Interview with the Moderator – Rev Sharon Hollis

sharon hollisROS MARSDEN

What first called you to the Uniting Church?

It’s an accident of birth. I was raised in the Uniting Church so there’s that whole sense of being formed by my childhood exposure and watching my parents live out their faith. My mum remains active in the Dookie UC and we lived with my grandmother for a time, a staunch but gentle Methodist. The Uniting Church was part of the air that I breathed.

Did you ever reject religion?

Not ever. Some of my friends thought it strange, it wasn’t that common in my group. In my second year at uni, I attended Monash Uniting Church. That’s where I was called, because there was a community trying hard to engage and be a generous, generative and hospitable space. They had a fantastic minister, Jim Murray, who has just retired. He’s a big part of why I am in ministry.

When did you decide to be a minister?

Towards the end of my third year at uni. I was 21.

Tell me about your previous jobs.

Between high school and university I worked in the local supermarket. That job taught me customer service. Being able to strike up a chat with anybody is an important skill, the capacity to find shared connections quickly. Later I worked with Ministry of Housing. It was my first exposure to generational poverty and structural inequality and that never leaves you. It’s one of the reasons I’m in our Church, because we have a commitment to addressing some of those issues. I was at Fitzroy when there were a lot of Vietnamese and Laotian refugees. I gained a deep respect for working across issues where people have different experiences from my own. That’s life formative and life forming.

Are there extra challenges for women in religious leadership roles?

We still live in a patriarchal world even in enlightened churches like the Uniting Church. Patriarchy exerts power and being a woman exacerbates what you struggle with.  There will be challenges for women until patriarchy ends. When you move into leadership, it’s working out how to be in that space and be confident of your sense of calling.  If women aren’t in leadership, we’re missing a huge resource.  I do believe we have better representation of women in our Church than other areas like politics, sport and business.

How would you encourage a woman interested in leadership?

Find another woman you admire who is exercising ministry or leadership and have a conversation. You will discover they have as many moments of feeling unsure and inadequate as you.  I believe in mentoring, seeking out someone to guide you. It can equally be a man you admire. I’m also a great believer in education; read, enrol in a course, ask a congregation member where you can find resources. You don’t have to tell them why if you’re not confident to say it out loud yet. Learning helps bridge a gap between where we are and where we want to be.

How do you define your theology?

I think I’m a small ‘o’ orthodox. I’m committed to life and faith in the broadly orthodox belief of the church, but sometimes people imagine you mean something old fashioned.  At the heart of orthodox faith is deep engagement with Jesus who made his home in his own time, his own place, his own context, in his own culture. When you take that seriously, orthodoxy means you have to engage with contemporary issues. We have a foundational belief in who God is that has sustained the church for 2000 years. God comes to us through the spirit, and was made real, present and human in Jesus. For me, that is unchanging. The implications of that, the issues it pushes us to address, are utterly contextual. It’s not surprising that sometimes different parts of the church find themselves out of step, because we’re wrestling with completely different contexts.

Your term commences with Synod. Are you looking forward to it?

I strangely like Synod. You realise there is something remarkable about 300 people willing to sit in a room, talk, listen and discern a shared way forward that is faithful to where God calls them. I’m looking forward to the Bible studies, I love that we give time to community building. I’m excited about the Vision Statement and Mission Principles. I hope we spend time thinking about how they can energise and engage us at congregation and presbytery level as much as synod level. There will be some tough issues, clearly the MSR and how we receive that.

What would you say to people about approaching the tough issues?

It’s how we hold our intention. The church will press on and God’s plans won’t be thwarted whatever we decide. Change brings fear and anxiety, but others love change. Some will say “could we just get on with it?”

Change provokes a range of emotions depending on what it is. Marriage is high on stress indicators but it’s actually a happy event, so change is hard even when it’s something anticipated with joy. It’s about each of us exercising the capacity to be self-reflective, take a breath, and notice what’s happening to us.  If change didn’t invoke fear and anxiety, you would be worried too. It’s a matter of being honest – pausing and giving space – but then also being honest enough to say “is this a change that we need?”

In May 2014, after the death of your husband Michael, you wrote a beautiful piece for Crosslight called ‘Finding Truth in Grief’. Two years on, is dealing with grief different?

It alters. It doesn’t go away, but you sit differently and sometimes it just depends on the day. Life has an enormous capacity to lure you back in, even when you want to stay stuck in your grief. The balance of loss versus pleasure changes. You are not the same person you were on the other side. The question is how you choose to live in the face of the integration of grief and loss in your life. I find living and hope compelling. They draw me back in.

For 10 years I was engaged in pastoral ministry.  I learnt things about grief from that.  But there are some things that you can never fully know until you live through them. Because you get on with life, to the outside world it looks like grief has an end. I get why people think there is closure, but it doesn’t happen.  There is never closure, just constant renegotiation of that loss and the role it plays in your life.

If you can decide anything in the midst of deep and profound grief I decided that I wanted my girls to enjoy life again and not be crippled by events. I therefore had to demonstrate that.

Tell me about the girls.

Ingrid is 13, nearly 14, and in year 8. Esther is 19 and in first year uni doing Psychology and Social Work. They are still at home and they think my new role is so funny, but they have been really supportive about me doing it.

Is the Church relevant in 2016?

Yes and no. At one level a swathe of population don’t think it’s relevant. I don’t believe God ever thought, am I being relevant? God acts the way God knows how. When you have an encounter with God, it is utterly transforming and I can’t think of another way to live my life. To probe and ponder what it means to be in a relationship with God, and how it sustains and strengthens me. I don’t want to then say you can’t live a good life without this, I don’t like those sort of dichotomies. I just have to be willing to say this is what it means to me. We should never be in the business of compelling.

What church do you attend?

Brunswick Uniting Church.

Most recently you’ve worked at CTM.  How can we attract young people to take up ministry?

I can’t understand why everyone doesn’t want to be a minister. Being called is a mystery that you can’t manufacture. Those of us in ministry should mentor and talk about our vocation, not always convey that we are busy and stressed. We need to talk about the joy. Being invited into the deepest places in people’s lives to share and nurture their faith is such a privilege.

We have a rich diversity of culture in the Uniting Church.  What have you learnt from the people you meet?

When you’re in the dominant culture you have to open up to differences, because it’s so easy to do things how you like – assume English is the common language, that diaries and clocks are how everyone does business. You have to push yourself to do that reflection. There is such richness in the diversity of humanity and we are constantly uncovering what we learn from each other.

How will you help people hear the voice of the Uniting Church?

We have to own the fact we are now more marginal and stop thinking we have a right to a voice. We must earn it. What turns people off is to assume we should be heard.  I think that’s why our Church has credibility, because we do engage.  We can’t just give pronouncements.

How do you switch off?

I love telly, I’m a complete TV addict.  I’ve finished the first series of Outlander, I loved Janet King and I’ve just started watching The Americans. The thing about telly and movies and books is they give you new perspectives, you see a reflection of yourself but also encounter others and that helps you understand yourself better.

What do you hope to look back on in three years’ time?

I stimulated rich conversations in the Church and helped us to have conversations on things that matter.

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