Once upon a time there was a large family business. Within the business there were a number of individual enterprises looked after by many children. Each child was responsible for the finance, operations and staffing of their enterprise under the parents’ general supervision.
It just so happened that a small number of the children had a grand vision for their enterprises. It would appear that with the benefit of hindsight, their grand vision was flawed. Work commenced on the vision and unfortunately its implementation was a disaster and major implications followed.
Millions of dollars of debt was incurred and some of the children had to sell their enterprises to repay the debt and reduce interest payments. The first enterprises to be targeted for sale held valuable real estate because the money had to be found quickly.
As a result the family was in crisis with some members grieving the loss of their enterprises and associated opportunities. Other family members were angry, frustrated, confused and looking for someone to blame.
Blame was attributed to the children that pursued the vision and to the parents for their serious lack of guidance and accountability. Many questions were being asked. How could millions of dollars worth of debt be incurred? Why does my enterprise have to be sold to bail out the others? What process was used to select my enterprise? The questions reflected the children’s sadness and their genuine attempt to understand and accept what had happened.
Yet, the main feelings of anger and loss remained. Those children not involved in the decision making felt cheated and continued to seek someone to blame.
Hopefully, prayerfully the Lord is still with the family business and there will be healing processes put in place. The family will need the support of God’s ‘called’ facilitators to assist them during a very difficult time. Members will need to support each other in their distress and while they carry the pain of grief and loss. They will start over again in trust and faith that God was there after all.
Claremont, TAS 7011
Recent airings in the media regarding local church properties drew me back to thoughts about The Parable of the Unjust Steward or The Parable of the Shrewd Manager of Luke 16: 1-13.
The story begins: ‘There was a rich man who had a steward, and he received complaints that this man was stealing his property’. On threat of dismissal, the steward calls in his employer’s debtors and pays them off, one 50 per cent, another 80 per cent – and the master applauded the dishonest steward for acting ‘shrewdly’. Jesus presents the steward to his disciples as a good example. How is it that the unfaithful steward is commended for stealing from his boss and defrauding others?
A clue might be found in the fact that several of the commentators highlighted the word ‘shrewdly’. A problem is that we are not told what was going on when the parable was written. Perhaps all that can be said about the difficult Parable of the Shrewd Manager is that ‘shrewdness’ was a requisite trait in those difficult times.
Recent events have brought Uniting Church stewardship and judgment under public gaze. The earlier Methodist Ladies’ College scandal (a ‘Uniting Church’ school) presents questions still to be satisfactorily answered about the ‘Visitor’s role’ and residual powers of the Uniting Church.
The Acacia College insolvency and sell-off left the church with a $36 million debt. Synod decisions meant that debt moneys would be raised by local church property sell-offs, rather than schools and agencies sharing costs. I have no problem about quarantining the service and welfare agencies but consider the ‘church schools’ problematic for the schools’ push-pull between exclusion and inclusion and nominal and religious.
In light of the local church sell-offs, I call on synod to publish a clear statement which addresses the ethic of respect for countless Uniting Church members who uphold inclusive public education on religious, civil society and world’s best-practice grounds.
Dr Ken Eckersall
Eltham, VIC 3095
I’m certain that many Crosslight readers will, like me, be deeply disturbed about the federal government’s plans to cut $4.5 billion from Australia’s overseas aid program.
These cuts will literally cost lives.
Along with thousands of Australians, I support a generous and effective aid program. I believe that a wealthy nation like Australia can and must meet its international commitments to the poorest people in the world, while also meeting our domestic needs.
Last year, Australia’s overseas aid assisted millions of children, women and men in desperate need throughout the world. More than 2 million boys and girls were immunised against killer diseases, over 1 million children received a quality education, safe water was provided for 2.5 million people, and life-saving assistance was directed to more than 16 million people caught in a conflict or crisis.
I encourage concerned readers to contact their local federal MP, PM Tony Abbott (ph 02 6277 7700) or Treasurer Joe Hockey (ph 02 9929 9822) to let them know how much they value overseas aid.
Our Christian Scriptures urge us to: “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9).
Speaking out about overseas aid is a wonderful way we can affirm these teachings this Christmas.
Rev Robert Van Zetten
Highton, VIC 3216
The Christian antipoverty network, Micah Challenge, has launched a special campaign to oppose the federal government’s plans to cut overseas aid: http://www.micahchallenge.org.au/take-action or phone (02) 9356 8500.
I write in regard to the article about Christianity ‘evolving’ by Lorraine Parkinson (October).
Do we really believe that Christians have been deceived regarding the divinity of Christ for 2000 years and it is only now that the truth is emerging? Do we remember the early Christians who were thrown to the lions because they would not recant? Do we regard the turning around of the lives of countless men and women by their conversion to Christianity to be a load of lies?
