Reimagining ministry in these different times

I have exercised ministries in the position of Presbytery Minister over the past 12 years, more than half of which have included an explicit linkage with a local Congregation as part of that ministry. I have served in my current position for forty-two months (initially in part-time supply, then fulltime from February 2020). On Thursday I became a retired minister, and today I have shared with friends and colleagues in a Closure of Ministry service for my role as Canberra Region Presbytery Minister–Wellbeing.

As I began this role, a huge swathe of the east coast of Australia was in the grip of multiple fires, during the Black Summer of 2019–2020. The air in Canberra was thick with smoke; one night, the fires came within just a few kilometres of our house. With most of the rest of our street, we stood in the dark, watching the flames at a distance, as planes and helicopters flew overhead, dropping water in an attempt to slow the spread of the fire. Many communities within the Canberra Region Presbytery were seriously impacted by these fires. It was a time of great tension, and continued breathing difficulties.

As the fires diminished, our car was caught outside in a hailstorm that raced through Canberra. Then a few weeks later, we began learning of the virus that was infecting many and spreading rapidly; and so much of the next two and a half years would be spent in lockdown, with all worship, Bible study, fellowship, and organisational meetings held online. It has been quite a learning curve!! And then, multiple times in the ensuing months, friends and family members in various locations were forced to leave their houses, as rain far beyond the normal range fell, flooding river systems and causing widespread havoc.

So there have been fires and smoke, a hailstorm, a viral pandemic–the plague, it would once have been called–and floods. All very apocalyptic!!

In the midst of this, I have exercised ministry. At the end of my time in stipended ministry in formal placements, as I step into a period of unstipended, non-placement, but perhaps still somewhat active, ministry, my thoughts have turned to what I have learned, what I have valued, what I would wish for, and what I might say.

Ministry is both a calling and a profession. Ministry is taken up as Jesus invites his faithful followers to live out their faith in adventurous ways. Over the last two years and more, restrictions on gathering in person have led to a suspension of the regular activities of the church–worship, fellowship, prayer groups and bible studies, discipleship activities, training courses.

Then, as restrictions were eased, a return to each of these forms of gathering became possible. But, as we regathered, under the conditions of the COVID Safe Plans that were required, it became obvious that we were not simply entering a “back to normal” phase. Each form of gathering would be different from the earlier, more familiar, form of gathering. Yes, there would be familiar elements; but there would be additional requirements, and some changes in what we do when we gather.

In short, we were moving on into a different form of gathering–be that for worship, for study, for prayer, for meeting, for learning, or for sharing the Gospel with others. In contrast to the pre-COVID period (a time of settled familiarity in our various gatherings), we were now moving into a time of post-COVID realities–or, at least, a time when the realities of COVID needed to co-exist with the hopes about how we might gather, informed by the traditional practices of the pre-COVID period.

All of this has presented a challenge to the church, as we have grappled with what is possible at each stage of the process. All of this has also opened an opportunity to rethink what we do and reimagine how we might go forward. Many Congregations have been doing exactly this.

Alongside this review and reshaping of congregational life, a similar revisioning and reimagining of ministry can be–indeed, should be–taking place. Ministry itself can be reviewed and reshaped in this current time.

*****

So in what follows, I want to offer a proposal about how we think about ministry in a refreshed way: that we might consider ministry to be a call to be on mission, through worship, witness and service, as we collaborate, resource, and pioneer.

These last three terms–collaborate, resource, and pioneer–invite us to approach ministry in a different way, when compared with the “traditional minister” of years past. These terms might sound like a different approach to ministry–different from the “preach the word, celebrate the sacraments, visit the people” pattern that shaped ministry for so many decades in the past.

Yet all three terms can be found in that section of the Regulations of the Uniting Church in Australia about the duties of a Minister. The Regulations provide a clear and comprehensive statement of the various duties that are expected of a Minister. (The full list is pasted below, from section 2.2.1 of the Regulations.)

Before we turn to this document, however, let me explain that I am using the term “Minister” to refer to a Minister of the Word or a Deacon, the two specified ministries to which people are ordained for life and for whom the normal form of ministry is exercised through placements under the oversight of the Presbytery. This is in accord with the definition that is given in section 3 of the UCA Constitution.

Deacons and Ministers of the Word are exercising their ministries in different, perhaps unprecedented, ways, in this current situation of change. The months where restrictions have been in place, prohibiting gatherings in person, have presented a challenge to many of my colleagues.

Our sense of what it is that we were called to, and how we have come to operate in response to that calling, has come to confront head-on the need to operate in different ways in this circumstance. How prepared are we, collectively, and individually, to meet these challenges and to re-orient our ministries to fit the new situation?

Tradition has seen that the role of Ministers has been to preach the Gospel, preside at the sacraments, and offer pastoral care. That threefold pattern has a long and valued history. I still hear it stated, from time to time, in the present age.

