Liam Miller is the Uniting Church Chaplain at Macquarie University and recently started his candidacy for the Ministry of the Word. He was encouraged to consider this vocation by his friend and mentor The Reverend Mark Hillis (former Honorary Chaplain at Macquarie). Insights caught up with them both to talk about church leadership and what it means to be called to a ministry.
What led to you wanting to consider ministry as a vocation?
Liam Miller: I was finding myself further and further in something and found out what that meant.
(Liam became an Associate Chaplain at Macquarie University in 2012, a role that eventually led to his current role as Chaplain).
The job looked interesting and flexible.
I had this feeling I liked being involved in church things. I was doing it for a while and was enjoying it a lot. I started doing theological studies as well and other opportunities came up.
I kept building until I realised this is something I enjoy doing and like…and something I am OK at. You start to get this feeling that this is something you are called to. It’s not just this job, it’s about the vocation. I talked to Mark and said ‘this is what I think. This is what I’m discerning.’
Mark Hillis: I was seeing the kind of work he was doing and the attitude he had with his work at the university and the boldness that he and our other associate, Richard La’Brooy, were showing in what is not an easy environment because there are so many (competing) religious groups and ideas. To have young people like Liam trying to not to be too preachy and teachy but to be open and vulnerable, I thought that was very brave indeed. He was more than brave, he was thriving in that environment.
I like him, I thought he had a balanced personality…he had some of the gifts and graces that you need to survive in ministry. No matter what he did in this context
He was a person with courage, entrepreneurial flair and…all the same time, exploring and studying his faith…He’s given a lead to our church and to our region during his time at uni. It’s been very creative and it’s been unique.
LM: It’s a tricky part because you sit in your synod panel interview and they ask you about this calling that you have and you audaciously say…I have been called into ministry into a specific way, a set aside way.
I think it helps that audacity…in that you’ve already gone through a meeting with your presbytery, a meeting with your zone.
MH: The audacity you speak of…We’re a church that affirms the vocation of every Christian, if every Christian has a vocation, what is this business of saying that some people really ought to be part of, or constitute a particular group of leaders? What are the indicators that that particular type of leadership is needed? That is still, after 41 years, still a fresh question for me.
I’m now part of a congregation [with several] retired ministers, most of whom are still exploring their calling.
Some of us have observed over the years, that as a protestant church we are tempted to make the mistake to think that the church should congregate around a minister. And so there’s this holy aura that is sometimes a troubling thing for thoughtful ministers. We have to find a way for the church to see (that there is) this wide range of [roles] around the church [not only confined to ordained minsters].
The Period of Discernment is not just a pathway to [ordination] it is for any Christian to look at what God wants for them to be a Christian in this day and age.
LM: We had a student at Macquarie University studying audiology. [She finished her degree with the sense that it was something she was called to do]. When she finished her degree she was going to move to Albury Wodonga [to take up this work as an audiologist]. At Hope Uniting they had a commissioning service for her. This process we have for one vocation is something we can translate into another vocation. At the end of the Period of Discernment, they’re not just deciding how to be become a minister. We’re reminded that’s only part of being part of the priesthood of believers.
MH: The ordained calling might be to be excited by the gifts of the church. You can only be a mentor to someone when you forget about your own interests and get excited by…the gifts of others. Call it a captain/coach, call it a leader.
We’ve already seen in Liam a desire to share what he’s learning and the joy of discovering the Christian vocation. If it’s about a career path, about fulfilling your own desire, sadly that’s solo kind of vocation. I think for the Uniting Church, that’s not a vocation. There’s plenty of egos around already, we want to see the whole church flourish and we’re struggling with that as a church. We have some very…learned leaders but that’s not guaranteeing a flourishing church.
Tertiary chaplaincy is uniquely challenging. How has it prepared you for what you will encounter?
LM: There’s no guarantee [in tertiary ministry] that [anyone will show] up. You pretty much know that if you open your doors on a Sunday, someone is showing up. We didn’t have that [at university]. It’s out there on its own, there’s a consistent turnover of students.
It definitely prepares in that you’ve gone into a situation where…most people don’t even know that you’re there. You have to demonstrate that you can contribute to the life of the university. There’s still this sense that you’re there for a purpose, a vocation, and mission.
It sets you up for a lot of things that are important in that, where a lot of people don’t have visible connection to the church, it has let me know how little expected knowledge you can expect.
[In a Bible study I was asked] “What’s the Exodus?” This person had no concept of it and why should they in the time we live now? You’ve got to start over with ‘this is what we believe, it’s pretty strange, but we think it’s life giving.’
Chaplaincy can be like keeping the rumour of God alive and this saying, ‘loitering with intent’. It’s a very interesting space but it helps knock down the idea that there’s a level of assumed knowledge.
MH: That aspect of ministry was something I enjoyed immensely in that both Liam and Richard were keen to discover what their faith meant. I found that exciting and not as disheartening as I thought it might be, and that’s a tribute to Liam. He finds a sense of ministry having been in that adventurous context and I think that’s what the church needs.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
LM: Something I am trying to be aware of is how privilege can intersect with calling in that I speak English, my accent is what is going to be assuring to most people in the congregation. There is this association of white male and trustworthy.
As I’ve grown up, I’ve been given opportunities that might not have been given to others [from other backgrounds]. I think that’s a challenge.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor