Change in the wind in Church/School relationships

Cornish College students

Cornish College students

A panel of four experts, appointed by the Commission for Mission (CFM), has been exploring governance and operational matters regarding Church/Schools relationships over the past 10 months.

Panel members – retired Supreme Court judge, David Byrne QC; retired Uniting Church school principal, Annette Bennet; deputy director Creative Ministries Network, Rev John Bottomley; and organisation development consultant Jonathan Klugman – conducted interviews with synod, school and non-church bodies such as the government regulator.

The context for these discussions is complex, relating to both external and internal factors.

On the one hand there are external demands from regulators for increased systemisation and centralised control by the ‘parent organisation’ (in this case the Uniting Church). Internally, relationships were fractured by the tightening of Property Board controls in the wake of the closure of Acacia College, followed shortly after by schools being asked to contribute to Uniting our future.

The panel was asked to investigate the breadth of issues and views identified and report those back to Adrian Pyle, director, relationships innovation, CFM, to inform further dialogue with Synod committees and schools.

In a report to the October Standing Committee, Mr Pyle said the panel confirmed the dichotomy of views held within the synod towards and about the relationship with Schools.

Mr Pyle says these views can be broken down into four distinctly different and competing narratives.

“Non-public schools are described as ‘independent’ schools, and this independence ethic is held firmly by the 14 Uniting Church schools,” Mr Pyle said. “That is the first narrative, the importance of independence.”

Mr Pyle has summarised the other three narratives.

First are expectations by government regulators to increase control by the parent body. Second is a belief amongst many Uniting Church members that the Church should not be involved in the operation of independent schools.

And third, the Church members who firmly believe UCA schools should be centrally controlled.

Mr Pyle said the other issue which led to invigorating conversations around the board tables of Uniting Church schools was the wording of constitutions in the wake of the very public dispute between the former MLC principal and the school board.

Change is in the wind. There is a readiness to rethink the relationship between the synod and schools by both parties. The CFM has presented four different governance and relationship approaches to the Standing Committee as possible options for the synod and its schools.

“The options recognise that for some schools there might be minor adjustments to the status quo. For others the school and the synod might improve the real relationship by moving from a constitutional connection to another arrangement,” Mr Pyle said.

“All schools desire some form of relationship and the CFM affirms that there are strategic ministry opportunities with schools.
But the basic form of connection may need to change to allow those opportunities to grow.”

At the October meeting, the Standing Committee resolved: “… to affirm a deeper exploration of sustainable models for relationships with schools, including but not limited to the development of independent institutions. This exploration is to be conducted taking into account theological, mission and ministry, financial, legal and strategic issues, to identify opportunities and risks in these models.”

“The CFM has engaged in two forums this year with principals and school board members, in May and in November,” Mr Pyle said. “The landscape has changed. There is a willingness to engage together, to find the best fit for each school in the way it relates to the Church.

“Many of our 14 schools have been connected with the Uniting Church and its predecessor churches for a long time. But the world is a very different place to the time churches established schools.”

“We are involved in a careful dialogue about what a future relationship might look like, and whatever that might be, it will be different.”

The CFM is not conducting these conversations in isolation. The Major Strategic Review team has been involved in regular conversations with the CFM and its expert panel.

The CFM and MSR teams will present a joint progress report to the June 2015 meeting of the Standing Committee.

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