However, learning to do things differently, and re-prioritising what we do in ministry, is the challenge of the moment. I think it is worthwhile highlighting some of the points contained in this Regulation, to show that our ministerial charter actually invites and encourages us to engage in this process.

*****

Let’s start with the final point in that list of ministerial responsibilities, that a Minister will be involved in pioneering new expressions of the gospel. This contains a clear call to move beyond the “traditional” expectations of a Minister–that she or he will preach, undertake pastoral visitation, and organise the business of the congregation (which is perhaps the traditional way of reading a statement contained in the Basis of Union).

The restrictions of the past few months have forced us to develop new ways of ministering: new patterns of online worship, study groups online, distributing worship materials by email or post, and providing practical assistance through doorstop calls. We have developed new patterns of working, whilst new skills have been needed to minister effectively. Creativity has flourished under this stimulus.

The other clause in this final Regulation orients ministry in the same direction, emphasising the collegial or communal nature of the role of the Minister: that of encouraging effective ways of fulfilling the mission of the Church. This means that it is not up to “the Minister alone” to pioneer new expressions and develop the missional impetus of the church. It is to be “encouraged” by sharing the task with others–and presumably equipping those people to be effective in that role.

And that goal, to fulfil the mission of the church, has been to the fore in all that has been undertaken, in new ways, over recent times, as people have worked together in different ways–and as people previously unconnected or rarely engaged with each other, have co-operated and collaborated in many ways.

The same collegial and resourcing role is articulated in clause (iii). This clause follows two earlier clauses which specify that the Minister presides and preaches, but now it goes on to say that the Minister is charged with providing for other persons to undertake these roles.

That means that the Minister does not necessarily occupy the worship leading and preaching role for 48 Sundays a year (allowing for annual leave), but makes provision for sharing this role with others — who presumably are trained and equipped in appropriate ways for this role. I know of a number of Congregations where lay people have provided worship leadership for online gatherings, for instance, in situations where they have been reticent to do so in gatherings in person.

*****

The Basis of Union, at a number of points, identifies worship, witness and service as the lynchpin of the work of the congregation. Interestingly, whilst the “traditional” role of worship is embedded into the duties of the Minister, so too is witness specified at clause (iv) and service is likewise identified at clause (viii).

So what is expected of the congregation as a whole, is to be modelled and implemented by the Minister, personally, in their ministry. Those who argue that the Minister has a primary focus on worship and preaching, supplemented by pastoral care and administration, are not actually reading their Regulations carefully!

The “traditional” role of the Minister (the solo individual who preaches, presides, visits, and chairs) is so, so far removed from what the UCA Regulations actually articulate. We are called to be on mission, through worship, witness and service, collaborating, resourcing, and pioneering. It is a fine calling–and the challenges of the current context both enhance and challenge the way that we seek to carry that out.

*****

Regulation 2.2.1

(a) Within the ministry of the whole Church, Jesus Christ calls men and women to proclamation of the gospel in word and deed through the ministry of the Word and the ministry of Deacon. This calling is exercised by:

(i) preaching of the Word;

(ii) presiding at the celebration of the sacraments;

(iii) providing for other persons to preside at worship and/or preach within the pastoral charge in which the Minister is in placement;

(iv) witnessing in the community to the gospel of Jesus Christ;

(v) guiding and instructing the members of the Church and equipping them for their ministry in the community;

(vi) nurturing candidates for baptism and confirmation;

(vii) pastoral oversight and counsel wherever needed;

(viii) serving in the community, especially among those who are hurt, dis-advantaged, oppressed or marginalized;

(ix) careful attention to administrative responsibilities;

(x) due observance of the discipline of the Church;

(xi) the enhancement of the Minister’s own gifts for the work of ministry;

(xii) pioneering new expressions of the gospel and encouraging effective ways of fulfilling the mission of the Church.

*****

See also a series of posts that I made during 2020 about the challenges being faced and the changes being undertaken:

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/14/ministry-and-mission-in-the-midst-of-change-and-transition-luke-2113/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/05/the-times-they-are-are-a-changin/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/04/not-this-year-so-what-about-next-year/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/04/22/its-been-just-over-a-month-but-there-have-been-lots-of-learnings/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/15/when-you-come-together-reflections-on-community-in-the-midst-of-a-pandemic/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/16/going-back-to-church-what-will-our-future-look-like-4/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/06/03/greet-one-another-2-cor-13-but-no-holy-kissing-and-no-joyful-singing/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/29/worship-like-the-first-christians-what-will-our-future-look-like-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/24/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-2/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/05/22/its-been-two-months-under-restrictions-what-will-our-future-look-like-1/

 

Priorities in ministry: an ordination anniversary reflection

“Well, you only really work one day a week, don’t you?” After decades in ministry, I am not sure I can count how many times I have heard this comment—sometime flippant, but often rather serious.

