awakened to a hermeneutic of suspicion, you can’t just switch it off. And that was a feature of my critical education. So I can see the bid for power that nestles inside that particular theological assertion. I have a lot of sympathy with George Bernard Shaw’s description of professions as a ‘conspiracy against the laity’. Actually I think ordained ministers of every order should see themselves as amateurs in the true sense of that word. Colloquially ‘amateur’ has connotations of operating at a low standard of competence. But at its root it means people who do something for love. It’s only then that the distinction between a stipend and a salary makes sense.

So as an ordained pioneer minister I think I cannot escape, so easily as Mark might, the broad set of responsibilities my ordination as priest entails. That includes ‘sustain[ing] the community of the faithful by the ministry of word and sacrament, that we all may grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God.’ So even if there’s an extent to which as an ordained pioneer minister pastoral care might be less of a priority than for a parish priest, it’s not a responsbility I can expect to evade entirely. And neither would I want to. I think it would be deeply hurtful to found a new community without seeing through at least some of that early fragile period by offering a degree of care and nurture to its members.

And when it comes to administration, I am minded to remember that I am a clerk in holy orders. Again there’s a different balance to be struck. But I don’t think it’s legitimate to confine ourselves to what we like doing. We don’t want pioneers to be demotivated by overburdensome administration. But neither do we want to train people who are unrealistic about the need to get stuck in with doing some boring stuff from time to time. Because it’s often necessary to do that hard groundwork in order to release the vision we’ve had.

I spent part of my week working on a hall hire agreement. Part of my role includes helping a struggling parish congregation to find a renewed engagement in mission. That parish includes some buildings that are the main source of income for the parish.

Part of the struggle for this congregation has been finding resources of time among themselves for the oversight of what is effectively a business. It wouldn’t be a viable business if you took a cold, hard look at it. But it provides funds that would otherwise be difficult to find.

I am temporarily plugging a gap by doing some of this work (though it has to be said that my colleague Alex, who is actually Priest-in-Charge of the parish, has taken the lion’s share of this sort of admin). I don’t intend to do it indefinitely. But doing it now is part of a strategy for getting everything on a surer footing going forward.

And getting things off the ground — pioneering — isn’t ever, I think, just about dreaming dreams. There is always some hard grind and detailed work to do to make the dream a reality. We don’t all necessarily have to be completer-finishers but we do need to be able to see some things through to the end. If we are truly pioneering, starting things from scratch, then it’s inevitable that there won’t be enough people to ensure that nobody has to work outside their comfort zones. Now we might argue that pioneering puts us permanently outside of a comfort zone. There’s some truth in that but there’s also a degree to which we might be letting ourselves off the hook a bit too easily. On the frontier is kind of a natural home for mavericks. Being systematic, methodical, institutional — all those things are probably much more outside of a comfort zone for entrepreneuring types. But if the analogy is business, then you only need to watch Dragons Den to know that you have to do a bit more solid work than dreaming up a great idea to actually get the money!

So in the end, I think pioneer ministry inevitably does mean getting our hands dirty with both pastoral care and even in the grubbiness of management.

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Hanging with the abbot

8 07 2009

MarkBerryPortraitMark Berry speaks passionately about the values of the ‘Safespace’ community in Telford– hospitality and mission, diversity and inclusion, openness and commitment. Those are my words for what I heard Mark articulating in several different conversations — with me, with an American journalist, and with the community itself.

I wonder to what extent those are Mark’s values and how much they are understood and owned by the individual members of the community. What I’ve outlined above is broad and open enough for anyone to find a home within it. That’s not to say it’s vacuous. It does have content. In fact it is best expressed not systematically, but narratively. The bible and particularly the gospels are normative for all Christian communities (although sometimes you wonder if people are reading the same gospels as you are!). But in addition to the Bible, the story of St Brendan is particularly formational for this community. And in one sense it doesn’t matter if every individual is completely sold on every aspect. The creeds represent the Church’s corporate affirmation of faith but there’s probably not one individual who would go to the stake for each and every line. So people in this community can recognise and affirm their corporate story without being subsumed within it.

