It is not often that you encounter more than one Uniting Church moderator at a time, so meeting four plus one former moderator led me to consider a collective noun to describe such a group. I discarded ‘doctrine of’, apparently the collective noun for doctors. That didn’t seem to capture the key role of our moderators. What about ‘a faith of’? It would be interesting to know what led to a group of merchants being described in such a manner. But then I stumbled across the collective noun for writers, and, apart from the lack of alliteration, the descriptor seems very fitting, and so I write to tell of my special encounter with a wisdom of moderators at Yurora 17.
The Uniting Church in Australia currently has four female moderators and a female president-elect. In their diversity these women capture the modern face of the Uniting Church.
The longest serving moderator, Rev Myung Hwa Park of the NSW/ACT synod, is Korean. Rev Thresi (pronounced Tracey) Mauboy Wohangara, moderator of the Northern synod, is Indonesian. Rev Sue Ellis from South Australia is a country woman who was ordained later in life and Rev Sharon Hollis of VicTas, felt God’s call as a 21-year-old.
Dr Deidre Palmer, former SA moderator and president elect, is a lay person who is probably more qualified than many ordained clergy. Dr Palmer has a Master of Religious Education, a Master of Social Work and a Doctor of Philosophy in Religious Education and Theology. She has taught at a number of academic institutions both in Australia and overseas.
When Sharon told me that all five would be sharing a house together while they attended Yurora 17 at NSW’s Stanwell Tops Conference Centre, my journalistic brain went into overdrive.
Who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall for such a momentous event?
Never one for being backward in coming forward, I asked Sharon whether I could gatecrash their accommodation for a night, and also attend the ModSquad panel. This was an evening event at Yurora 17 where the four moderators were going to share their wisdom on women in leadership.
Thankfully none of these wonderful women protested the idea, so a quick flight to Sydney, an hour’s drive to Stanwell Tops, and I was there … my first experience of Yurora, otherwise known as the National Christian Youth Convention or NCYC, a Uniting Church institution.
For those who have never been, I am not the one to explain it to you. Thankfully I ran into a VicTas stalwart of NCYCs, Lorraine Threlfall of the North East Victoria presbytery, who has been escorting groups of young people to NCYCs for more years than she would want to remember.
Lorraine manages logistics, pastoral care and, as a camp mum, has taken several generations of youth on coach trips to NCYC destinations all over the country. The NE Vic crew even went by bus to Perth when it was held there. A group of 40 attended this year, including a few ring-ins from other presbyteries. Some of these would no longer be in the youth category but they went as volunteers, helpers, cooks and bottle washers.
A shared meal is one way of ensuring none of the group feels isolated or overwhelmed. Jeanette is the cook and has been preparing meals for the youth of this presbytery for many years. A portable kitchen, towed by the coach, was set up in a magnificent shady spot looking over the Pacific Ocean.
Trestle tables and benches nestled under the soaring gums and it was hard to imagine a more inviting place to fellowship with others.
The Uniting Church is renowned for its volunteers and Yurora was no exception. A volunteer under a small marquee at the conference centre entrance greeted those arriving; several more were in the welcome tent; others took on roles as chaplains, swimming pool attendants, session managers, hearders of youth, supervisors, carers and people who were just there, ready if needed.
Two of the moderators were in that category, while the other two were part of the chaplains’ roster. A space was set aside for quiet conversation, meditation and to talk with a chaplain if there was anything of concern or of joy that a delegate might want to sound out with a wise head.
My particular interest in attending the ModSquad panel and hanging out with the moderators and president-elect was to observe female leadership in action.
Statistics show that female leadership is still in the minority in general society. Issues of the glass ceiling, sexual harassment, family violence, gender bias, lower pay for equal work and, in some countries, legally sanctioned abuse of women, continue to be widespread. International Women’s Day, 8 March, is as important today as when it was first established in the early part of the 20th century.
My first observation spending time with the moderators was that one size definitely does not fit all.
Myung Hwa radiates serenity. She has a beautiful kind face, is thoughtful and generous even though she claims to be like a duck at times, paddling madly beneath the surface.
Sue is open about her life story, a great talker, with a big heart and a prayerful disposition.
Thresi is both thoughtful and reflective but also enthusiastic and driven. She always wanted to see the photos I had taken and expressed great appreciation for them.
Deidre is a bundle of energy. Her passion for big issues and her ability to cut to the chase; her desire to learn from others and clearly model Christian leadership are evident in all she says and does.
Sharon I know best of all. The youngest of the moderators, Sharon has a wonderful sense of the ridiculous, is articulate and honest and continually affirms others for their contribution.
All five have a great love of the Uniting Church, God and a commitment to prayerfully studying God’s word as a guiding force in their lives.
They also possess a willingness to share their own vulnerability and struggles. As the four moderators opened up about some of the challenges thrown at them along their journey, I wondered whether four male moderators would be so self-deprecating and so willing to provide practical tips about living leadership.
The Uniting Church has a strong commitment to shared leadership – men and women bring different gifts and graces, and we all benefit when both are nurtured and raised up.
During the panel discussion, each moderator was asked to share a little about themselves and what they understood the role of moderator to be.
Sharon said she loved being a moderator, describing it as the most fun she has had. She acknowledged there was some tough stuff in amongst it, including meeting with people who have been damaged by the Church, but she saw that as an opportunity to be vulnerable with others.
“You have to know what you think about suffering,” the VicTas moderator said.
