We have to be less shy about sharing the good news
In the second part of our three-part interview with former General Secretary of our Synod, Andrew Williams, he speaks about the importance of finding new ways to tell people about Jesus, and some of the highlights of serving our Church.
INSIGHTS: In terms of the Mission Plan for the Synod, where do you think the Church is at right now?
ANDREW WILLIAMS: There is one side of me that says we don’t need a Mission Plan. We have the Basis of Union; We have the Scriptures; We know what our task is as a Church. The Mission Plan was only ever meant to give us some focus. Where we have struggled with the Mission Plan is that it seems not everyone will buy into a collective project. This leaves us as very fractured as a community. We talk about unity and diversity and so on; in fact it seems to me we still have a lot of people protecting their own bit of the cabbage patch. In that sense, it becomes difficult to talk about a mission plan that we all subscribe to. The only common starting points that we have like that are the Basis of Union and the Scriptures; that’s our mission plan.
The Synod Mission Plan was only ever meant to give us some focus, to pull us together and to guide and direct us.
Has it done that?
AW: In some ways it has done that but, as I’ve said, it doesn’t pull everyone together within the bounds of the Synod, in a common direction. Maybe that’s a pipedream that you can’t achieve anyway. The propensity to fracture and split at the moment is high. Everyone is looking after their own patch.
Early on in my time there was a sense of everyone coming together. Then there was a financial crisis and everyone retreated into the mood of, ‘I have to protect my resources’; ‘I want security,’ amounting to a situation of less trust.
“We now have to tell people what the Christian message is about.”
My other observation is that we are very fatigued as a Church. When I look around, I find people who are weary. We have said the Congregations are at the heart of what we do. The local Congregations are busy trying to keep themselves afloat and the doors open on a Sunday. If we say to them, ‘Can you be on a committee,’ they respond with, ‘We just can’t do it; it’s one thing too much.’ In that sense, the Synod becomes a burden rather than a help.
We need to be helping local churches, primarily. We have gone from a time when the Synod was also helping resource the local things with mission grants, to a time when the Synod is under pressure to provide for Presbyteries and Congregations. There’s no doubt these are challenging times.
What would you like to see the Uniting Church doing more of?
AW: We have to find a way to share our faith. Not in a Billy Graham way but by finding a way to engage with the community which includes sharing our faith and saying why this story about Jesus is important to us. We need to be able to say why we want to talk in terms of faith, not just about being involved in community service.
We have to be less shy about sharing the good news.
We now have to tell people what the Christian message is about. We can’t take anything for granted or just assume knowledge any more. We have to get back to thinking about how we are going to engage the community. We have lived too long on ‘they will come to us when they are ready’ approach. But we have to work out ways. If we don’t have the people who are authentic about why we are trying to engage the community, we will fall over. The broad headline for me is — we have to find new ways to engage our community which no longer has the language of faith and shares our common story. We have to retell the story for each generation.
What have been some of the highlights you have witnessed during your time?
AW: I think our relationship with Uniting is better than it has been for a long time. I think that Uniting is in a good place in relation to the Church and, probably, the same can could be said of the relationship with our schools. A lot of the change in recent years has been about structure, which not everyone will have witnessed. It is a more subtle change over time.
I haven’t ended child poverty. Yet! [Chuckles]
AW: I have worked with three different Moderators with different leadership styles. All have offered something in their own unique style.
Initially, there was a period of consolidation. At the end of this period, we got some consolidation and movement forward on some of those structural things. But, in my view we didn’t do enough. From my first Synod in Newcastle in 2011, there was a sense of optimism and hope that things were going to change — but we still haven’t implemented enough of the things we were proposing. It was from there we got a Governance Nominations and Remuneration Committee (GNMC) and Synod Risk Oversight Committee (SROC). They have both been good changes. Again, it’s not ‘feeding the hungry’ sort-of stuff [but] it is helpful to the structure of the Church.
UME came into existence; the Board of Education and board of Mission merged. So we were moving things forward. We reinvigorated some things. But it comes at a cost and others feel a sense of loss.
When the financial crisis finally kicked in, it meant the Synod didn’t have as much money to support mission and initiatives. That resulted in people retreating into their shells and, possibly, some of the mistrust of Synod crept in, dominating the horizon for the last few years.
Ideally, if you could devote all your attention to one thing, you probably would get it fixed and some change happening. The reality is you constantly try to wrangle a number of issues coming across your desk.
If you had more time, what more would you have liked to have achieved?
AW: In terms of mission, I wish we had got further along the track with our hubs project/regional Congregations and how we could build a network of those flourishing. Good work was done but we stopped and started. We had picked specific sites for a good place to be a hub but, with personnel changes, a sense of what was really being supported again didn’t get across the line.