Of course, ministers do not work only one day a week! That stereotype is based on the perception that the weekly sermon is the sum total of the work of ministry. Whilst it is true that many of my Protestant colleagues see the sermon as the most important, or critically significant, element of their weekly work, it is definitely the case that the work of ministry stretches far and wide beyond the weekly sermon.

Today is the 42nd anniversary of my ordination; I was set aside to the Ministry of the Word in the Uniting Church in Australia in a service that took place on 3 December 1980 in my home Congregation of Seaforth, amongst the cloud of witnesses that had surrounded me in my early decades.

I have been privileged to have spent time in congregational ministry in two rural areas and one urban location, in regional roles in two presbyteries, in educational roles in two synods, and to have served the Assembly on a number of committees, as well as multiple committees in synod and presbytery roles over the years.

I have worked with some fine colleagues in each of these placements. And in each place, I have sought to live out those vows that I took at ordination, in the exercise of my ministry at Southern Illawarra and Waverley, in years of study at New Haven and two decades of teaching at North Parramatta, in sabbatical periods at Durham and Cambridge, back in ministry at Wauchope and the Mid North Coast Presbytery, in the venture overwest to Perth, and then at Queanbeyan and in this most recent Presbytery role.

In each of these placements, I have been comforted (and challenged) by the way that the Uniting Church articulates the various responsibilities of a minister. They are set out in section 2.2.1 of the national Regulations. The expression of those responsibilities has changed somewhat over time, although the basic shape of these responsibilities remains consistent in its focus. But there have been some interesting refinements over time.

(The current version of the Regulations is cited at the end of this blog.)

To start, we can note that preaching is given the first place in the list. Is this significant? Certainly, in the history of Protestant churches, the priority accorded to preaching is clear. And I know of colleagues today, who insist that, whatever else is happening, preparation of the weekly sermon is their first priority each week. That is central to our tradition.

Of course, preaching is not held exclusively to the ordained ministers. The Methodist Church contributed the ministry of lay people as preachers to the Uniting Church when it was formed, and Lay Preachers are now one of four specified ministries within the UCA, alongside the lay ministry of Pastor and the two ordained ministries of Deacon and Minister of the Word.

Second, presiding is noted. That sits hand in hand with the role of preaching; these are two of the key aspects in leading worship within the gathered community of faithful people. Leading prayers, reading scripture, explaining and expounding the message, baptising new members of the community, and gathering people around the table of the Lord at communion, are key aspects of leading worship on a regular basis.

Once again, presiding at the sacraments, within current Uniting Church understanding, is not limited exclusively to ordained people; in situations where access to an ordained minister is not regularly available, authorised lay people can preside, after having completed a training course and being recommended by their Church Council.

In fact, the third clause places conditions around the way that a minister exercises the roles of presider and preacher. The leading of worship is to be a shared, collaborative, team-based enterprise. All ministers should, in their practice, cultivate a team of people who can not only read scripture and lead prayers, but also preach and, if need be, preside at baptisms and communion within the placement. Certainly, neither the pulpit nor the table is the exclusive preserve of ordained ministers, as we have noted.

Clauses 3, 5 and 6 each indicate that a key function of ministry is to prepare others: prepare people to lead worship, prepare people to be baptised or confirmed within the church, prepare people to be faithful and more effective disciples, and prepare people to engage in the mission to which the church is committed. Each minister within the UCA is to exercise a ministry of education, training, equipping, resourcing. All ministers are educators; all ministers are called to build up the body of Christ by enabling others to exercise their gifts for ministry and carry out their roles in mission.

The classic understanding of ministry, which is even articulated at points in the Basis of Union, is that the minister the threefold role of preacher, presider, and pastor. Clause 7 addresses the matter of pastoring. Is it significant that this function is quite some way down the list? If the order is in any way significant, we should pause at this point and ponder the traditional expectation that the minister provides pastoral care to all members of the congregation. This is not what the Regulations specify.

And is it also significant, that pastoring the people is (like preaching and leading worship) not the preserve of the ordained alone? That is, all people are called to show care and concern for others. The role of pastor is exercised by those in ministry as an oversight role, ensuring that a team of pastoral careers or elders provide regular and personalised pastoral care. The clause is also made conditional by the phrase “wherever needed”, which suggests that what is in view is a responsive form of pastoring, on a needs basis, rather than a regular “visit the flock every three months” prescription simply because “that is what the minister does”.

Are ministers called to be prophets? Some colleagues that I know place a high value on this role. Nothing explicitly identifies this role, however. Yet understanding how the Bible relates to contemporary situations, and articulating the way that the Gospel speaks into our context, has a dynamic that is very similar to the dynamic that the prophets of old knew very well.

What is “the word of the Lord” for this situation? How do we do just that, in our preaching and teaching? What are the words that best identify prejudices and expose injustices, that advocate for the poor and speak for the voiceless or disempowered? That’s functioning as a prophet.

