Again and again we distinctive deacons ask the question, ‘what is the difference between us and pioneer ministers?’ This article gives a thoughtful and clear answer. I have put some sentences near the end in bold, as I find the conclusion inspirational!
The Vocational Diaconate as a Vehicle for Pioneer Ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Church
Director of Mixed Mode Training, Scottish Episcopal Institute
The emergence of pioneer ministry as a distinct approach to mission strategy raises questions about the appropriate vehicle for the expression of such a ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Could it be the domain of new categories such as ‘ordained pioneer minister’ or ‘lay pioneer’, or should it remain the domain of those described in George Lings’s inelegant-but-effective phrase, ‘lay-lay pioneers’?1 At present, no specific category for this exists in the list of ministries in the Scottish Episcopal Church. The recognized ministry of Lay Evangelist exists on paper, but this may not be sufficiently broad to encompass all the potential activities of and outcomes from pioneer ministry. The goal of this paper is to explore whether and how the ministry of the Vocational Deacon might be a suitable vehicle for the expression and development of pioneer ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Church.2 It will address this question by looking first at pioneer ministry and what is meant by this fluid and elastic phrase. We will then look at the diaconal ministry as expressed in the SEC and recent literature and consider the relationship between the two.
What is meant by the term ‘pioneer ministry’?
The term ‘pioneer ministry’ is often used somewhat loosely and flexibly, and it can lack definition. But at its very base it is language that expresses an aspiration for something new and different in the Church’s mission in contemporary Western society. For its advocates, it is used to remind us of the need for engagement with those who are currently well beyond any contact with churches as currently formed (that is, it is not about those on the fringe of church; it is about those who never give church a second thought).
As the concept of a ‘mixed economy’ or ‘mixed ecology’ of church reminds us, there is still much that can be done in and through our existing models of church, as they still have the potential to reach a significant proportion of the UK population. In 2015, two separate and unrelated pieces of research3 showed that around 10% of the UK population still attend church on a regular or more-than-occasional basis (that is, more than just at Christmas and Easter) and that another 10% would accept an invitation to attend if invited by someone that they knew. This suggests that there is much we can still do in and through our existing and familiar models of church. But the remaining 80% of the UK population are currently indifferent and hard to reach. And as we follow someone who spoke about leaving the ninety-nine to go after the one (Luke 15. 1–7), it doesn’t seem unreasonable to sometimes leave the twenty to their own devices and put a bit of effort into reaching the eighty.
Pioneer ministry is often connected to and conflated with the idea of ‘fresh expressions’ of church. They are related but by no means identical. It may be helpful to think of pioneer ministry as a process (or a verb), with a fresh expression of church as one possible outcome (i.e. a noun). However, there is a close relationship in terms of the outreach strategy outlined above (reaching the ‘eighty’). Lings included the following principles in his definition of a fresh expression of church, produced for the purpose of his research:
- The aim is for Christians to change their patterns and practices to fit into a new culture and context, not to make people change to fit into an existing context.4
- The intention is that the outcome will be a church, not a bridge back into ‘real church’.
- The majority of those who participate see it as their major expression of being church.5 As Male and Weston have recently shown, there is evidence that fresh expressions of church have been more successful in reaching a higher proportion of younger and unchurched people than other contemporary mission strategies.6 The term ‘fresh expression’ is falling from use in some places and is being replaced by the less jargonistic but more cumbersome phrase ‘New Contextual Christian Communities’.7
Whichever term is preferred, they do lead us to the need to identify and discuss what is central to our ecclesiology. What do we mean for something to be a ‘church’, and how much room do we have for flexibility and creativity? As I have noted above, pioneer ministry aims to engage with people where they are, to build community and explore what it means to follow Jesus in their own context, rather than inviting them to come to us. This is sometimes summarized as being ‘incarnational’ rather than ‘attractional’.
However, despite Lings’s definition above, Moynagh also advocates for an ‘engaged’ model of pioneering, which leads to growth in existing churches.8 In 2018, Leicester Diocese undertook research after 10 years of pioneer ministry within the diocese, and 180 different projects and initiatives were identified. Of these, around a quarter had led to a fresh expression of church, another quarter were still in development and were called ‘Edgelands’, and the main outcome of the remaining half were that they served as a ‘Bridgeback’ to existing churches.