I suppose I‘d like to explore with Mark how that story came to be part of this community’s story. Did Mark’s articulation of this set of values and the story of Brendan lead to the forming of a community around that narrative? Or did Mark bring the story into a community that grew out of relationships? The two are not mutually exclusive of course. But the reason I would like to explore this is twofold – first because of Mark’s skepticism about leadership, and second because the question of how a community determines its values/vision is a live one for me and the community I *lead*.

I think Mark gives quite a strong lead to this community. I don’t mean that negatively. It’s not that he imposes his will. It’s more that they look to Mark for direction and inspiration. At least that’s my impression after the few days I spent with Mark and his community.

Mark spoke about being guardian of the community rather than its leader. He seems to me to be more like an abbot. This is a community that models itself on the monasticism of previous times. So in this regard it perhaps matters more than in other sorts of ecclesial community whether individual members buy into its vision and identity. The members of this community are asked to live out the values, not just in what they do together but to take them on as a ‘rule of life’ wherever they are as individuals too. So they do stuff together and they do stuff apart but still trying to live out the values when they are apart. All the members I met, apart from Mark and his family, are members of churches. There are some, whom I didn’t meet on this occasion, who are leaders of churches. But the members of the community are also involved in running Sank•tuary together – an initiative which Mark says grew out of the community. And though it’s very open and welcoming of new people, whether as fellow travellers for a time or as new members, there is a sort of novitiate of a year, after which people are given a St Brendan cross to indicate their belonging and adoption of the community’s shared values. The interesting question is the extent to which the community adapts its identity and values to accommodate new members and the extent to which new members are required to adapt themselves to join the community.

If I have to write the word ‘community’ one more time, I will be physically sick. It has to be the most overused word ever. I find myself using it far too much when I talk about our two parishes’ involvement in Somers Town. I said to someone just yesterday that we want to ‘engage with the community’.

Oh dear, there I go. Excuse me a second. Bleeuurrghh!

Actually one of the things about Somers Town is that it isn’t a c*******y. It doesn’t have that social coherence that would make it a… you know what. I should start using the word ‘locality’. That would be a much more accurate word to describe the social situation in the… erm… locality.

Anyway, I digress. Safespace probably does justify that word that I’m no longer mentioning, because it’s intentional about being it. And in that regard it is further along the road than the congregation of St Luke’s is currently. I would love us to get to a point where our shared life provides a framework for each of us living missionally in every part of our lives as well as directly being involved together in the locality for which we have a responsibility. The Fresh Expressions/Pioneer Ministry agenda should encourage us to think beyond the parish system, but if we disconnect from ‘place’ as our locus for mission, we have forgotten the central and defining feature of what it means to be Anglican. Some of us may not care about that but this is where – to pick up on my previous post – my role as priest is to keep our connection to a wider story ever in front of us.





Priests make poor researchers. Discuss.

1 05 2009

Part of my training for ordination involved being exposed to some social science and anthropological strategies for getting under the skin of whatever setting one finds one’s self in. Those modules encouraged us not to just trust our hunches and superficial impressions but to dig deep into the culture of the places in which we find ourselves exercising our ministry. In my current MA too there has been a substantial module on designing a research project. That partly informed my current strategy of immersing myself in different contexts for a concentrated, though short, period of time.

Ethnography (an anthropological discipline) is the technique that informs my engagement with these placements where I come as a participant observer. I haven’t come as an out and out researcher. I have come as a priest. And I have come into my current setting – a primary school in the centre of Portsmouth – offering some input that I have developed as I have reflected on the nature of spirituality and how people, especially children might be encouraged in their own sense of connectedness with themselves, each other, the wider world and ‘the transcendent’ (however they name that). I have also come as a learner – offering simply to be another learning and growing presence in the school.

I’m not here as a researcher in the official/explicit sense. That would have required a different conversation seeking permission to be here than the one I actually had. But I am here to learn, and to understand this community and maybe reflect a little how the church might celebrate, support, contribute to its life. So I am informally using some ethnographic strategies to help me in that process. That’s all a very long preamble to the point I want to make…

One thing that is identified in all the books about research is that ‘going native’ is something to be avoided, though it’s an ever-present draw in research settings. Basically researchers are supposed to avoid identifying too strongly with their research subjects because it distorts their findings. But as I said to the headteacher today, three days into this placement, I could very easily find myself being a passionate advocate for this school and its work.