Can we still sing with conviction:
“My chains fell off, my heart was free.
I rose, went forth and followed thee.”
Will we still go to Bible study if the book has been pronounced unreliable?
The idea of Jesus being nothing but a good man is not new. In 1952 CS Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic – on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg – or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make the choice…You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”
Tallangatta, VIC 3700
The October Crosslight featured the name change from Uniting Aged Care to Uniting AgeWell with an accompanying policy change, such detail as not giving out medications during meal times shifting the atmosphere from hospital to hotel.
Our first introduction to Uniting AgeWell at Box Hill was with Abbie at reception, who answered our query for directions courteously and provided a map. The complex is divided into cottages. Each of the six cottages, has separate rooms for each resident and two small dining rooms separated by a kitchen, without any institutional feel. The corridors are wide and spotlessly clean but without that starched hospital appearance. The lounge has comfortable chairs with chintz coverings and landscape paintings to draw the eye.
When we had lunch with my son, a linen table cloth, apparently standard, was provided on the round table where we ate in an alcove of the lounge room overlooking a beautiful garden. There were linen serviettes and the meal was served by smiling care staff, as in the best of restaurants.
It is noticeable that the staff are friendly with each other, a friendly manner extending to the residents and visitors. My son feels at home and all his family feel at home coming to see him. Physiotherapist Lynne was there to meet my son when he arrived and is vital twice a week putting him through his paces. Grace, the care manager, was concerned that my 40-year-old son would be happy among older people, relationships quickly established. Nayla, life style coordinator, soon had my son joining in the games. Chaplain Megan Coote visits regularly. Sharon, the admissions officer, handled the admissions papers unobtrusively and facility manager, Angelica, ensured that all requirements with government departments were met. Sandra in accounts receivables sorted through payment issues so that we felt completely confident.
There is a Uniting Church saint, Peter, who each Sunday after his church service gives my son his meal. He has done this every Sunday since January this year.
Congratulations to Uniting AgeWell.
The words of warning became reality when the list of properties to be sold was published. There has been ample evidence of the devastation and heartbreak being caused to viable congregations at a personal level when they face the loss of generations of history. Daily, Regional and Local Newspapers and TV have made this fact all too clear over recent weeks while the Synod Office and those implicated in the financial debacle of Acacia and other adventures remain in denial.
There is a need to face the reality of a shrinking Church membership and shrinking resources for mission etc and cut our cloth accordingly. Agencies that we cannot afford to maintain should be shed and thus share some of the pain being heaped on local congregations. An urgent need exists for organisational review to address mismanagement – we possibly need Presbytery Managers not droves of Presbytery Ministers? The present dilemma is not all about Acacia, although that is what we are being led to believe, else how did $36m become $78m or even more?
A letter of apology is cold comfort for those dealing with closures that could be avoided (by reducing the cost and numbers in central administration, relocating the Synod office to a surplus building and reducing unnecessary expenditure).
An open disclosure and honest answers to questions being asked would help. Even ‘Uniting our Future’ is unhelpful spin. Referring questions asked in all sincerity to a website that older members can’t access or understand is no help and is being used to hide the facts in unhelpful jargon.
Closures will exacerbate the decline in membership and Mission and Service contributions, not to mention damage being done to the Uniting Church brand, image and credibility.
Graham H Beanland
Balwyn, VIC 3103
Since I know what I say will not be popular, I preface my comments by saying that I have no view on the merits (or otherwise) of the selection of properties for divestment.
But this process, however painful, does provide an opportunity to ask a wider question. Should we not seriously consider the viability of all our church communities, and assess whether we should go forward with fewer, larger and more viable communities than we currently have?
Here and in the United Reformed Church in the UK, where I have spent much of my Christian life, there are very many church communities which are struggling to maintain themselves, because they have dwindling, aging congregations, often in old premises which are now too large, unsuitable in layout, difficult to heat and expensive to maintain in good order.
It is a strain on those congregations to maintain a functioning community, and it is certainly a strain on the wider body of the church to continue to provide ministers, service leaders and other resources for some of these church communities.
In rural and remote areas we have greater need to maintain small communities. But in Melbourne, and in other major cities and towns across the country, it may be better to consider the closure of some churches, and their amalgamation with congregations nearby, to create communities which are more viable, and have the resources to do more than merely maintain themselves. Such churches then have a greater chance of being sufficiently active and vibrant that they can reach out more effectively to the communities around them, and will be sufficiently full of life that they can attract new people. Otherwise we run the risk of spreading ourselves too thinly, and failing to achieve the work that we are charged to do.
