In a first for St John's College, Nottingham, a group of students are now getting to grips with life in a 'mission laboratory' in the city's Lady Bay area.
The Community Mission Pathway has come about through the College's partnership with the Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham. Its leader is Mark Rodel who is Tutor in Pioneer Ministry at St John's, and Pioneer Minister in Lady Bay – or to give him his full title there, Pioneer Minister and Vicar at All Hallows, Lady Bay with St Edmund, Holme Pierrepont and Adbolton!
Six students, all of whom are Church of England ordinands, signed up for the first year of the Pathway which sees them become part of a new monastic community, sharing together a rhythm of prayer, learning and mission. Their studies continue to be based at St John's but they all live in, or near, Lady Bay in West Bridgford. They are on 'continuous placement'.
Two of the students live in a three-bedroomed Diocesan house in West Bridgford – with potential for two more people to join them later. The other four, all married, live in their rented homes nearby.
Mark Rodel: Nobody wants leaders in mission who see themselves as 'lone rangers'; this work really needs to be shared if we're going to get away from the idea of everything being dependent on just one person with a specific set of gifts and talents. We're looking to model a way of living and working and discerning that will very much be seen as putting into practice what we are learning.
For me, it's a juggling act. How do I balance my role at St John's with being a pioneer and a vicar? There are a lot of demands but what I have been working on is greater and greater integration, drawing together a community of students so that my practice here – with others – is the means by which students are trained and formed for ministry and the base from which I reflect and teach.
It's also a mixed economy setting in that the dispersed mission community will be able to engage with churches in the area and see how the inherited church and fresh expressions of church might work together. We're calling this a 'mission laboratory' in its scope and size.
Sharing their lives so closely, discerning God's call as a group and learning more about the context they find themselves in together will help prepare them to get new mission communities off the ground. This might result in new forms of church emerging or existing congregations could be renewed and re-energised in mission.
Our Community Constitution and Rule makes it clear that the Lady Bay Mission Community has been established for two complementary and integrated purposes:
- the renewal of Christian mission in Lady Bay, through the renewal of the parish church of All Hallows, and through starting, developing and sustaining one or more fresh expressions of church;
- the training of Church of England ordinands, ordinands of other churches, lay ministers and independent students for pioneering ministry and leadership in mission.
As we develop a vision for a fresh expression of church in the parish, we will relate to the national Fresh Expressions movement through the regional FEAST (Fresh Expressions Area Strategy Team).
When I first arrived at All Hallows, Lady Bay, it was a real learning curve because they weren't specifically asking for pioneering or fresh expressions. So, for them to hear that they were getting someone who would be a vicar and a pioneer was quite difficult.
The first year was pretty tough, there was no honeymoon period, but then we had an event at which I read out part of my job description and it was quite clear to everyone that the role I'd applied for was all about change. That was the breakthrough.
Some of it was also about adopting a different pastoral approach. The full scope of my role hadn't been as widely understood as it might have been and some people thought it was my job to mediate the situation. Thankfully, I had a lot of support from the Diocese, the Director of Ministry and Mission, Nigel Rooms, and the former Archdeacon of Nottingham, Peter Hill, who is now the Bishop of Barking.
The other thing that has helped us to open that up is our involvement with US-based organisation, Church Innovations, and its consultancy service, The Partnership for Missional Church (PMC) founded by Patrick Keifert.
Through PMC, we join together with a small group of congregations from our Diocese (Southwell and Nottingham) and the Diocese of Leicester in a three year process which explores what part we might play in God's future for our local communities. St John's College supports us in that and we meet as a cluster three times a year, to reflect on what we're learning and prepare for the tasks we do locally between each gathering.
This has already helped us to ask the question, 'What can The Partnership for Missional Church and Fresh Expressions learn from each other? There is lots of crossover. PMC is asking us to consider that if we're investing in new things, does the inherited church just roll over and die or do we invite them into newness? It's a process of what we call adaptive change rather than technical fixes. We ask what we need to be and take the steps to get there.
Along the way, we learn and practice six spiritual disciplines or 'holy habits'. So far we have learnt two – Dwelling in the Word and Corporate Spiritual Discernment.
The mission community also demands a lot of attention and care but I'm not going to be a sort of 'Daddy Pioneer'. Instead, we'll meet and mutually support each other as a part prayer, part reflective practice group.
The conviction to me is about community. I haven't tried to establish a fresh expression, the process of looking and listening needs to be a long and engaged one. It's important that we discern these things together. I have got lots of bright ideas so I can all too easily say, 'Come and join me to make things happen' but what is God calling to come into being in this place? That's the sort of thing we'll be considering as a group.
Darren (Howie) is the only member of this community who has been through pioneer panel – but the way I have launched the course to them, even if they're not pioneer, is to say that it's for anyone who would look to be pioneering in their approach. After their time here, there will be a range of destinations for them, some of which may look more like what a pioneer would look for or it may be a conventional parish.
It's about being a community where we develop the skills and convictions and aptitudes to lead the church into new engagements with a wider community and possibly into churches.
It's hugely exciting. I have been working on this for two years and we had no idea in January whether anyone would come; I thought maybe we'd get two or three but when six people said, 'yes please' – six people with their own richness in learning, passions and giftedness – I was staggered.
