Redeployment of Pioneers Part 1: Attrition, Infrastructure and Self-redeployment
Pioneers seldom start by thinking about the end. Least of all regarding themselves. Where will the pioneer go next if the attempt fails…or indeed even if it succeeds? One of those two scenarios is 100% likely to happen. What happens to the pioneer either way? Pioneers should receive proactive support to enable their redeployment. But given that they don’t, how can they redeploy themselves after their work comes to an end?
Reflections from the tail end of transition
Only a very few pioneers will remain indefinitely with a work once established. With infrastructural support for pioneering in Scotland remaining critically weak in many areas, especially regarding consistent job opportunities and almost complete lack of dedicated redeployment support in any Scottish denomination, pioneers will need to be as proactive in carving out a future beyond their work as they have been while pioneering in the first place.
Added to the extreme precarity of a pioneer’s position denominationally in Scotland is the reality of how the job market in all sectors is moving to a zig-zag career path. Pioneers can’t expect even the 5-year job security afforded to CofS mainstream ministers. But there is also less job security than traditionally the case in any of the sectors we might graduate to. This is both a plus and a minus. Don’t expect any soft landings in either direction. At least we have Christ, if not the church, to support us as we negotiate this journey. Given this pioneers must understand that (unsupported) transition away from our work will require careful planning as well as a willingness to be nimble.
It can come as a shock to the system to realise that even when existing denominations are encouraging, verbally at least, the ministry of pioneers, that there are few if any structural mechanisms in place for them to be honoured and enabled in their redeployment. If nothing else, this article is designed to highlight this state of play from the outset. The likelihood in ten years’ time that those starting now will receive but a pat on the back of even a successful pioneering initiative remains high. Little looks like changing compared the experience of those of pioneering over the last decade.
Also prompted by this series of articles by Brian MacLaren, I have been reflecting on the experience of pioneers have when leaving the ministry, and the specific culture of Scotland. I have particularly in mind pioneers of forms of church, rather than other modes of pioneering, although there is some overlap.
The following two-part article emerges from reflections at the tail end of a year-and-a-half transition process from pioneering and back to the workplace. After 15 years in unpaid, unordained but denominationally endorsed incarnational ministry among the poor, ten of which planting Clay Community Church in Possil, I am now retraining as a town-planner. God has not called me to pioneer again, despite the evidence that pioneers have the ability to do so repeatedly. I believe He has done this in part out of a concern for my wellbeing in the midst of an ongoing, chronic infrastructural failure to support such callings in Scotland. Across all denominations.
I remain hopeful, however, that this situation will (must) change for others coming behind. I therefore remain a vocal proponent of the need for reform, even as I continue to mentor up-and-coming pioneer leaders. Indeed, I cannot but be an advocate for such drastically-needed change given that a primary cause of attrition (personal pastoral damage leading to drop-out) are avoidable structural failings caused by poor organisational pastoral care. Until change happens though, the requirement remains to teach ourselves and each other how to redeploy ourselves well.
Pressures and attrition
The inevitable result of the continuing lack of integrated and consistent structural change to promote pioneer mission in Scotland is that an alarmingly high of my pioneer peers have been forced (or led) to leave the coalface of start-up mission amidst its chronic unsustainability. Pressures on their sense of self-worth, pressures on their status and the status of their work, pressures on their finances, pressures on their relationships and pressures caused by the increased workload and multi-dimensionality of their work. Are these even higher than those of a traditional parish minister? I venture to say yes, especially given the higher quality status, pay and training those types of leaders receive.
Galatians 6:2-5 (seen as a general principle) makes it clear that we should carry our own load but share one another’s burdens. When it comes to pioneering, however, the wider church seems in the main happy to leave pioneers and their teams to shoulder alone the burden not just the load of church planting. Much more so than a leader who is employed to lead an existing congregation. Whatever method is eventually created by the pioneer to sustain themselves, structured redistribution mechanisms to support them remain almost non-existent. This transgresses not only Paul’s own teachings, but also Christ’s golden rule to love others as ourselves. Something needs to give, and at the moment what is giving way is the pioneer, not the inflexible, unfit systemic architecture.
