How Institutions Can Avoid Exiling and Domesticating Pioneers

            In my last post I described the psychology of pioneers. Here I want to visit how pioneers’ function within their social ecosystems, or a sociology of pioneering. I’m doing so from the perspective of a clergy person serving in a denomination that has experienced 50 years of unbroken decline (UMC).

I’ve framed this exploration in the language of avoiding “exile and domestication” because this is often the default way that the institutional church historically deals with pioneering types. True pioneers are often minimized, hidden, discredited, or removed by hierarchical leaders in overly fixed systems (and sometimes martyred). Throughout history, we can see this cycle repeat with innovative, reforming, and refounding types (Martin Luther and Katherine von Bora, Thomas Cranmer, Jane Grey, John Wesley, William and Catherine Booth, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Aimee Semple McPherson, Martin Luther King Jr. and so on)   

Pioneers often face insult, opposition, and cross-carrying (Heb 12:2). Because of their proclivity to challenge systems and catalyze new initiatives, they often do so with arrows in their backs. Most pioneers bear the scars of friendly fire from the stabilizer types who hold the seats of power in an organization. As Upton Sinclair has famously said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Pioneers can offer new pathways that disturb the status quo of regulation, clericalism, and pyramidal power structures. They can call into questions foundational assumptions on which these systems are built.

“Forgive Thy Brother” by Scott Erickson

Social anthropologist Gerald Arbuckle has written the foundational text for understanding this reality, Refounding the Church: Dissent for Leadership. In the late 1980s Arbuckle began to apply anthropological insights to religious organizations. He posits that there can be no constructive change in the church unless there is dissent: a proposing of alternatives. In a deep way, if we are to look at Jesus as the “pioneer and perfecter” of our faith, we must also see him as the principled dissenter that he was. He dissented from the largely bankrupt religious system of his day.

Those who truly value the living tradition of the church that flows from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, will be compelled to dissent in love.

Arbuckle writes:

Organizations, the Church included, are built to administer, maintain and protect from harm that which already exists; in contrast, creative or dissenting people are designed to give birth to that which has never been in existence before. Thus dissenters threaten the well-oiled structures of an organization’s process. The alternatives they propose are seen as chaotic, something to be vigorously avoided by those taking comfort in the predictable and safe ways of tradition.[1]

George Lings reserves the term pioneer for “originators of fresh entities,” while discussing the differences between pioneer-starters and pioneer-sustainers.[2] In my latest book A Field Guide to Methodist Fresh Expressions I described the “spectrum of pioneering.” Most pioneers operate in existing systems.

One obvious point to make right up front is that Eurotribal denominations are stable systems, populated primarily by stabilizer types. These systems often do not celebrate, and advance leaders based on their faithfulness and fruitfulness in ministry per say, but rather those politically savvy who will align themselves with the figureheads of positional power.

In a culture of institutionalists and stabilizers, dissenting originators and refounders can be perceived as a threat to the status quo. So, the angst and the alienation that pioneers feel in fixed hierarchical systems is very real.

Many denominational decision makers, board members, ordination committee chairs, and conference/diocesan/synod staff have a track record of ineffective ministry. Or they are hired into positions to lead others to things they themselves have never actually done. That is more about corporate ladder climbing, brown nosing, and loyalty to the company store, than faithfully serving Jesus on the mission field.

Gerald Arbuckle discusses the reality that creativity can exist in organizations in a latent way, these ideas require application through innovative people, who he calls “dreamers who do.” Arbuckle distinguishes between innovators and adaptors, “Both are creative persons and needed, especially the innovative and refounding type; both threaten the group because they dissent from the acceptable ways of doing things, but it is the innovator that particularly endangers the group’s security…”[3]

Dissenting pioneers can catalyze reorganization of the local church. Beth Keith, in “The Gift of Troublesome Questioning,” draws a further comparison between adaptors and stabilizers. By their very presence, pioneers threaten overly stable systems by asking “What if?” Stabilizers operate in the impulse to immediately stabilize the disruption. While both have positive and negative attributes, stable systems often support stabilizers only and exile adaptors. Pioneers are gifted by the Spirit to ask troublesome questions that threaten the stability of the system. Pioneers have the ability “to question aspects of the church without drawing the church into question.”[4]

Overly stable systems dampen innovation; overly destabilized systems devolve into chaos. Pioneers have a way of destabilizing systems enough to open the organization to the possibility of change. The innovation journey requires some disruption and dissatisfaction. Pioneers are a gift to the church in this way.

