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To Be Or Not To Be … Fresh?

Simon Martin is the Training & Resources Officer at the Arthur Rank Centre – the national ecumenical resourcing & network hub for the rural church. He kindly agreed to write a piece for Lay Anglicana on their recent discussions on rural ministry.



Very recently I’ve attended the latest meeting of the Fresh Expressions Rural Round Table. The theme we returned to yet again is the developing of lay leaders within rural fresh expressions of church. This time we had quality input from James Lawrence from CPAS, and during both his presentation and our subsequent discussions we needed to be drawn back repeatedly to discuss the needs of Fresh Expressions … the implications for developing rural fresh expressions of church.

While this was necessary for the purpose that the group was created, I’m not sure I feel entirely happy about it! The reason is very simple: what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander; if it is good & relevant for rural fresh expressions of church, then it is almost certainly also good for the multitude of traditional rural churches.

This is best illustrated by: (a) thinking about some of the rural case studies we gathered together, and (b) reflecting on some of James Lawrence’s key points.

Rural Case Studies

Actually, we didn’t all come up with case studies that were genuine Fresh Expressions, but represented rural churches across a wide spectrum. And they had a remarkable set of commonalities related to encouraging & developing lay leaders – none of which are exclusively ‘fresh’:

• The significant role of small groups at some stage in the process.
• Small opportunities being provided for new lay leaders – i.e. responsibility being offered & accepted.
• Provision of both space & support (with the implicit possibility of ‘failure’).
• Existing mature & willing leaders – prepared to take a risk with new lay leaders.

Some of James Lawrence’s key points

Again, very few of these actually required a Fresh Expressions context, although the overarching missional ethos of Fresh Expressions does major on some of the elements identified:

• Don’t start with leadership, start with discipleship. But the general level of discipleship in most (rural) congregations is scarily low.
• Focus on character (not the same as personality) rather than just competences. Yet many of our current lay development programmes do focus on competence – and often of a knowledge-based rather than pragmatic bent.
• Recognise a heart for those outside the church – not just those who are comfortable with or in it. Alongside the discipleship gap this is a real issue for many rural churches – converting neighbourliness into the shared life of Christ.
• Think young people, not just adults. To be frank, this is problematic in many rural situations with communities and congregations that are predominantly elderly. We cannot simply magic up young(er) people.

Life-on-life learning

And there are other potential problem areas, since the reality of most effective church leadership development (whether ordained or lay) seems to be life-on-life, relational learning – following the rabbinic model employed by Jesus in the Gospels. This has a number of tough consequences:

• It downplays the emphasis on a recognised educational component to lay leadership development – at most about 20% of the requirement, and this not necessarily through a formal educational programme.
• It is hugely demanding of time for both parties – the mentor and the mentee.
• It means moving away from a model of current leadership which promises equal access for all (in congregation or community). If the current leader is to mentor a new leader effectively, it means doing less with and for others: “for the sake of the many, invest in the few”.
• The wider congregation needs to both understand and accept what is being done. This is hard as there will always be the possibility of feelings of neglect, accusations of favouritism, factionalism, and jealousy – especially where multiple churches are concerned.

None of these things are exclusive to fresh expressions of church, and all of them are relevant to the encouragement, development & support of new lay leadership in rural churches. Fortunately the members of the Fresh Expressions Rural Round Table are actually committed to a ‘mixed economy’ model of mission – not Fresh Expressions instead of the traditional church, but both together. And in the context of lay leadership development, the overlap is enormous!


The need for local lay leadership

A final reflection here is that the development of effective lay leadership in rural churches should not be seen as the “solution to a problem” – as if this is exclusively an answer to reducing clergy numbers, or to the grouping of churches together in ever-larger numbers, or to increasing budgetary constraints. These conditions are the reality in which we minister and engage in mission, but they highlight a much deeper issue, which is the fundamental theological & ecclesiological rationale that demands local lay leadership. And maybe it is here that “being fresh” is vital because – God knows – there has been very little impact to this point without “being fresh”.


Simon Martin is blogging in an entirely personal capacity, and is not representing the views of any other organisation or individual.

The illustration is Corton Denham Somerset by David Crosbie via Shutterstock

8 comments on this post:

Revsimmy said...