Practising faith, as a committed disciple, is indicated by a number of clauses. Clause 4 prescribes that ministers bear witness to their faith, while clauses 8, on serving, and 11, on being a committed lifelong learner, also relate to this important dimension of ministry. We need to live, and model, exactly what we say to others, in our own lives.

The final clause addresses the mission of the church. It specifies that Ministers will find ways to be effective in fulfilling that mission. Maintenance is not adequate. Missionary impetus is essential. And “pioneering new expressions of the Gospel” is integral to that process.

This final clause envisages that all ministers will be equally pioneers in mission, as much as they are preachers and presiders, or practising their faith and preparing others for leadership roles in their discipleship. Pioneering is closely linked to “fulfilling the mission of the church”. Over the centuries, the church has regularly reinvented itself, finding new forms for worship, for service, for witness, for fellowship. We need to keep doing that in our own times, to continue being effective in mission.

And might the last clause (following a familiar scriptural dictate) be made first? What would our ministry, and our mission, look like, if each minister made the task of “pioneering new expressions of faith” as their first priority—and, by implication, relegated preaching to a lower spot, maybe even the last spot, on the list? It is a challenge—but I think this might be an important clue for the way ahead.

See further at https://johntsquires.com/2022/12/04/reimagining-ministry-in-these-different-times/

*****

UCA Regulations 2.2.1

Within the ministry of the whole Church, Jesus Christ calls men and women to proclamation of the gospel in word and deed through the ministry of the Word and the ministry of Deacon. This calling is exercised by:

(i) preaching of the Word;

(ii) presiding at the celebration of the sacraments;

(iii) providing for other persons to preside at worship and/or preach within the pastoral charge in which the Minister is in placement;

(iv) witnessing in the community to the gospel of Jesus Christ;

(v) guiding and instructing the members of the Church and equipping them for their ministry in the community;

(vi) nurturing candidates for baptism and confirmation;

(vii) pastoral oversight and counsel wherever needed;

(viii) serving in the community, especially among those who are hurt, disadvantaged, oppressed or marginalized;

(ix) careful attention to administrative responsibilities;

(x) due observance of the discipline of the Church;

(xi) the enhancement of the Minister‘s own gifts for the work of ministry;

(xii) pioneering new expressions of the gospel and encouraging effective ways of fulfilling the mission of the Church.

Doing mission locally: an imperative for discipleship in the 2020s

In many Congregations around the country—in rural towns, in city suburbs, in regional centres, in inner city areas—members of the church are also members of local community groups. In many cases these relationships have a long history; it has always been seen to be important for people of faith to be active in their local communities, engaging alongside people of other faiths or no faith with those community groups—CWA, service groups like Lions and Rotary, Masonic groups, climate groups, organisations to feed the homeless or the lonely, refugee justice groups, craft groups, hobby groups, playgroups, and so many more.

In many cases, however, there is no clear understanding of how these relationships can provide a base for deepening the discipleship of these people and extending the mission of their local Congregation. The missional understanding or commitment within such Congregations was often shaped by an ethos of a past era in which the local church was the de facto “community hub”; and perhaps with a sense that mission is really about inviting people to “come and be with us”. Open the door, advertise the event, and folks will come; that was certainly the experience of a (now, rather distant) past.

Today, by contrast, there has been a significant development in our understanding of mission—that it is more, now, about “go and be with others” rather than “come and join us”. Mission, after all, is about “being sent”, rather than about “bringing in”. Indeed, the very word missio comes from a Latin word which means “sent”.

In my Presbytery, the Canberra Region Presbytery, there has been a year-long process of developing a mission plan for the next few years. It has been driven by my colleague, Andrew Smith, who has offered the following insightful reflection on how mission might be understood and expressed in such contexts, in ways that give expression to the developing understanding of mission that has been underway for some time now. He writes:

From “come and join us” to “go and be with others”

The references to a change from “come and join us” to “go and be with others” aim to describe a shift in mission focus for the church over time. Previously church mission could largely rely on a “come and join us” approach. This was a time when churches were highly respected and were at the centre of the wider community life, and being a good citizen entailed church attendance. That era was some of the heydays for the church when the church could expect people would come and join us. All we really needed to do was put on a church service, and people would come. The patterns of conventional church life (with its worship styles and times and models of discipleship) were well accepted, and people willingly obliged.

However, with changes in society, the church no longer enjoys the respect it once had, and people are less likely to be interested in making the changes needed for them to assimilate into the patterns of conventional church life. This means that the “come and join us” approach to mission no longer serves us as well as it once did for calling and forming disciples.