Boronia, VIC 3155
Penny Mulvey’s article ‘Mixed emotions to future directions’ (October) outlines the work of the Uniting our future team in responding to decisions taken by the Synod last May. But her penultimate paragraph: Special circumstances has meant letting go (my emphasis) of the normal polity of the Uniting Church. This polity, the inter-related council model, is what makes this church unique…encapsulates for me the basis of my concern about the process of implementation of those decisions.
It seems to me that the privilege of the power given to a council of the church under ‘special circumstances’ requires, indeed demands, that any such council, in so far as is possible, acts within the ethos of the polity of the Church, ensuring that those most likely to be affected are informed, involved and aware of the possibilities facing them; the inter-related council model working with grace.
The polity of the Church cannot simply be ‘let go’; it is embodied in the Basis of Union, the Constitution, the Regulations – and also the Manual for Meetings, and is imbued in the life of the Church. A consultative (or was it simply an information gathering?) process, statistically broad but anecdotally perceived as patchy, culminating in a day of anxiety across the Synod as churches waited on a sudden death phone call, confirmed by email, that they were to be divested of property, or a further wait through the next day by others to be sure they were not being affected, does not fit my understanding of the ethos of the polity of the Church, meet the criteria of grace, or afford natural justice; seeming more hierarchical and secular in application.
The Church can and should do better. Can I hope that in learning from this experience, as speculated by Ms Mulvey in her final paragraph, we might revisit and reclaim the very nature of our church as espoused in the Basis of Union?
Port Melbourne, VIC 3207
A document published on the Synod’s ‘Listening Post’ blog website entitled “Acacia College Background” states “there was no single point of accountability and responsibility” and that “the Church will not apportion specific blame.” The support for this apparently comes from the PPB Advisory report (a copy of which has not been made public).
However, this ‘no blame game’ fails to consider the legal structure governing the Church. While church and State are generally separate in our society, the Church in Victoria was set up by an Act of the Victorian Parliament – The Uniting Church in Australia Act 1977 (Vic). This Act vests power to make decisions for the Church in the Property Trust, as defined in the Act.
The Property Trust can enter contracts, sue and be sued, and own property in the Church’s name (sub-section 13(1)). However, this cannot be done without affixing the Property Trust’s ‘common seal’ to the contract seeking to bind the Church. Sub-section 17(2) of the Act provides that “the common seal of the [Property] Trust must not be affixed to any instrument except pursuant to a resolution passed at a duly convened meeting of the [Property] Trust.”
Therefore, how can it be said “there was no single point of accountability and responsibility” when a resolution at a duly convened meeting of the Property Trust to borrow funds for Acacia College was passed? Further, how can it be said (as noted by Rev Brendan Byrne (November) that “‘culpability’ for Acacia College extends across the whole church”, when ultimate power is vested in the Property Trust?
Blackburn, VIC 3130
An article in The Age indicated that a Uniting Church official justified property sales of churches based on a congregation’s contribution to mission both local and regional. Hopefully The Age misreported this official as we at West Brunswick (St David’s) are slated to lose our entire suite of buildings – church for worship, community youth hall (booked every night Monday to Friday) and two units built with bequest monies to offer respite to hospital patients and families. We feel we are providing witness within our community while our declining numbers still offer service. In the last year we have volunteered for the historical society, Vision Australia, Frontier Services and the SHARE Appeal as well as ecumenical activities with our neighbouring churches during advent and lent.
If commercial viability was the criteria for sale we would be prime real estate. But the value we put on our people (who are the church) is priceless.
We believe our mission is robust and our resolve strong. For over 100 years the faithful have witnessed in his community and with Christ as our example will plan for the future together with or without buildings.
Pascoe Vale, VIC 3044
Those seeking answers as to the reason for the Acacia debacle, need look no further than the report by consultants PPB Advisory, reported in September Crosslight – poor financial modelling; the project lacked expertise required; too many managers; lack of consideration of project economics; contract variations accepted without question; significant finance commitments were made before an earnest review of business case considerations.
However, Rev Brendan Bryne (November Crosslight) attempts to distort the relevance of the PPB Advisory report, by referring to the report and saying, “culpability for Acacia extends across the whole church”.
There is a genuine desire to know what went wrong with Acacia, even by people without a financial background.
And those wanting to know are not just on a “witch-hunt that is determined to have its sacrificial scapegoat”, as Rev Byrne further says in his letter.
If there is anything to be grateful for, it is for the frank and full admissions being made by Synod about Acacia. Without this, the healing stage so desperately required, would be much further away.
Brighton, VIC 3186
It is indeed sad to read of the grief, disappointment and real anger of some congregations affected by the recent decisions to sell church properties following the failure of Acacia College.
The lack of meaningful consultation and paucity of information provided to congregational members, e.g. Williamstown UC, is hard to comprehend, if it was hoped to accomplish this process with the least hurt to those involved.
