The Silent Cost of Pioneering
Don’t turn me into a vicar I said to Michael Sansom, the then DDO of St Albans, “I am not meant to be a vicar! God needs me to be a priest.” From that naive but heartfelt statement came the answer to my plea. “You are a pioneer.” What that meant to the Church of England would slowly be revealed to me during my time as an ordinand on the Pioneer track at Ridley Hall in Cambridge. Simples! Oh, if only it were!
Now to set the scene properly and to create the right image for this tale, I should tell you that I don’t come from a pedigree of priesthood or pastoral leadership, and I had not a clue about theological colleges or what the different flavours of faith were. I left school with no qualifications, I could not put an essay together, and all I absolutely knew was that God wanted me to reach out to His children; one by one if needed, and tell them, show them that He loves them. The ones that most other people do not want to see touch or smell! And the ones that had been exiled from the institution of church. How hard could that be?! (You can stop laughing now). I spent my college days in lectures with traditional ordinands but on Fridays us pioneers had a whole day of Pioneer studies, debating, chatting, arguing about what it means to be ‘church’. You know the stuff. Good mentors, good books and great expectations! It was written by my tutor that I was one of the best pioneers Ridley Hall had trained. I am not boasting just stating fact for information. A good pioneer: so I was sent out to a traditional church with a traditional priest for my curacy because it would be good for me!
The poor priest did not know what was about to hit the holy fan, and neither did I
As a follower of the Pioneer called Jesus I really lived life by the instructions of the following passage, Do you see what this means—all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on? It means we’d better get on with it. Strip down, start running—and never quit! No extra spiritual fat, no parasitic sins. Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we’re in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he’s there, in the place of honour, right alongside God. When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he ploughed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls! (Hebrews 12:2-3 - The Message) What could possibly go wrong?! Apart from having to learn what the robes were called and learning to curtsy to a cupboard, I was not allowed to record the amazing encounters that happened outside of the church building, or talk about the ‘Dogs ‘n’ Jesus’ church that had happened by God’s design. I was not allowed to make use of the redundant church building which was next door to the curate’s house, even though it begged to be used for community projects. Suffice to say that there were strained supervisions and the grace of God was stretched beyond thin. And then I took a large group of the congregants and ‘Dogs ‘n’ Jesus’ walkers to New Wine. Life got considerably more complicated after that, as on arrival back in Hertfordshire they wanted/demanded more of the teaching that they could understand, more music that ignited their imaginations, more worship that was relevant to their needs, more of everything that my training incumbent did not believe in. The curate’s house became a place to gather for anyone who wanted to learn about the character of the living God in ways as diverse as the people who were coming along. It was alive, and it was incredible.
Opposites do not always attract!
But it wasn’t what I was supposed to do. The constant criticism from the T.I. and the continual need for me to justify what I was doing, plus having to translate ‘pioneer language’ into traditional church speak and vice versa took a lot of doing and I became physically tired. Determination was not enough to get me through so I sought the Lord and He answered me. I went back to pioneer school one day a week to be with like-minded people. Being with other pioneers who spoke my own theological language was wonderful. Returning to the traditional curacy, however, became challenging. I was always alone, and God doesn’t send us out alone. Jesus called the Twelve to him, and sent them out in pairs. He gave them authority and power to deal with the evil opposition. He sent them off with these instructions: “Don’t think you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment. No special appeals for funds. Keep it simple. (Mark 6:7-9 - The Message).
How do I sing a new song in a strange land?
I was head-hunted to Glasgow. How marvellous, my pioneer calling was wanted and would be valued. I had a small church building with a small church family who wanted a pioneer! Reality check: they had no idea what a pioneer meant, they wanted a vicar but no vicar wanted them. So, they hired me. There was money to spend on mission but no idea what mission meant. There was unity to be had but individuals were frightened. There was change that had to happen and they agreed, but each person did not want to change. And guess what? I was alone again. The promises of people to work with, mentors to encourage me, a vestry well prepared for my arrival, well ‘the wind blew over it and it was gone’. It never existed. Perhaps the intention and dream of it did, but instead of well-prepared soil I found barren un-tended land. However, there were people who really needed to hear that God loved them, so putting my English chin up toward heaven I set about telling them and they loved it. Projects blossomed new families came, some went. People watched me and saw that life could be good even if it was tough.
Pioneering has a cost that requires resilience beyond psychological and personality profiles.
My husband was diagnosed with a rare aggressive blood cancer just a year after my licensing. We had only just begun to understand the culture and the geography of Glasgow. We had not put roots down, we had no friends around us, we had been too busy pioneering and keeping traditional church alive at the same time. We had not ensured that our foundations were sound enough to cope with catastrophic events. Who does? I tried very hard to keep the embryonic projects going but I could not always turn up to the meetings, or encourage the community leaders in person. I could not give them an actual pat on the back, and they were needing a strong leader for the new pathways of learning. As my husband became weaker so did my church family. The cancer took no prisoners, and the shock rippled out with no one to halt it or see me drowning. My husband is now in unexpected remission, but to be honest I am still in the battle-field sitting in a bunker with the detritus of war, strewn around me. It feels as though I have missed the celebrations, people have marched away cheering victory over death, and God stands beside me blooded and beaten, knowing my silent question: “How do I lead these lovely folk back onto a path that they have just seen crumble beneath me?” I now need to get up and walk around the battle-site deciding what parts of my life I pick back up. It will include Pioneer ministry. But one conviction I do have moving forward: the need for pioneers to have support around them as they strike out
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