Spiritual discernment in pioneer ministry.

3 10 2009

1187877_pile_of_books__1As well as the million and one other things I have to do this Autumn, I am finally making some substantial progress with my MA dissertation. I am studying for a Master of Arts in Theology for Christian Ministry and Mission with STETS.

Originally I had planned for my MA dissertation to track and evaluate the process of discernment I had outlined before taking up my post. The research aspect of the dissertation would have come from the ethnography I was planning to undertake in each of the potential mission contexts I identified. The trouble was firstly that I struggled to find time alongside this work to make progress on the dissertation. And secondly as I spent time in each setting, it was decreasingly recognisable as research and more like the raw stuff of mission. I don’t approach these places as a research student but as a christian priest. I’ve written elsewhere on why that might tend to make one a poor researcher.

There is a proper place for listening and observing as one enters new realms of human experience, but I have also felt the need to attempt to bring something real and positive into each place I come to – to make a contribution to the life I encounter from the outset of that encounter.

So as I pick up my dissertation again after summer break, I need to rethink how I might attack it. I still want to focus on discernment as it seems to me that this is a key charism for pioneers as they found and lead new missional communities and embark in new forms if mission. If our task is to participate in the mission of God in the world, we need to be able to discern what God might be doing where we are. And we need to be able to discern how we are being called to participate.

It just so happens that this coincides with the St Luke’s PCC taking a decision on my proposal to relocate our Sunday gathering in one of the nearby tower blocks and to change the nature of what we do. With the encouragement of my colleague, I introduced some Ignatian style prayer to the proceedings. Each participant was given a sheet that invited them to write down what excited them and what concerned them about the proposal. We then took a turn to share our concerns, and then again to share our excitement. Writing first meant that we were more likely to listen to each other instead of mentally preparing our contribution while others were speaking. Then we went away on our own for a few minutes to silently reflect and pray on what we’d learnt. I suggested people might want to imagine themselves in the scene of Jesus and the woman of Samaria at the well from John 4. They could imagine themselves as the woman or as an observer. I asked them to focus on the moment when Jesus says ‘true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth’ and hold a conversation with him in their imagination about what that means for us now.

There are deep, deep wells in the Christian tradition, offering spiritual practices of discernment. The Jesuit (Ignatian) tradition is very strong on this, but it occurs to me that there are other approaches too. There are more ecstatic approaches to discernment in the Pentecostal/Charismatic traditions for instance. I have begun to delve a bit deeper to see what else there is in the tradition. I am looking at the Desert Fathers and Benedict. I will take a look at Richard Hooker and perhaps the more recent experience of Indaba groups at the Lambeth conference.

Given that discernment is so important, I wondered how well prepared pioneer ministers are for approaching those moments. I wasn’t trained on the pioneer track – I came to this mode of ministry later. But when you take a look at the guidance on starting a fresh expression of church, for instance, prayer is mentioned as something one would naturally want to do, but that’s where it stops. If we ask the question of the Christian tradition, ‘Are there ways of praying that will help us to discern our calling?’, then the answer is clearly yes.

There are of course, other important moments in the process of discerning a way forward. But if we are to go beyond something that looks a lot like market research, there surely has to be a strong spirituality component. I have a sense that the managerialism that John Millbank decries in his incendiary ‘Stale expressions: the management-shaped church’ is somewhat evident in the way pioneer ministers (including myself) are encouraged and so do conceive of the new form of church/mission that might be appropriate for their context. (His critique goes deeper than that, of course.)

So I am now working towards researching the question of the extent to which pioneer ministers reach their decisions by drawing on those spiritual practices of discernment from the tradition.

Here’s my working title:
Spiritual discernment in pioneer ministry.
To what extent have spiritual practices of discernment from the Christian tradition informed four Anglican pioneer ministers as they have engaged in the process of determining their response to their particular mission context?

And here’s the first paragraph of my draft proposal:

This author contends that those appointed ‘pioneer’ by the Church of England are not as well versed in the spiritual practices of discernment that the Christian tradition has to offer as might be helpful or appropriate in the exercise of their ministry. It could be instructive for the development of initial and ongoing pioneer ministerial training and formation to test this hypothesis. It may also yield insights into the appropriateness of particular spiritual practices of discernment for the particular situations into which pioneer ministers are sent. The proposed research could thus begin to indicate both the need for, and the content of, an additional component of ministerial formation.

I am proposing to examine my own practice and that of three other volunteers (victims?) and to test this hypothesis. I will make contact with as many of the training institutions as I can to see whether spiritual practices of discernment are part of their curricula and I hope to keep a conversation going here as I discover more.

If anyone out there in the blogosphere is interested in taking part – as one of my interviewees perhaps – I’d be really pleased to speak to you. If you just want to share your experience through commenting on this post or others that follow, I’d be really grateful to receive that input too.

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