I suspect that if denominations can continue to rely on pioneering talent to accept voluntaristic and unfinanced conditions that no-one else will (on the false pretext that “it’s the way it is – the mission still needs to happen”), then they will absolutely continue to take advantage of that sincerity and willingness. No matter how toxic that actually is, or how disappointed the Lord might be that the church should treat some types of leaders differently from others. The church cannot continue to accept the gift of those called to such ministry without embracing its own call to gift such people with its concrete, consistent support.
The prevailing decline of attendance across the church in Scotland is not the its only index of spiritual health. Another important one is the high level of attrition among its pioneer leaders…and the sweeping under the carpet of the ongoing and very real loss to all of us of their talents and gifts.
Issue #1: The unsustainability of expectations on pioneer leaders: a diagnosis
What is making the situation unsustainable for pioneers?
- Chronic under-resourcing of pioneering home mission in favour of maintenance of existing churches and structures means that leaders taking up positions already recognised by the structures receive status, pay, employment, pensions, paid holiday leave, pastoral care and training. But by-and-large pioneer leaders must generate all this for themselves. We are all equal, but in the current climate some are far more equal than others.
- Unwillingness amidst denominations to make the structural changes required to create an environment of support for start-up missionaries. At best a grudging willingness to work with under-resourced sodalities (agencies outside local churches) and benefit from them, without redistributing core funding to the pioneers they recruit. This is toxic. Even when such paid positions become available, anecdotal evidence suggests that in many cases the structural and support elements of these roles are managed poorly, unecessarily increasing stress on the pioneer.
- A peculiarly Christian expectation that those serving the church in leadership should receive all their value from Christ alone…conveniently excusing the wider church from the responsibility to be the concrete expression of Christ’s own valuation of the pioneer missionary. We celebrate the sacrifice of the call of the pioneer, but actively resist our concomitant call to sacrificially support the missionary. As Rob Hay puts it in Post-Mission: “There are very few people who do not feel that their contribution is valued. Psychology tells us that this is essential to a healthy life. However, in Christian circles, particularly in mission, we focus on sacrifice and an unspoken view that as long as God values what we do, that is all that matters. There is a place for sacrificial giving of oneself in the Christian faith but there is no place for not valuing people – indeed Scripture challenges us to see others as God sees them.” In particular, the expectation of sacrifice is still largely placed on the pioneer leader to sort out their own support, financial or otherwise, not the sending bodies or wider church to proactively share that support.
- The necessity to ‘make-up’ for structural failings increases exponentially the pressures on pioneer leaders above and beyond their key role. It means they also have to: 1) raise their own funds (‘work to be able to work’) 2) network excessively to gain access to other resources 3) forge complex partnerships between agencies with their own agendas, and supersede huge divisions in historical ecclesiology to do so (welding sodalic and modalic pacts between mission agencies and denominations divided historically, and being reconcilers on that level) 4) create their own infrastructure in their local place, from the ground up – policies, constitutions, etc. This requires 360 degree leadership when pioneering in context is already a huge task. It requires the expending of huge energy externally to the initiative, as well as internally to the host community. Rather than being in receipt of energy as energy is given out in ministry.
- All this in addition to the expectations that they provide pastoral care to their team and growing church, and proactively engage the community to a much deeper degree than most inherited church leaders.
Issue #2: The lack of redeployment mechanisms for pioneer leaders
In classic mission agencies there was a dedicated role whereby someone in the organisation would facilitate change in personnel and location for the betterment of the mission on the ground, the betterment of the agency and the betterment of the missionary themselves. My friend Richard Tiplady used to work in one such role in his previous career.
This is a structural role that doesn’t exist in Scottish denominations. And even if pioneers have attained ordination or accreditation, there are no jobs available for their skill-set to be redeployed into! Alan McWilliam has written on the Forge blog about this. For me, it seems a criminal waste that such hard-won and proven talent is not being headhunted and redeployed across Scotland. Especially when church attendance is in freefall. Some of the solution to this is that God is providing fresh forms of talent and call: the money and the people are available. But structural issues, fear and a scarcity mentality hamper and undermine their potential. At cost to the whole church. Instead, even pioneers who have by God’s grace succeeded, and self-selected (often ‘fired’ themselves!) to move on from their work for the betterment of the organisation they have started, cannot find employment to reuse their hard-won expertise.