Now, our approach to mission needs to be more along the lines of “go and be with others”. We can no longer expect the wider community to come to us and assimilate into conventional church life to become and grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. Rather, the church needs to change to accommodate to the wider society to find fresh ways of calling people to discipleship. We need to be accommodating. We need to “go and be with others” to build trusting relationships on their turf and on their terms, and look for how the Holy Spirit is working in their lives, and respond appropriately to create fresh pathways aligning with the Spirit’s work toward discipleship.

Example from playgroups

Perhaps an example, growing out of the life of the congregations, might be helpful to illustrate the above intended meaning of mission being more, now, about “go and be with others” rather than “come and join us”.

Playgroups are often very well received acts of loving service by congregations, and a lovely and much appreciated community grows among the families who attend. However, it is not unusual for some individuals in congregations with playgroups to view their playgroup as a something like a funnel that would channel playgroup families to the church’s existing Sunday morning worship service. Such an attitude fits neatly with the “come and join us” approach to mission where the families are expected to assimilate into the patterns of conventional church for their growth as disciples.

However, “a go and be with others” approach to mission would take a very different journey with the families. A congregation with a playgroup has already listened to the needs of the young families in the wider community and has sought to be accommodating by setting up and running the playgroup. This is an act of loving service in which folk from the church are with folk from the wider community, and it is part of the mission of God. We hope and trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of the families, and we are aware of folk from the congregation praying for the families along these lines. A next key step in discerning the work of the Spirit could be to tell the families that folk from the congregation do indeed pray for them, and to ask the families for any matters that they would like the church folk to include in their prayers.

Such an initiative around prayer is likely to be well received as generally people do not find an offer of prayer to be confronting, rather they find it comforting. Such praying will also build the community among the group as people share what is important to be prayed about, and will also offer some clues about how God is working in their lives.

This is a fresh pathway into discipleship. It may even be that down the track one or two of the parents or grandparents find themselves drawn by the Spirit even more toward the God of this prayer, and may give off signs of seeking more about faith. Then one of the church folk involved in the play group might be able to meet up with them in a local café at a time that suits them to hear and respond to what they are seeking. If others have a similar interest, perhaps a small group could form.

Who knows where all this might lead, but one of the important points is that it is all based around being accommodating to the parents or grandparents – going and being with them on their terms, rather than them being required to come and join us by assimilating into the patterns of conventional church.

Presbytery Mission Plan

The account in Scripture of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8 is inspirational in this approach to mission. Read the passage to see how much is on the turf and terms, and at the initiative, of the Eunuch – Philip comes to the chariot where the Eunuch is; Philip gets into the chariot and sits beside the Eunuch at his invitation; Philip starts with the passage that the Eunuch is reading; Philip responds to Eunuch’s request for baptism. Notice as well how the angel of the Lord and the Spirit are at work.

The draft Presbytery Mission Plan gives expression to this approach to mission. It affirms:

  1. God is always present, preparing the way and calling us into mission
  2. God is doing new things in us and through us in unexpected, surprising, and amazing ways
  3. God is calling us outward to be present and engaged in our communities.
  4. God’s faithfulness leads us to share and grow our faith, calling and forming new disciples.

Perhaps the example above about playgroups could be the beginning of discerning and creating a new community of faith that fits with some of the playgroup families.

It is this fullness of God’s mission, and this approach to mission, that we are called to explore and implement.

Mission, Evangelism, Bearing Witness, and Dialogue: some theological reflections

What are we doing when we engage in ”mission planning”? What do we mean when we talk about “mission”?

The Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church is exploring such questions this year. Our previous Strategic Plan, with its Five Key Pillars, came to a conclusion last year. This year, in conjunction with the Mission Enablement Team from Synod, the Presbytery is developing a new mission plan, to serve as the guiding document for the Presbytery for the next few years. We are taking time in each meeting of Presbytery to focus on this process, drawing on wisdom from right across the Presbytery (country, coast, and capital).

This is my contribution to the initial conversation that is taking place.

*****

In approaching these questions, it may be helpful to explore a series of related ideas, and distinguish them from one another. Often, when people refer to mission, they mean one of these related ideas : evangelism, testifying (or bearing witness), converting (or proselytising), or perhaps engaging in dialogue. Mission is related to each of these words, but mission is not simply one or more of these words alone.

Mission is what God is doing in the world. It began long ago with the people of Israel, when God sent (missionised) messengers, prophets to speak guidance to the people. In Christian understanding, this mission came to a head when God sent (missionised) Jesus into the world. (The word mission comes from the Latin word missio, which simply means “to send”). We are called to join with this missional initiative, to find where God is already at work in the world.

Evangelism is work that is related to the good news (the evangel, originally a Greek word) … work that is carried out through words, through actions, through being a presence. We are called to undertake this work in the ways that are most appropriate and most fruitful in each particular circumstance. The aim is to make that good news known as a reality for other people. That can be by words, by actions, in personal relationships, in working groups, in communal undertakings.