So that probably means I’m a rubbish researcher. Well I can’t say as I care much about that, though it may make my MA dissertation a little more tricky!

Maybe it’s just down to my personality. I remember feeling similar feelings of admiration for the nurses I was interviewing for my pre-ordination placement. But maybe it’s also got something to do with the nature of priesthood too. Going native might be the bête noïr of the world of research but I wonder whether it might be precisely what a good priest should be about: identifying with people; celebrating with them; calling out the joy and hope that is evident even in the most trying of circumstances. These are certainly an aspect of the calling of a priest. There is also, undeniably, a call to relate the stories out of which that celebration emerges to the narratives of faith. How that works in this setting, I am a long way from working out. Certainly it would just be crass, arrogant and rude, to go round the place saying ‘it’s all thanks to God, you know!’ (That’s just so obvious it probably doesn’t even need saying.)

But maybe again it is just about who I am in this place and who I am known to be. Maybe my presence as a priest, subtly and gently raises the prospect that there might just be a bigger dynamic at work here than just the indomitability of the human spirit, impressive as that is. But it doesn’t force that interpretation down anyone’s throat. If anyone wants to explore it further they can ask me. If it unsettles them, they don’t have to be confronted with it in a challenging way. That leaves everyone’s dignity intact and makes no threat, I think, to the properly multicultural (and secular?) nature of this school.

I suspect this obsession with God is quaint and amusing for some who might now be reading this blog, but I hope you will allow that as a priest in the Church of England it’s a subject I might just be reasonably expected to think about!

[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher.]





Isn’t this just what a good parish priest does?

26 02 2009

One of the local clergy at a recent social gathering asked my wife what was so different about what I am doing. Why call it ‘pioneer ministry’? Isn’t it all just what someone might do as a parish priest?

Well my answer to that question is somewhat fuzzied up by my involvement with St Luke’s – a parish church.

But a difference has been crystallising in my mind in recent days.

I have seen more than one  model of parish ministry. I have seen someone operate as pastor/chaplain to a fair-sized congregation. I have observed another trying to grow their fair-sized congregation by moving into more of a chairman-like role – leading the leaders (or serving the servants if you prefer!) Those models are more prevalent, I think it’s fair to say, in more evangelical settings.

I’m not here to dis’ those approaches. They work to an extent if by doing so you can motivate your congregation for the work of mission. But you need a fair-sized congregation to start with. And it tends to result in an attractional model of mission. All well and good if you’re focused on the open dechurched. But if you’re attempting to make church happen out where the unchurched and closed dechurched people are at, it may well not get you very far.

Another model is a more incarnational one. Often, in more catholic leaning parishes, the priest sees her/his role as focused on the parish directly, not the parish through the congregation so much as in the previous models I’ve mentioned. That form of ministry places the priest in the community. It’s a ministry of presence. That’s perhaps closer to what I’m about in the pioneer role I have.

The difference, I think, is that those sorts of parish ministry tend to be about breadth of presence. You just are seen about in lots of different settings and so the community gets to know and trust you. Brilliant. But not the same as what I’m doing. I will be in a variety of settings over the next six months. But in order to identify/choose the one that will be the focus. A lot of what I do may well be about presence. But it will be sustained presence in one place. I will be looking to make *church* happen. But church as sharing a journey of spiritual exploration with all sorts of people – certainly not just those with a christian commitment. So it’s about depth of presence.

Now as I said that is complicated by my dual role, because it may be that one or two of the things I leave aside in making a choice about pioneer ministry, I pick up in relation to my parish role. But even that may well involve a new form of church community that doesn’t look quite like what church has traditionally been expected to look like. The St Luke’s post was advertised as requiring some form of fresh expression. We (the community at St Luke’s) don’t know as yet what form that will take, but we’re certainly asking the question…

ps. Sorry, this is a very Anglican post. I am an Anglican priest, and the language I have for exploring this topic is Anglican, but I know these issues are not being faced by the Church of England alone!