The Presbytery Project: Strengthening our connections

The Presbytery Project: Strengthening our connections

We made some big commitments in 2021 across all of the Uniting Church in NSW and the ACT. We committed ourselves to being a contemporary, courageous and growing church. We are now turning these commitments into action.

In particular, as members of Synod gathered online for our meeting, we committed ourselves to five Future Directions:

  1. A commitment to rural and regional ministry
  2. A commitment to ministry with people in the first third of their lives.
  3. A commitment to walking together with First Peoples and to the covenant with Congress.
  4. An ongoing and active commitment to the stewardship of the earth.
  5. An ongoing commitment to working with presbyteries to organise ourselves to promote growth within and through our congregations.

The Presbytery Project is the focus for how we will turn the fifth 2021 Future Directions commitment into action. This work is core to who we are and how we “do church” across the Synod of NSW and the ACT.

The Presbytery Project also draws on a commitment we made when we gathered physically at our 2019 Synod meeting. We committed ourselves to reorganise ourselves for growth in four areas:

  1. Discipleship
  2. Relationship
  3. Number
  4. Impact

These 2019 and 2021 commitments are not sudden fads. The Presbytery Project is deeply grounded in who we are as the Uniting Church. In the Basis of Union, we recognise the centrality of our gathered communities as we affirm “The Congregation is the embodiment in one place of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping, witnessing and serving as a fellowship of the Spirit in Christ.” We also recognise that the core purpose of presbyteries is oversight of congregations, especially “exhorting them to fulfil their high calling in Christ Jesus.” Our roots in the Basis are why we can call this particular Future Direction “an ongoing commitment”. However, naming this commitment as one of five Future Directions calls us to be more intentional in being authentic congregations and presbyteries in our inner and outer group lives.

Recognising presbyteries as the core council of the church for empowering congregations, the commitments behind the Presbytery Project provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reboot ourselves for growth.

I’ve emphasised the importance of congregations and presbyteries, but it’s important to recognise that none of the five Future Directions commitments sits apart from the others. They all interact. They don’t compete. Congregations and presbyteries – as well as us as individual members – are all deeply invested in rural and regional ministry AND people in the first third of life AND walking together with First Peoples AND stewardship of the earth.

As the commitments themselves intersect, so too it’s important to affirm that they are each-and-all everybody’s work. We’re long past the time when we could think that rural ministry or young people or First Peoples or environmental stewardship or discipleship or evangelism was someone else’s “thing”. We can’t just hand any of these commitments to an agency or committee to do while we keep on with business as usual. We affirmed at our 40th anniversary across the whole Uniting Church in Australia in 2017 “all of this is us”. This is deeply woven into our NSW & ACT Future Directions.

So, what does this work look like? What will turn words into action?

The Synod Standing Committee (SSC) has worked to put people and processes in place to call us all to this work, with a timeline over the 2023 and 2025 Synod meetings. One early piece of work was establishing a Presbytery Project Working Group from among SSC members with strong support from David Rudd, Director of Innovations and Projects in our Synod. The Working Group includes people from across the life of the church, but especially leadership within presbyteries and equipping for mission.

One of the key places where the work of the Presbytery Project is unfolding is a monthly gathering of presbytery and synod leaders for Conversations that Matter (CTM). This is a loose group, with presbyteries appointing the people most relevant in their context rather than being a gathering of just chairpersons or presbytery ministers. It’s a gathering of staff and office-bearers, lay and ordained, along with the Moderator, General Secretary, Associate Secretary and other Synod leaders. The group began meeting early in the pandemic, made up of whoever needed to be in the Zoom room. We built relationships, trust and respect. As the urgency of the situation receded we still felt called to meet, and spent a little time discerning our purpose, out of which the name grew: Conversations that Matter.

The Working Group has refined the broad language of “The Presbytery Project” with a brief by-line, “Strengthening our connections” and a longer description “Presbyteries across the Synod of NSW & the ACT living out Future Directions by growing to become the mature body of Christ, joined and held together by every supporting ligament.”

Their work has led to the creation of a new role across all our presbyteries in NSW & the ACT – Presbytery Relations Minister – a role to which I have been called. Some of this work is with individual presbyteries dealing with immediate and pressing questions. Another dimension is working across the whole Synod to help develop a model for how we can have missional and healthy presbyteries into the future. More about this below!

