Rebuilding Hope: the Uniting Church’s tertiary ministry on university campuses
The year 2022 has been one of rebuilding for the Uniting Church’s tertiary ministry on university campuses. Located at universities across Sydney, Western Sydney, Wollongong, Newcastle, and Port Macquarie, these ministries connect with students through Bible studies, social events, mentoring, pastoral care, justice work, inter-faith events, and more.
Lockdowns have had a huge impact on students and hit tertiary ministry hard, prompting chaplains to reimagine what engagement looks like. As the culture of university life has shifted with online and hybrid learning, so must the work of Christian Students Uniting and chaplaincies adapt.
Several chaplains spoke to Insights about the work of rebuilding and their hopes for the new year.
University of New South Wales
Rev. Phil Newton, UCA chaplain at the University of New South Wales, described how students “were keen to reconnect and enjoyed being together again” in 2022.
“I think the lockdowns and online learning did have a detrimental impact on people, but the effects weren’t always very obvious… Some preferred the flexibility of online learning, [while] others felt it was substantially poorer than in the flesh,” he told Insights. “It’s hard to be an incarnational community when we’re not sharing space.”
Rev. Newton has connected with students through Bible studies on campus, Corio Student House next door to Hope Uniting Church in Maroubra, and “the pastoral edges of ministry.”
He described the “great gift” of working alongside Steff Fenton, then associate chaplain, in the first half of this year. “Steff has such a gift in inviting people into a safe space of being and learning together.”
While Rev. Newton has been able to connect with new students, the shift to trimesters at the University of New South Wales has presented its own challenges. “This shift has placed extra pressure on students and is a change to the rhythm of the year that will take some adjustment.”
In 2023, he is looking forward to “deepening the relationships that have grown this year,” sharing in what emerges from the community at Corio Student House, and participating in multi-faith conversations with other chaplains at the university.
University of Newcastle
UCA chaplain at the University of Newcastle, Pastor Kim Langford, described efforts by the multi-faith chaplaincy centre to “remind students and staff that we are available,” assisted by the university’s Communications Team. She told Insights that returning to campus this year was met “with a mix of enthusiasm and trepidation” as students wrestled with the complexities of both online and in-person learning spaces.
Pastor Langford has connected with students through pastoral counselling and mentoring, as well as through her capacity as a Justice of the Peace. She has become a trusted, non-judgemental ear for many students as they grapple with significant decisions about their studies.
Being openly affirming of LGBTQIA+ people as a chaplain is also an important pastoral ministry. Pastor Langford said, “As one of two ALLY-trained chaplains on campus, I’ve received referrals from UoN counselling services to offer further support for students struggling with sexuality, gender, and faith.”
In her interactions with students, Pastor Langford has “noticed growth in students’ hopes of what contribution they can make to their communities through their vocation or volunteer roles.”
One of the biggest challenges in 2022 has been how spread thin the chaplaincy team is at the University of Newcastle. Pastor Langford told Insights, “The majority of our chaplains are volunteers, available for half-days… Enhancing and deepening team connection has remained a strong priority during this period of flux and uncertainty.”
In 2023, she is looking forward to “the nurturing of new relationships and connections alongside the continuity of trust and willingness to be vulnerable,” an at times difficult task within a university environment some experience as “competitive, objectifying, and stressful.”
Western Sydney University
Rev. Amelia Koh-Butler was previously placed as UCA chaplain to Western Sydney University. Now she is minister to Eastwood Uniting Church and continues to volunteer in the chaplaincy space as invited by the university. Though the chaplaincy’s spiritual welfare and community development activities, including a soup kitchen, have been handed over to St Vincent de Paul’s, Rev. Koh-Butler continues to be called upon to assist with various pastoral work supporting staff and students, as well as facilitating inter-faith events.
During lockdowns, tertiary ministry at Western Sydney University adapted by creating installations for isolation visits, delivery boxes from the soup kitchen, providing webinars and socially distanced gatherings, and offering labyrinth walks, tree planting, and filmed devotions.
Rev. Koh-Butler told Insights, “This year, since leaving full-time chaplaincy, the uni departments have invited me back for more specific events.” This includes putting together an installation on the topic “What is Easter and how does it connect with other religious faiths?”, assisted by Michelle Loxton from the Eastwood congregation. “The UCA interest in eco-theology gets me onto many panels talking about Christian understandings of Creation and the responsibility of people to care for the planet as an act of faith and discipleship,” she said.