Pioneers often do not “clique up” in conventional theological camps that divide Western Christianity today. They resist being pigeonholed in any particular group. Their activity and effectiveness challenge the “closely defined liberal, evangelical, or catholic theologies and churchmanship” and they move us “towards something unknown and developmental, with an emphasis on mission, diversity, dialogue and evolving belief and practice.”[5]

When intentionally identifying and developing a gifted pioneer, whether in a church, fresh expression, or a formal academic theological setting, consider that pioneers learn in the process of doing, through experimentation and improvisation. Training pipelines for pioneers need to be apprentice-based learning systems. Mature pioneers often possess keen contextual intelligence and become astute contextual theologians, particularly as they gain refined critical-thinking skills that come from depth of education within a particular theological stream.

This should cause denominations to rethink training systems, which usually involve vetting someone theologically and psychologically (by institutional stakeholders) as we let them in and deploy them to congregations. To truly embrace candidates with the pioneer gift, we need to make room in the approval system for them to experiment.

Pioneers typically struggle before ordination boards, and once included they are often denied seats in decision-making processes. Pioneers are typically not diplomatic and have impatience with the political maneuvers of the institutional church. Because of their “sharp edges” and the “gift of not fitting in,” it’s easy to write off their questioning or brainstorms as mad ramblings. The Church of England wisely created the Pioneer Assessment Panel, which consists of a group of established pioneers who evaluate incoming pioneers.[6]

The activity of pioneers can create “institutional confusion.” The “typical institutional response exhibits stabilizer tendencies and the inability to adapt old data in the light of new experience. The lack of permission to engage in transformative critique may hinder pioneers’ abilities to imagine new possibilities.”[7] So the tendency then is for the church to select and authorize the “safe” pioneers who will play well with the system, not question common church assumptions, and still develop new forms of church. Unfortunately, this is an unreasonable expectation. Thus, denominations often eject the very persons gifted by the Spirit with the adaptation skills that could bring actual revitalization.

            If these discoveries could be understood and embraced, it could bring renewal to the whole church. Pioneers are like wolves in the Yellowstone National Park, their removal had massive negative unintended consequences, their reintroduction to the ecosystem released a trophic cascade of renewal.[8] Yes they are messy, kill other species, and seem to upset the system, but these activities are necessary and give life in many ways.

            The Western church is now in a place once again to embrace the pioneer gift, or as so many times in our history, to attempt to domesticate or exile it. We can only hope and pray for the former. Pioneers must have the courage and resilience to bring their gifts to their systems, resist domestication, and if we experience exile, plant gardens in the desert.   


[1] Gerald A. Arbuckle, Refounding the Church: Dissent for Leadership (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 1.

[2] 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.

[3] Gerald A. Arbuckle, Refounding the Church: Dissent for Leadership (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 109.

[4] B. Keith, from “The Gift of Troublesome Questioning” in Male, Pioneers 4 Life, 57.

[5] Keith, 56.

[6] Vocations to Pioneer Ministry, https://www.cofepioneer.org/assessment/.

[7] Keith, 58.

[8] See Beck, Michael. Deep Roots, Wild Branches: Revitalizing the Church in the Blended Ecology. Franklin, TN: Seedbed Publishing, 2019.

2 thoughts on “How Institutions Can Avoid Exiling and Domesticating Pioneers”

  1. Thank you for this article. I have been waiting for it to be published. I was not disappointed. It says many of the things that I was expecting to hear and documents them appropriately in a short and public online format. For now, the strategy open to me appears to be to go off and plant a garden of sorts not too far outside the walls of the fortress and see what happens. Catherine (The Thoughtful APE – Apostolic, Prophetic, Evangelistic Influences)

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  2. Here is how I gussied up your post in a Facebook Page post of my own on the theme of the importance of pioneers. I am not sure if it will display properly here with the pictures of pioneer women. Probably not. That is what gets people’s attention. Here is the other part of the preliminary prattle posted with the post: “You know, I saw those pretty and colourful dishes in the Walmart labelled as “Pioneer Woman” dishes. I thought that, while they might look nice as a table setting, the romanticized crockery probably had little to nothing to do with real-life pioneering. Life was tough. People died. Dreams, families, and dishes were shattered all along the pioneer trail. But they still did it. Find out why the Church still needs pioneers today. ” https://www.facebook.com/CatherinesMinistry/posts/3529544240421660

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