Recently, SSC appointed an Advocate from within the Synod Leadership Team for each of the five Future Directions. For me, being the Advocate for “working with presbyteries to organise ourselves to promote growth within and through our congregations” is core to my role and my own personal sense of calling.

One way that I articulate our shared work is to help presbyteries be as missional and healthy as possible, on sustainable foundations. Being missional for a presbytery means thinking always how to help congregations be outward-focussed as they find their place in the Missio Dei – the mission of God. Being healthy means having functional healthy relationships as well as being able to exercise core formal oversight functions, such as Vital Ministry Conversations, Strengthening Life & Witness Consultations, Joint Nominating Committees. This talk of mission and health may all sound familiar, but the reality is that we have to discover totally new ways of being church for the sake of the world as well as relating to one another in life-giving ways. This is transformational.

The language of “sustainable” has had a lot of robust conversation, with some arguing that it sounds like maintenance of the status quo. However, we have often seen situations where new work begins but then withers for lack of resources, or that valuable work is supported but in such a resource-dependent way that it can’t multiply beyond itself. We are discovering both what it means to travel light, as Jesus sent out his followers, and also how to maximise the benefit of the resources that we do have. By “resources” we don’t just mean property and money. A sustainably resourced presbytery will also be able to exercise directly or with Synod support diverse responsibilities such as governance and equipping.

Another word that has attracted robust conversation has been “equity”. The meaning of “equity” is a question across Australian society and the globe. What does “equity look like across our presbyteries? This is a hard question that is a part of a conversation that matters for all of us.

Glancing backwards to look forwards, there is a history of our Synod and others working to transform presbyteries to be the best that we can be. These reviews and processes were undertaken in good faith by good people. However, often these efforts came to be seen as focussed on structures, especially around numbers: How many presbyteries should we have in a synod? How many congregations or ministers or members does a presbytery have to have to fulfil its responsibilities? We honour those who have gone before us, and will be informed by the best of the work done in the 2000’s and 2010’s. We also recognise that we need new ways of discerning to discern new ways of being. Bluntly, we also recognise that we can’t afford to fail at this point in the life of our presbyteries.

Sometimes people have said that the problem is with our Regulations, that they are “one size fits all”. Perhaps part of the issue is how we have read the Regulations. As we move forward in the Presbytery Project we see the Regulations as describing the work that needs to be done, but not assuming that “the way we do things around here” is the way things need to be done.

The Presbytery Project is all about encouraging creativity and developing options. We don’t know what presbyteries in NSW & the ACT will look like in five years, but we have some sense of the forces that will shape us.

  • One definite dimension is geography, where we MIGHT think of urban, coastal and western presbyteries as different models.
  • Another dimension MIGHT be how we think of Synod resourcing of presbyteries, with Synod roles possibly embedded within presbyteries.
  • Yet another dimension MIGHT be around governance and management, where different models of presbytery have more or less responsibility for finance and compliance, freeing presbyteries to focus on mission.

I mentioned the Presbytery Project Working Group’s timeline over Synod meetings in September 2023 and April 2025.

For Synod 2023 we will bring the results of conversations in an opening and expanding way: divergence. We are in the process of rolling out workshops and research to map “what is”. Questions include:

  • What DO our presbyteries actually look like now?
  • Who is currently doing what with whom to resource our presbyteries and congregations?
  • What wisdom do we have around ways to do things differently?
  • What is needed for a presbytery to be sustainable? Within its own resources or supported more widely?
  • What is equity?
  • What does stewardship of resources mean today?

As we reflect on what we are hearing from each other we will grow collaboratively towards definite proposals that will come to the full meeting of Synod in April 2025: convergence. This may seem a long way off, but the work we do with individual presbyteries now is not just for its own sake but to inform the models of presbyteries that are emerging. Along the journey we will reflect and act, and reflect and act, and reflect and act, and so collaborative proposals will emerge. Who knows? By April 2025 we may have already done the work that has sometimes seemed impossible, and ask ourselves “Why do we even need to talk about this?”

Be part of this journey!

To share your ideas or ask a question about future directions for our presbyteries, send an email to the Presbytery Project: presbyteryproject@nswact.uca.org.au

Rev. Dr Robert McFarlane is the Presbytery Relations Minister for the Synod of NSW and the ACT.

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