Thank you for posting this. I am currently in a post-sabbatical re-evaluation of how ministry is done in our (semi) rural, multi-church and this is providing a number of ideas that chime with this. I would be interested to hear more.

Simon Martin said...

The situation of multi-church ministry (e.g. multi-parish benefice) makes all these issues more acute. Though I’m posting in a personal capacity, I have conducted considerable research in the whole area of resourcing & equipping rural churches. You might find it helpful to follow up some of the material at
Simon Martin

14 March 2012 17:55
14 March 2012 12:16
UKViewer said...

Thanks for a thought provoking post, which has driven me to think a little more about it all.

I’m in a Rural Benefice in a Lay Leadership position. We as a Ministry Team seek to encourage discipleship, running thpe diocesan programme. We also seem to encourage and nurture potential vocations in Lay Leaders. We have three candidates at the moment, but each has different gifts, but also complex, demanding lives. Are we asking to much of them to provide an extra layer of commitment to formal training, for roles, that they may only be able to fulfil for two or three years?

We need them to come forward to enhance our ministry team, to further our mission, which is frankly, building community. If we get more bums on seats, so much the better.

We currently cover 5 villages. In April this extends to 9 villages, due to Pastoral Reorganisation. 9 villages, 9 churches, all with a distinctive character. Each which demands an individual approach and a tailor made mission plan. One size will not fit all.

I come to the Church, with extensive leadership and management experience. Army trained. I also have extensive civilian management experience and qualifications. Both Public Service and Commercial experience, just do not prepare you for leadership in the Church. They give you insight, but relationships to the minute level, assume a much greater scale in the Church.

Pastoral decisions are both time sensitive and need much more care, consideration and consultation than those in public service or business. In fact, every decision has pastoral ramifications, which if made in haste, will be repented in haste and remembered unto the third or fourth generation.

So, while Lay Leadership is important to the future development of the church, not everyone has the personal qualities and gifts for relationship building and communication needed by a Lay Leader.

We can train people in whichever style we want, if the baseline product is not suited to the role chosen, than the finished product will be flawed.

Vocation to these roles needs to be very carefully discerned and those responsible for nurturing those vocations must keep in mind that it must be realistic and grounded in prayer and grace. It takes moral courage to face people and to say, I’m sorry, that’s just not right for you. Grabbing every volunteer and loading them with ‘stuff’ is not the way to do things.

We need to provide training and experience for our Incumbents and Senior Lay leaders in getting this right first time, and not to live with the mistakes because it’s to hard to change them once put in place.

As for Fresh Expressions of Church, I like to believe that each time we come to church, we and the church worship with are coming afresh to meet God in his local dwelling house and Sacred space. Each time needs to be different, and the sameness needs to be freshly expressed.

Doing things in new ways not thought off before, needs an imaginative and thoughtful leader, who can take ideas and grow them to fruition, taking the community that is church with him or her. How many of our leaders are in that bracket? Not as many as needed I feel.

Simon Martin said...

I’m not really in a position to comment on all that you’ve said. But I can understand and sympathise with all the concerns you have expressed.
I think there are two main points I might make, beyond the initial comment that what I blogged was not the entirety of the discussions we had – but my take on the main aspects of (and problems with) developing lay leadership that seemed to resonate across both FX and ‘traditional’ church models.
(a) I perceive a very broad spectrum of lay people involved in leadership at every level. We didn’t just consider the key strategic out-the-front leaders. All areas of church life – and especially community engagement – require people to take responsibility. Everything starts small; we seldom see an individual and immediately imagine them in key pastoral or ministerial leadership. But vision & preparation are required. This – it seems to me – is often lacking, as we need a quick solution or we are planning for a short-term future.
(b) I am also somewhat dubious of the innate value of a considerable amount of the ‘formal training’ that seems to be required in order to equip people for recognised leadership roles. I am by no means decrying the need for serious input in developing knowledge, skills & even experience. But I simply don’t buy into many of ways in which this is done. I a very hesitant to name names and give specific examples in view of my lack of universal knowledge of what is offered. But in the major research I conducted (and reported on in detail at a rurally-appropriate example of good practice in selecting, equipping, releasing & supporting lay people for ministry & leadership (on various levels) was the Authorised Lay Ministry (ALM) programme in Worcester Diocese. The detailed research report linled above assesses some of the key reasons why this is an appropriate model.
At the risk of going on too long, a final reflection comes from research done by Lichfield Diocese with Bob Jackson some years ago, and reiterated by rural practitioners & significant trainers across the denominations in the same piedce of research. 1. There is a key balance to be found between the centralising tendencies of generic training & equipping, and the unique needs of the local church (as you so clearly articulate in your own case). 2. When equipping congregations (i.e. lay people primarily) the focus on both delivery and content is always best biased to the local end (or perhaps the equivalent of a deanery or circuit). Equip people for and in their context.
Simon martin

