Serving your neighbour through community development

Serving your neighbour through community development

When I was growing up, “Who is my neighbour” was the most frequently asked question at Sunday school. Teachers would talk about the greatest commandment from Matthew 22:34-40 and tell us that we are to Love God with everything and love our neighbour. But who is our neighbour and how are we to love them?

Loving our neighbour is the foundational principle of community development. This principle is applied to an individual person as community development workers seek to ensure that people’s human rights are affirmed and protected, and that they are empowered to exercise them.

The principle can also be applied to a group of people in a society. Loving our neighbours is expressed by applying social justice principles. Social justice principles include equality of liberties, equality of opportunities to advance, and positive discrimination for those who are disadvantaged. (Community development: community-based alternatives in an age of globalisation, Jim Ife, Frank Tesoriero, 2006, Pearson.)

A community development approach is used with many different communities. It can include elements of community engagement, individual and systems advocacy, capacity building, community organising, networking and community planning.

It is used in disadvantaged communities to strengthen and empower groups of people to identify and solve their own issues. A neighbourhood can use the approach to strengthen the whole community, including the economic, environmental and social condition of that place.

How community development principles are applied varies from community to community and from person to person. But at the heart of each activity is the goal to build a stronger and more resilient local community.
Duncan Macleod, Director, Uniting Learning Network, says that Congregations use community development approaches for their mission activities. “Congregations are involved in a range of mission activities that are based on community development principles.

“There are many examples: Gymea Miranda Uniting Church established a Miranda Community Garden to build community connections; Wentworthville Uniting Church operates an Op Shop to support local disadvantaged people; Baulkham Hills Uniting Church has ministries for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants and provide English conversational classes and social interaction; and Northmead Uniting Church is a foundation member of the Sydney Alliance and uses the tools for the common good of their community.”

Many Congregations use community development principles and tools when they are involved in mission activities. Their activities may be large projects such as those mentioned above, or less complex activities such as community morning teas, seniors lunches, playgroups, a letter writing campaign or community fun days.

Rural Congregations also use community development principles to undertake mission activities. According to Bronwyn Murphy, Lay Education, Discipleship, Rural Ministry at Uniting Mission and Education, “Rural and remote Congregations live among communities faced with shrinking resources and withdrawal of services. People are struggling. Community gardens, Men’s Sheds and food bank programs all seek to provide practical assistance, but also to grow relationships and develop friendships. It isn’t about building the Congregation numbers, but genuinely caring about the community.

“It isn’t about building the Congregation numbers, but about genuinely caring about the community. The Marranbilla Cluster in the Macquarie Darling Presbytery is starting a program entitled ‘120 Countdown’. Their purpose is to help young drivers get their hours up so they can get their license.

“Rural chaplains use community development techniques to serve communities that are spread out over thousands of kilometres. Helping communities become more resilient as they deal with mental health issues, suicide and extreme loneliness is just one aspect of their work.”

The knowledge and skills of community development are being used by many people in Congregations to serve their neighbours. People may not even know they are using community development principles and approaches as they passionately undertake mission activities.

Some people may be overwhelmed with the idea of developing mission activities to serve their local community. To be able to identify the best way to support Congregations, a community development equipping and training needs analysis project has been developed. This is a joint venture between UME and UnitingCare NSW.ACT Community Development Partnership Program.

Community development principles in practice

Ordinary people doing extraordinary things

Bronwyn O’Brien talks about her experience as a volunteer soccer coach to a team of 19 young asylum seekers. 

I have always been passionate about assisting asylum seekers and refugees in our community. So when I heard UnitingCare NSW.ACT was looking for a soccer coach to train a team of Afghani asylum seekers I jumped at the opportunity.

A number of the boys in the team had gone through community detention programs and had been brought together by one of the Youth Case Workers, Marco Faraz. Marco could see the boys had both talent and the need for a positive outlet in their stressful and uncertain lives. They had a team roughly formed, but had lost their coach to a career opportunity overseas.

Before I met the boys, I was incredibly nervous as I had no coaching experience and was concerned about being taken seriously — being both young and female. After our first meeting, all my nerves disappeared. Each boy shook my hand, obviously excited at the prospect of having a coach again.

It has been an incredible journey filled with highs and lows. It has been really challenging at times, but seven months on we are registered with Merrylands Soccer Football Club and we’re playing in the Granville District All Age Men’s competition.

The boys are so talented and live and breathe football. It is an honour to be their coach and sharing in the beautiful game with them gives me so much joy. I feel as if I have gained 17 lovely brothers who I enjoy spending time with them both on and off the pitch.