The rhythm of life is the heart of it; it's that coming together every day but also being part of the wider family at St John's. That has made such a difference already. Being serious about disciplines means a commitment to prayer – and commitments in both attitude and practice when living to a community rule. That involves rhythms of:
- eating, including Eucharist;
- growing and working together – looking to see God's Kingdom come, see church grow in depth and numbers and new forms of church to emerge.
As part of our corporate spiritual discernment, we are working with an established monastic community to hold us spiritually accountable to our Rule. Our 'visitor' is an Anglican Benedictine Order, based at Mucknell Abbey, Worcestershire, and we will meet every year with a representative or representatives from Mucknell Abbey to review the Rule. We also each have a spiritual director with whom we meet at least once a term.
It's important that we are not just 'making this up' as we go along so it's wonderful to be linked in with the Order as a group who have done this for a very long time!
Community Mission Pathway students
Gail Phillip: I trained as a teacher and worked with a pioneering Singaporean missionary couple in Thailand. I was with the Anglican Church, based at Christ Church, Bangkok. I came back to the UK four years ago and worked with children in full time residential care but there was a strong sense of calling to ordained ministry so that's why I'm here.
I'm pioneer with a small 'p', working through translation! One of the things that attracted me to the Community Mission Pathway was that it was not just dismissing the people who have gone before but discerning how is God working so we can move together. There are lots of opportunities here; this is an area of 4,000 people with two pubs used for all sorts of community activities.
Jess McLaren: I started my career in Human Resources and I worked my way up a corporate business ladder for seven years. I became a Christian in 2010 and pretty quickly felt a call from God. I started to look around and see other doors opening up. Within a month I found myself working for my bishop (Bishop of Kensington, Paul Williams) with a project in the diocese of London. It all happened for me on a night when we were commissioning 2,300 young people at St Paul's in April 2012; that night I really felt that God was calling me. I tried to push it down but the thought wouldn't go away and I went into the discernment process in 2012.
In the last year, I was working as a parish assistant for St Mary Magdalene Church, Littleton, and helping with chaplaincy work in schools.
Andi Thomas: My wife, little boy and I live just outside Lady Bay because we couldn't find a house right on the doorstep but it's great to feel part of this Pathway of pioneers. I have just spent about 20 years doing inner city youth work and managed a youth church plant. We were all part of Aston Parish Church, Birmingham.
I didn't plan to do any of this and I remember when someone had a message from God that they believed was for me. The message was that I should consider full-time ministry in the church and I started the discernment process in 2011 but I swore I'd never become a vicar but, more and more, I had the feeling of wanting to be in the glasshouse rather than keep on throwing stones at it.
Darren Howie: My wife and I have been involved with St John's studies for several years now and I've been pursuing the call to ordination; got through Bishops Panel in March and decided to stay because we're really excited about the Community Mission Pathway. This is a great chance to discover about community living at first hand.
I originally knew that St John's was the place for me because, after a very difficult time involving church, I went to the chapel service and Nick Ladd simply said, 'We are just going to wait on God'. Well, the presence of God in the room was overwhelming. I was in the right place. Now, we'll look to see what happens as we learn to live in community with others.
Ivor Lewis: This process has been quite a long one. I was a youth a community regeneration worker in Aston, Birmingham (the same parish as Andi) for quite a long time so I'm really out of my comfort zone here! I'd never really thought of ordination before but I was at my youngest brother's wedding when this minister, who I didn't know, came up to me and said, 'You are going to be a vicar'. He said it in front of my family so I couldn't even pretend it didn't happen! I tried to brush it aside but I went to an urban youth work conference in 2008 and what I came away with was the conviction that God was asking me to take the call of leadership seriously.
I finally did that in 2011/2012 and I made links with DDOs and people like that but all the while I was thinking, I know how hard these guys work, I know they have no life outside that, do you really want to sign up for this? But then I did the paperwork and I felt as if a weight was taken off my shoulders. At the Bishop's Advisory Panel, I felt the Lord was with me. I still wondered what type of ministry I wanted to be involved in and what sort of training that was to be; it was the rhythm of life that attracted me here. This is not inner city Birmingham and I am out of my comfort zone in a sense.
Ed Sauven: I'm from London and have been there for the last eight years. One of the things my wife and I have been thinking of more and more is authentic Christian community. What does itlook like and what does authentic Christian community doing mission look like? I've been involved in lots of things to explore that and I've also tried to get involved in lots of things to explore that but – for one reason or another – they didn't work out.
At one point we were part of a network church looking to connect with 20s and 30s but I struggled with the network setting and not having a sense of place. In trying to discern how you might build community, I heard how these things will come from communities of prayer and I found that new monasticism really resonated with me.
I had a Bishop's Advisory Panel coming up and I was travelling the ordination route but the new monastic movement seemed to be something of a tangent. I hadn't considered prayer to be the centre but then we came to St John's and talked to Mark and found out what he had been doing here. I sensed a very clear answer to prayer. I really wanted to develop community with prayer at its heart and it's from that you go out and do mission. I feel that from a place like that you can do mission sustainably.