Future Present: Innovation and the Uniting Church

An innovative Church? Despite how it sounds, it’s not a far-fetched idea. In fact the Uniting Church has innovation inscribed into the very fabric of its DNA. Insights explores how the Church can address the shifting needs of spirituality in the 21st Century and speaks to spiritual entrepreneurs and researchers who’ve embraced innovation.

First, let’s wind it back to 1971, when scholars first penned the Basis of Union and ensured that pioneering thought and ministry would be a driving undercurrent of the Church. Union scholars wrote:

“The Uniting Church lives within a world-wide fellowship of Churches in which it will learn to sharpen its understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought. Within that fellowship the Uniting Church also stands in relation to contemporary societies in ways which will help it to understand its own nature and mission. The Uniting Church thanks God for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr. It prays that it may be ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds.” (Basis of Union)

Confessing the Lord in “fresh words and deeds” seems more important than ever as we face a future where the idea of faith needs to address the needs of the “spiritually homeless”. Spiritual entrepreneurship is about pioneering ways we can invest and develop ministry in what is a post-Christian culture. The idea of spiritual entrepreneurship is taking hold in the Uniting Church and it has never been more vital as the Church and its membership ages. So what are we doing to sharpen our understanding of the will and purpose of God through contemporary thought?

Rev. Dr Wayne Brighton’s 2013 study, ‘Innovation in mission: a comparative study of fresh expressions of church in the life of three Australian denominations’, found that the Uniting Church strongly valued innovation. However at a local level, this hasn’t been fully realized due to the inability to “generate sustainable missional initiatives.” Brighton goes on to say that this is due to decline in membership with fewer young adults present to implement innovation.

A more recent study – Learning from Innovation Project – was released this year. Commissioned by Uniting Mission and Education (UME), the project focusses on the Synod of NSW and ACT. The study was led by independent researchers Jack Somerville, Dr Lynne Taylor, Lecturer in Pastoral Theology at Otago University Dunedin, and Naomi Nash, CEO and lead consultant at New River Leadership.

“This project itself is testament to the commitment from the UCA to ensure that there is space for spiritual entrepreneurs (ministry change agents) to thrive in the UCA,” says Dr Taylor.

Though the study outlined some positives it did identify a number of challenges. Yes, the UCA has long committed to innovative ministry, but as the study showed it has at times not seen fruition or reached its full potential. This is due to not managing transitions with loss of key individuals who were the driving force of projects. An innovative vision held by one person but is not supported by the congregation or community can inhibit the whole community from moving forward. It’s not enough to vocalise what is needed, when this is followed by inaction. With that in mind, what if the church identified spiritual entrepreneurs (change agents) and sent them out to congregations to help focus vision and ways they can revitalise their communities?Insights caught up with Rev. Jorge Rebolledo and Tash Holmes, who are among four UCA members that have undertaken the Hatchery LA Certificate in Spiritual Entrepreneurship course, to ask just that. Hatchery LA is a US-based incubator of ideas that offers courses, training and coaching on spiritual entrepreneurship and philanthropy. It defines a spiritual entrepreneur as someone who is “responding to the shifts within culture and the world, motivated by the goal of common good.” In other words, someone who seeks to encourage expansion of skills to become better prepared to do ministry in today’s society.

A way of thinking

For Rev. Rebolledo, who is the Head of Church Engagement at Uniting, it took a while to find a course as unique as the one Hatchery LA provided, as
it delved into different aspects of social enterprise.

“I was wondering how some of the more cutting edge entrepreneurial models and processes used in both social and commercial start-ups could be applied to spiritual endeavours,” says Rev. Rebolledo.

What struck Rev. Rebolledo about the course, was the application of ‘Lean Management’ thinking and its application to social and spiritual enterprise.

“Its use moves us away from a historical business and management model (which essentially developed out of the industrial revolution). It asks us to consider the enterprise in terms of models which are driven by robust analysis and exploration and uncovering of success factors and iterative change.”

Rev. Rebolledo sees spiritual entrepreneurship as a way of thinking about our engagement with the communities around us using the principles of entrepreneurship.