This would never have been possible without the generosity of Roseville Uniting Church members who covered the cost of registration for each player, or for the kindness of the Merrylands Soccer Football Club who welcomed us with open arms.
Bronwyn O’Brien is just one person taking action but there are many opportunities for others to help in their community.

To find out more about asylum seekers and other social justice issues and how you can get involved, register to attend The Faith and Justice Expo. It’s been organised by Synod’s Social Justice Forum and supported by Paddington Uniting Church Social Change Project, Uniting Mission and Education and UnitingCare NSW.ACT. Call Jon O’Brien (02) 9407 3225 during office hours.

Strengthening connections

The appointment of a new community development coordinator on the mid-north coast will help strengthen UnitingCare’s regional presence and improve its connections with local Uniting Church Congregations, Aboriginal communities and the wider coastal community.

Joanne (Jo) Gilkison, who is a member of the Worimi nation from the Great Lakes and Port Stephens areas, started her role at the beginning of May. She is employed by Jaanimili Aboriginal Services and Development Unit (part of UnitingCare Children Young People and Families) and UnitingCare’s Community Services program.

Based at Old Bar near Taree, Jo’s initial focus will be on the areas around Taree and Wauchope. She will work with local Congregations and communities to help identify local needs, and liaise with various agencies to try to find sustainable solutions to address those needs.

“My role will be to support Congregations, Aboriginal communities and the wider community. It’s also to work with organisations, government and non-government, and community partners to build on and value add to what they are currently doing in their communities,” said Jo.

Jo has been heavily involved in the local community, having helped as a volunteer with the Taree and District Eisteddfod for 8 years. She has also volunteered at other services, including Manning Valley Respite Care and various child care services.

Before joining UnitingCare, Jo worked in a range of children and family support service roles. She worked at Homebase Youth Services (based in Tuncurry), coordinating 2 supported playgroups and a young parents’ group; then moved into family support work with Manning Support Services in Taree, where she helped develop a range of parenting and behaviour-based programs.

Jo grew up in Tuncurry, just south of where she’s currently working. She is married with 4 adult children and one granddaughter. Jo and her husband are also foster carers for UnitingCare Burnside. They started as respite carers but now have become long-term carers.

In her spare time Jo enjoys creative craft using natural materials, working with clay, painting, heading to the beach, gardening, and reading.

Jo can be contacted via phone (02) 6553 3992 or email

The future of lay preachers

In many rural areas, Lay Preachers may be the only theological voice that is heard in our Congregations. Should our Lay Preachers cease to read, study, learn and grow, our Congregations may well starve for theological depth.

To be a Lay Preacher means the congregation and the Church council has placed great trust in you. They trust you to care for the people, and reflect on the context of their lives as you prepare and preach. This trust makes you a leader. This leadership responsibility is not something to be taken lightly or overlooked. As the future unfolds, the wise leadership and theological reflection offered by the Lay Preacher will become even more vital.

Helping congregations navigate from what was to what might be is a difficult task. Inspiring them to realise that a motivation of self-preservation has no place in God’s realm is even tougher.

Some of the Community Development principles can provide practical and achievable guidance for congregations seeking to engage with their local communities. One of the (many) things that will make or break this engagement is the driving motivation of the Congregation.

Changing this mindset is just one of the many challenges our church faces. Uniting Mission & Education is committed to working with Presbyteries to equip our leaders, and our work with the Community Development arm of UnitingCare is to create resources that are tailored for this task.

If you are a Lay Preacher/Leader, I invite you to think seriously about your capacity to lead and think theologically. How long is it since you attended a course or read something that challenged or inspired you? Are you interested in resources that move your Congregation beyond itself, and out into the community? Is your Congregation nourished by your preaching, and guided by your wisdom.

If you are a member of church council, perhaps you could think about what support is offered to your lay leaders, as well as what new learning might be needed for you to help lead your Congregation into active service in your local community.

Lay Preachers are indeed a blessing to the Uniting Church. As you seek to lead and preach and also live your lives, know that we give thanks to God for your ministry.

Contact Bronwyn Murphy for more information on available courses or for more information on becoming a Lay Preacher on 02 8838 8920 or email For research materials please contact our Camden Theological Library at Centre for Ministry, North Parramatta.

Tell us what you think

We’d like to invite you to have your say about what support, training and equipping you require so that you can achieve your mission activities.

We’ve created a simple, online survey. It’s designed to help us better understand what support you would need to design, develop, deliver and evaluate your mission activities that use community development principles.

To take the survey, head to:

If you don’t have access to the Internet but would like to take the survey, please contact Bronwyn Murphy on 02 8838 8920 or

It should only take 10 minutes to complete, and we’ll share a summary of the findings with anyone who completes it.  Thank you in advance for taking the time to complete the survey.

Photo content for this story provided by UnitingCare



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