By Penny Mulvey
Many conversations about mission and property have been held throughout the synod during the past three months. Church councils have reflected on how their buildings are used within their communities.
Presbytery ministers have met with congregations and UnitingCare agencies to discuss how property is used within a regional and local context. And the Uniting our future team has consulted with presbytery representatives, UnitingCare agencies and individual church councils to understand the missional context of local churches and agencies.
The central question dominating these conversations is ‘what contribution does this property make to the mission activity of the congregation/presbytery/ministry?’
As church councils met to discuss the invitational appeal from Robert Costa, the chairperson of the Uniting our future Project Control Group (PCG), they reflected on their strategies, their community engagement and their financial capacities.
More than $270,000 has been donated to the Uniting our future Fund, from churches, agencies and individuals. One church member has foregone her monthly magazine subscriptions for the next 15 months, donating those funds to support the wider church. Some small rural congregations have given donations. Other congregations have offered disused or under-utilised manses or other property.
The Bentleigh Uniting Church told a story of a ministry entering regeneration.
It detailed the contributions it was making to local, regional and international ministries as well as the strategic outreach in which members were engaging. The Bentleigh UC also has a commitment to ecotheology, and is on track to becoming fully carbon neutral this year.
In her letter to Mr Costa, Bentleigh UC chairperson Jean Harley said “These undertakings have reinvigorated our congregation. There is an increased sense of mission and, for the first time in at least seven years, our average attendance is increasing… There is a sense of optimism, a sense that the Spirit is moving within the congregation.”
As presbytery ministers entered into very specific conversations with congregations in their patch, they have heard of mission seeds which were planted four or five years ago, having sprouted and showing encouraging signs of growth.
The Presbytery of Gippsland, whose properties were ruled out in the early stages of the divestment process for commercial reasons, elected to give a generous cash donation to the Uniting our future Fund as a demonstration of unity.
In a letter to Mr Costa, Gippsland presbytery secretary, Wendy McDonald wrote: “…whilst this is not a large sum in comparison to the total debt, it is a significant amount in terms of the Presbytery’s wealth and is a sign we recognise this is a whole of church issue and we wanted to make a contribution and share the load.”
Presbytery members also committed to pray in the weeks leading up to, and the day of, the Property Board and Standing Committee meetings.
Mr Costa, the general secretary and the moderator have received many letters regarding special circumstances, the closure of Acacia College and the Uniting our future process. Some express deep dismay at the place the Church finds itself, asking questions of governance, financial due diligence and the need to learn for the future. However, once voicing their distress, some writers move on to offer support, prayer and best wishes for the hard times ahead.
As the director of Communications and Media Services, I have attended PCG meetings as a staff advisor. In a two week period in September the PCG held three meetings, each of which went for six hours.
The members agonised over each property on the list, reflecting on the impact a sale might have on the congregation itself; the region and the local community. It became increasingly evident that congregations and agencies use properties in a range of ways, but rarely is the property not used.
However, another issue that became quickly apparent was the number of properties in a state of disrepair. They presented significant occupational health and safety issues and did not have a budget or plan for undertaking such repair.
For some presbyteries, agencies and congregations, such properties had become a burden. To sell and relocate to a more purpose-built space in a more affordable location could, in fact, enable ministry to flourish in ways hampered by inflexible and inappropriate buildings.
Commercial and mission considerations were discussed at length, each providing balance to the other. To ensure best value, blocks of land subdivided over time but still owned by the Church would be better suited as one lot, providing excellent opportunities for developers. The mission of a particular church could still be pursued in other ways.
The PCG members wrestled with different options, always with the mission and ministry of each property in mind as they weighed up whether to divest or to retain.
As this is written, the results of those discussions are unknown. The final meeting of the Property Board and then the decision of the Standing Committee is still to take place. The even greater unknown is how church members will navigate the ramifications of this significant announcement.
Special circumstances has meant letting go of the normal polity of the Uniting Church. This polity, the inter related council model, is what makes this church unique. While the introduction of special circumstances was a decision by agreement of the May 2013 Synod, it has still, understandably, caused ripples amongst the members.
Will these ripples grow into a tsunami of outrage and dissent? Or will this people of God view it as a bump on the road, something that needs to be addressed, and learned from?