This diversity of outcomes is explored and theorized by Hodgett and Bradbury 10, who show that a variety of missional expressions are possible outcomes of pioneer ministry, including social enterprises. They also show that the term ‘fresh expression’ covers a wide range of possible outcomes, from café church and Messy Church to neo-monastic communities.11 They also include ‘traditional’ church plants as outcomes of pioneer ministry, but there are those within the pioneer movement who are unhappy with that inclusion as they think it undermines the distinctive nature of pioneer ministry.
Fig 1: Hodgett and Bradbury’s pioneer ministry spectrum
Given this variety of outcomes, it is helpful to think of pioneer ministry as a learning and development process, and as a way of exploring different possible futures for the Church. Male and Weston note that it has a clear emphasis on listening and serving a locality and call it ‘a “slow burn” model, taking time for the communal shape of the Gospel in this particular setting to take form’.12 Baker argues that this is helpful because the current landscape is unmapped due to the huge social changes we have faced and are facing, and that this new world is a challenge for churches because ‘their identity, imagination, theologies and practices have been more shaped by modernity than perhaps at first we realised or like to admit’.13
Like Abraham, it is time to set out on a journey, even if we don’t know where we are going (Hebrews 11:8). A focus on pioneer ministry and/or fresh expressions of church can leave those who lead existing or ‘inherited’ models of church feeling criticized, undermined, or somehow bypassed. There is some legitimacy to these feelings, but perhaps also to the implied criticism too. My experience of conversations with both pioneers and inherited church leaders is, that both feel somewhat threatened and criticized by the other. It is here that a concept of a ‘mixed economy’ or ‘mixed ecology’ of church is helpful in providing for a degree of mutual recognition and respect. It is important that Michael Moynagh, one of the strongest advocates for fresh expressions of church, wrote the following:
New communities with a fragrance of church are not better than the existing church. Nor need they be alternatives. New and well-established types of church have their own distinctive missions, and it is possible to be involved in both at the same time. Emphasising the value of both will remove the fear that individuals are being asked to make a choice.14
However, given that we still mainly operate under inherited models of church with the vast majority of people and financial resources being poured into sustaining these, and that change tends to happen where it is facilitated and supported, a more diverse ecology that gives greater room for the expression of pioneer initiatives does mean that this requires some significant attention at this time.
The role of the vocational deacon as pioneer
The seeds of this paper were sown at the June 2019 meeting of the SEC’s Diaconal Working Group, which I was asked to attend, to explore how the discussions on pioneer ministry that were taking place at the Mission Board might be connected to their work on the role of the diaconate. The meeting observed that the diaconal role can lend itself well to pioneering work (every Vocational Deacon at the meeting said, when I described pioneer ministry in the terms outlined above, ‘that’s what I do’). Pioneers and deacons both have a translational role, to allow the liturgy to meet people in their own space and using their own language, instead of expecting them to adapt to our existing traditions, language, and liturgy. The meeting asked, ‘are diaconal and pioneer the same?’, concluding that there was potential overlap and asking that this be explored.
This is what this paper seeks to do. In the Scottish Episcopal Church, the role of Vocational Deacons is described in the following way:
Deacons are heralds of the Gospel, called to proclaim and make visible God’s love in word and deed. They seek out those in need to bring them the good news of the Kingdom, and bring the concerns of the world to the attention of the Church and its congregations, reminding them of their call to serve others in love in their mission to the world.15
It is the ‘seeking out’ function of the diaconate that concerns us here. We have already noted above, that the pioneer expects to go where people are, rather than expecting them to come to us. Their criteria for selection make clear the primacy of mission, evangelism and discipleship in the role:
E1 Candidates demonstrate their commitment to mission and evangelism in their thought, prayer and action. They demonstrate an excitement about the loving and saving purpose of God for the world, and have a firm desire to share this by word and deed.
E2 Candidates have a knowledge and understanding of mission and evangelism. They are alert to the opportunities for engagement with contemporary culture and are sensitive to the demands of particular contexts.
E4 Candidates are committed to developing the discipleship of others. They are able to nurture the faith of others and to equip others to witness to their faith in Christ.16
In addition, there is a clear expectation that innovative, creative and entrepreneurial initiative will shape their ministry, with a deep focus on contextual priorities:
F4 Candidates have the potential to lead strategically. They are able to look forward in an imaginative and theologically-informed way. They can take the initiative and have a creative, entrepreneurial approach. They are prepared to take risks and to implement a process of change with flexibility and resilience.
