Escape to the country
At the turn of last century, Dorothea MacKellar famously wrote about her love for the wide brown land that is Australia. Her poignant words invoked images of a harsh, rugged and beautiful country, but said nothing of the people who filled its many corners.
This month, Insights heads to the bush to hear firsthand what life is like in a rural church ‑ speaking to the people who live and breathe country life. They’re a resilient, hardworking folk whose willingness to put the community first, no matter what life has thrown at them, is beyond measure.
Barbara Guymer is 73. She’s lived in the country most of her life and for the past 30 years has called Coleambally (~630kms south west of Sydney) home. She lives with her 76-year-old husband on the family farm, 40 kilometres outside of town, where they have both ‘officially’ retired but he still works the land seven days a week.
“I’ve just finished being the Chairperson of the Riverina Presbytery, which stretches from Young to Deniliquin to Hay and as far as Tumut in the high country. This role had me travelling all over the countryside visiting churches, acting as a sounding board for them.
“In a small church like ours, there are only a handful of people filling all the roles and everything is voluntary. For example, I am the secretary, the privacy officer, and the work health and safety officer. I am the lay preacher and I also do the sacraments; take all the funerals and marry people, including those in neighbouring towns. But I have managed to get off the cleaning roster”, laughs Barbara.
“I think I could say every single person in our congregation does something. Our church members are the Country Women’s Association (CWA); they are the Red Cross and the P&C; they’re the ones fighting bushfires and the same ones in the local volunteer rescue association In a rural community, the church is the same thing as all those other things; it’s the same people”, states Barbara.
Barbara’s story is not unique. Many rural populations are shrinking and it’s becoming more difficult to financially justify a minister. But having a viable church in some form or another is very important for the community. And so, like many congregations in smaller rural towns, the responsibilities fall to lay leaders.
“We can’t pay a minister, we have no money. We’re a congregation of 25 people – 10 of them are pensioners. So, we’ve been lay led for around 15 years. In our congregation we’ve got three accredited lay preachers. In some rural towns it’s just one person doing everything!
“When I was Chairperson I spent a lot of time talking to those people, trying to encourage them, and occasionally would try to get someone to give them a break. When lay people lead, they’re often doing a lot of what the minister does but without the pay or annual leave. There’s no end to it and there’s no ‘time out’, and it can be physically and mentally draining”, states Barbara.
Just over 115 kilometres down the road is the historic town of Lockhart. It made front-page news in 2012 when the town was engulfed by flood water – just as it had 18 months earlier.
Here you will find Dorothy Creek and her husband, Paul. Like Barbara, Dorothy is an active member of her local congregation. “Locally I am an Elder, a lay preacher and presider. I do pastoral visits and conduct funerals where necessary. I am the Chairperson of the Pastoral Relations Committee (PRC), and a member of the Standing Committee and the Finance and Property Committee. I had been the Chairperson for the Education Committee but I have decided to give that away”, said Dorothy.
“Aside from these roles, I am a farmer and have responsibilities around the farm. Since the major flooding I’ve been doing a lot of pastoral visiting, which takes up a lot of my time. And when it comes to funerals, I just have to drop everything and do what I have to do there. So it’s a matter of juggling responsibilities with attending”, says Dorothy.
An isolated voice
One of the more notable differences between a rural and metropolitan rural church is the isolation. Rev. Will Pearson splits his time between a placement with his local congregation and his presbytery minister role. He lives and works in the remote mining town of Broken Hill, 1,160 kilometres west of Sydney on the South Australian border.
“Most of the pastoral care I do is done over the telephone. It’s the same for committee meetings and pastoral relations – I typically make phone calls or use Skype. It is not as good as being there physically, but it would be impossible to do the travelling involved to be there all the time. And then there is the constant issue of wildlife. It’s only if it’s a real emergency that I go out on the roads around here after dark. It’s just the way it is out here”, said Will.
