Prune and prioritise

Monday, 15 June, 2015

Phil Potter discusses making space for new things.

A group of people were preparing for an ascent to the top of Mont Blanc in the French Alps, and were told to leave behind all unnecessary equipment as it was an arduous and difficult climb. A young Englishman disagreed and went ahead of the group carrying his usual very heavy load. The rest of the group followed and on the climb noticed certain things that someone had left along the way… a blanket, some large blocks of cheese, a bottle of wine and several heavy pieces of camera equipment. When they reached the summit, they discovered their now wiser companion who had decided (the hard way) to jettison everything unnecessary!

One thing I am noticing increasingly as the Church continues its ascent towards becoming more effectively mission-shaped is that pioneer leaders at every level are grappling with what it means to prune and prioritise. We are recognising (sometimes the hard way) that we cannot introduce and pioneer new ways of working without first of all dealing with the way we work now. Let me give you one or two examples.

In the Church of England, the eight bishops' staff teams who have attended an Inter Diocesan Learning Community over the past three years have all now made significant moves to make regular space in their crowded agendas for serious reflective thinking and decision making on the ways in which they will increasingly learn how to innovate for the future. They have recognised that unless they own that as a priority, the urgency of the day-to-day business will always extinguish their genuine desire to keep looking forward and think more radically.

In the Missional Leaders' Community that I created for lay pioneers, we recognised that every good intention to make this a source of support and refreshment would be seriously undermined if we simply added another meeting to all of the other demands faced by these leaders on a daily basis; not least in their local church. We decided from the beginning, then, to enable them to prune their commitment to other things, and deliberately decided to gather once a month on a Sunday morning or afternoon. In doing this we negotiated with their church leaders to release them from their usual commitment to church attendance on those days, and we were grateful to those who gave their blessing for graciously realising that some of their best leaders needed a Sabbath too, and would never get it without some innovative pruning and prioritising.

In fresh expressions of church that first set out with a monthly rhythm of meeting, many are wisely not assuming that growing into maturity is about turning the monthly gathering into a weekly one. Instead of trying to repeat and clone what is already happening, they are seeing the four weeks of a standard month as an opportunity to offer people a varying diet. They may, for instance, gather for collective community and worship twice a month, but on the other weeks introduce discipleship groups or social events… in other words they don't assume the old paradigm of 'service every Sunday' and extras if you're really committed!

Finally, as a team and organisation, Fresh Expressions has now entered a period of 'pruning and prioritising' as we continue to wrestle with how we can best serve the Church as the fresh expressions story transitions from 'initiative to movement'. The list of possible priorities is huge and the challenge at times daunting, but a generous and faithful God has already multiplied the available resources way beyond a single team and we are so thankful for our 'associate' friends in every sense.

Please pray for us then as we increasingly seek in our role to catalyze, encourage and connect the many thousands of us who are working in different and dynamic ways to champion fresh expressions of church. The pruning and prioritising is bearing fruit.


Perhaps The Church should spend more time encouraging scholarship, with good biblical teaching together with an emphasis on fellowship? I have noted in recent years a drift away from Christian teaching in favour of Establishment respectability and Shaw's notions of middle class morality. The congregations assemble in tight little cliques, each attempting to outdo the other and 'schardenfreude' abounds in certain circles. Older members become more and more invisible as they fade gently into that goodnight. Arthur Clough's composition, 'The Latest Decalogue', might have been written in the middle of the 19th century, but it has a remarkably fresh, contemporary feel to it.

I read this with interest as my parish is an example of this type of behaviour. If we did serious biblical teaching it would be good,depending on the interpretation, but I often see that it never goes outside the church walls. Small cliques remain small cliques. If one doesn't belong; single and elderly,female and unattached,often overwhelmed by younger singles who dismiss one's ideas,the message is lost and isolation is the norm.The church is the establishment in most parishes and the " so-called" morality flips with the dominant trendy thinking. The way one does outreach is to make the parishioners feel "good",certainly not to address the state of society or the world's pressing and critical conditions. Becoming active in Climate Change has become more pressing for me than attending a Sunday service so that it the way I have elected to go;but I miss the church's sacramental trappings. A very sad 80- year old who is trying to find The Way.

Can you really enter a period of pruning and prioritization surely that should have been part of the organization and peoples own workload from the very beginning that’s what everyone else in life and work does, you have to work out what you can and can’t do what you have to stop doing to start something new if that wasn’t part of the bedrock when fresh expression started its going to take forever to embed it now things are up and running

You have to be very careful what you leave at the start of climbing a mountain because you can’t easily go back. It’s better to agree what’s needed and then share out those items across the group reduces duplication and allows you to take enough equipment to cope with most eventualities. At the base in the sunshine a blanket a long heavy rope even waterproofs may seem pointless trapped on the summit in a snow storm it may save your life. Its more impart to share the load and understand the journey and the risks in its entirety.

How sad that the bishops had to make space in their schedules to think about innovation the very fact that they feel that is an important statement is very worrying and fails to understand innovation which it a dynamic thing and doesn’t happen in isolation. If they had to make time, then perhaps they are not the kind of people who are going to innovate anything. Not only is it worrying but potentially what they are doing is pointless, innovation isn’t a scheduled task it’s a state of mind it should be part of what you do every day and in every task. By taking timeout to think they are going to miss opportunities and those they come up with may only be nice ideas and practically of no use. Taking time out to innovate is no more than a tick in the box exercise.

The other question that I have, is that you seem to think that this is about the pioneer leaders do all this when really shouldn’t we be looking and encouraging everyone to be part of the change coming up with ideas and trying them out. You’re still working with a top down model for driving change it doesn’t work well and faces far too much resistance could that be why change takes so long in the church? Really you need to be building a bottom up approach to change it means letting go of the hierarchy and allowing the drivers to come from within and outside it makes for powerful sustainable change that allows everyone to own the change rather than have change done to them. I’m saddened that the church is so far behind the rest of society, if the church looked at how industry manages and embraces change the church would be able to make a massive leap forward, most of this sounds like lessons learn by others many years ago perhaps fresh expressions is now trying to reinvent the wheel.

Rereading this it seems negative and I guess it is, I always thought fresh expressions was fundamentally different, inclusive, dynamic and owned by all and yet much focus is on pioneer leaders/ministers as though they are different from other ministers (and I’m not a minister) or more importantly from other Christians who are forever looking for ways to share their faith and to bring others to alternate forms of being church. In fact if you want to find innovation, look at what ordinary Christians are doing in the churches they attend or outside of them it’s all around us if we care to see.

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