Looking back to see forward: The Moderator’s vision

Looking back to see forward: The Moderator’s vision

It was with a considerable sense of blessing that I commenced my term as Moderator in my home Presbytery, The Hunter, and home town, Newcastle, where the 2011 Synod took as its theme ‘On New and Risky Paths’. We did so recognising that we are a Church at a critical place in our journey as people “On the way to the promised goal”. Even so, we did not quite realise the immensity of the challenge we were facing.

Since then, my time as Moderator has included a series of inspiring experiences of our Church at its best. For example, the Yurora NCYC at the Centre for Ministry; great gratitude for the welcome and hospitality of Congregations, Presbyteries and other agencies while travelling the length and breadth of NSW and the ACT; inspiring ecumenical and inter-faith events such as the recent ‘Week of Prayer for Christian Unity’ celebration with the Anglicans at Bangalow; and times of near despair at our propensity to send good energy down the drain in our conflicts and disputes.

In all of this, it has been an immense privilege to serve the Synod and I welcome this late-term opportunity to articulate my vision for the Synod of NSW and the ACT.

This vision is essentially the same as I named to the 2010 Synod that elected me, that is, to be the Church we are called to be: inclusive, generous and courageous.

Ex-moderator Rev. Niall Reid put it well in the introduction to his paper, Property for a Pilgrim People: “The Uniting Church has the credibility, ethos and resources to make a significant impact on the spiritual and social landscape of Australian Society. God is calling us to realise that potential”.

The 2013 Synod embraced the call to be ‘Uniting for the Common Good’. This conviction, embedded in the Way of Jesus, helps guide and test our decision-making.

In order to gather ourselves in pursuit of this vision of an inclusive, generous and courageous Church bearing witness to Christ in our community, we need to attend to some matters within our own communal life. In each case, I envisage movement along a spectrum from a less to a more effective position; recognising that where we are now in each focus area has its strengths as well as its weaknesses.

Priority #1: Leadership

The first relates to my conviction that leadership of both specified ministry agents and lay people is critical to our communal health, wellbeing and mission. I am inspired by an insight from David Gillespie’s book Free Schools, in which he nominates the one key issue that separates the highest performing education systems in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), specifically Finland, Hong Kong and Singapore, from the rest.

That issue is not the teachers’ salary, the class sizes, nor the approach to gender, but the thoroughgoing mentoring of their teachers. Similarly, critical to our future is the oversight of ministry agents from recruitment to retirement. This includes recruitment, selection, training, placement, mentoring, supervision, evaluation, continuing education and out-placement.

The change I envision is from a somewhat ‘hit and miss’ approach to one that is systematic and comprehensive. Some Presbyteries are making strenuous efforts in this regard, and they need more resources for the task. I would like to see movement along the continuum from a culture, where it exists among ministry agents, of individualism and sense of entitlement to a culture of accountability and collegiality.

In this regard, we have not been well served by the disbanding of parishes, where there was more likely to be collegiality, to the focus on the individual Congregations where, if there is a ministry agent, they are more likely to be isolated.

Priority #2: Property

A second critical priority, and one that is now getting the attention it deserves, is widespread and thoroughgoing commitment to the missional and communal use of property and other resources across the Synod.

This calls for a generous community spirit like that of the early Church in Acts 2, where everything was held in common and used for the common good. It stands in contrast to the attitude that I have encountered from time to time in Congregational life, when we were forced to address the fragile state of the Church’s finances.

On occasions, when we came to the point of needing to either increase our giving or cut our costs, someone would propose that we start by reducing our tithe to Living is Giving, because “Charity begins at home”! Thank God it never happened, and we were never forced to regret the decision to maintain generosity in the face of apparent financial scarcity.

The 4 principles

Rev. Niall Reid names 4 principles for the missional use of property:

  1. Property supports the Church to be at God’s Mission
  2. Property is the common wealth of the Church
  3. Stewardship of property is concentrated on growing the mission
  4. The best use of any property has to be determined in light of the mission of the whole Church.

Priority #3: Resourcing

Thirdly, I envision the Synod as having courage and foresight in selecting key areas and locations of ministry and mission for special resourcing.