As one of few chaplains at Western Sydney University who openly affirms LGBTQIA+ people, her work has “a pretty special relationship with Rainbow Alliance and Queer Collective.” Rev. Koh-Butler described how “this has opened so many doors to work with wonderful and creative people, many of whom have faced rejection in their own churches and families.”
Despite her now limited presence on campus, “WSU staff and students continue to regard Parramatta Mission as theirs,” donating to, assisting with, and advocating for their ongoing welfare work.
UCA chaplain at Macquarie University, Rev. John Dacey, has faced significant challenges over the past two and a half years. He told Insights, “It was clear that tertiary ministry needed reinventing, with or without COVID, if we were going to have any students involved.”
So Rev. Dacey set out to find out “what the wider student community at MQ (not just Christians or UCA members) wanted that the UCA chaplaincy could deliver.” After surveying 200 students, he began developing a mentoring program, and fourteen people from Uniting Churches in the region were trained up to mentor university students. However, after a social media campaign and handing out 600 flyers, the program received only six registrations and was unable to proceed.
After several attempts at reimagining tertiary ministry at Macquarie University, the difficult decision has been made to end the UCA chaplaincy work on this campus. Rev. Dacey described how “the vast majority of young people are one, two, or perhaps three generations away from having positive exposure to faith/religion/church… It is extremely difficult to ‘fly the flag’ of Christianity (even progressive and active expressions of it) when it is seen by most as, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, dangerous.”
“A reinvented tertiary ministry could be viable if the church chose to put the resources in to make it happen,” he told Insights. “It takes more than one chaplain and a couple of mission workers to make the kind of changes that are needed.”
University of Technology Sydney
Rev. David Gore is UCA chaplain at the University of Technology Sydney. He told Insights that the beginning of 2020 saw Christian Students Uniting’s “best recruitment drive ever” at UTS, however because of the first COVID-19 lockdown “we were not able to capitalise on the opportunities that were opening before us.”
The University of Technology Sydney presents unique challenges to tertiary ministry as a campus, and Christian Students Uniting has been unable to rebuild a core group of students in 2022.
A highlight of this year for Rev. Gore was a multi-faith forum on War and Peace held on campus. He was the MC for this event, and UCA minister Rev. Dr Josephine Inkpin was a speaker on the panel.
“The power of the Gospel itself” brings Rev. Gore hope for the new year. “Our God does not hold back the gracious love that led Jesus to offer his life to us. This love finds a way. We will fight to reach students with this love,” he told Insights.
“The students themselves are the best people to know what is helpful and makes sense. I see myself as a support worker to their ministry,” Rev. Gore said.
University of Sydney
Rev. Adrian Sukumar-White, UCA chaplain at the University of Sydney, described rebuilding as a “slow process” due to the decrease in social engagement across the university. “It has been great to be able to meet and work with students in person again,” he told Insights.
Rev. Sukumar-White told Insights that a highlight of this year’s studies was reading Rainbow Spirit Theology together. “It’s been great to see how students have been energised by Indigenous theology and advocacy, and really wrestled with what it means to live, work and study on stolen land.”
University of Sydney student Mikali Anagnostis described how they “feel so held in that space to ask questions about identity and my place in the work of justice – questions that can be hard to voice unless you know you’ll be met with grace and a spirit of growing together.”
This book study concluded with an opportunity to learn from Aboriginal Christian leader Brooke Prentis. Mx Anagnostis told Insights, “Brooke’s stories helped us gain some insight into the realities of the injustice for Aboriginal people in the church. She also invited us to [take] practical steps toward justice.”
In 2023, Rev. Sukumar-White is “excited to see how our students live out their passion for Indigenous justice and advocacy, particularly in light of wider society conversations about the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the referendum on an Indigenous Voice to Parliament.” He is also looking forward to Retreat Yourself on 3-5 February, a retreat for young adults in the UCA across NSW and the ACT.
Connect with the work of Christian Students Uniting on university campuses here.
Gabi Cadenhead is a mission worker for Christian Students Uniting at the University of Sydney.