“Dubbo is basically the central hub of our Presbytery, and it is 750 kilometres away – that’s about eight hours driving time one way. Currently, I’m the only Uniting Church Minister this side of Dubbo in the far west area. Normally Frontier Services flying patrol, which is based in Broken Hill, will attend to the more remote areas. But we haven’t had anyone here since the end of last year, and that position hasn’t been able to be filled so the responsibilities mostly fall to me”, states Will.
These sentiments are shared by other members of rural congregations. “Everything I do really pretty well requires travel. I live 40 kilometres from where we go to church so every time we have a meeting in Lockhart there’s an 80 kilometres round trip. For most of our presbytery meetings I’ve got at least a 200-kilometre round trip so that adds an extra couple of hours to the day.
“Sometimes we feel there’s too many expectations placed on us to do things in certain ways and it just doesn’t work when you’re so many kilometres apart and we’ve got no public transport. If you can’t drive you can’t go. As people are getting older, in terms of their involvement in the church, some of them are finding that driving those distances is becoming an issue”, said Dorothy.
Travelling vast distances isn’t the only hurdle to overcome. An aging congregation and decline in younger members is changing the face of the rural church.
Finding time on Sundays
“Our congregation is ‘long-lived’, and we have an ageing component with many members aged between 60 and 90. One of the problems is that when young people hit high-school age, they go elsewhere for school. It’s an issue in many respects, because when young people go away for high school, they stay away for university and often don’t end up coming back. Thirty years ago it was more likely that people would stay around and try to get some work locally or on a farm, but farming’s not seen as a much of a viable option these days”, said Dorothy.
“The young mothers and fathers in our congregation are so busy. Their kids play sport and are busy on weekends with activities. And the young men that work on the farms work seven days a week, from daylight to dark. Things have become so stressed and difficult that people say there are not enough hours in the day.
“We have one young lady who’s got five kids in our congregation. She has insisted for the sake of their marriage that her husband has two hours off every Sunday afternoon where he just spends time with her and the kids. And that is not uncommon…not uncommon at all”, concludes Barbara.
“The world is changing and that’s a good thing. But the place of the church has also changed and so the community, therefore, has changed. The question isn’t how do we get young people back to the church. The question is: how do we adapt to the change? I think young people are much more critical of the church and I think what’s happening is that the rural church and the rural communities have been a bit slower to change.
“We need to change the conversation we’re having with young people. If I’m going to engage with them about the gospel, telling them: ‘you’re going to go to hell’ probably isn’t the best conversation starter. But if I’m going to talk to them about a God who loves and cares for us and thinks about things like justice, hope and forgiveness, then maybe I’ve got a conversation”, states Rev. Simon Hansford of the Tamworth Southside Uniting Church.
It’s a farmer’s life
Beyond the changing dynamic of the church are issues which, for the rural church particularly, are “bigger than just the church”.
“It can be extremely hard on farmers when there is a drought, or flood, or low commodity prices. With no income, they stress and that puts more pressure on the community to deal with the issues together.
“In the past when there was a minister of the word, people would feel they had someone to go to. As a pastoral visitor in the town, when people start sharing their issues with me I have to be ready to be able to handle that. I’m a farmer too so I’m facing the same stresses. Sometimes you can’t really differentiate between what you’re doing as a member of the church and what you’re doing as a member of the community”, states Dorothy.
“We’re facing a crisis out here with the lack of rain. That single issue – a simple, single issue – defines a whole context of things in terms of ministry admissions and how it affords with the church. We aren’t doing it harder than the city. The city is just doing it differently. I’ve always talked about the fact that in the rural church a lot of the issues are starker. To be the church in a place like this and to offer a voice into that is a real challenge”, states Simon.
“If you’re a farmer at the moment, you’re not only working incredibly hard, you’re also under incredible pressure, which is extraordinary. You’re facing a whole lot of things in terms of climate change, mining, the Murray-Darling Basin – they’re facing so many issues bigger than just the church. Certainly, the decline of resources in villages and watching services being taken out and education opportunities decline is very, very painful and hard.
