Pioneer Ministry: A Catholic Perspective
RE the Grovebook Pioneer Ministry in New Housing Areas
Fr. James Cassidy is Ecumenical Officer for the Catholic Diocese of Northampton. Since his ordination in 1972 he has worked principally in the new towns of Milton Keynes and Harlow. His Ph.D. thesis was on membership of the Church in Local Ecumenical Partnerships. He is the Catholic Bishops’ delegate to the Churches Together in England new communities group. He is also on the editorial board of One in Christ.
I live and work in Northampton Diocese, a diocese which encompasses three traditional counties: Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, (which used to include Slough) and Northamptonshire. Recently we had a conference looking at proposed building plans for the diocese. There was scarcely a town without some growth, large or small; there is also in the diocese the ever-increasing town of Milton Keynes. Given the drop in the number of clergy the proposed increase in potential parishioners is alarming to the diocese. The expansion and its consequences are true for other dioceses; for example in Essex, which includes all of Brentwood diocese, there are plans to use redundant airfields for housing, and the diocese is littered with them. When the nettle is grasped by Government and houses are built then diocesan pastoral plans will need to be ready.
This is not a new problem, or even opportunity. The New Towns Act of 1947, which brought into effect the war-time planning, saw the growth of the New Towns, built on the foundations of the late Nineteenth century’s Garden City movement and the development of Letchworth and Welwyn in the early Twentieth century. However, these towns, and the post-war expansion of municipal housing took place in times of relative abundance of clergy. It was easy for bishops to erect new parishes with new churches and put in eager clergy anxious to start their new parishes. (In the nineteen-fifties there were so many priests in Liverpool Archdiocese that most had to wait until their silver jubilee of ordination before they became Parish Priests.) These parishes were based around fairly small churches, and the ministry was that of traditional suburban parishes, unchanged over the decades. The only exception of which I am aware, was the Catholic pastoral provision for Skelmersdale in Liverpool, a New Town, designated in 1961 where the whole town was served by a team ministry. In contrast, the Catholic planning for Milton Keynes, designated in 1967, was for small parishes, replicating the past, in the expectation that what worked in the fifties would work in the seventies and onwards to the new millennium, with the same number of clergy available.
However, there is now a major difference. In the last century there was still a fairly strong residual Christianity. If people had gone to Church in their previous location, then when moving to a New Town, the habit generally continued. People tended to come to the Church. All this has now changed. Christianity is not any more the default religion. Awareness of things Christian is not the norm. In England, in the new towns and developments, we are living in a post-Christian world. For the new residents it cannot be presumed that they have any awareness of Church, and no knowledge that their houses are built on land which (for Anglicans and Catholics) is already part of some parish to which they belong, and whose clergy will look forward to the participation of the new residents in the traditional life of the Church. They are missionary areas, and need to be treated as such.
This demands new techniques. Grove Books has recently published Pioneer Ministry in New Housing Areas: Personal Reflections and a Practical Guide by Penny Marsh and Alison Boulton. (Grove Books - Grove Evangelism EV113) The authors, who are Baptist ministers, have worked in new housing areas, share their expertise and thoughts. Their research is valid for all ministers in new housing areas. Essentially the authors tell ministers to get involved in the new areas. That has been part of pastoral practice from time immemorial, and has always been the key to good pastoral ministry. The more involved the clergy are with their congregations, the better. With the joys and hopes, the sorrows and anxieties of the people. What is new is the complexity and the different modes of life, and the need to be involved from the start of the often labyrinthine planning process. This is the field of the authors.
