The Pioneer Paradox

Updated: Jul 29


In Gore Verbinski’s 2013 film The Lone Ranger, in response to the Lone Ranger making his familiar cry ‘Hi ho Silver Away!’, Johnny Depp, playing Tonto, says, ‘Don’t ever do that again!’ You can see a clip of it here. I used this clip in a presentation about pioneer ministry for people exploring vocation in the Diocese of Ely. You can see a video of that here.


The reason I included it in that presentation and in this post is because I use the term 'Lone Ranger', clichéd as it is, as a shorthand for that tendency among pioneer ministers, yours truly included, to go it alone; to see ourselves as the heroic adventurer, forging new paths into virgin territory and founding new ecclesial settlements.


All this wild west imagery is, of course, inherent in the use of the word ‘pioneer’ itself. As much as it might find its roots, as is often claimed, in the references in Hebrews, it clearly also references the adventurism of European colonists in the Americas – an association that should at the very least make us uncomfortable if we stop to think about it. I hope that, extending the metaphor a little further, that most pioneer ministers would recognise that wherever we are pioneering, there are people with spiritual life already in that ‘territory’. Colonisation of those spiritual ‘natives’ should be the last thing on our minds. Perhaps I’ll share some thoughts on how we avoid missional colonialism in another post.


What I’d like to concentrate on in this post is what I have begun to call the ‘pioneer paradox’ as I have reflected on my engagements with people exploring a pioneer vocation (the pi-curious?).


Since starting my role in the Diocese of Ely, I have been advocating for a subtle but important shift in how we approach pioneering. I am inviting all those in authorised, licensed and ordained pioneer roles, or training for them, to make a shift from being a pioneer practitioner to becoming a practitioner-enabler.

I am inviting all those in authorised, licensed and ordained pioneer roles or training for them to make a shift from being a pioneer practitioner to becoming a practitioner-enabler.

A good number of them have been operating naturally in that way anyway. One third of the criteria for the national pioneer panel discernment process are related to candidates’ capacity for collaboration. I’m not advocating for something new or something that I‘ve dreamed up. It’s already inherent in our national discourse around pioneering and in how, it seems, the Holy Spirit has been leading people to inhabit their calling as pioneers. On one level, it’s obvious; you can’t form a Christian community of one. Pioneers always have to work with others. So what’s different in what I’m saying?


In the past, in my own practice as a pioneer, I’ve done the work of looking, listening and discerning myself, imagined the shape of a mission initiative (set out a vision if your prefer) and then invited people to join me on the journey. Putting it baldly those people have been ‘volunteers’ helping me with my project. That’s not a great model. People often volunteer because they‘re invested relationally with the pioneer minister and want to support their ministry. When that pioneer moves on, the risk of failure of the mission initiative is very high.


So there’s a pragmatic reason why the model is flawed. Notwithstanding that some things are, of course, for a season, that does make sustainability very difficult to achieve. But there is also a theological reason why it’s a flawed model. If we take a look at the practice of discernment in the book of Acts – a story of the Church-in-mission if there ever was one – we see that discernment belongs to the whole Christian community. (I’ve blogged about this before.)

Discernment belongs to the whole Christian community.

That shift, then from just being a practitioner to becoming a practitioner-enabler means that the process of missional looking and listening, discernment and creative imagining of the shape of a mission initiative needs to be a shared endeavour, in which the capacity to pioneer is multiplied, not just the implementation of a vision that the pioneer has come to on their own. That means as the pioneer facilitates and enables the steps in the pioneer journey; they are not just doing it all for the people with whom they are sharing the journey, but in doing it with them also seeking to form in them the dispositions, skills, knowledge and habits that enable them to do it for themselves.

The process of missional looking and listening, discernment and creative imagining of the shape of a mission initiative needs to be a shared endeavour, in which the capacity to pioneer is multiplied.

That’s essential for what is envisaged as the end-point in the fresh expressions journey; do it again. If the capacity to pioneer is entirely invested in the pioneer minister themselves, if missional endeavour is dependent on there being a pioneer minister, then we have to accept that there has to be continuous external provision of the pioneer capacity or that any new community founded can only ever be a settled Christian community, not a pioneering one.


The call to pioneer then is not just to do pioneering for Christian communities, but to do it with them and to do it with them in such a way that the pioneering capacity itself is multiplied, not just in individuals but corporately in the Christian community. This is analogous to a theology of priesthood in which the priest is ordained not merely to perform priestly functions for the Christian community but to reflect back to the church its corporate priesthood, to be a walking sacrament of the identity and calling of the whole Christian community in ways that form that in them. It’s a discipleship endeavour. So with pioneering. The apostolic identity and calling of the whole Christian community is not to be delegated to the pioneer. It’s the reverse; the calling, identity and practices of the pioneer minister are to enable the Christian community to fully inhabit its corporate missional vocation.

The calling, identity and practices of the pioneer minister are to enable the Christian community to fully inhabit its corporate missional vocation.

Pioneer ministers are those who are often very good at seeing a context with fresh eyes, discerning missional opportunities and creatively imagining responses to those opportunities. They may have to dial some of that down in a shared process of looking and listening, discerning and imagining, in order that the whole community can discern together. That doesn’t mean they subvert or suppress their own seeing and imagining, but that it is offered in an open-handed and open-hearted manner such that it is really clear to the community that it is only a contribution to the exploration, not the definitive answer.


This is where the paradox comes in. One way of working this out is to imagine that in order to make this shift, we would do better to recruit, train and deploy pioneers who are a little less gifted in understanding context, discerning and imagining, (in short in missional entrepreneurship) especially as it will be costly to them to let that go somewhat, to dial it down, in shared practices of discernment, experimentation and visioning. In fact the opposite is true. We need people with a high level of capacity in missional entrepreneurship so that they can develop it in others, both in individuals and corporately in the Christian community. That need not be a frustrating experience or place to practice. The fulfilment comes in seeing others grow and knowing that, at the point where you move on, there is a good chance that the community you’re leaving behind are ready to do it by themselves without you and you can go and do the same work of discipleship in another place.

We need people with a high level of capacity in missional entrepreneurship so that they can develop it in others, both in individuals and corporately in the Christian community.

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