Pioneers working in and out of the church
I’ve been reflecting lately on my vocation as a pioneer, and how the vocational journey of ordination which is ever nearing, intersects that. It’s become increasingly clear to me that part of my vocation to ordination is to be a servant of the Upper Room’s work and needs, not as its’ master, and that my priesthood will be shaped to an extent by its needs and not vice versa.
There are potential conflicts contained within that, due to the differences in culture and assumptions between the church and the small community I pioneer in. For us as a working team of people whose behaviours and decisions are predicated on what we feel the Holy Spirit is saying to us for effective service of the people on the outside of church culture, we need to be aware that this approach could bring us into tension and conflict at times with those inhabiting a different set of cultural assumptions on the inside of the institutional church. And at times we need to hold to a different view and different way of doing things because that is part of what we are called to do and model.
I’m very clear that one of the things we bring is a different approach and model to the way the Church operates. We started with 3 housewives, a dream from God and the back of a fag packet – our call has always been about the grassroots and not hierarchy. God has used us to show that He is no respecter of persons, that issues of justice and the prophetic in the Beatitudes and the call of Matthew 25 are still alive and being enacted by his will in our time. And that obedience and passion for Him count as much or more as training or the right connections. We are literally the nobodies, most of us pretty broken and some consigned to the scrap heap, yet he has used us to reach other ordinary people, whose lives he has inhabited and begun to transform and taught us his value system.
An important aspect of our call and shape is to showcase the contribution and gifts of the little people, and not to morph into an arm of establishment with its top down culture and habit of viewing the world through a clergy-lens. I think this has value but I’m aware not everyone else does and for some people, the ways we work are very non-conforming and even provocative.
This shows itself most in our approach that all people have completely equal value and status in the eyes of God. Regardless of education, wealth, position, employment, sexuality, gender, whatever. And so we generally feel free to approach anyone directly or air an opinion without apology, without working out the right route of people we should go up through to get to speak to the people with decision making authority. This plays extremely badly and I know the way I work utterly ticks people off, when I don’t respect the gate keepers or ask someone to ask someone on my behalf. But it matters – the way we work communicates as much as the words we say and it would be contradictory of me to work hard to be open and affirming of the voices of all and then bow and scrape before the authority of a few. And it isn’t about a failure to respect authority or position, or expertise or gift. I do respect all those things, and the wisdom of people who have served in ministry. But not enough to see myself or others as lesser because their life experience is different.
I’m not sure the church understands that ordination is only a subset of my vocation and not the whole of it, or the master of it, or sees this as valid. And possibly this view is as a result of my own limited understanding that may change when I get into it and see what it means. But it feels important to be aware of all the different elements of vocation we each inhabit; as a friend, a mother, a neighbour. Priesthood is one of those, but it doesn’t trump the others or overtake them into itself. As ordination approaches, I will have to chew over this more, alone and with my team, and I think I’m going to seek out others’ views on this and see what I can learn from the experiences and perspectives of others on the inside, fringes and outside of church.
On a general note, there is a need for pioneers to be aware about the impact they have on others, and to learn to be effective workers and communicators. It’s possible to be very gifted in the prophetic and be so awkward that no-one can bear to listen and this is an issue many of us grapple with – are we not fitting in because the culture we speak to can’t hear us, or are we just being a pain in the neck and critical of everything? Having come in for some criticism of late, I’m aware of how it feels to have someone point out all the weaknesses and failings of your work, and how hard that is – and it didn’t make me the most receptive person on earth! Again this is probably a both/and. Learn to communicate well and helpfully, and also be aware that people may still find it hard to bear at times.
At the end of the day, God has called us to reach out to people on the margins, and to share the impact of that good news with the church and help it to come and join in. This is our gift and also our awkwardness. The news that God loves people on the fringes is still news in some parts of the church! The process of change is awkward for all of us, and isn’t caused by us or our suggestions but by the Holy Spirit, who has led us and is leading us all, shaping and changing everything into the way of reconciliation. It can be emotionally tiring and we need to make sure our framework of support, rest and re-energising is in place. It’s hard work being this awkward, I can tell you!