F5 Candidates understand and work with the dynamics of a community.17
The SEC’s 2019 alternative text for the ordination of Deacons confirms this theme and focus:
In the name of the Church, deacons are sent to declare the kingdom of God and to care for those in need, serving God and the world after the pattern of Christ. They have a commitment to outreach and witness, advocacy and prophecy, flowing from their historic ministry for the poor, needy and sick, and seeking out the careless and indifferent. They are called to build bridges between the Church and the world, and to be an expression of the unconditional love of God.18
In the above extracts from SEC documents, there are clear overlaps with the pioneer ministry principles discussed above. There is a focus on mission and evangelism, including inviting others into the journey of discipleship, and an expectation that this will be done in creative and entrepreneurial ways, allowing the shape of the local community to form the shape of any outcomes from their ministry, including the forms of discipleship and Christian community.
Other recent writing on the diaconate has affirmed its role in terms that sound remarkably similar to the pioneer ministry literature:
A mission-shaped church needs a mission-shaped ministry. It needs an outward-facing ministry as well as one that can build up the already existing body of Christ. In episcopally-ordered churches, bishops must be ‘bishops in mission’ as ‘the chief pastors of all that are within their dioceses’. Readers, Local Preachers and other lay ministers must become orientated to those outside the worshipping community as well as to those within. But the missionary reshaping of the church’s ministry bears particularly closely on deacons.19
Deacons are charged to reach into the forgotten corners of the world so that the love of God may be made visible. We should free them to be busy on those margins with the lonely, the overlooked, the homeless and the misfits; to be the church present and active in those situations.20 We could argue that the SEC was ahead of the curve in the way it has described the role of deacons as pioneers. It must be clearly stated that Deacons, while being communicant members of congregations, having a liturgical ministry and dovetailing with the work of presbyters, are primarily a task force at the disposal of the Bishop, for work, most of which is out in the world. They have their proper place in a diocesan rather than a congregational strategy of mission. They are a pioneer corps rather than auxiliaries to share the load of existing intra-congregational ministries.21
The mark of true diaconal ministry is to foster the initiation of lay ministries galore —to pioneer and then hand over, in order to be free again to pioneer.22 One of the advantages and challenges for diaconal ministry is that it is open to redefinition and reinterpretation. Klaasen notes that ‘from a church historian’s point of view, the semantics of diakonia are not clear […] Diakonia can be understood from different and varied perspectives and the term is not static in both its meaning and semantics’.23 Clark sees this as a positive thing, arguing that ‘the diaconate has always been an order of ministry well-suited to adapt to the changing needs of society and world. Over the years it has fulfilled a wide diversity of responsibilities.’24 He notes that the diaconate is still embedded in one form or another in the lives and work of many denominations (including the SEC) and suggests that there is no need to invent new forms of ministry when the diaconate already exists to fulfil this purpose. For the sake of the topic of this paper, he goes on to make a specific proposal:
A diaconal order of mission would carry greater credibility and significance if it were able to embrace and give coherence to the bewildering diversity of ministries —such as so-called ‘mission enablers’, ‘pioneer ministries’ and, even worse, ‘mission champions’ —which the church in the West is currently inventing to try to stem its decline. Such ministries frequently have vague or vast job descriptions, are unrelated to each other and, more important, to the ministry of the people of God in the world. Itwould give coherence to such ministries and add experience and skills to a diaconal order of mission, if they were incorporated into the latter.25
And so, in a variety of ways, a firm connection can be established between the vocational diaconate and the vision of pioneer ministry. As Clark notes, this connection helps in both directions. It roots the practices of pioneer ministry in a historic (but fluid and redefinable) order of ministry, and in return, pioneer ministry thinking and practices both serve to give a specific focus and direction to the diaconal ministry ‘for such a time as this’.26
One additional contribution that this connection between the pioneering and the diaconal can make is based on an observation by Klaasen; ‘the functions of [the diaconate since] the early church have been liturgical and caritative.’27 This combination is also found in the World Council of Church’s 2017 report on Ecumenical Diakonia, which notes that ‘Christian diakonia flows from the divine liturgy, it is a “liturgy after the Liturgy”. As Christians experience the gracious gifts of sharing, healing and reconciliation at the Lord’s table, they are commissioned to a lifestyle and to practices that bring these gifts to the world.’28
The question about the ecclesial status of fresh expressions was noted above, i.e. in what ways are they ‘church’? This is something of concern for more sacramentally-minded Christians, and which they have sought to address.29 The deacon’s role is a combination of liturgical and missional, and while a diaconal status does not allow every question to be answered easily30, one might hope that the vision for a creative and entrepreneurial diaconal ministry as outlined in the SEC’s selection criteria could also be applied to the ecclesiological questions that arise out of their missional initiatives.
