Church prepares for major change
Synod Standing Committee, meeting at the Centre for Ministry on February 8-9, made decisions regarding a transitional budget, strategic planning, the restructure of UnitingCare, education for ministry and Uniting Mission and Education.
A report to February’s meeting of Synod Standing Committee on intentional interim ministry highlighted key issues, including the need to (a) question to what, where and who God is calling the church; (b) form and sustain creative, responsive ministry leadership; and (c) streamline and resource structures and processes that support the missional church.
The Rev. Jane Fry, Associate Secretary (Ministry), said that the financial situation for United Theological College and for education generally was precarious. There was new urgency to all consideration of theological education in the Synod.
“This is dangerous territory,” she said. “The disappointment and dismay that accompanied the amalgamation of the Boards of Mission and Education and resulted in the closure of the School of Continuing Education and ELM is still felt and frequently lamented around the Synod.”
She said the decision to quarantine UTC and sustain a “seminary” model of theological education and remove opportunity for cross-fertilisation with models explored in other schools, particularly ELM, was most unfortunate.
“While there are easily accessible, alternative providers for the BTh, there are no simple, alternative formation options and the church has (frequently) learnt to its cost the dangers of inadequate formation for its ministers and leaders.”
She said, “A very significant proportion of the Synod budget is dedicated to the provision of theological education for a diminishing number of candidates.”
It was an opportune time to invite the Assembly to “revisit the question of the number of theological colleges realistically needed to educate the church’s ministry and to explore the practicalities of one national college”, she said.
Noting the decline in the number of people offering themselves for ministry, Ms Fry said the model of ordained ministry that was current in the Uniting Church was largely a product of the modern era and might have outlived its usefulness as the church changed shape.
She said, “This is probably not an organisational issue so much as a theological/spiritual issue that goes to the heart of what it means to be a church for this time and what it means to be in ministry at this time.”
Ms Fry said the intentional interim ministry exercise had revealed a hunger and enthusiasm for change.
“Simplifying the structure, modelling ‘best practice’ in crucial areas, abandoning the ‘one size fits all’ ministry model and drawing on the gifts, imagination, creativity and hope that is available is probably the best way of hearing God’s call on the church and helping that call to emerge into life in the church.”
A review group on ministry, mission and placement in the Synod said the world had changed since the Uniting Church first came into existence. Those changes could be summarised in the recognition that the mission field was now on the church’s doorstep and that the stories of a diverse, materialist and hedonistic culture powerfully competed with the gospel story and the with the church for attention.
“A challenging mission context coupled with an ageing, contracting church means an uncertain future for many ministers. This is additionally complicated by a theology of ordination for life which sometimes creates and expectation of ‘ministry for life’.”
The review group asked, “Is it time for change? Put more dramatically, can the church afford to keep investing money, time, energy and, particularly, hope in a [placements] process designed in a different time for different circumstances? Do we have the heart for it?”
Rough statistics provided by the group included: 29 congregations had gone out of existence in the previous ten years; 17 ministers retire each year; there are six or seven exit students each year.
Principal of United Theological College, the Rev. Dr Clive Pearson, said the debate on the number of theological colleges needed to be done extremely well and to account for biblical literacy in the life of the Synod.
He said the Synod was on the brink of significant theological problems and there was an inadequate understanding of what it meant to be a church. “We haven’t read the context well,” he said.
The Synod needed to deal with a host of theological issues but it didn’t have a theological vision.
“We need to plan what levels of education a healthy church requires.”
Standing Committee received the report and requested Assembly to evaluate current activities and relationships in ministerial/theological education, assess the church’s capacity to continue to resource ministerial/theological education on the existing models, consider the number and location of theological colleges and their associated staffing issues and explore and evaluate alternative models of ministerial/theological education.
Standing Committee also requested UME to review the place of a theological college in the Synod, explore and evaluate alternative models of ministerial/theological education and assess the skill resources available to the Synod for ministerial/theological education.
A task group will be established to investigate the “culture of call” that is operative in the Synod and make recommendations to encourage and strengthen the discernment of vocation for individuals and for the church as a whole. Another group will review current ministry oversight practices, including annual reporting to presbyteries, vitality of call consultations, continuing education learning plans and supervision covenants.