If residual Christianity can no longer be presumed in the new residents of a development it also cannot be presumed in those involved in any planning or building of it. Marsh and Boulton underline the importance of bishops and equivalents of being interested, involved and concerned in the early stages of the plan. (p.12) Planners need to be told, or reminded, about the importance of the Church in the community, and what the Church can contribute to the new community. As planners change jobs and local Councils re-structure the relationship needs to be maintained at all levels with all the concerned bodies and their ever-changing personnel. If a Church is planning on a building this needs to be put into the plan at an early stage. If the Church wants to share a building, again this should be mentioned early in the process. If a pioneer minister is to live on site then the housing needs to found, perhaps from the plan, before any are built. This requires forward planning by the Church: this is crucial. It is also crucial, as the authors say, to be an integral part of the planning process for as long as it takes, years or even decades. The more engagement with the process the more trust is built up, and this is vital. (p.14) The churches should never be shocked when they realise the size of any development; the plans are always available. If there is ever surprise then bad staff-work is the reason.
The forward planning of the denominations should be ecumenical. If one denomination is putting in a pioneer minister does this mean other denominations can sit back? What of the existing Anglican and Catholic parishes who have a vested interest in the site of the development? Clearly it is crucial to work together, not only for the practical reasons to save duplication of effort, but also to bear witness to the common baptism we acknowldge. If the denominations can agree on one person to be the point of contact with the developers then this is clearly beneficial. If there is one resident minister then obviously there needs to be good relations with the ministers of the other denominations. A good example of this is Cambourne, Cambridge, where there is one minister in the Local Ecumenical Partnership (comprising the Church of England, the Baptist Union, the Methodist Church, and the United Reformed Church). The Church is also shared with the local Catholic community, which has been involved with the LEP and the planning from the start. The Church building was the end result of planning and engagement, which began in the 1980s when the development was first proposed. The community first started meeting in 1999 in a doctor’s waiting room, then moving to a portacabin, then a community centre, and finally the Church in 2009. There is also a Christian school in the village. The story is typical, but what is important is the working together of the churches from the start. Marsh and Boulton offer a suggestion in which denominations may collaborate in a new housing area: one denomination may fund the housing, another a minister, the third taking the lead in building a church or school. (p.15) This is but one model, other solutions may work in other areas. In all cases the lines of communication must be clear. Even if just one denomination has taken the lead the others must be kept in the picture, and support given to the person on the ground from all the denominations. Meetings and regular communication are essential to keep everyone in the picture and to limit mis-understandings.
The building up of community is integral to parochial ministry, but has become harder and harder for the clergy. The lives of young couples, the target market for most new housing, is under more and more pressure. In the early New Towns it was anticipated that the wife would remain at home, the husband being the bread winner, arriving home in the evening from local employment which had been planned into the town. Now, homes are priced at a level which requires the mortgage to be paid from two salaries, so generally neither partner can afford to remain at home and often the developments are commuter or over-spill dormitories, with the possibility of only brief moments of shared life in the evening and at week-ends. Marsh and Boulton underline that being on-site is most important for the Church minister, who clearly then shares the life of the residents, and listens to their concerns. (See p. 10) The Church must be seen as integrally committed to the community, not just as a Sunday visitor. – The illustration of bacon and eggs is relevant here. (The pig is committed to the dish, the hen just involved.)
Marsh and Boulton discuss whether there should be a Church building. (p.15) This is an interesting debate. One pioneer minister is having a successful ‘church without walls’ which meets in various spaces in the new community, including a local pub and also a redundant medieval church. It is ‘church’ in which all are welcome, without pre-conditions; focussing on community and relationships. Other new housing areas have shared community facilities which are used by the church. As someone who worked in shared environments while a community was growing I found it a blessing to have a proper base eventually. I had discovered that no amount of incense can cover the smell of stale ale and tobacco in a community hall. (It was before the banning of smoking in public places.) Yet when we moved to a ‘proper Church’ although at home, one missed the sense of provisionality, of pilgrimage. One had come, in effect, to the promised land, with all its blessings, but also with its attendant difficulties. The pro and cons need to be weighed in the planning process. One can be imaginative; Marsh and Boulton write of the use of shop premises, of running community facilities, of bidding for the use of the ‘religious facility’ described in the plan, but not yet marked on a map, and speak of the attendant difficulties. (p.24)
The planning process of the Church, as well as looking at the job description for the Pioneer Minister should also involve succession planning. What is the optimum time to be a pioneer? How long before burn-out happens? Some denominations appoint for a fixed time, others value permanence. Both have value, but the responsible person for the minister needs to have care that the time for a move is carefully judged, and there has been some sort of planning for the ministry when the initial person has moved away. This of course is not only for the minister, but the minister should be careful to have (at least in the mind) successors for those in the local leadership group. Finding the ideal head of finance on Monday is fine, but by the next Monday he or she might have moved out of the area. Marsh and Boulton underline the importance of planning, and also the importance of a support structure for the clergy, as well as training for local leaders. (p. 17) The role of the pioneer minister can be lonely, and one’s colleagues in more traditional churches or parishes may not always understand the stresses and strains.
