The growth of UK pioneer missionaries for Jesus - and the gift of not fitting into social norms

Graduates of the Church Mission Society's Pioneer Mission Leadership Training programme, which has seen an increase in numbers, with yesterday's annual graduation ceremony in Oxford seeing 24 students received Durham University awards signifying the completion of their studies in theology, ministry and mission.Church Mission Society

The Church of England is seeing a consistent growth in numbers opting to be pioneer missionaries – and they have the special gift of 'not fitting in'.

The growth is demonstrated by the Church Mission Society's Pioneer Mission Leadership Training programme, which has seen an increase in numbers, with yesterday's annual graduation ceremony in Oxford seeing 24 students received Durham University awards signifying the completion of their studies in theology, ministry and mission.

The Bishop of Reading, Andrew Proud, officiated at the ceremony, saying: 'Pioneer leaders have an exciting, pivotal role to play in helping us communicate the love of God to an often confused, hurting and divided world. The growth of the CMS Pioneer Mission Leadership Training programme shows how many people are choosing a pioneer route to ordination and stands as real testament to the quality of CMS's training programme.'

The pioneers included some being ordained into the Church of England as deacons and others who were admitted to the order of lay pioneers.

The group represented an eclectic mix of missionaries, drawn together by a common desire to share the Gospel with all parts of society.

The Pioneer Mission Leadership programme was established in 2010 as a creative way of equipping and mobilising Christians for ground-breaking, transformational and sustainable mission.

Jonny Baker, director of mission education at CMS, explained how the programme has been designed to provide an unconventional and diverse approach to training pioneers. 'The course gives pioneers, who often display "the gift of not fitting in", a supportive learning community – a place to belong, as well as equipping and empowering them to initiate and follow through with mission projects that have a wider impact on the church and society,' he said.

One such pioneer is Libby Hawkness-Smith, who lives in Oxfordshire and heads up Journey On, a community for people with learning difficulties such as autism and anxiety.

The Bishop of Reading, Andrew Proud [R] with Libby Hawkness-Smith, who lives in Oxfordshire and heads up Journey On, a community for people with learning difficulties such as autism and anxiety.Church Mission Society

Libby said: 'Like so much of society the church can be unintentionally patronising for people with autism, but a lot of people want to be challenged, they just need someone to help them build up to a challenge.'

Asked about her particular gift for 'not fitting in,' she added: 'I struggled for a long time with knowing that I'm different yet not quite being able to put my finger on how or why. I grew up in the mission field and came back to the UK...as a teenager, but that only partly explained my differences. I wrestled with trying to be like other people around me yet feeling that by doing so, I was being inauthentic and shunning the beautiful differences that make me unique. My studies have been instrumental in giving me the cognitive and physical space to re-engage and embrace the "me" I tried so long to hide. It's a lot easier to minister out of a place that you know well and which you have come to embrace.'

The Church Mission Society's Pioneer Mission Leadership Training programme provides a pathway for ordination as an ordained pioneer minister (OPM) – alongside the more traditional routes for teachers and pastors.

Students complete a range of modules throughout the training programme, including mission in contemporary society, cross cultural engagement, leadership, pastoral care and entrepreneurship in mission. Students are encouraged to enlist the support of a mentor, and to attend an annual retreat, starting additional projects and visiting existing pioneer community projects.

'Mission pioneers are giving the church a glimpse of the future, where mission will not be delivered solely by large para-church organisations, but increasingly through agile, innovative and creative pioneers, witnessing love in action,' said Baker.

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