“People are looking for God in suffering and as a leader you need to understand that “Jesus entered into human life through suffering.”
Myung Hwa told a fascinating story of her long association with the Uniting Church and its predecessor Presbyterian Church. The Australian Presbyterian Church sent 78 missionaries to Korea before the liberation of Korea from Japanese colonial rule, and another 48 in the years after 1945.
Sisters Dr Helen Mackenzie and Catherine Mackenzie, both born in Korea, established the Il Sin Hospital on behalf of the Australian Presbyterian Church, with a focus on education. The two sisters trained nurses as midwives and doctors as specialist obstetricians and gynaecologists.
Myung Hwa explained that her mother had suffered a couple of miscarriages, and her Buddhist friends urged her to go to this hospital for help.
As she looks back on her birth in a Christian hospital and her conversion as an 18-year-old, Myung Hwa wonders at the passage in Jeremiah 1:5: “I called you before you were born in your mother’s womb.”
Another moderator reflected on what the Mackenzie sisters might have felt if they had been aware that a tiny baby girl born in that hospital would become a future leader of the Uniting Church in Australia. However, as Myung Hwa said, nothing surprises God.
“God has planned, God has prepared everything in my life,” the NSW/ACT moderator said.
“God uses the small to share the big.”
She urged the young audience to consider discerning God’s will through biblical study.
A ‘shepherd’ is how Myung Hwa described the moderator role. “The shepherd is just a humble person who considered the animal’s life more important than their own,” she said.
Sue Ellis’s story speaks to those who have never felt quite good enough. Trained as a teacher, Sue married and had four children, but her husband struggled with family life and spent a lot of time travelling for his work. One time he just did not come home. She was left a single mum, trying to juggle everything. However, Sue is a typical country person – she is a do-er.
Whilst she had some awareness of God, she was not a Christian. However, the Sunday school at the local church was in danger of closing down so she offered to be the teacher. This meant she started reading the Bible to prepare for classes. Then she talked with other women and they decided to form a Bible study group.
Sue was enveloped by the kindness of the church women who offered their friendship, help and love. It was because of this she was drawn more and more into the heart of God. As Sue said, “I was being formed by the church, but I was willing to participate.”
The big blockage in Sue’s life has been a constant feeling of being second best. It was only as she began to experience the magnificence of God’s love that she started to believe in her own worthiness.
Thresi undertook her initial theological training in Indonesia and was ordained as a Minister of the Word in the GMIT (Evangelical Church of West Timor) church in Soe West Timor in 1992. Three years later she moved to Darwin to be with her husband, and initially learnt English watching Sesame Street and the Wiggles with her young son Liusem.
The invitation extended to Thresi to consider offering for moderator was an absolute bolt out of the blue, but her guiding motto in life is “I don’t pray for an opportunity but pray that I will be ready when the opportunity comes”.
Thresi’s key leadership tip for the delegates was ‘be who you are’.
She reminded the group of Jesus’s words: “I come to serve, not to be served.”
The constant wisdom on display demonstrated why each of these women had been selected for leadership roles by their respective synods.
Sue had three tips:
Know Jesus. It is his life that is in us.
Know yourself. Know who you are and know yourself. God has chosen you. You are not here by accident.
Know your church. Know what the church values. It values men and women in leadership together.
And then she threw in some provocative words, “God indeed may have breasts,”.
Sharon encouraged the audience to be reflective about the future of the Uniting Church, and reminded us that it’s about trying stuff.
“Make mistakes, but make sure you learn from them,” she said.
“Mistakes are too costly, so don’t waste them by not learning from them.”
Myung Hwa said as a leader it is important to know when to pray and understanding the importance of prayer. She gently spoke of the added difficulties which come up as a non-Anglo leader. While she didn’t want to dwell on some of the blockages she has encountered, such as rudeness and failure to recognise her role, she did say that being culturally different gives her an added perspective.
She broadened my understanding of theology when she said “the Word became flesh – that is a cross-cultural experience”.
She and Thresi were in agreement about the important role cross-cultural leaders play in teaching the church to appreciate and value difference.
The moderators said the future of the UCA was not just in their hands.
“We are all the church,” they said in different ways.
Sue said that we are called in this time of change to look to where the love is in the world and connect ourselves to that love.
Sharon urged us to get to know our church history.
“This is not the first time the Church has been pressed and in difficulty,” she said.
“Let’s not get too panicked because that is when we don’t see God at work.”
Sharon said that she was invited to consider putting her name forward as moderator during the most personally difficult time in her life. Her partner Michael had died by suicide in 2013.
“Tough stuff happens to us,” Sharon said.
“God is with us in that and we have to accept the reality of it. As part of dealing with the struggles and demands, it is important to know when to replenish and what gives you life.
“This will be different for everyone.”
In private the moderators talked with passion about the impact feminist theology had on their faith journey. They shared travel tips, including trying to find clothes that need little ironing, how to bring fresh energy to sermons by telling of stories from different congregations, the power of photographs and utilising multimedia where possible.
Sharing a house seemed a special gift in amongst a busy schedule where there isn’t always time for the ‘off’ button. The overall vibe of the house was one of gentleness, shared wonder, humour and humility.
The five women also have a shared optimism about the Uniting Church’s future even if they cannot predict what the church will look like in 10 years’ time. The young people at Yurora were urged to be bold and to remember that they are part of a hopeful faith.
As Sharon reminded Yurora participants: “The Church is in good hands, because it is in the hands of God.”