Taking the lead on leadership
In the third part of our three-part interview with former General Secretary of our Synod, Andrew Williams, he is candid about the tension of leading within the Uniting Church’s system, and whether it is truly an exciting time to be an Australian – and a Christian.
INSIGHTS: The Uniting Church has a non-hierarchical structure but do you think, during recent years, there has been an increasing appetite for leadership — rather than non-hierarchical and interconciliar decision making?
ANDREW WILLIAMS: Yes. We want leadership yet we resist it at the same time. We are crying out for it but yet we want to rail against it. I have often encountered the misconception that the Church works like any other hierarchy, with a perfectly efficient cascading instrument by which to embed culture, strategy, values and vision. But we don’t! There are many competing interests and loyalties and people work hard to defend their patch. The reality is that even with our extensive wealth of people and resources, we will always feel ill-equipped to face the most critical challenges of our mission.
“The task is unfinished; there is still something more to do.”
When you’re in the leadership role, you realise how difficult it is. You realise how the system is both crying out for leadership yet it is preventing it from really being able to achieve something good.
What would you say about your leadership style? Have you had to adapt and evolve it?
AW: I think my leadership style is partly constrained by the Uniting Church principles and Uniting Church ethos. If I have felt constrained, it is by the principles of consensus and trying to bring everyone along all the time.
Is this the minister bringing all of the flock along and not abandoning them?
AW: That is the danger of the DNA of a minister, wanting everyone to come along. The problem with consensus is, when we find the solution everyone can agree to, it basically turns out to be what nobody wanted exactly. You’ve made everyone equally unhappy! [Chuckles]
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said, ‘There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.’ How does the Church fit with the PM’s statement? As a Church, we are at a pivotal point. So, is it an exciting time to be alive? Is it an exciting time to be an Australian?
AW: Yes to all those things, but only if we are willing to embrace a radically different future than we have had. This is the danger about our experiment called the Uniting Church. We can never see it as we have finished; that we have arrived. The very word ‘uniting’ is to say the task is unfinished; there is still something more to do. For me, this means our structures are up for grabs; the way we have entrenched things in our thinking is up for grabs.
It is exciting if we can let go of the things that hold us back and genuinely keep moving forward. If we can’t, we will just become a footnote in history because we will go out of existence because we will cling to it and say ‘this is the way we do it’ and we won’t move.
“We are in the hope business when all is said and done. And we should be giving hope.”
We can either say this whole time is a crisis — the declining, ageing membership — or it’s an opportunity. I would say it is an opportunity moment for the Church to rethink who it is and who we engage, and how we engage the community. We are either going to seize the opportunity or we are goings to say this is a crises and go back into our shell. And that is true throughout the world.
It is 500 years [in 2017] since the Protestant Reformation, where we take our roots. We can either say we still have something to offer, or we may as well say the fight has gone out of us — we are not protesting anything and we have nothing we need to rail against. Or, we are going to say ‘we still have something to offer’ and we are going to get on with it.
I think for me, however, I’d agree with theologian Jurgen Moltmann who said: ‘My past was Methodist, my future is ecumenical.’ That is how it feels personally, for me, moving to the World Council of Churches environment. It also feels like that for our Church. Our past was ‘X’— but our future has to be even more ecumenical.
It has not been a good year for religious vilification. How do you see the Church as being perceived?
I think the Royal Commission has damaged us. I think it shattered the myth that the Church is all things good and holy and that changes our relationship with society. We are back to my theme: you have to find new ways of engaging the community and winning their trust again.
In things where the Church is involved and something has gone horribly wrong, people have a right to challenge the Church. When we are on the wrong side of some debates, I think that the Church loses credibility. Our Church, in particular, with its aging declining membership, is obviously not engaging people’s hearts and minds. We have lost the right to speak into some of the spaces we had forty years ago.
As Pilgrim People on the way to the promised end, what wisdom do you have for your Synod?
We are in the hope business when all is said and done. And we should be giving hope.
‘Pilgrims’ is such a wonderful rich theme; we are always moving forward. We are going to sing a hymn at my Closure of Ministry which I wrote, In a Church That’s Moving Forward. ‘In a Church that is moving forward, this is where I long to be.’ The job is not done and we are not out of hope yet.
INTERVIEWER: Lisa Sampson. Lisa is Media and Fundraising Consultant with the UCA Synod of NSW and the ACT. Lisa’s role involves telling the story of the Uniting Church in Australia, including writing about the many and varied gifts of the people that make up our Synod.