Pioneer Ministry: Inside the Pioneer Mind

In part four of the Fresh Expressions 101 series, I explored the origins and theological underpinnings of pioneer ministry. Here I want to examine pioneer ministry from a psychological perspective. In the next installment I will examine pioneering from a sociological perspective and suggest some ways institutions can avoid exiling or domesticating pioneers.

This is a brief summary of a chapter titled “New Field Preachers—Pioneer Ministry” in my latest book, A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions.

In George Lings research, he notes the following characteristics of most pioneers:

  • A correlation between Apostle and Pioneer;
  • Eagerness to “go first” with low risk-aversion;
  • On the “edge,” always going out to the edge of some new territory to survey the terrain;
  • Habitually “create, start, initiate” (which correlates with entrepreneurs);
  • Draw followers and are followable;
  • Willing to “leave” (move on when the task is done);
  • Movers (opposite of static persons);
  • “Are met by Jesus” (have usually encountered the Risen Christ at some point)
  • Prefer to be with outsiders;
  • At home with “signs” (semioticians, context/sign readers, also embrace the miraculous, and supernatural);
  • Flexible strategists (employ effectual reasoning, experimentation, improvisation, and intuition);
  • Disturb the peace. Some are not easy for more conventional folks to be around because their presence is threatening and difficult for intuitionalists;
  •  “Bicultural,” always formed by and at home in at least two cultures (age, race, nationality, geography, and so on);
  • Translators (between times, cultures, peoples, contextual theologians);
  • Developers (they activate others and enable them to continue the work);
  • Prophetic (they see what is yet unseen and then act: “dreamers who do” Gerald Arbuckle);
  • Can accept suffering and can expect to join Jesus in carrying his cross.[1]
  • Pioneers cultivate fresh expressions (often with little to no resources).
  • Pioneers fail forward (fail frequently but keep going).
  • Pioneers come in all shapes, sizes, races, and ages; they are not just young, trendy, rebels. (Some pioneers at Wildwood UMC are teens and some are in their eighties.)

Pioneers are often contrasted with stabilizer types. Fixed hierarchical systems like denominations often support institutionalists and stabilizers, while originators and refounders can be perceived as a threat to the status quo. Another way to understand this distinction is the difference between managers and entrepreneurs.

Wise positional leaders understand how room can be made for the entrepreneurial gifts of the pioneer, and that disruption is necessary in declining denominational systems.

Pioneers literally think differently. They employ the effectual reasoning typical of entrepreneurs. The word effectual is the inverse of causal. Causal rationality starts with a pre-determined goal and seeks to develop strategic steps toward meeting that goal. Effectual reasoning does not start with a specific goal. Rather, it begins with a given reality and “allows goals to emerge contingently over time from the varied imagination and diverse aspirations of the founders and the people they interact with.”[2]

For instance, while causal reasoning focuses on expected return, effectual reasoning emphasizes affordable loss; causal reasoning depends upon competitive analyses, effectual reasoning is built upon strategic partnerships; causal reasoning urges the exploitation of pre-existing knowledge and prediction, effectual reasoning stresses the leveraging of contingencies.[3]

Thus, by taking the “effects” and starting with who and what pioneers already have, they begin to create something new from the pieces. Through a series of relational interactions, as opportunities and strategic partnerships arise, multiple outcomes are possible. This kind of reasoning often employed by pioneers and entrepreneurs can fuel a journey of innovation even within fixed hierarchal systems and a traditional congregations.

Hodgett and Bradbury in their research on pioneers from the Church Mission Society, suggest that pioneering needs to be understood as a spectrum:

1. Pioneer innovators: refers to sodal or ‘sobornistic’ pioneer leaders who with their teams venture out beyond the edges of the church’s structures to explore the creation of faithful expressions of Christian life among people of a new context.

2. Pioneer adaptors: refers to those who have the creative gift to adapt these innovations to their own contexts and take the established church’s rituals and rhythms and adapted them into new environments.

3. Pioneer replicators: refers to those situated in contexts in which replication is applicable, where a context is seen to be sufficiently comparable so that a successful model of church can simply be repeated.

4. Pioneer activists: refers to those whose gift and vocation is to shape a place in ways that seek to align a community, network or industry with the values of the Kingdom. Seeing themselves as missionaries, but without the express intention of planting a church.[4]

The following diagram offers a glimpse of the pioneer spectrum, specifically focused on church multiplication.

