Ian Bell on pioneering pathways

Monday, 11 May, 2015

Ian Bell explores how fresh expressions of church are flourishing in the Methodist Church and why they have created a pioneering pathway.

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Ian Bell: Pioneer ministry is really flourishing within a Methodist context, as it is in many other contexts, and that's something that is affecting both individuals who sense that call but it's also affecting the Church as a whole in the way that it views the opportunities for mission in contemporary society. It feels as though Fresh Expressions has actually been the trigger for all of that. I think pioneering is something that is part and parcel of the nature of the Church. I think it's something that's been very important to the Methodist Church from its inception so, in some ways, it's a rediscovery of those things and I think Fresh Expressions has really unlocked something that was latent and has helped us to seize the opportunity which is appropriate for today.

It feels as though the Methodist Church has embraced the whole concept of fresh expressions very enthusiastically and I think for many people it's sort of legitimised the kinds of things that they were already doing because I think, at heart, it's a move of the Spirit and it's something that the Spirit of God is causing to bubble up and fresh expressions – and pioneering – seem to be something that the Church is recognising – not as some great programme that needs to be implemented but simply as a response to what God is doing amongst us.

I think the development of fresh expressions has reminded us that mission is at the forefront of everything that the church needs to be about. And as we've seen the evidence that fresh expressions of church are actually working in bringing about the transformation of people's lives and the transformation of communities, and that this is a really appropriate and apt form of mission for today's society, that it's prompting us to look afresh at the way that we allocate resources of money and time and people, and to take a really strategic approach to this so it's not entirely haphazard (although there's a certain positive quality of being slightly informal about the way that some of these things unfold) but actually, if we're going to put serious resources behind this; this does have to be part of our priorities, part of our strategy.

And it feels very much as though it’s absolutely in line with our aspiration to be a discipleship movement shaped for mission, it feels like we are shaping ourselves for mission in a way that perhaps we haven’t done for quite a long time.

Within the Methodist Church, pioneering and fresh expressions are seen as very closely linked, and I know that's the vision of Fresh Expressions to cultivate an environment in which pioneers can sense a call from God and be released and resourced to form fresh expressions of church and we find that that's happening – both formally and informally. There are lots of people who are simply, informally, finding ways to be pioneers. In churches and Circuits and Districts it's happening and the number of pioneers is growing. And we really want to find ways of supporting and equipping people who sense this call and are actually, more often than not, doing it on the ground without squashing them and that's I think a real challenge because it's so easy for an institution, even the institution of the church, to seek to help but actually to hinder by imposing structures that are more like a straitjacket.

So, what we're trying to develop flows from our experience over the last ten years of developing fresh expressions and then looking at pioneer ministry, to establish something called Methodist Pioneering Pathways. And we've deliberately called it 'Pathways' because we feel that it needs somehow not to be a linear approach where people take a course and become a pioneer at the end of it, but more a framework within which people can engage with the whole process of vocational discernment and be helped to ask and answer the question about whether maybe pioneering ministry is something that God is calling me to.

It also, I think, gives people the opportunity to be part of communities of practice with other pioneers so that they can be encouraged together and learn together and find ways in which they can share good practice and talk together about what God is doing in different contexts so that it's perhaps obvious what things there may be in common that can be learned.

And through the Pioneering Pathways we're trying to also provide the opportunity for somebody to accompany a pioneer and help them to walk that journey and to reflect on what they're doing and apply their learning to the context, simply to support them – and find ways also of offering the formal learning opportunities. Pioneers don't necessarily need to do a BA in order to be a good pioneer but there are things that they can continually learn about God, about the church, about mission, about the communities that they're serving. 

I hate to be deskbound so one of the great joys of my role is that it means I get to travel around the country and see at ground level, grass roots level, exactly what's happening and that really is what excites me. It kind of makes it all worthwhile. I think all these initiatives are only worthwhile if it's making a difference in people's lives. And I've lost count of the times when I've visited a pioneer, or I've been to a fresh expression of church, and talked to real, live people who've said, 'If it wasn't for this, I don't know where I would be'. Somebody I spoke to the other day in one of the fresh expressions in Scotland said to me, 'It's not long ago that I was in prison for armed robbery and I think I'd be back in prison now if it wasn't for this place and for what's going on here', and they were experiencing something of God there that was actually meaning that their life was being changed beyond recognition.

And people who've said to me, and this is not just an isolated instance – people have regularly said to me, 'I would never have gone to a church but, for me, this is my church, this is the place where I find God and the pioneer is like a vicar to me' and it just feels as though there's something really authentic about the real life experiences that people are talking about which suggest this is something that has proved to be really fruitful in terms of our mission – ecumenically, as a denomination. And these things are happening across the British Isles; we have pioneers working in Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, in London, and we find the same stories emerging – God is meeting me, God is changing my life and, for me, this is the way that I am able to experience that of God which I may not have been able to find elsewhere.

So I think the future for fresh expressions and for pioneering, in a sense, has only just begun. I don't know what the future is for Fresh Expressions as in the initiative but I do think that the approach that we're taking and all the experience and the learning that we're accumulating is not just for now. I think this is something that has the power to be transformational, both in the life of the church and, actually – without sounding too pretentious, probably in the nation.


I would like to know where you think the Methodidt Diaconal Order fit into this as a community already pioneering in many contexts, supporting one another, learning from one another and holding one another accountable for this work. Seems the Church has over looked us.

Dear Anonymous,

The church has no means over looked the Diaconate as there are quite a number of deacons whose experience and learning has contributed significantly to the Pioneer Pathway. Right from the beginning the Diaconal Order have made significant contributions to the working group and to the implementation of the Pioneer Pathway, for which the Church is very grateful. Every Blessing, Stephen (Connexional Missioner for Fresh Expressions)

I think it's great that the church is encouraging and supporting people whom God is calling to work beyond the edges of the inherited church's reach. Just brilliant.
Also, regarding the comment above, I'm helping to facilitate the Pioneer Pathway in the North East and I'm delighted that it includes a probationer deacon who is involved in some excellent work and is a great member of the group.

The Methodist Diaconal Order had a representative on the working group which brought the proposal and, as comments above indicate, deacons are already involved with Methodist Pioneering Pathways - one in each of the three pilot scheme currently running. Deacons may well find that their support comes from within the Order, but they are equally welcome to participate in MPP. You might also have noticed Deacon Tracey Hume featuring in the recent video about MPP

Why is it not possible to train at theological college a presbyteral pioneer minister when it is in the Anglican Church?

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