Pioneering Leadership

Disturbing the Status Quo?
By Dave Male
Posted by Darren Cronshaw on 01/06/2016

With church on the decline in much of the Western world and theological education often focused on pastoral aspects of leadership, there is a huge need for recruiting, training and resourcing pioneering leadership. We need new models of church and also fresh approaches to leadership development, especially of pioneers who can respond to the Spirit’s initiative in a context and help create something that opens up new horizons for the church (drawing on Male’s definition, p.14).

Dave Male planted the Net Church in Huddersfield, an early Anglican fresh expression of church. He currently resources pioneers – lay and ordained – from the Centre for Pioneering Leadership in Cambridge. His 28 page resource booklet in the Grove Leadership series introduces biblical, strategic and training and support implications for any church, college or system that wants to give priority to this area.

The term “pioneer” has some unfortunate colonial implications of lone explorers who may have lacked cultural respect, or today might be suggestive of pragmatic extroverts or mavericks. But Male reframes the term in helpful directions.

Firstly, there are strong biblical roots in reference to Jesus on whose power our pioneering rests (e.g., Hebrews 2:10, 12:2). His example is to innovatively cross all sorts of boundaries to be good news to people (e.g., Mark 1:40-45; 2:13-17; 5:25-43). Yet he also embodies reconnecting with a deeper understanding of tradition (e.g., Mark 2:23-27; 3:1-16). One strength of the booklet is its fresh invitation to reengage and indwell our biblical story. Male quotes Henri Matisse’s observation, “To look at something as though we had never seen it before requires great courage.” Pioneering leadership does not simply invent new and novel approaches and ignore tradition, but seeks to get to the heart of Christian tradition. Like experts who improvise in music or art, we need to understand foundations of musical or artistic forms, and then play with new and vivid alternatives. Male refers to learning “classical” forms first, but my musical friend Beth Barnett suggests that is not the best word, since lots of great jazz musicians don’t know “classical” at all, but deeply know the foundations of musical forms, and that helps remind us we don’t have to “conform first, then earn the right to extemporize” but that there are even lots of different ways to learn the foundations, other than “classically”. But this underlines Male’s argument to invite people to reengage their tradition and rediscover the heart of our history, not to default to a status quo position but to use that as a base for a radical and changed future (pp. 8-9, 15, 20).

Secondly, the writer makes the point that not everyone is a pioneering leader, but there are likely more in our churches than we presently recognise, and there are different sorts of pioneers. With George Lings, he suggests it is helpful to classify ourselves and those we train and support in four different categories, the first two of which we can especially encourage to pioneer, and the second two we can encourage to support others who pioneer:

•Pioneer-starters, great at starting new things and then moving on

•Pioneer-sustainers, who can start a group from scratch and nurture it to maturity

•Sustainer-pioneers, who are more nurturing pastoral types but want to champion parallel pioneering initiatives

•Sustainer-developers whose primary gifting is nurture but who can still grow in helping a church with mission.

The Church (and individual congregations) need leaders who are at different points on this spectrum. But those who are pioneering, Male explains, tend to love starting things, being on the edge, taking risks, fostering community, looking outward, and asking questions. They also know when to stay or go, when to bring order or chaos, and how to think up creative alternatives. Those who recognise and train leaders will do well to use Male’s lists as evaluative/diagnostic grids.

Male biblically grounds the pioneering leader’s role in the function of Apostles, Prophets and/or Evangelists (drawing on Ephesians 4), but also in the risk-taking and ground-breaking work of entrepreneurs. The booklet also explores how to value, empower and invest in pioneering leadership, and discusses key issues of managing expectations, measuring success (beyond just counting attendance), succession planning and sustainability, isolation and teamwork, making tough decisions and avoiding domestication.

This last point is a central learning point for aspiring pioneers, and those training and supporting them. As Male pleads, we don’t want to bury pioneers in organisational burdens or pastoral focused Position Descriptions, nor domesticate them with a tame college and church environment and set of experiences:

“It is important to consider how we keep pioneering leaders dangerous! Our church systems tend to domesticate such leaders, wanting them to fit in and not to rock the boat. But I believe our present critical time requires more, not fewer, dangerous leaders who are prepared to work in different and exciting ways. … not get sucked into the vortex of meetings, rotas, committees and boards”. (p.22)

Pioneering Leadership: Disturbing the Status Quo? is a concise but important briefing paper for pioneering leaders and those who want to produce more of them in healthy yet still dangerous directions. It draws mainly on the UK context, but has potential to spark creative rethinking in other mission contexts, not least of which the mission of the church in other Western contexts.

Dave Male, Pioneering Leadership: Disturbing the Status Quo? Grove Leadership Booklet S14 (Ridley Hall, Cambridge: Grove Books, 2013)

ISBN 978 1 85174 880 8. £3.95 paperback or EBook. Available from

This was review was originally published in Journal of Contemporary Ministry Number 2 (2016), 107-109, accessible at