It is not as if we are not already having to grapple with these questions, given the geographically scattered nature of churches and ministries in the SEC. A pioneering diaconal ministry will simply serve to add new and emerging Christian communities into this mix. I would argue that this would be a nice problem to have to address.
1 George Lings, Evidence about Fresh Expressions of Church in the Church of England (Church Army Research Unit, 2014). ‘By this invented term we mean people without any church badge, office, or in many cases training’(p.14). Or ‘normal people’, as they are otherwise known.
2 This proposal should not be taken to mean that it should not also be accompanied by a wider lay-lay led movement of pioneering. But it is important not to overstate the importance of lay-lay initiatives in the recent history of pioneer ministry, as encouraging as they are. In Lings’s 2014 report (see note 1 above) of a survey of ten Church of England dioceses, 40% of fresh expressions of church had been founded by lay-lay leaders, with 46% being led/founded by clergy (incumbents, curates, NSMs, OLMs, and so on). The remaining 14% were led/founded by Lay Readers (9%), Church Army evangelists (3%), and Ordained Pioneer Ministers (2%); some of these proportions will be a function of cohort size, but the numbers are interesting, nonetheless.
3 The two pieces of research are found at Talking Jesus, and in Stuart Murray, A Vast Minority: Church and Mission in a Plural Culture (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2015).
4 It might be argued that Paul said something similar in his Letter to the Galatians.
5 Lings, Evidence about Fresh Expressions.
6 David Male and Paul Weston, ‘What Does the Development of Fresh Expressions of Church in the UK Tell us about Mission Today?’, International Review of Mission, 108.2(2019), 276–89.
7 Michael Moynagh, Being Church, Doing Life: Creating a Gospel Community Where Life Happens (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2014); David Male, How to Pioneer (Even If You Haven’t A Clue) (London: Church House Publishing, 2016).
8 Michael Moynagh, Church for Every Context (London: SCM Press, 2012).
9 They defined Edgelands as ‘a new pioneering missional enterprise whose current charism is not yet clear, but it is not yet “church taking shape” at this time’. A Bridgeback is ‘a missional pioneering enterprise that finds its charism is to connect or reconnect people to inherited church’.
10 Tina Hodgett and Paul Bradbury, ‘Pioneering Ministry Is A Spectrum’, Anvil: Journal of Theology and Mission, 34.1(2018), 30–34.
11 This point was also clearly made in 2004 in the seminal report, Mission-Shaped Church: Church Planting and Fresh Expressions of Church in a Changing Context (London: Church House Publishing).
12 Male and Weston, ‘What Does the Development of Fresh Expressions […]’, p. 285.
13 Jonny Baker, ‘The Pioneer Gift’ (chap. 1) in The Pioneer Gift: Explorations in Mission, ed. by Jonny Baker and Cathy Ross (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2014), p. 5.
14 Moynagh, Being Church, Doing Life, p. 253.
15 ‘Ministries in the Scottish Episcopal Church’(2018), p. 8.
16 Ministries in the Scottish Episcopal Church (2018), p. 11.
17 Ministries in the Scottish Episcopal Church (2018), p. 11
18 The Ordination of Deacons, alternative text (2019).
19 Paul Avis, ‘The Diaconate: A Flagship Ministry?’, Theology and Ministry, 2 (2013), 24–25.
20 Rosalind Brown, ‘Expanding the Theological Foundation of the Deacon’s Ministry’, Ecclesiology, 13.2(2017), p. 218.
21 Truly Called by God to Serve as a Deacon: The Report of the Bishops’ Working Group on Distinctive Diaconate (Edinburgh: General Synod Office,1987), p. 12.
22 Ibid., p. 15.
23 J. S. Klaasen, ‘Diakonia and Diaconal Church’, Missionalia, 48.1(2020), p. 122.
24 David Clark (2020), A Diaconal Church and Order of Mission: The Shape of Things to Come, p. 6.
25 Ibid., p. 7.
26 For Such a Time as This: A Renewed Diaconate in the Church of England (London: Church House Publishing, 2012).
27 Klaasen, ‘Diakonia and Diaconal Church’, p. 124.
28 Ecumenical Diakonia, (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 2017), p. 46.
29 See, for example, Steven Croft and Ian Mobsby, Fresh Expressions in the Sacramental Tradition, (Norich: Canterbury Press, 2009), and Ian Mobsby and Phil Potter, Doorways to The Sacred: Developing Sacramentality in Fresh Expressions of Church, (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2017).
30 You know that I mean the Eucharist, right?