14 March 2012 18:19
14 March 2012 12:33
ramtopsrac said...

Fascinating; thank you so much for posting.

The thing that is currently challenging me is how as churches we minister to the hidden, but discrete and proud communities of romany and traveller origin who may be settled, or pass regularly through rural communities.

I’ve been particularly inspired by Martin Burrell’s ‘The Pure in Heart: an Epistle from the Romanies’. This seems to suggest that the biggest challenges include helping these people keep their cultural identity, and worship in a way that they are comfortable with, which involves music and dancing, but little in the way of the written word, except from scripture – and that made accessible to a section of the community that has patchy literacy levels.

Where I come from in the New Forest, another similar community are the old commoning families: settled yet working the land in the seasonal patterns of God’s creation; passionate about the sanctity and traditions of their local church and community, yet only entering the building for occasional offices.

I sense that ministry with these people needs to be less based in the church building, and more focused on encouraging them to understand their Christian faith in the context of what they see and do on a daily basis. To do that it probably needs ministers (ordained or lay) that will set alongside traditional services, alternative ways of engaging these people.

For example, by whom, from what materials, and with what traditional skills and modern tools, will our Good Friday crosses be made this year?

14 March 2012 12:37
Simon Martin said...

Hi Rachel, we meet again!
My reflection is that your particular example highlights and exemplifies many of the major points (and problems) identified in the original blog post. I only wish I & the ARC were able to give you more detailed & specific help – though I think you got some helpful feedback when you last tweeted/FBed about this issue.
I would offer you a contextual challenge. How can one meaningfully minister WITH the romany & traveller communities? i.e. not just going alongside them, but equipping them to minister to themselves. Maybe leadership, ministry and worship amongst them needs romany & traveller lay leaders? How are the ‘old commoning families’ perceived by the church as it exists? In view of (a) their passions concerning local church & community, and (b) their non-engagement with both church building and traditional building-centred worship & ministry.
I would suggest that the overtly missional, context-sensitive, listening and other-directed emphasis of Fresh Expressions at its best provides an excellent tool for envisaging how to minister to the hidden, transient or detached travelling communities.
Simon (Martin)

14 March 2012 18:29
Charley Farns-Barns said...

Ramtopsrac,(Is that from the Disc World?)

May I intrude and ask if you heard Monday’s broadcast on Beeb Radio 4 at 4.30 “Beyond Belief”? It was billed as “Ernie Rea and guests discuss religion and Irish Travellers” but it covered more than just them pointing out that different groups of travellers had different apporoches to Christianity. I recommend you to hear it on the “Listen Again” facility. Regards, MikeN.

ramtopsrac said...

Thanks for the challenge Simon; yes in Martin Burrell’s book that exact point is made, and achieved – before he left the post of vicar in the parish he skilled some of the romanies to lead in their own style the new congregation of romanies and asylum seekers that had grown out of occasional offices, personal relationship building and various prophetic happenings. A different approach would be needed with the commoners in the new Forest… but I’m not there to put it in to practice.

Mike, you are right the “Ramtops” are the mountains in the discworld where Nanny Ogg and co live! We like high, rural places and have a collection of sheepskins, so despite living in a small town housing estate, we called the house, and eventually everything else, ramtops!

Mike you have no idea how timely your BBC4 “Beyond Belief” reference is, and I will go off and listen to it in the morning. Regards RH

14 March 2012 20:33
14 March 2012 20:07

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