Perched on a natural street incline, the Devonport Uniting Church has stood watch over the development of the North-West Tasmanian city’s central business district for almost 130 years.
While it is a strong physical presence, the cost and work associated with maintaining the buildings are now beyond the means of its dedicated, but ageing, 50-strong congregation.
So they have decided to sell and move on.
While it is a story not unfamiliar in the synod, the Devonport congregation has reached its decision after more than two years of discussion, conscious of the need to ensure all members understood the reasons for considering a move and had a say in reaching the final decision.
Many members have a long association with the church’s site, which was first used for worship in 1889 after a Methodist church was built on donated land.
Church council chairperson Betty Keep said it was clear to everyone early last year that a decision had to be made. Occupational health and safety issues and the costs associated with maintenance and insurance exceeded the congregation’s physical and financial ability.
The main church building is only used intermittently now for the occasional wedding or funeral. Regular Sunday worship is held in an adjacent hall which comfortably seats the congregation.
Some even prefer the hall, suggesting that it is easier to keep in touch with one another than the church, where people could come and go on a Sunday without being seen.
Members did not want the church to wither and die and moving on was going to be a necessary outcome, even though the congregation went into the decision-making process open to all options.
“We did not set out to say we had to sell the church. That became obvious as we progressed,” deputy council chairperson David Harris explained.
“It just got to the point where we had to deal with the present and by doing that we are allowing God to give us a future,’’ Mrs Keep said.
By keeping the congregation fully informed along the way the church has been able to reach the decision free of the rancour which sometimes accompanies such moves.
No one has expressed a desire to leave the congregation because of the decision.
“They know we have gone through this process as much as possible. The congregation appreciates the work that has gone into it,” Mr Harris said.
The Mission Motivated Development handbook, produced by the synod, was seen as a valuable resource in guiding the congregation’s discussions.
The endorsement of the move does not imply congregants are moving willingly, but they know it is in the church’s best interests.
“We all agree with the decision but we still feel sad,” Cheryl Cooper said.
Elder Marie Beluch put it another way: “We love our church but we love our God more.”
The congregation is extremely active with two UCAF groups, a men’s fellowship, ladies DVD night, the Crossroads fellowship group with people with disabilities, Connect bible study group, regular outings and dinners, book discussion group and a badminton group.
The congregation ensures these groups are not exclusive to church members with several people involved who are not regular attenders of the church.
It also operates a Cabbage Basket each Sunday where members bring and buy home-grown and homemade produce. The profits go toward projects being supported by Act for Peace.
There is also an active online presence to keep members and the wider community informed of activities.
A majority of members are also involved with a wide range of local charitable and volunteer groups such as the local hospital auxiliary, Red Cross Op Shop and its community visiting scheme, Tasmanian Fire Service, Senior Citizens, Devonport Choral and Repertory Societies, Lions, Amnesty International, the Tasmanian Arboretum, Gideons, Meals on Wheels and the local women’s shelter.
“The spiritual life in our congregation feeds those who then reach out to share the good news to those with whom they come in contact in the wider community in a non-threatening manner,” Mrs Keep said.
The church hall is also a hive of activity most weeks with a local dance group and singing groups using it as a practice and performance venue.
Mrs Keep said the congregation had not finalised its future plans, having agreed that cannot be discerned while the burden of the property hangs over it.
“It has become increasingly obvious to all concerned that we need closure on the property before moving ahead. We feel that the lack of opposition by the congregation indicates a high degree of acceptance that we need to be freed to move ahead into the future with faith,” she said
“We will address the question of renting or buying when it is known that the property is sold.”
Until that time it will be business as usual for the congregation.
Members of the congregation are being trained and encouraged in ministry and mission. One of the ways this is being achieved is by involving members in the preparation and conducting of services.
It is also seeking to engage members and non-members in a variety of special interest outreach groups.
“Through this process we have discovered some wonderfully gifted people who are helping us explore new ways of being church, for example through the use of drama and other interactions, and these initiatives are being well received by the congregation,” Mrs Keep said.