Rev Dennis Cousens sees the role of a patrol minister as that of a mate to those in the community he serves. A willing pair of hands, a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on if required.
It is very much about the mantle of safety which Rev John Flynn espoused when he established the Inland Mission Service, the forerunner of Frontier Services, more than 100 years ago.
“Flynn spoke about people from inland Australia having access to all the church had to offer, just as it was expected by other (urban dwelling) Australians,” Mr Cousens said.
“It is about being alongside the people in times of joy and times of sadness and not worrying about their denomination or if they are even of faith.
“We are just there establishing relationships because when something happens they know you and will turn to you.”
Mr Cousens’ Glamorgan-Midlands Patrol covers 18,000 square kilometres. It stretches from the central highlands of Tasmania, through the middle of the state to Campbell Town and to the east coast communities of Swansea and Bicheno.
While it accounts for a fair slice of Southern and Eastern Tasmania, it is one of the smallest in Australia in patrol terms.
And the land it covers is very diverse in terms of inhabitants – from old farming families through the midlands to mainland migrants who have chosen to retire near the beaches of the east coast or other small towns dotted along his patch.
“Bothwell, Oatlands, Ross, Campbell Town, Swansea and Bicheno would be the main population hubs and they all attract different types of people,” Mr Cousens explained.
“The east coast is primarily tourism and people who have moved in retirement, while the midlands is very much farming.”
The region is also very different to Mr Cousens’ first patrol ministry, a 160,000 square kilometre stretch based around Cunnamulla, 750 km west of Brisbane in Queensland.
That sojourn regularly saw him conduct christenings in the backyard of a local pub, marry people under a waterfall or on a sand hill and celebrate Christmas on the banks of the Warrego River.
The remoteness he experienced in Cunnamulla is illustrated by the fact that from one property to another was often a three-hour drive and a visit to the closest dentist was a 1000 km round trip.
By comparison, Dennis agrees that his current locale could not be described as ‘outback’. But it is rural and many of his flock are feeling the prolonged effects of years of drought as well as the loss of many of their youngest and brightest for work and schooling opportunities in larger centres. The community has also endured the decimation of the region’s economic powerhouse, a once-vibrant forest industry which is now closer to a cottage industry than a primary one.
“Tasmania is remote but not as remote as some other places. The west coast would be the most remote,” he said.
“I often say to people now that if I visit and you are not home you are probably sitting in the mall in Launceston or Hobart having a coffee. In Cunnamulla, you were probably fixing fences on your property about 200 km away from the homestead.”
Mr Cousens dreamt of entering remote ministry from his teens. Although it took him four more decades to achieve that dream, he believes the time was right.
“When I was 18 I read a book of my mother’s by Lucy Walker, who wrote outback love stories,” he said.
“I told my mother I was going to be a missionary and have a horse and a bible and go to the outback.
Mr Cousens is attracted by the diversity of work in a patrol setting, both in terms of the people and locale.
“That really is the exciting part about it. A patrol ministry does not operate like a congregation even though the congregation are probably happy that they have fulltime ministry in some capacity.
“It is about reaching out to people regardless of their faith or creed to proclaim the love of Christ.
“You are meeting people where they are at. People will talk and share with you over their kitchen table, aged care room, school or even the pub rather than coming into a church building.
“It is about bringing the church to them rather than expecting them to come to the church.
“That brings an opportunity for people to be able to talk about a faith they did not even know they had. Being able to do that is a wonderful privilege.”
Mr Cousens said it was similar to the approach Jesus adopted throughout his ministry.
He lists the three major issues facing his region at present as the ageing population – both in general terms within communities and also among congregants – drought and high unemployment, which exacerbates the drain of young people.
“Young people leave and do not come back and that means you have people in their 70s and 80s still trying to run properties. Drought remains quite a big problem although a new irrigation scheme in the Midlands fortunately assists.”
Difficult economic times can also see the abuse of alcohol and other drugs become more prevalent within isolated communities, bringing with it a range of other social ills.
But, he said, the people are resilient and will often find a way to work through their difficulties.
People from the patrol’s communities are clear in their support for the importance of the ministry to their townships.
Swansea congregant Roger Bartlett said Dennis Cousens’ ministry is vital to the local community, not only those from the Uniting Church.
“We would be lost without him,” he said.
“He meets the needs of people and goes out of his way to do that regardless of their denomination.
“Dennis keeps us involved in ministry, even though it is only one service a month.”
For the small and remote township of Bothwell, Kathy Metcalf said having a ministry presence, albeit for one service a month, (there are two services led by lay people) is important in providing a focal point for people who wanted to engage with a minister.
“It helps bring the community together and also keep the church going, as these days it is not easy to get people to come to church. A minister is an important point of contact.”
Mr Cousens feels it is important to encourage individuals in their own ministry skills, be it in leading worship, pastoral care, community involvement, music or poetry.
This has been a focus in his ministry and he firmly believes all are given these fruits to share and not to “bottle up for another day”.