“The decline in educational opportunities means more young people go off to universities or cities for jobs, and that makes it hard on those that are left, as well as the grief invoked. I think lay burnout is a real problem and that for some churches who are trying to get lay people to just replicate what the minister used to do are not finding that’s life giving or spiritually rewarding and are beginning to struggle.
“So we’re encouraging congregations and rural presbyteries to think beyond what was as to what might be appropriate for their community and their congregation”, said Rev Bronwyn Murphy ‑ Lay Ministry, Discipleship, Education and Rural Ministry Consultant – Uniting Mission & Education.
Extending the hand of support
When you’re so close to the problem, sometimes it’s hard to see the solution ‑ especially when you’ve spare no time to think or plan. Thanks to the resources of Uniting Mission & Education, and the voice of the Rural Ministry Unit, rural congregations are being offered some reprieve in the form of support.
“As the Lay Ministry, Discipleship, Education and Rural Ministry Consultant, my role is two-fold. I meet all of their lay education needs and act as a mediator lobbying person or contact person for the rural church. I also do some networking with the existing ministers in placement and lay leaders, and help build relationships between the rural presbyteries.
“The demands are growing as the rural church faces more change and ordained clergy diminish. But as lay people embrace active discipleship and realise the vitality of faith, they want more education and resources. So it’s not all just about managing decline, it’s about growth and it’s about energy that’s building.
“We’ve got very limited resources. To improve local communications, we work with the rural church through presbyteries. If a congregation wants something, we get them in touch with their presbytery and then work out how can we meet the congregation’s needs and offer it to the wider church, the wider presbytery. I also equip local people to run courses for themselves by training them on content and how to present it.
“We don’t go out with all the answers because we don’t have them and that’s disrespectful to the wisdom that’s held within the place. But we will go out and consult and listen and talk through and try and find ways forward together, identifying possible answers”, offers Bronwyn.
“As the Chairperson of the Rural Ministry Unit, I’ve been working on encouraging the skills and talent of the members of the congregation, and encouraging them to be involved in different forms of leadership.
“The Rural Ministry Unit essentially is trying to provide some kind of coherent voice for the rural church. By no means is it the only voice and by no means a fully united voice, but a coherent voice for the rural church”, said Simon.
“When issues arise that are of national significance, like the Murray-Darling Basin or coal seam gas, we try to speak the voice into that issue. Equally, when it’s an issue of a less-focused nature, such as rural ministry in the church, the decline of rural communities, or rural congregations, we try to gather up the different thoughts and express them in a way that makes sense.
“In terms of offering support, our congregation has been resourcing small congregations in to the region. Our congregation actually helps congregations within an hour’s drive of here with worship and ministry. We’re also exploring other way to get involved in the community, like community gardens or effective uses for our properties”, said Simon.
The best place on earth
In rural communities where resources are scare, support limited and isolation is a way of life, there is no shortage of hope, care and community spirit.
“I find the people are very caring of each other. The lifestyle is wonderful. The little towns are really lovely places to live; they’re great places to bring up kids. When someone recently asked me to describe what I saw as the difference between a city congregation and a country one I told them: ‘In the country they know what you put in your tea. You come up for a cup of tea they don’t ask you if you have milk ‑ they just know”, laughs Barbara.
“Love the people. Love the country out here. It has really got into my blood. Just the magnitude of it. The size of the sky. The size of the horizon. The absolute beauty of the country, despite the droughts. But I just love the people out here and the way they cope with adversity. The way they’re supportive of one and other. The way they’re open and welcoming”, reflects Will.
“My congregation work five minutes from the church. So I can have lunch with them all once a week, and that’s a very positive thing about being in the country”, says Simon.