A crucial part of the booklet deals with ‘Practical Steps for the Pioneer Ministers.’ (chapter 5) In the past in more traditional Catholic parishes the priest visited all his flock, and was always welcome. Cold calling on parishioners in traditional parishes has died out for various reasons. But with a new development it is essential; people like to be welcomed. If they can have gift, so much the better. The authors suggest joining with developers to see what they will be giving, so that there is no duplication. They also suggest contacting local firms to see if they will help fund an arrival pack. One minister in a new housing area told me how the local shop contributed biscuits to a welcome pack the church distributed to new residents as they moved in to their houses. Whatever is given, or not, the first contact must be a welcome; a welcome on behalf of the Christian Church, with information on how the Church can be contacted (on a pen, on a ’fridge magnet, anything…) and details of any Facebook page, etc. It is not recommended to take a clipboard and ask for details of church membership! If there is a conversation, then information about church membership may come out, and one is free to say if that information should be shared with the appropriate church. The important thing is the welcome, the meeting, and the opportunity for friendship. Marsh and Boulton offer various suggestions, and underline the importance of the giving and receiving of hospitality. They remind us that Jesus was often the guest of the people he met, but “in established churches we often think we always have to be host.” (p.20) They also remind us of the importance of prayer, and of listening to what God seems to be saying, of seeing what God is already doing in the burgeoning community and joining in with His work.
The practical steps also involve making partners with other groups, schools, businesses, cafés, pubs, etc. If the development is large there may be a community liaison person/new-arrivals worker. This person will obviously be crucial to the minister – if all goes well. Sometimes people will have had a bad experience with one church or clergy-person, and not feel inclined to try again. All the pioneer minister can do is to try to be co-operative, and be totally unthreatening. It is the openness to situations which is the key to building bridges and engaging others to share in the ministry of Jesus in what can be a difficult environment.
The booklet concludes with some advice. There is a check-list for all those who are working in Pioneer Ministry. Some are obvious: pray, reflect theologically, be bold, be adventurous; do not spread yourself thinly – do a couple of things well, don’t cater for every pressing need. Others are more hidden: beware of lack of conversations between church leaders which may lead to duplication between denominations; be ready for developers to involve other faiths in the development of a religious facility; don’t expect the Church to grow as quickly as the house-building. (pp. 25 & 26)
The authors end with a short biblical reflection, reminding ministers that they area called to walk humbly with God, who sent out the seventy-two as lambs in the midst of wolves, without money or bag. (Jn. 10. vv. 3 & 4) They reassure the reader that it is an exciting ministry with many rewards; (p. 27) and they end with hope and reassurance, but in the body of the booklet they have not disguised the difficulties. They are the practitioners who have laboured in the sun and the heat, and share their experience gladly.
Given the need the country has for more housing it is likely that the developments will come. I hope that the various Church leaders read this book and start planning. They too need to be involved in new housing areas, with the appropriate enthusiasm. If they fail to plan, if they lack the necessary enthusiasm, then the proclamation of the Gospel will be even more difficult for those both in leadership positions in the churches as well as for the pioneer ministers.
For those who would like more information about the experiences of the church in new communities there is a section in the Churches Together in England web-pages devoted to new communities. There more Pioneer Ministers share their stories.
James M. Cassidy
 See William Booth, In Darkest England and the Way Out of 1890, and Ebenezer Howard, To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform of 1898.
 See the opening words of Gaudium et Spes.