An Open Space initiative goes rural

At the Open Space gathering of Synod 2016, a group of people wrestled with the challenges of providing ministry in areas outside of Sydney urban life.

Rev. John Thorton delivered the report to Synod saying rural communities are “under resourced and at times they feel terribly isolated and under appreciated.”

“Its been a good year, we’ve celebrated our 40th birthday, but I have been saying to people it’s no longer 1977,” Rev. Thornton continued. “We still wonder why people are not coming to our careful crafted (or not) services. One of the reasons is we live in 2017. The positive is I suppose that if 1977 ever comes around again we’re ready for it. These are new times and rural congregations have adapted better to the changes of 2017 than urban congregations.”

“Ministry conversations are going on all around us. We need to understand what discipleship and leadership looks like in the future. How are we recruiting, forming, educating new Ministers, ordained or lay. What does ordination mean today.”

This led the Open space group to pose the following question: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if ministry was shared more generously across the life of the Church, particularly in the bush and regional areas, and the hospitality of the bush could be shared more intentionally with the city?

Mobilising Ministry is not another version of congregational ‘twinning’, nor is it designed to be anything like any kind of supply ministry. Rather, it is an intentional, strategic and collaborative development of ministry in the local context that will forge relationships over an extended period of time between urban placed Ministers and between rural/regional Congregations and city Congregations.

All parties involved will offer their mutual gifts, graces and unique ministerial expertise to inspire, inform, enhance and engage the Church in mission.

‘For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gifts to strengthen you – or rather that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine.”
Romans 1:11-12

Congregations and faith communities outside our urban areas are anything but ‘country cousins’. Rural, regional and remote locations are proving to be places where quite creative and exciting concepts of ministry are bubbling up. It is in these places that reality has bitten first, as rural and regional communities, along with church communities, have had to adjust to diminishing populations, services and general resources.

Lay-led congregations are more the norm than ordained leadership in most regions outside of suburbia. The constant challenge is how we provide a quality and regularity of resources across a vast area with so many and varied needs.

A constant frustration among is the seeming reluctance of ordained ministers to consider a placement beyond the ‘sandstone curtain’ of the Sydney basin.

A meeting of Rural Presbyteries earlier this year expressed concerns about overcoming the difficulty being experienced by the rural church in filling placements. Even when finances are readily available, it seems almost impossible to find ministers who are prepared to move beyond the Sydney basin, to take up positions even in regional situations, let alone in isolated areas of the state.

Karen Burchell-Thomas then spoke about that fact that she she is rural ministry and loves every minute of it. She travels up to 50,000 kms per year. Regional NSW make-up of congregations is based on the areas in which they are situated.

“If I was to tell you the story of some congregations, there’s a congregation of seven in a community of people that if they all came together would be comprised of about 58 people. I can tell you another story of a minister in a region that works across six congregations. I can tell you of another congregation that has 120 people every morning – what size is yours?”

There are many large regional centres across the Synod that could hardly be seen as ‘remote’ and yet struggle to attract the interest of ordained ministers seeking to discern the call of God.

Across the life of the Uniting Church today there are many conversations taking place about how we understand ministry in these rapidly changing times. The challenges are recognised, but there is also a growing sense of excitement about what our future might look like as we continue to discern a way forward as a pilgrim people.

Mobilising Ministry will offer ministers presently in placement in urban regions an opportunity to make use of their spiritual gifts and skills in a much broader setting than presently possible and offer a potentially new experience of ministry.

Mobilising Ministry makes our perceived boundaries permeable as we share ministry, encouragement, care and oversight across lines on a map that have no significance. In recent years Presbytery Chairs have been meeting on a regular basis for sharing of stories and encouragement and this project will build on these relationships.

We will begin to tell a newer, bigger story of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in our various contexts and cultures, now mixed in with some different flavours and experiences. Local lay leadership will experience intentional resourcing that addresses ministry where they are at and provides a time of refreshment and renewal.

How will this happen?

There will be an intentional matching of ministerial gifts and skills between ministers and the particular congregation.

A key role of the Ministers will be to share the bigger story of the Church – our faith, unity and calling.

Pastoral support and encouragement will come from the ‘sending’ congregations and Ministers will enter into a Memorandum of Understanding/Covenant to share ministry with lay-led congregations typically in regional, rural and more remote areas, inland and along the coast for up to but no more than four weeks per year.

The Mobilising Ministry pilot Presbytery — Sydney Central Coast Presbytery — has volunteered to pilot Mobilising Ministry and advertising across the Presbytery is already in place.

Rev. Graham Perry spoke about the involvement of the Sydney Central Coast Presbytery: “It’s a chance to share the ministry of the Church with the whole Church. To relieve tired lay leaders and to bring some of the training that in the suburbs we can take for granted and to receive some of the insights and the blessing that rural Churches can bring to city Churches. Sydney Central Coast Presbytery immediately has six ministry agents ready to go out to rural areas in 2018 and more planned for 2019.”

There has been interest from other ministers outside of Sydney Central Coast and minister and Churches are encouraged to get involved in this initiative. Regional Presbyteries are beginning to roll out the scheme and again significant interest has already been registered.

It cannot be stressed enough that Mobilising Ministry is about mutual sharing. Congregations across the Synod of NSW and the ACT are active in positive transformational worship, witness and service. By sharing our resources and experience, all parties will find not only new learning, but affirmation and understanding. We will begin to tell a new story.

Mobilising Minstry will be a significant vessel in gathering up the many stories of grace and hope, enhancing the dreams and vision of our church in this new time.




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