There is an ongoing conversation around whether pioneers are born or made. Angela Shier-Jones finds it important to understand a pioneer not as a particular sort of person but as a particular sort of ministerial conduct or focus within the wider framework of the church.[5] All Christians are called to follow the great pioneer, Jesus; this will always include being involved in pioneering. All people created in the image of God have the capacity to start new things. Yet, certain people are particularly gifted to be effective in that particular focus of ministry.

Not all people are pioneers, yet all people can be involved with pioneer ministry. Through working with pioneers across the country, I’ve seen firsthand that pioneers possess a distinct kind of tacit knowledge and naturally display this “ministerial conduct” through a certain set of behaviors or skills. Some disagree with Angela Shier-Jones, arguing that pioneers are indeed a sort of person with inherent characteristics and personality traits that can be identified with sound personality tests.

In my experience, the most prominent psychological trait of a pioneer is simply: confidence. Pioneers believe they can start new things. They seem gifted to do so. Yet, if pioneering is a gift it can also be a curse. Hebrews 12:1-2 indicates that when we follow in the slipstream of Jesus’ pioneering, enduring a “cross” is par for the course. Further, if everyone were a pioneer, the world would devolve into utter chaos! Can you imagine a church of all adaptors and no stabilizers? Or can you imagine a church where everyone was exactly like Paul? Or if Paul had no Barnabas (a companion encourager Acts 4:36 who supported him Acts 9:27) or Ananias (a permission giver who sent him Acts 9:17)? So, with fresh expressions, we understand the equal importance of the three roles: pioneer, supporter, and permission-giver.

Perhaps whether pioneers are born or made is the wrong question. Perhaps a more fitting question is: how can we be the church in such a way that every person can be involved in the exciting work of starting new Christian communities? We find yet another conjunction we must hold in creative tension, every single person can start new things and pioneers seem to be especially gifted for this work. This leads us to the more essential truth: pioneer ministry is a work of the body, the whole people of God, and not individual acts of heroic or lone-ranger leadership.

Pioneering is a communal endeavor. Shier-Jones writes, “Pioneering ministry cannot be done to a community by someone who knows what they need; it can only be done with a community by someone who shares in their need.”[6] Pioneers are dependent upon the “persons who share peace” and work with the indigenous inhabitants of a community. They must work together with supporters and permission givers in a strategically team-based way, both for the health of the pioneer and the initiatives they start. It’s more appropriate to speak of pioneer teams than individual pioneers.

Another key characteristic of pioneers is that they prefer to be with outsiders. They seem to love outsiders more than insiders. Something in their psychological makeup seems to always keep their eyes out for the “other,” those who are not “in” yet.

Finally, pioneers start stuff. Quite honestly, this separates pioneers from wannabes. They have a track record of initiating new things. For example, perhaps this began with lemonade stands in childhood, monetizing new ideas with elementary school classmates, which led to start-up companies, creating new worship services, or harnessing technology to start groups or clubs. It is in a pioneer’s nature to initiate. While some people are holding meetings about launching new ventures, pioneers are out launching new ventures. Fledgling pioneers can be dizzying to work with because they are always moving on to the next big idea, the next exciting opportunity, often prematurely. As pioneers mature, they learn to work through teams and help communities value and adopt their ideas. They learn to create cultural change, and form communities of settlers who sustain their innovations.

In the next installment I will examine how pioneering in fixed hierarchal systems can be a challenge, and how institutions can avoid exiling or ruining pioneers.


[1] G. Lings, from “Looking in the Mirror: What Makes a Pioneer” in David Male, Pioneers 4 Life: Explorations in Theology and Wisdom for Pioneering Leaders (Abingdon: Bible Reading Fellowship, 2011), 31.

[2] Saras D. Sarasvathy, “What Makes Entrepreneurs Entrepreneurial?” 2, https://www.effectuation.org/sites/default/files/documents/what-makes-entrepreneurs-entrepreneurial-sarasvathy.pdf

[3] Ibid.

[4] T. Hodgett and P. Bradbury, “Pioneering Mission is…a spectrum.” ANVIL 34 no. 1.

[5] Angela Shier-Jones, Pioneer Ministry and Fresh Expressions of Church (London, UK: SPCK, 2009), 3–5.

[6] Shier-Jones, 123.

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