Structural change proposed to equip Synod for mission

Structural change proposed to equip Synod for mission

The Uniting Church’s Synod of New South Wales and the ACT is considering a proposal that could see it undergo a process of structural reformation over the coming 18 months.

A strategic planning group today reported to the 2011 meeting of the Synod, saying that, “Structures and actions which are risk averse and which revolve around one form of the protection of ‘our turf’ are not only inefficient and demonstrably incapable of responding to complex problems but, more importantly, do not speak of the God whom we experience in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.”

In the preparation for its report and recommendations, the planning group became aware of the great many hours, and considerable investment of resources, that had been expended by the Synod regarding its structures for over 20 years.

It said, “At the same time, while some modifications to the forms and structures of the Synod have taken, the organisational structure of the Synod has not experienced any substantial change since [the formation of the Uniting Church in 1977].

Speaking to the report, group chair Peter Andrews referred to a 30-centimetre stack of files from past reviews and said, “When everything was said and done, more was said than done.”

The report said in a time of limited and shrinking financial resources, the way in which the councils of the church prioritised the use of their resources was not a simple matter.

It acknowledged that it came to the Synod alongside other significant recommendations regarding councils, structures, forms and responsibilities.

Those recommendations dealt with the nature and composition of the Standing Committee, the re-working of presbyteries and the discussion on the future of the Synod’s Korean Commission.

The report said they were all separate proposals and should not be read as either competing or interdependent.

Relational and generous

The planning group said Synod’s structures should be relational, creative and generous.

One of its recommendations was that the Synod commit itself to structures that recognise the limits of its own authority, have flexibility in form and in operation, ensure that each presbytery is equipped with or has access to the human and financial resources required to fulfil their duties and responsibilities, and explore cooperative work with other councils of the church.

The planning group said in exercising its responsibilities, the Synod, its boards, agencies, officers and teams, must constantly consider the way in which the local expression of the Body of Christ is supported, enabled and empowered. At the same time the Synod should itself bring a broader perspective than mere congregationalism would entail.

Accordingly, it is recommended the Synod dedicate itself to developing ways in which local expressions of the Body of Christ may be sustained, nurtured and empowered.

The planning group said, “Too often, the conversation around Synod structures has been primarily and at times exclusively based on a shrinking of financial resources. Fighting over scarce resources increases a sense of competition.

“This report and its recommendations acknowledge the very real situation of resource difficulties within many councils of the Church.

“It understands that these difficulties require close consideration of ministry priorities — often between two or more extremely worthwhile alternatives. However, it believes that this calls us primarily to be wise, respectful and creative in our responses.”

The group said, “For the vast majority of the life of the Uniting Church, formal reports and informal conversations have highlighted a lack of trust between various councils of the church, and between boards or agencies within the Synod.

“The Constitution, Regulations and By-Laws have too often been understood (and often used) as tools to reign in, rather than a foundation for empowering. The Strategic Planning Group believes that any such competition, mistrust and silo mentality within the church hampers its mission and speaks of a belief in some God who is a stranger to the self-understanding of the Uniting Church.”

Coherence, clarity, cooperation

Firstly and fundamentally, the planning group said, a clear emphasis should be placed on the ability of the entire organisation to operate coherently and in a unified way.

“This thinking requires members of the organisation being prepared to work across or outside notional area boundaries in order to achieve a clear priority.”

It said, “Since 1977, the Synod of New South Wales and ACT has been based on certain ‘divisions’ — most commonly expressed through various boards. On several occasions it has been pointed out to the Synod that this divisional structure itself and the way in which the accountabilities of the boards within these ‘divisions’ operate restricts the ability of the Synod to take a unified view of direction and ministry solving complex or unusual problems

“In other words, our structures have hindered the overall mission of the church.”

Currently, each board or division is a separate decision-making body that determines policy and carries out its responsibilities. Some guidance is given in the By-Laws regarding the cooperative approach that is to be taken when carrying out these responsibilities.

“However, experience within the church has demonstrated that the divisional structure has both internally to and externally from the Synod created the culture in which emphasis has been given to the particular work of a division above the overall mission and direction of the church.”

The divisional structure also risked compartmentalising the life of the church and the mission of God into false separations.

Planning group member Karyn Burchell-Thomas said Synod’s structures needed to be life-giving. But with the divisions there was some overlapping of functions and duplication of services.

It complicated the life of the Synod and got in the way of being responsive to the call of God, she said.

Simon Hansford used the example of Synod seeking the appointment of two rural chaplains but Standing Committee failing to implement the request. “How do good decisions find life?” he asked.

The report recommended specific legal advice be obtained on the ways in which the intent of the report could be carried out within current legislative requirements. It said, “It is appropriate that there should be a variety of governance and leadership structures within the Synod, reflecting the specific requirements for each area.”

In place of the current divisional structure, the planning group recommended a flexible structure of Areas of Ministry and Mission, under the overall management responsibility of the General Secretary of the Synod.

The current structures of the Synod were said to have a bias towards segmented and siloed operations through the management structures of the staffing leadership.

“In place of this current arrangement, the management leadership of each ministry and mission area (whether it is an executive director of a board, or another form of staffing or volunteer leadership) should be accountable to the General Secretary of the Synod, and the General Secretary be accountable to the Synod.

“This will enable and empower the General Secretary to fulfil the responsibilities entrusted to them in their role, will simplify the oversighting of management and implementation required of the Synod, and will assist significantly in the coordinated implementation of ministry policy and priorities as determined by the Synod.”

The planning group said that would not require a hierarchy in decision-making, nor remove the collegiate understanding of ministry placements within the Uniting Church.

“The clear intention of the changes is to enable cooperation and collaboration, and allow the ministry of the Synod to be focused on the big picture, which fragmentation of roles, responsibilities and structures tends to cause. Its aim is cohesion, consistency and co-ordination.”

Peter Andrews said it was time to make conscious, tough choices and for someone to lead the process.

Coordination of resources

In a setting where Synod resources were scarce and likely to remain scarce for the foreseeable future, the planning group said the greatest possible effort should be made to eliminate areas of duplication or silo-based competition within the Synod.

“Accordingly, unless there is both a sound ministry and legal reason, support services such as accounting, IT, communications should be provided on an integrated basis and not for one particular ministry area.”

The group recommended that an implementation team be appointed to give effect to the changes envisaged by the report. It said the necessary work on implementation could occur as quickly as is feasible.

It said some of the structural changes might be able to be implemented almost immediately.

Among its proposals was a request that the General Secretary appoint an Implementation Team to put into place the changes approved by the Synod, including necessary changes to the By-Laws.

The Implementation Team would bring a comprehensive report to the next Synod meeting and the General Secretary would implement a comprehensive communications strategy regarding the changes, involving presbyteries, congregations, and other councils of the church.

Synod will make a decision on the restructure proposals on Monday, September 26.


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