“I think the rural church is far more resilient and tougher. It’s seen harder days. Crisis, whether it’s plague or flood or fire or drought, is common and so people just pick themselves up and get on with it”, states Bronwyn.
Looking to the future
While the majority of Australians continue to belong to a Christian religion, according to the Censuses of Population and Housing, 1911 to 2011, the proportion has fallen by more than a third, from 96% in 1911 to 61% in 2011. In rural towns where populations are on the decline, this figure seems magnified. So what is the future for the rural church?
“There need to be changes in expectations of what the rural church can and should be doing. There’s a greater need for cooperation between denominations in the rural church. If the church is going to be meaningful in communities, I believe there’s going to come a time when the smaller communities are going to have to move back to more of type a ‘community church’ where all Christians gather together.
“It’s hard to explain but I think for some people they just want everything to be the way they remember because everything else is changing yet they want something to stay the same”, said Dorothy.
“For Christianity to survive in the country, I really think we’re going to have to unite properly to survive. It’s seems ludicrous that in a town our size there’s 15 or 20 people meeting in three or four different buildings that all have to be maintained. These people are neighbours, friends and relations, yet on Sunday morning they go to their own church. I believe the people can see it needs to change. It’s the hierarchy that can’t”, states Barbara.
“I think the concept of opening the door to the church and expecting people to flock in is something that might have worked quite well in the 1950s, but I don’t believe it’s a solution for the 21st century.
“I don’t think the future is going to be so much based on numbers that can or can’t support a minister, but more on whether a group of people with an alive and an active faith want to do something. Despite all the challenges, the church has been going for 2,000 years. I don’t believe God’s finished with us yet.
“Certainly part of my role as a presbytery minister is to help people develop ways to see church differently ‑ to cope with church differently and not to have that expectation that, unlike everything else that we do, it would be exactly the same as it was in the 1950s,” states Will
“Unless we change, I believe we’re going to have congregations that are supported by the church. So your smaller towns are going to have resources given to them, shared with them, sent to them, offered to them. And all of them will be lay lead ‑ some voluntary, some paid.
“The worry for me is that the expertise needed to offer support and care won’t be there as much. Places like Tamworth, Dubbo and Orange will need to be congregations that are sinking at least half their time into resourcing those smaller communities and congregations.
“I think the rural church needs to be engaged, and I believe one of the key things we need to be doing for the future is to provide a mediation role in the community and conversations about issues such as coal seam gas and the Macquarie-Darling Basin. I think for a lot of congregations, engaging in a community is a real challenge”, said Simon.
“I feel the future for the rural church has still got some hard things in it, but I think it’s quite vibrant and potent. There’s so much potential that while ever the good news exists, people will respond and listen, and want to share and serve.
“It isn’t just that young people are going off to the cities for jobs and work. It’s really that the young people and the families, they don’t have a lot of interest in the traditional religion that we’ve had. And so the question is: how do we engage with and listen to them, and offer something of hope and joy and good news to our communities in a fresh way rather than needing to replicate what we’ve always known?
“I believe a congregation’s capacity to meet that challenge will determine its relevance to the future. And it’s about listening to where the church is called to be today, not trying to replicate where it was 50 years ago”, states Bronwyn.
“I have a strong conviction that the gospel calls us to places where it isn’t necessarily comfortable or easy and I think within the church that needs to be explored again. If people are serious that the gospel call calls them to difficult places, then why aren’t there more Christian doctors, nurses and teachers out here in the rural areas? And the answer is because it’s more complicated and difficult than that. So we have to re-explore call and re-explore what it means to be the church”, says Simon.
“While-ever the church belongs to God; it will be used to serve the world. I have no doubt the rural church will be deeply committed to that goal in whatever form it takes. For the rural church, there’s a real need for lay preachers to continue their education because as ordained ministry declines, it means that congregations will only ever hear from those lay preachers and if they stopped reading and growing and learning, so will the congregation”, concludes Bronwyn.