Testifying or Bearing Witness is offering our words to explain how we have experienced God, how we have been swept up in the mission that God is undertaking in the world, how we have experienced the good news (evangel) in our lives. We are called to communicate our personal experience of this good news carefully, in contextually relevant ways, and in respectful relationship with others. The story is ours to tell!

Conversion is an effort made to change someone’s mind, to turn someone FROM something and TOWARDS something else, to turn them so that they join WITH you in your understanding of things. It necessarily involves persuasion, a focus on convincing, an intention to arrive at a clearly-defined goal. It can all-too-easily teeter over the edge of respectful relationships into unhealthy pressurising behaviour. It needs to be undertaken (if it is seen as important) in a very careful, measured way.

Proselytism is a term that has gained a hard edge over time. It appears in scripture, when new converts to the Jesus movement are called proselytes in Acts. It literally means “coming towards”. But in modern usage it has a harsh edge, often indicating the following of a prescribed formula, involving the use of pressure tactics, sometimes with verbal force that goes beyond mere conversation. It’s not something that I personally see as important—or even valid—in undertaking mission.

Dialogue is another word that needs to be considered when we think about mission. Dialogue means to “speak across”; to speak another person and appreciate them in their own right, valuing who they are and what they have to offer, engaging them in conversation that seeks mutual growth and deepened understanding of each other. Inevitably, in my experience, such conversations, when they facilitate genuine mutual encounters, can lead to new understandings, renewed commitments, and revitalised faith. And that is at the heart of mission!

So there is a cluster of activities that need to be considered when considering mission:

evangelism and witnessing to your faith (telling and showing the good news from your personal perspective)

developing respectful relationships with other people (building respectful relationships that enable deep sharing)

community engagement with local groups (working in practical ways on a common cause, and in so doing, deepening relationships)

the ministry of presence in the community (simply “being there”, indicating that you are open to engagement and conversation with others)

developing faithful disciples (working intentionally to deepen understanding, enliven passion, broaden commitment, strengthen capacity)

growing your church (working with others to develop the worship, witness, service, and fellowship of the local community of faith)

advocating for the least (taking a stand on issues of justice, seeking the common good for all)

Each of these aspects has a place when we think about “doing mission”. For when we focus on mission, we start with a very simple premise: God is present and active in the world. From that premise, we can begin to see that people around us are engaged in activities that God has inspired. There are stories from people all around us, about how God is at work—in our congregations, in our families, in our communities, in any part of the world.

We join in the mission that God is already carrying out when the spirit leads us to find these people and join with them in partnership. The gospel then becomes declaring what God is already doing in our midst, in our time; interpreting the actions that we undertake together as expressions of God’s loving care for the world.

In the midst of all of this, we will know that the church is formed in its fullness through this process of partnering with others. The community is the place where being disciples and being church is lived out. The mission that God is already undertaking in the world through these assorted people is the enterprise in which we participate, enthusiastically, hopefully, energetically.

The identity of the Uniting Church

The Uniting Church is part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church – we see ourselves as just one part of a much larger whole. We do the things that other denominations within the church do: we gather for worship, preach the Gospel, care for the needy, witness to our faith, and connect with communities.

We have many organisations that cater specifically for pre-schoolers, school students, people with disabilities, theological students, adult learners, Indigenous people and aged and infirm people. We have chaplains in hospitals, schools, industry, and the defence forces. And we have congregations in many places across the continent.

When we worship, we feel connected with the people of God of all denominations across the globe. When we witness, we bear testimony to the faith shared by Christians of many varieties. When we reach out in service, we act in solidarity with people of Christian faith, people of other faiths, and people of goodwill of any stripe, in our communities and across the globe.

We share in the call to be missional, universal, set apart, and unified, as God’s people together. Or in more traditional theological language, we are part of the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’ church.

But we believe that we have some distinctive elements to contribute to that larger whole. Our identity as the Uniting Church in Australia is marked by ten distinctive features.

I In Ecumenical Relationship

When the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian churches joined together in 1977 to form the Uniting Church in Australia, they declared that this union was both in accord with the will of God, and that it was a gift of God to the people of God in Australia.

Since then, the Uniting Church has been a church which is committed to working ecumenically with other Christian denominations. That commitment is one very important aspect of our identity as a Uniting Church. We belong to the National Council of Churches in Australia and the World Council of Churches, where we co-operate with many denominations.

Nationally, we have participated in ongoing conversations with other denominations (Anglican, Lutheran, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic). At the grassroots level, our ministers participate in local ministers’ associations in hundreds of towns and cities across the nation. Some Congregations share buildings with other denominations; some worship and serve together, especially in rural towns.

We are an ecumenical church.

II In Covenant with First Peoples

A very important dimension to being the church in this country is that we are a church in Covenant with the First Peoples of Australia. From its earliest years, the Uniting Church has been involved in actions which express our solidarity with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Older members will recall events at Noonkanbah Station in the Kimberley in 1980, when Uniting Church members stood in solidarity with the traditional owners, the Yungngora people, against the mining of their land.