John Kitchener, executive director of Uniting Resources, brought a discussion paper containing preliminary insight into activities that could be supported by the Synod budget in 2013-14.
He said the Synod’s current income was unable to support the level of activities the church experienced in the past so a number of operational and structural changes would be required.
Business as usual would lead to a deficit in the order of $3 million before grants. The Synod Fund Management Committee was to meet on February 19 and March 12 to prepare a full budget for the Standing Committee meeting on March 22.
Since August 2012 Uniting Financial Services — which provides the bulk of Synod funds allocated to the Secretariat, UME, SMRF, presbyteries, UnitingCare and the Assembly — had suspended distributions. Beneficiaries lost between 5% and 90% of expected Synod Fund distributions.
The discussion paper noted the need to preserve and grow a capital base, key budget challenges, the role of the Synod and key priorities.
Suggested changes included creation of one Synod board, development of new models of theological education, closure of the Synod Mission Resource Fund, elimination of duplication and inefficiencies, investment in technology to improve communication and resourcing capabilities and implementation of a new marketing and communication capability.
There also was reference to research projects, future funding, a Synod endowment fund, debt reduction, and property within the Synod.
Mr Kitchener said property was absolutely tied to how the budget would go down in the future.
Standing Committee determined that for the duration of a transitional budget period the Synod Mission Resource Fund was closed (effective February 9) for new activities, that the funds, less any commitments, be made available for use by the Synod Fund Management Committee in the 2013-14 budget and that future mission funding be considered by Standing Committee as part of the budget process.
The SMRF team will continue to support and manage grants that have been approved as part of UME.
Management of the Land Bank will be undertaken by the Uniting Resources Property Committee and Uniting Resources Property Services on behalf of the Synod Fund Management Committee.
Review of structures
Standing Committee received the report from the implementation team on the review of Synod structures and processes, with particular reference to Uniting Care.
It adopted formal process for setting strategic directions for the next five years, determined that a senior leadership team meet regularly and that regular meetings of the chairs of the various Synod boards be instituted.
The leadership team would be instrumental in guiding the development of strategic directions, explore cooperation and foster sharing of information, greater alignment of activities and share views about the common hope and key directions of the church.
An action plan will be developed to improve linkages and collaboration between UnitingCare and other parts of the church.
Living is Giving
Standing Committee received a review of Living is Giving and determined it should continue to be a significant mechanism for reporting and promoting the work of the Synod and the primary mechanism for encouraging the financial contribution of congregations to the Synod.
Living is Giving materials will be revised to remove any sense of “allocation” and make clear that contributions to Living is Giving are contributions to the whole work of the Synod.
Standing Committee agreed that responses of the various councils, agencies and institutions of the Uniting Church to the Commonwealth Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse would be guided by a national response framework, with protocols established by the Assembly’s National Response Task Group.
Despite reservations from the Synod’s Communications Committee, Standing Committee removed reference to the Communications Unit from the Synod by-laws.
The Communications Committee thought including the Communications Unit (known as Uniting Creative) in the by-laws, specifying the Manager’s accountability to Standing Committee, would safeguard Insights’ editorial policy and editorial independence.
The General Secretary, Andrew Williams, said communications would be treated as an operational matter, like property services.
The executive director of Uniting Resources, John Kitchener, said a church publication having editorial independence was a furphy.
Mission and education
Standing Committee altered the composition of the Uniting Mission and Education board affirmed a matrix for UME, giving focus to key mission and ministry areas and noted four projects as expressions of that matrix: Goulburn Parallel Church Plant, Mount Druitt Community Ministry, Mid North Coast Ecoministry and Corrimal Community Care Pastor.
The Moderator, the Rev. Dr Brian Brown, strongly affirmed the work of the Synod Disaster Response Network, especially in relation to ministry with communities affected by recent fires in New South Wales.
He said nine chaplains from five denominations worked in Coonabarabran for 14 days. That was followed up by peer support chaplaincy, which included supporting the efforts of the local Uniting Church.
He said there was a move to make the Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network Coordinator’s position an Assembly appointment supported by all synods.