“It is a completely different approach than I have ever seen in the church personally, and it requires a significant mindset shift. But I would suggest that it is what is needed for spiritual enterprises to have sustainable impact on our communities.”

Rev. Rebolledo explains that he believes the UCA is able to connect and engage the community and local congregations by running a number of community programs.

“As part of the Uniting team that has been set up to support congregations to do this sort of thing, I am encouraged by the number of our congregations that are involved in this.”

“One of the key factors to their work’s sustainability is that all of them, in different ways, have found ways to listen deeply to the needs of the community around them – the deep need for connectedness, meaning making, friendship and love; all of which are part and parcel of our spirituality.”

This is where Rev. Rebolledo said the principles of spiritual entrepreneurship can connect with those who particularly identify as spiritual but not religious.

“Some of the entrepreneurial skills and models can help us listen more deeply and with clearer intent to the needs of our communities, and facilitate the connections and develop approaches to deal with the needs,” says Rev. Rebolledo.

Innovative spaces

As a Uniting Church Engagement Leader for the Hunter Presbytery and Worship Leader at North Ryde Community Uniting Church, Tash Holmes, is passionate about ensuring that we are able to worship in relevant and innovative spaces.

“Creating thriving spaces where we know who we are and why we exist, where we are central within the heartbeat of our communities,” said Ms Holmes.

This is one of the reasons she decided to take the course and what she found was that we are a church on the move.

“I believe we are creating something new in the Uniting Church, we just need to discover our story and start telling it with confidence.”

“The conservative churches are growing. Why? Because they are introducing narrative back into a culture that is desperate for something solid.

“There is no over-arching narrative in post-modernity. The challenge is to give them a new narrative. It is waiting to be written – who is going to start putting pen to paper?”

Ms Holmes paints the picture: “Imagine the collection of stories about radical faith and hospitality, with such embracing passion it has the power to forge new paths back into the church, a church that looks completely different but holds all the core truths about the gospel. That’s the church I want to belong to.”

For Ms Holmes spiritual entrepreneurship is turning what we know about church on its head and to rethink how we approach spirituality.

“Spiritual Entrepreneurship iterates in response to cultural shifts to promote the common good by addressing sustainability and spirituality.”

This goes beyond social entrepreneurship and as Ms Holmes continues to explain it’s a matter of addressing questions of God and spirituality. The Hatchery LA course outline looks to challenge our perceptions of how we navigate religion in the 21st Century and for Ms Holmes it highlighted the need and the capability of the church to adapt.

“I was really intrigued by the idea of ‘plasticity’. The ability to change. The quality of being easily shaped or moulded. The adaptability of an organism to change with its environment.”

“Neurological and theological – Wow! The challenge is how do you create a structure to move forward as an organisation but still remain open to be shaped
and moulded?”

Embracing the challenge

Staying relevant and connecting to people is what Ms Holmes believes has become our greatest challenge.

“There are many, many things we have become very attached to and formed our identity in, this makes plasticity very difficult,” says Ms Holmes.

“What are we willing to let go of to allow the church to take a new shape and become a home to so many who are spiritually homeless?”

A question that shouldn’t be shied away from but embraced.  That idea of plasticity is poignantly positioned for the Uniting Church, because we are a movement. A movement that began before 1977. Some might argue that there has been stagnation, but there is fluidity in the way the UCA faces challenges and takes social action, all the while keeping Jesus at the heart of our mission.

Creating space for spiritual entrepreneurs

Dr Lynne Taylor brings it home by sharing what it means to create space for spiritual entrepreneurs and innovative ministry to thrive within the UCA.

“First, be prepared to risk. Give things a go, even if there is no certainty that they will work. This is a new time in history and we need new ways of being or doing church and new ways of engaging in the world.

“Secondly, remember we’re imperfect and there is no magic solution. As well as thinking big from time to time, think small.

“Don’t wait for the most amazing thing to reveal itself. Do stuff. Evaluate. Keep doing it or drop it. Give it time. But not unlimited time,” says Dr Taylor.

The UME study Learning from Innovation Project is part of a larger project called UnitingNext. UnitingNext looks to resource congregations, church councils and individuals on how they can engage and respond to their community and ministry needs.

Melissa Stewart




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