Rev Rowena Harris has a long history of thriving in ministry roles that are positioned to provide pastoral support for those most in need.
Stints as a chaplain in schools, aged care facilities, hospitals and the prison system have prepared her to adapt to a range of ministry roles. A background in social services has also bolstered Ms Harris’ ability to navigate complex issues.
Most recently Ms Harris has been in placement as a Frontier Services patrol minister throughout the presbytery of Gippsland.
She cites the aftermath of natural disasters, isolation and the tyranny of distance, as key challenges facing rural and remote communities.
Discussing the community response to bushfires, Ms Harris said that just being able to support people, even if only in small ways, is an enormous privilege.
Frequently she notes the trademark ‘can do’ attitude evident in many rural communities.
“I think the resilience and resourcefulness of people in rural communities is really inspiring,” she said.
“The first few times I entered bush fire areas, the shock of seeing the sheer devastation made me cry.
“During the fires I asked people around the Church to provide cakes and biscuits that I could take to people in affected regions and to community meetings. So I would never go anywhere empty handed, and I was overwhelmed by the amount of gifts and support I received.”
Ms Harris said this and other seemingly small gestures often open up opportunities to provide informal pastoral support to individuals and families affected by the hardships unique to remote areas.
“A lot of people initially knew me as the church-lady -with-the-cake,” she said.
“People are often much more inclined to talk over cake and a cuppa as opposed to more formal situations.”
Ms Harris says this and other informal aspects of pastoral support are central to ministry in remote communities.
“Chaplaincy has been a great background for these sorts of experiences of really unplanned, unknown situations. Working with people who have limited experience of formal church can be challenging but it’s ultimately about being a friend and fostering support networks.
“All ministers face some degree of this but it can be quite pronounced in remote communities – it’s not a case of being able to say ‘hi I’m from the local church down the road’.
Ms Harris says the strong community links in rural areas often provide avenues to informally support families and individuals.
“‘Loitering with intent’ is something I think is really important. If you hang around long enough you will be accepted without necessarily doing anything in a formalised way. So after a while it’s normal that the Frontier Services minister is at the community meeting or social event.
“In that sort of way ‘church’ per se might not really cross someone’s mind, but questions around values and meaning do all the time – so it opens up those kinds of discussions.”
The day-to-day ministry of patrol ministers tends to be varied. Whether it is dropping in on Church members or attending community meetings, much of their ministry is coupled with travelling huge distances.
“As well as practical considerations, the tyranny of distance, not to mention terrain, is often a challenge for patrol ministers,” Ms Harris said.
“I usually travel between 2000 and 2500 kilometres each month, throughout different areas in the region.”
The ability to bring groups together, Ms Harris says, is another central aspect of remote ministry. This is often all the more important in times of hardship.
“A lot of what I do is encouraging and supporting networks.
“I am involved with the Victorian Council of Churches and emergency ministries during times of storms and bushfires – and out here these groups are really important.”
Concluding her placement at Orbost, St Andrew’s Uniting Church, late last year, Ms Harris recently began a new placement. Early this year she began a placement as patrol minister based in Swifts Creek, a small town in the Tambo Valley of East Gippsland.
“There’s a lot of very tiny remote communities out that way so I’m really excited about getting to know people and getting involved with neighbourhood organisations.”
Commenting on the changes to Frontiers Services, Ms Harris stressed the importance of remote ministry.
“The fact that the ‘church’ is able to go to people so far out of the way is such a positive thing.
“John Flynn spent time out here and he really promoted that idea of taking the church out to the people – the discussions, prayer, bible study, all out in the middle of nowhere.
“I think the fact that the Church is still doing that and won’t give up trying to serve in these communities is incredibly valuable to rural Australia.”