Introducing Phil Potter

Monday, 23 June, 2014

Phil Potter, Archbishops' Missioner and Fresh Expressions team leader, introduces himself and his vision for Fresh Expressions.

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Phil Potter: I suppose the first thing to say about me is that I've always been a pioneer for as long as I can remember. My family still have a saying about me that I'm 'always on the next beach'; that goes back to when our family was small, when the children were small and we went off to the seaside and I was one of those irritating people who, while the rest of the family are settling onto the beach, putting the rug down and the picnic, I'd be looking longingly round the next headland thinking, 'I'm sure there's a better beach around the corner'. And so I've naturally followed that really throughout my ministry and, as a church leader, had the privilege of being in one place for quite a number of years and people would say of me as a pioneer, 'Why on earth would you stay in a place for so long?' and the reason for that was that the church itself went through five, very major pioneering change phases that completely transformed the church over a long period of time.

And those phases really reflected what many churches have done over the years, of re-digging spiritual foundations, bringing spiritual renewal, the whole reordering thing of rebuilding, restructuring (we were very much part of the Cell Church movement) and then resourcing and partnering with other churches. And I suppose my story is, the privilege of being in a place for so long is you do get to know your community, your church, inside out. And it was the growing conviction that you could do all of those things, you could do the very best things of renewed inherited church, you could outwardly build a strong congregation and yet still have a very strong sense that the vast majority on the doorstep, whatever you did, however well you did it, would still just not get it.

And so sometime really before Mission-shaped Church report came out, we started to experiment with this; in fact we actually closed down two of our congregations in order to start planting fresh expressions which was a bit like a cartoon I once saw of a sign outside a church door, the church door was locked and padlocked and it said, 'You've been coming here long enough, now go and do it!' And it just created a great sense of adventure and we're serious about trying to engage with the unchurched.

And as we did that and as Mission-shaped Church came out, I think I had two convictions in particular; one of them was that if this was of God and we needed to engage with this, that it must not be a box on the side where it's 95% inherited church and then a little bit, 5%, of pioneering. But that if it was worth doing it was worth being at least 50/50; a true mixed economy. And my fear was that when we talked about mixed economy, we would be talking very much about 'either or' – either something over there or the new-fangled thing over here. And so my conviction was that this very much needed to be a 'both and' vision. And so as we worked on it in the Diocese in later years, we actually started using the word 'blended' as churches really started getting hold of the vision of having a go at this and, of course, one of the many great things that came out of the recent research was that the vast majority of fresh expressions are coming out of local churches. So, in other words, this is renewing the local church for mission and within that we have a whole array of fresh expressions, of ones that are very connected to their local church to ones that are right on the edge and, as a pioneer over the years, if you like I've sat in all of those positions – I've known what it's felt like to be right on the edge and the kind of support that we need when we're in that position and then, in the later years in particular, trying to work this out in the structure of a diocese, what it means to be doing it from the centre and the challenges of being pioneer in what is traditionally a rigid institution. So, for me, this is very much a 'both and' vision, that naturally I've always been – in fact my core calling has always been to be a visionary bridge-builder. So I will have plenty of vision but my instinct has always been to try and bring as many people as possible with us.

So now, of course, wonderful things have happened since Mission-shaped Church report came out and one of the phrases that you hear quite a bit is that – in terms of describing where we are now – is that we are moving from initiative to movement. And so the big question is, 'Well, what does it mean for us to go with that and together to be catalysts for the movement that is emerging?' And I think my overall instinct is that this all really needs now joining up, that there's some fantastic initiatives going on, fantastic pioneer leaders at every level working on this. And I suppose the danger in any movement as it gathers momentum is that it can become more and more fragmented or that different elements of it can become more and more competitive. And so I would hope that the role of Fresh Expressions now is to maybe more intentionally, to become a network of networks; of pioneering networks - a network of denominations, streams and agencies who are all committed to work together in promoting new ways of being church.

And I think, within that, there are probably three main areas of focus that are relevant for us all:

  • one is best practice and how we promote it;
  • and then effective support and how we provide it;
  • and then genuine partnership and how we create it.

And so one of the things that we're looking to doing at the moment is creating an inclusive core community where we can take together the key people and partners who are involved in this and create more space for us to meet together, to work together, to support each other and to discern together where God is taking us in the next few years.

For Fresh Expressions itself again I think that probably some of the headlines to look out for in supporting that kind of vision is, yes, we're looking at this core community and then, from that, creating many different kinds of specialist hubs that are moving from the sort of round table conversation-type thing to committed partnership and covenant relationship and how can we do this together.

We're talking about the possibility of Pioneer Centres, a Pioneer Mentoring Network, Pioneer Sponsorship and fresh tools for equipping people. So, exciting times and let's watch this space together.


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