Ministry in NSW/ ACT: Our New Ultra-Concentrated Formula!
The last Synod meeting highlighted a key challenge for the Uniting Church. Across NSW, ministry placements are becoming increasingly concentrated in the urban areas of the metropolitan Presbyteries. This is no surprise, and not really even anyone’s ‘fault’ – after all, most people of NSW and the ACT live and work in metropolitan areas, and population shift to the cities and suburbs has been a demographic reality for many decades now.
However, the impact on the rural and regional church has been dramatic. As country congregations decline, they are less able to support ministers, and distance can make shared ministry placements problematic. Lay leaders work hard within their own constraints of time, training and secular employment to lead worship, preach, teach and meet some mission expectations.
Even larger regional congregations are having difficulty attracting ministers into very good placements, which also serve as an important regional resource for the needs of other churches and the Presbytery. New England-Northwest, Macquarie-Darling and Riverina Presbyteries together currently account for around a dozen ministry placements across a vast swathe of NSW. The far north and south coasts include a handful more. By comparison, Sydney Central Coast Presbytery includes around 60 ministry placements, full- or part-time, and Parra-Nepean and Sydney Presbyteries have each about the same. Add the metro parts of Georges River, Illawarra, Canberra Region and the Hunter, and the disparity in ministry deployment becomes increasingly stark. Our rural regions need more called, trained, formed and dedicated ministers to enable the full range of connection with the resources, mission and identity of the whole Uniting Church.
From the perspective of ministers, the issue is complicated. Since the formation of the Uniting Church, the ethos of corporate deliberation and ‘sending’ of ministers to where they are needed has gradually been replaced by a more individual ‘discernment of call’, coupled with a much greater emphasis on the legitimate needs of contemporary ministry families: children’s education and social stability, partners’ working arrangements, care for aged parents and so on. In some cases, ministers may be convinced that God has called and gifted them to serve in northern Sydney; in other cases, a genuine openness to rural or regional ministry simply never coincided with a suitable time, place and call, and another suburban ministry was locked in for a decade or more.
The question the last Synod faced was simple: Is this the Uniting Church we want to be?
What can the whole church do to redress this imbalance of ministry resources, which is exacerbating the challenges faced by churches and their communities in ‘the Bush’? Forcible relocation of ministers may in this day and age meet with some mild resistance. Solutions such as Saltbush are being initiated, though it remains to be seen whether these will radically change the current trends.
Clearly, the church needs and God calls ministers to serve in the cities and suburbs. However, our polity is perpetuating an ‘urban drift,’ leaving large regional centres and rural and remote towns and their communities without the worship, witness and service of the Uniting Church.
‘Mobilising Ministry for the Bush’ was an idea that emerged from the open sessions of the last two days of Synod. It is not a full solution, but may be a helpful way to approach the complexities quickly and simply, with implications for change in the longer term. The basic plan goes like this:
Congregations in the metropolitan presbyteries agree to release their (willing and able) minister for two to four weeks a year to visit and minister with a congregation in ‘the Bush’. The regional presbyteries select congregations which can both offer adequate hospitality and resources for a visiting minister, with ministry needs that match the minister’s gifts. Then… the magic happens!
The visiting minister spends time with the rural host congregation, exercising normal pastoral duties, preaching and celebrating sacraments, and sharing whatever special giftedness she or he brings and the congregation needs. Examples include running a workshop on pastoral care or mission planning; leading a bible study or theology series; training, mentoring and relieving local leaders and lay preachers. Mix in country hospitality, sightseeing, farm and town experience; and looking, listening and learning the realities of regional life.
In fact, some comparable activities are already well underway with individual pastors, preachers and congregations forging some strong rural bonds. This is commendable and we encourage it, but Synod’s particular need at the moment is to reintroduce ordained ministers where they have become conspicuously lacking.
What should emerge is a warm relationship and a better understanding of life and ministry in rural NSW. The same exchange may be repeated, or a different one sought, in future years. Congregational visits or exchanges may emerge. City hospitality may be offered to visiting new friends. Some ministers may decide to seek a rural placement based on their fresh experience. City-bound ministry becomes freed up and mobilised to explore the needs and possibilities of service in ‘The Bush’.
Sounds great, right?! Where do I sign?
Right now, the planning team is preparing to present MMFTB to the coming Synod, with the aim of a Pilot Program in 2018 featuring ministry agents of the Sydney Central Coast Presbytery. Our SCCP Standing Committee has approved our participation in this Pilot. (I confess to an unchristian hope that ministers in Sydney, PNP and Georges River Presbyteries will be so envious that they will attempt to ‘blue card’ the whole idea.)
So the very first step for us is simple.
Ministers in placements: Are you up for this? Could you give about two weeks in 2018 to visit and minister with a selected rural congregation? Could your partner and kids bear to be without you that long? Do you have a special ministry to offer which perhaps you have already overused back home?
Congregations and Mission Centres: Are you up for this? Could you possibly make do for a fortnight without your minister, lend their time, continue to pay their stipend, and therefore make a contribution from one of Australia’s best-resourced Presbyteries to one of the most struggling?
I have committed to the team to assemble a group of about 6-12 willing and capable visiting ministers for 2018, while the rural Presbyteries identify suitable congregations. (I am personally intending to offer to be one of them.) A set of mutual responsibilities around costs, accomodation, resources, and expected ministries is being developed and will be outlined in a covenant between the minister and the two sharing congregations. Once I have some expressions of interest I will call a gathering to share questions and insights, and we will work with the Bush to set it up.
Please think, pray, discuss with your family and placement, and let me know what you are thinking. If the answer is no for 2018, think about 2019 and beyond. I am hopeful that our new Sydney Central Coast Presbytery can lead the way in Mobilising Ministry for the whole of our Synod, and build better relationships with the Bush.
Proposed to SCCP Standing Committee
Mobilising Ministry for the Bush is a project that arose out of the open space workshops of the last Synod. I have (with earlier Presbytery encouragement) offered our Presbytery to participate in a Pilot Program next year. A set of guidelines and a covenant for the program are being developed to cover travel costs, stipend, accomodation and ministry roles. Basically, the sending congregation continues to pay stipend, the host congregation pays everything else. Accomodation will not be in a ‘billet’ arrangement with a family, to ensure minister’s retreat space, privacy and independence. The two Presbyteries will determine on one hand the suitability and capacity of a congregation to receive and benefit from the program; and on the other, the ability of the minister to adapt to circumstances and offer appropriate ministry in the new place. A process of reflection and feedback will also be created to aid in developing the program.
Resolved (SCCP Standing Committee, 25 July 2017)
That the SCC Standing Committee:
- Commit the Presbytery to support the Mobilising Ministry for the Bush Pilot Program (2018);
- Encourage Congregations to participate by sharing their ministry agent with a selected rural congregation for a two week period in 2018, according to the agreements and covenant formulated for the purpose;
- Encourage Ministers of the Word and Deacons to prayerfully consider their availability and giftedness to participate in the Pilot Program in 2018, and discuss this with their congregation and the Presbytery Minister;
- Review the outcomes of the Pilot Program, assign time in a Presbytery meeting and other forums for participants to share their experiences, and offer constructive feedback to the steering group;
- Contribute to future expressions of Mobilising Ministry for the Bush, as a Presbytery contribution to finding solutions for ministry deployment and mission sharing across the whole Synod.