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Crosslight, the Listening Post website, the Uniting our future program, the Moderator and the General Secretary continue to receive correspondence questioning the failures relating to Acacia College and the subsequent property sales process.

A report prepared by the consultancy firm, PPB Advisory, outlining the failures of vision, strategy and business planning across the life of the Acacia project was presented to the May 2013 Synod. However, due to an ongoing court case between the Church and the developer relating to a caveat over the title, this report could not be made public. The caveat has now been lifted and the court case settled.

The report does not mince words as it methodically analyses the decision making processes from the initial vision development within the Yarra Valley Presbytery in 2005 to the final decision of the Standing Committee in October 2012 to close Acacia College.
In relation to vision and strategy, the report states: “We did not sight, nor are we aware of, any options assessment for the delivery of the Whittlesea Regional Mission.”

On initial approval: “The WRSMC (Whittlesea Regional Strategic Ministry Centre) project proposal was deficient for a project with its profile and capital requirements.”

Ability to evaluate and prioritise projects: “The initial project proposal did not present the net present value (NPV) of its future cash flows. The supporting financial models were deficient and we found limited evidence of the stress testing of key assumptions.”
Financing: “The Church did not segregate the assessment of the project from the approach to the project’s financing, nor adequately assess the sale and leaseback commitments.”

Under the heading Governance Structure, the report highlighted a number of concerns relating to changing oversight of the project and lack of expertise of members of individual project committees. It also identified failure to honour delegations, where authority levels were breached and key decisions not acted upon.

In relation to project management, the Church displayed inadequate due diligence. Too many project managers led to lack of proper management of the developer. The report questioned the costly building construction for a low-fee school that was supposed to be demonstrating capital efficiency, and noted variations of contract terms.

The report makes clear that not enough attention was paid to managing risk in the formative stages of the project, with “significant capital and operating cost commitments made before a comprehensive business case had been prepared or approved”.

General Secretary, Rev Dr Mark Lawrence, said one of the most important reasons for undertaking the independent external review was to ensure that the Church understood how such an exciting, large-scale vision for the northern growth corridor could fall over so badly.

“The closure of Acacia College and now the necessity to repay such a large debt in a very short time has left some people angry and hurt,” Dr Lawrence said.

“We do not want to have another situation like Acacia.

“It has caused extraordinary pain for the parents, students and staff; the local church community; the various committees involved; and the whole Church.”

“We need to learn from our mistakes so that we can ensure, as much as possible, that any future initiatives for ministry and mission are developed from as solid a base as possible. In learning from these mistakes it is also important for us to work together as a Christian community: living in grace and growing together as a body of Christ.”

The PPB Advisory report provided clear recommendations relating to the three key areas of vision – strategy and business planning; governance structure and project/program planning. These recommendations are already being implemented. All projects costing more than one million dollars will have a sole project manager. Increased expertise has been brought into the synod operations to provide advice to various aspects of the Church.

“We are facing significantly changing times. For some this will be a very difficult process, for others, this will be an opportunity to re-focus priorities for ministry and mission,” Dr Lawrence said.

“The decisions relating to special circumstances have increased workload and pressures on people across the Church. Whilst congregations, agencies and presbyteries have long been considering questions around strategic direction, changing demographics and property no longer utilised or fit for purpose, the special circumstances resolution of the May 2013 Synod has placed an urgency in a number of contexts that is taking some people by surprise.”

Graham Beanland, in his letter to Crosslight this month, asks: “Where does the buck stop? Who is taking responsibility? Who has resigned or has been dismissed? Is this a classic case of committees making decisions but not accepting accountability?”

Rev Brendan Byrne offers his own response to such questions in his letter to Crosslight: “…I read letters…which demand to know why no one has been dismissed or forced to resign.  I wonder: is it accountability (that is, understanding what went wrong and why and putting in place the procedures to ensure it doesn’t happen again) that is being demanded, or the public humiliation of those individuals deemed responsible for the present situation (and which avoids any consideration of collective responsibility)?”

The description of unfolding steps above in relation to the Acacia project points to a number of committees and officers across the Church who shared in the decision making that led to the difficulties around the Acacia project and the final, difficult decision to close the College.

The General Secretary said that effectively the ‘buck stops’ with the whole Church because committees and officers gave their time and energy in good faith to this project as a result of decisions made by committees across the life of the Church.

In the meantime, Uniting our future continues – in response to the decisions of the May 2013 Synod. The Property Board plans to determine which properties are to be sold as part of Phase 1 at its 30 September meeting.

Congregations, agencies and presbyteries whose properties are selected will be informed immediately. The list will be sent to the whole Church in early October.

A Response Group, headed by Rev Sharon Hollis, is pulling together theological, pastoral, educational and liturgical resources to assist presbyteries and congregations manage any grief, anger and pain, along with leadership and capacity building skills, associated with a sudden change.

This journey of change is just beginning. Remember that God is in its midst.

By Penny Mulvey

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