This means that currently pioneers, before they start, need to be prepared to one day redeploy themselves at the end of their call or period of service.
A list of options for redeployment
What are the options for redeployment, if we are to steward ourselves through the process? What issues might there be with each? (and can you think of any others I have missed?)
Stay in ministry
- Become a church leader in an inherited context.
- Find work in the structures, supporting maintenance or trying to foster new growth.
- Deploy to a new church planting scenario.
- Leave the country and find pioneering work elsewhere where the infrastructure is better.
- Start a new career.
- Become self-employed.
- Create a start-up community development project.
- Return to an old career or increase commitment to an existing bivocational role.
There are many other options, of course, but I will focus on these.
Staying in ministry – observations
- Become a church leader in an inherited context. Some pioneers are able and willing to adapt back to inherited parish roles. This is often dependent on whether the pioneer has been recognised for their work with denominational recognition (ordination or accreditation) either before or during their pioneering ministry. This is by no means guaranteed, even by those given permission by denominations to do such work. My advice: seek and attain clear promises of accreditation before you start if you are not already so qualified. Without this, accessing redeployment options even to inherited churches becomes far less possible, even if you serve faithfully/successfully in your pioneer role.
- Find work in the structures, supporting maintenance or trying to foster new growth. Several pioneer friends of mine have gone on to take on structural positions in their denominations. Sometimes with the hope of reform. But more often than not to contribute their energy in some way other than fostering pioneering. Money is attractive, as well as the status. And the money is in maintenance. After serving faithfully with little of either of those, why not choose to gain a stable income for a season in this way? Who can blame those who do? Sadly, the danger is that such moves only, ultimately, reinforce a culture of maintenance. Rather than recycling their gift for more exponential ends, missionally.
- Deploy to a new church planting scenario – Sometimes pioneers have created a stable enough financial base in their home church, or found some other means of support, or join or remain with a sodality that can redeploy them. In my experience this is a very rare occurrence, because the thought of doing it all again, and making all the same sacrifices, is way less palatable second time around. This is particularly the case when facing the same ongoing lack of infrastructure. Especially for folks in their 40s or later whose needs (e.g. family) and expectations of life are very different than their late 20s. I have come across the perspective that something is wrong with pioneers themselves who don’t go on to plant a second or more churches. This avoids addressing the really important question of how unpalatable and broken the wider systemic architecture is to support such a move. I for one sympathise fully with those who don’t. To have pioneered once in such an unfavourable context is already an incredible achievement. Additionally, experienced pioneers are all too often excluded from the few posts that do arise. Ironically, there are entire denominations in South America that turn people away from ordination until they have shown they can plant a church. Not so in Scotland. Instead, people with little to experience of pioneer ministry and inadequate training, but who are otherwise officially ordained or relationally connected in the right place at the right time, are able to access the small number of posts that are put on the table. Experienced pioneers are overlooked because although they have the experience, they don’t have the piece of paper. A piece of paper, in true Catch-22 fashion, not available for their ministry specialism!
- Go elsewhere One well-networked institutional mentor figure of mine in Scotland, who I asked a year ago about whether there might finally be a job for my skillset and experience after 15 years of pioneering work, said simply “Yes, but you will have to move to England for it.” Sadly, this remains largely true. And that against a backdrop of attempts to create new jobs and intake streams in the C of S for pioneer ordained ministry since at least 2004. Many are choosing to move to the States where church planting infrastructure is far more advanced, or just go over the border and access the ordained pioneer minister training track and increasing number of 5-year paid pioneer posts being offered by the Anglicans.
Leaving pioneer ministry
Some pioneers, faced with a choice to give up pioneering ministry because of the ongoing prioritisation of inherited ministry, know at heart they don’t have the skill-set or calling required to do the latter. Others refuse out of integrity to switch to such inherited modes because to do so would ipso-facto strengthen the forces unconsciously or consciously maintaining the undertow away from pioneering. For such people, a redeployment outside the ministry can look much more attractive. But at the same time such moves can appear quite daunting.
In the second part of this series, we will seek to offer wisdom and practical advice for how former pioneers can successfully transition out of ministry and back into the workplace.
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