The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) was established in 1985, and a Covenant between the UAICC and the UCA was implemented in 1994. This Covenant recognises that working for reconciliation amongst people is central to the Gospel. This gives expression to our commitment to shape a destiny together.

In 2009, the Preamble to the UCA Constitution was revised to recognise the difficult history of relationships between the First Peoples and the later arrivals, as Second Peoples. In 2018, we agreed to support a Makarrata process to give a clear national voice to First Peoples, and to support a national Treaty. Our present relationship is one which seeks to ensure that we commit to the destiny together which we share as Australians. The Assembly fosters ongoing work in this area through the Walking Together as First and Second Peoples Circle.

We stand in covenant relationship with the First Peoples.

III A Multicultural Church 

In the same year that the Congress was formed, the Uniting Church declared that it is a multicultural church, which rejoices in the diversity of cultures and languages which are found across Australia. The Basis of Union recognises that we share much, as Australians, with people of Asia and the Pacific. The Uniting Church has maintained strong relationships with churches from these regions, as well forging new links with churches in Africa and the Middle East.

The Statement to the Nation, issued in 1977, acknowledged that the Uniting Church seeks a unity that transcends cultural, economic and racial distinctions. Within Australia, there are at least 12 national conferences based on regional groupings and people from 193 language groups who belong to the Uniting Church.

Each Sunday, worship takes place in Uniting Churches in 26 languages from cultures beyond Australia, as well as many indigenous languages used in worship by first peoples across our church. We have learnt the importance of moving from “enjoying each other’s foods”, to conversing at a deep level about the hopes and expectations we bring from different cultural experiences. We have learnt that we need to be intercultural in our relationships.

Through UnitingWorld, we maintain partnerships with churches in Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East. We are truly a multicultural church. Through the Relations with Other Faiths Working Group and the Seeking Common Ground Circle, the Uniting Church has been active in developing relationships with other faith communities. We have had a long and fruitful Dialogue with the Jewish Community, and participate in a number of other interfaith Dialogue conversations. We are firmly committed to constructive interfaith relations.

We continue to develop as a church in deepening relationships with many cultures and faiths.

IV  All the people of God

The Uniting Church is a church which values the ministry of all the people of God and seeks to order itself in accordance with the will of God. Our Basis of Union affirms that every member of the church is engaged to confess Christ crucified, and every person is gifted by the Spirit to engage in ministry in their own particular way. We are a church that values the ministry of each and every person.

Throughout the life of the Uniting Church, we have held our structures and forms of ministry accountable to ongoing scrutiny. Alongside the Ministry of the Word, to nurture and guide Congregations, we have introduced the Ministry of Deacon, to focus attention on people living on the margins. We have introduced the Ministry of Pastor to recognise the giftedness of lay people, and that sits alongside the Ministry of Lay Preacher (which we have had since 1977), and the more recent accreditation of Lay Presiders in many locations.

We have also undertaken important conversations about membership and the relationship of Baptism to Holy Communion. We now have a clear commitment to an open table when we gather for The Lord’s Supper: all who are baptised (whether adult or child, whether confirmed or not) are welcome to share at this table.

We are a church which values the ministry of all the people of God.

V  Women and Men

The Basis of Union makes it very clear that we are a church which is committed to equality and mutuality of women and men in ministry. Even before 1977, the three previous denominations had ordained women to ministry. This is a very strong distinctive, especially in the Australian scene.

Since 1977, many women have stood on an equal basis alongside men, as Ministers of the Word, Deacons, Elders, Church Councillors, Lay Preachers, Lay Presiders, Chaplains, and Pastoral Carers. We value the insights and experience of women in each and every way that we seek to “be church”—as we gather to worship, as we witness to our faith, as we serve the wider community.

Women in leadership: Presidents Jill Tabart (1994–1997) and Deidre Palmer (2018–2021); Deidre Palmer and President-Elect Sharon Hollis (2021–2024);
Assembly General Secretary Colleen Geyer (2016– );
and Moderators Sue Ellis (SA), Sharon Hollis (VicTas),
Myung Hwa Park (NSW.ACT) and Thresi Mauboy (Northern Synod).

Both lay and ordained women have served in leadership positions across all councils of the Uniting Church, from Church Council Chairpersons to Presbytery Chairpersons, to Synod Moderators and Secretaries, to the Assembly General Secretary and President. Many couples minister together as husband and wife. Gender equality is most certainly part of our identity.

We are committed to mutuality and gender equality in every part of the church.

VI Discernment

Another contribution that the UCA has made has been to highlight the importance, when we gather in council, of being open to the Spirit, and seeking to discern the will of God. We live this out in our councils by practising a process of consensus decision-making. The Manual for Meetings sets out the various elements that are involved in making decisions by discernment: a time of information, a time of deliberation, and a time of decision-making.