Yet to me this is not surprising for in many ways the Uniting Church is much too hierarchical and non-democratic. Unfortunately at Union, when Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists joined together, one of the chief strengths of Congregationalism, the monthly congregational meeting, was not incorporated in the new Uniting Church.
This monthly meeting gave every church member the opportunity to be involved regularly in discussion, input and decisions relating to the life and mission of the church, resulting in growth in personal faith and responsible church membership.
Although meetings of the congregation are part of Uniting Church policy, these are often infrequent (annual) and merely business meetings to receive reports and rubber stamp decisions made by others. There is little understanding of the importance of involving the whole congregation in the essential matters of furthering the life and mission of the church.
The Uniting Church needs to be more open in all its activities and ready to appreciate the many talents of ordinary congregational members rather than leaving decision making in the hands of the few.
Would some of the hurt currently being experienced by church members have been avoided in a less hierarchical Uniting Church?
Perhaps some of the mistakes in the Acacia Project could have been avoided with wider consultation.
Northcote, VIC 3070
There are three elephants in the room when it comes to ‘whose fault it is’ for the failure of the Acacia College project. Certainly there is no one committee to blame, or one person, or all of the members of the Uniting Church as some ridiculously want to blame. I see these ‘elephants in the room’ as key causal factors in the failure to both see and resolve to close earlier the doomed project.
The first elephant is our consensus decision-making process. It is not consensus per se, but the way we use it. Observe what happens in our councils. A few blue cards emerge and the ‘chairperson’ then enquires whether we feel heard and whether we can either provide consensus or give agreement.
The presumption is that we have a majority and with a little more talking we will get consensus. There is no evidence that a 1 or 2 per cent ‘No’ might be the right response. Only if there are a substantial number of blue cards do we accept the ‘No’. Our practice of consensus refines a way of saying ‘Yes’ and we need to develop our discernment of the ‘No’. Otherwise this lopsided culture of saying ‘Yes’ will continue to result in questionable decisions.
The second ‘elephant’ complements the first. It is the culture of ‘niceness’ that pervades our councils and denomination. We are not accustomed to robust conversation and we confuse being loving with being nice.
The third ‘elephant’ is a lack of a sound theology of church. The common theology of church is expressed in erroneous phrases like ‘our church’, ‘the church’ meaning the building, and the view that ‘we paid for the church’. We need to inculcate a theology that liberates and where the church is Christ led, Spirit resourced and people centred as opposed to building centric.
These elephants are the culprits that need to be addressed if we are serious about moving forward.
Rev Peter C Whitaker
Mentone, VIC 3194
The region of Geelong is being smashed by constant closures, and downsizing, in business and industry.
Now the Uniting Church has joined the smashers.
The proposed sale of the site of the major Uniting Care facility in the Geelong region, is devastating to users and staff.
There appears to be no serious attempt to find a sensible alternative site. The volunteers I know all feel betrayed.
The Uniting Church was once a church for the marginalised … not anymore!
Rev Bernard Long
Torquay, VIC 3228
Invoking ‘special circumstances’ has ramifications beyond the immediate anger, grief and confusion felt by individual congregations affected; it has inverted a process of decision-making in the UC that traditionally begins with the congregation.
Under the Regulations of the UC, any process ‘concerning property that would have a substantial effect on the life, witness and service of the Congregation’ begins with the congregation (4.4.1e). The role of the Synod Property Board has been to ‘consult … and advise … Church Councils … with respect to property matters’ (4.2.1c), in addition to making final decisions to proposals received from Church Councils. The decision-making process begins with Church Councils and Congregations, who bring proposals to Synod through Presbytery.
From the Regulations, it appears that the power to divest of properties lies first and foremost with the congregations themselves. Invoking ‘special circumstances’ has changed this balance of power.
Successful decision-making in a democratic institution requires transparency, consultation and deliberation. Each time any of these processes are undercut, trust is eroded and individuals are disempowered. Invoking ‘special circumstances’ has undermined the democratic process of UC governance, and it has further alienated congregations that might already feel disenfranchised with the possibilities for true community engagement.
It is to be hoped that all governing bodies in the UC consciously endeavor to return the balance of power, and the power for decision-making, to the congregations themselves.
The return to democratic process could be facilitated by removing any words to do with ‘special circumstances’ from Uniting Church Regulations. Instead, if special circumstances are warranted, Synod negotiates and endeavors to persuade congregations of the need for special circumstances on the basis of complete transparency of the condition/s.
In this way, trust will be rebuilt, and governance remains true to the initial vision of the Uniting Church as a democratic church community, where decision-making power lies first and foremost with the congregations and its members.
Dr Petra Brown
Geelong, VIC 3220
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