For example, we may choose to prioritise ministry training and mentoring, tertiary ministry, and/or significant strategic placements, especially in rural and regional areas. This selectivity espouses, among other things, the so called 80-20 principle (80% of outcomes are usually achieved with 20% of effort, and vice versa). It is about being intentional in the way we allocate resources according to strategic priorities. Treating the whole Synod as a level playing-field that needs to be equally resourced is neither just nor courageous.

Having identified these 3 priorities, I was amazed (well, not really) to read that the United Church of Canada, which is facing very similar challenges to us, names the following as their main issues:

1. Responsibility and authority for property

2. Oversight of pastoral charges

3. Oversight and discipline of ministers.

It’s not rocket science! In some ways it is even more challenging and demanding than that because it is about people — their hopes, fears, needs and aspirations. Essentially though, it is about a Church with an ethos of care, inclusion and justice, seeking to unite and equip the Synod of NSW and the ACT to serve Jesus Christ and the world to which He calls us.

In terms of living out our vision in the wider community, pursuing the Common Good means being involved both pastorally and prophetically in the big issues of our day. These include the gap between rich and poor, climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions, and treatment of asylum seekers.

We are called to be involved, not just as social activists, but because these are fundamentally spiritual issues. As a Church committed to the flourishing of all creation, we must, as an evangelical imperative, hold spirituality and social justice together. Our Church already has a reputation for including those on the margins, being generous in engaging with those ‘outside the camp’, and courageous in our prophetic witness in the face of social and ecological injustice. We need to do more of all of this, not less, inspired by Jesus’ prophetic impulse to proclaim good news to the poor.

In all of this we can move forward with hope in our hearts. For me, one major sign of hope is the extent to which our Congregations, large and small, mono and multicultural, urban and rural, are engaging in mission and ministry in their communities. Another is the strength of the partnership between Congregations, Presbyteries, and UnitingCare, in outreach, advocacy and action for social justice.

I applaud momentum across all parts of our Church towards teamwork and away from a so-called ‘silo mentality’. I see active and emerging high quality young adult leadership with a strong commitment to our ethos and a vision about how the Church of the future needs to be different to stay on the Way of Jesus. I also see many older people with the wisdom to know that “Those who work for tomorrow will not miss the dreams of yesterday” (Yusuf Islam).

At the coming Synod starting on 26 September, the new Moderator, Rev. Myung Hwa Park will be installed. Her role is to give general and pastoral leadership to the Synod. I trust that she will be well supported in that task. One way we can help her is to resist the temptation to expect her to be the ‘Ombudsman’ of the Synod. It is not the Moderator’s role to get bogged down or entangled in individual conflicts and disputes.

The 2014 Synod will continue to develop the vision of the Newcastle Synod’s ‘New and Risky Paths’, and extend the theme ‘Uniting for the Common Good’. My prayer is that those who come to the Synod meeting will do so in a spirit of generosity, strong in hope, and determined to fulfil the vision of our Basis of Union that we be a Church on the Way of Jesus.

Where it all began

The Moderator is elected to give general and pastoral leadership to the Synod, assisting and encouraging expression and fulfilment of faith, and the witness of the Church.

Rev. Dr Brian Brown was born in Durban, South Africa, and graduated with a Bachelor of Economics degree from the University of Natal in 1971.

After working in commerce and industry for three years he spent 18 months as Assistant Chaplain at the Seamen’s Institute in Durban before entering the Methodist ministry as a Probationer Minister.

Following two years ministering with three Congregations he began formal theological training at Rhodes University in Grahamstown.

He found life intolerable under the Apartheid regime and emigrated to Australia in 1978, where he completed theological studies at United Theological College in Parramatta.

He was ordained in 1980 in Bathurst, New South Wales. He ministered there until 1984, where he also completed a Graduate Diploma in Counselling at Charles Sturt University. One focus of his ministry in Bathurst was the inclusion of children in worship. From April 2000, Rev. Dr Brown was the minister of the Hamilton-Broadmeadow Uniting Church.

Rev. Dr Brown was installed as Moderator at the Synod meeting in Newcastle in October 2011. His term as Moderator finishes in September 2014 where he will hand over to Rev. Myung Hwa Park who will be installed on Friday 26 September, 2014.

You can follow Rev. Dr Brown on Twitter @BrianBrownUCA

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