The infamous “coloured cards” are only one small part of the whole. The focus is on listening to the Spirit before we speak, and striving to find a way forward that most, if not all, people can see as the will of God for the church. This way of decision-making, which originated in the UCA, has now been adopted by the World Council of Churches and a number of its member Churches.

We are a church which deliberately seeks to discern the movement of the Spirit in our midst.

VII Professional Standards

Over the last 20 years, the Uniting Church has developed a firm commitment to strong professional standards, for Ministers as well as for lay people who exercise leadership in the church. Our commitment to professional standards emerged initially in response to the problems of sexual misconduct within the church. A whole section of the Regulations is now devoted to this.

Since 1999, all Ministers have been expected to adhere to a Code of Ethics, and this has most recently been revised to provide a Code of Ethics Ministry Practice for Ministers and a Code of Conduct for Lay Leaders. Ministers and Pastors undertake regular training in aspects of this code, in ethical ministry workshops.

Since the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, we have intensified our efforts to ensure that our churches are Safe Places, valuing everybody, honouring integrity, avoiding negative and hurtful behaviours.

We are a church which values integrity and clarity about our ethical standards.

VIII  Open to explore difficult issues

Over 40 years, the Uniting Church has shown that it is a church which is prepared to engage in difficult discussions about contentious issues. Our Basis of Union commits us to learn from the insights of contemporary scientific and historical studies, and affirms that we remain open to correction by God in the way we order our life together.

In the early years of the Uniting Church, debates about Baptism were the focus of great controversy. Infant baptism had been an integral part of the worship practices of each denomination which joined the Uniting Church, but Ministers and Elders Councils were receiving regular requests for baptism by adults who had been baptised as infants but had come to a personal faith later in their lives. After debates stretching through the 1980s and 1990s, the Uniting Church has developed a clear set of protocols to cover such requests.

Another area of enduring controversy has been that of human sexuality. There is a wide diversity of opinion within society relating to such matters, and this diversity is present within the Uniting Church. Once again, from the 1980s though into the present era, lively debates regarding human sexuality have taken place in the various councils of the church. We have worked through difficult decisions about sexuality and leadership, and then about sexuality, gender, and marriage. We continue to learn, explore, and adapt.

In dealing with such issues, we have learned how to debate with respect and integrity with ongoing conversations looking to employ a “Space for Grace” process to encourage respectful, empowering, and inclusive decision-making.

We seek to be a church that engages in the difficult discussions with honesty, transparency, and hopefulness.

IX  Advocating for Justice

The Uniting Church inherited from its predecessor Churches a strong commitment to advocating for justice for all. Many Uniting Church congregations and members are actively committed to serving those people who find themselves on the margins of society. This commitment was clearly articulated in the 1977 Statement to the Nation and it has been evident in many actions undertaken by Uniting Church members over the decades.

The Uniting Church has joined in common cause with other groups and organisations in society, in advocating for a welcoming attitude towards refugees; in lobbying for a fair and just system of caring for people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness; in seeking equity for workers in their workplace; and in many other issues. The Assembly Working for Justice Circle, brings together people who are strongly committed to this avenue of ministry.

A regular stream of policy documents and public resolutions point to a clear and unbroken commitment to seeking justice for all. Each federal election, we are provided with resources that encourage us, as people of faith, to consider the implications of our votes in the life of the nation.

We are a church which is strongly committed to justice for all.

Environmental Sustainability

In like manner, the Uniting Church has always been a church which honours the environment and supports a sustainable lifestyle. Although such matters are firmly on the radar of the public now, they have long been integral to the identity of the UCA. Once again, the 1977 Statement to the Nation flagged such commitment. A series of subsequent documents attest to the ongoing determination of the church to live responsibly, in such a way that we minimise the damage we cause to the environment in which we live.

Our partnerships with Churches in the Pacific have intensified our awareness of the negative impacts that are resulting from climate change. We know that we need to act now, to reduce the threat. Each year, we experience catastrophic consequences from more regular and more intensified “natural disasters”—fires, floods, drought, cyclones. Just as we provide pastoral support in these situations through Disaster Response Chaplains, so too we maintain advocacy with governments, urging them to set policies which will turn us away from the trajectory of yet more environmental disasters.

Locally, many Congregations and individual members of the UCA are seeking to implement practices that will reduce their carbon footprint on the planet. We know that we owe it to future generations, to live responsibly in the present.

We are a church that lives, acts, and advocates for a sustainable environmental future.

*****

You may have some thoughts about what I have articulated above. You may have thought, “what about …?” – something that I have overlooked, that you see as important. You may have some questions about how I have described some of these elements. I encourage you to talk with others about how you respond. Together, we are the Uniting Church!

This discussion of identity is the first in a series of articles on this question on the Assembly website, at DNA of the UCA – Uniting Church Australia