Throughout the past three years, the Uniting Church in Victoria and Tasmania has asked itself some big questions about where it is going. Now, it has proposed some responses.
In April, the Synod Standing Committee (SSC) approved the Vision, Mission Principles and Statements of Intent that Major Strategic Review (MSR) developed as a primary aid for spiritual discernment and a focus for the Synod.
Essentially these are the responses to the basic ‘why and how’ questions the Review has been asking about what the Church should be doing and its role in a rapidly changing society.
Dr Jason Talbot is the program director for the MSR. He said the Vision and Mission Principles attempt to express who we are, our core reason for being a church and what makes us uniquely Uniting Church.
“People come to Christ for many reasons but what we have been asking people is what it is that gathers us together in the Uniting Church in Victoria and Australia,” Dr Talbot said.
“When we were out and about, people kept emphasising to us the need to have a Christ-centred vision for the synod.”
The MSR team stressed that the Vision and Mission Principles are not a definitive statement of belief but rather a framework to guide the Church’s thinking and actions.
“They are not a creed but a tool to provoke questions and examination of the Church,” Dr Talbot said.
The SSC has also adopted the MSR’s recommended Statements of Intent, which are a more practical outline of how Synod should be attempting to apply the Vision and Mission Principles.
“Each statement responds to what we heard and observed during our engagement across the Church,” Dr Talbot said.
“Whilst these actions and behaviours are present in some areas of the Church they are not universal and need explicit attention.
“Together, the Statements of Intent provide a framework for discernment and planning that covers both the spiritual and corporate life of the Church.”
The SSC resolved the Vision, Mission Principles and Statements of Intent should act as a guide for “the purpose of prayerfully engaging in spiritual and theological discernment regarding the future direction of the Synod”.
Presbyteries, congregations and synod institutions will be invited to use the statements in a similar manner.
The establishment of the MSR was resolved by the May 2013 Synod meeting, which also saw the decision made under the Uniting our future program to sell properties to cover debt from the closure of Acacia College.
Synod asked for a major strategic review to form a “vision and plan for the future of the Church and undertake a holistic financial sustainability review to support that vision and plan”.
As a starting point the MSR set about clarifying the Church’s purpose to ensure the resulting plans were based on an agreed set of principles.
What followed was a lengthy process of synod-wide consultation, an ambitious reflection covering all aspects of the life of the synod
REACTION THROUGHOUT THE CHURCH
Through 2015, and up until March this year, the MSR team held workshops, information sessions and focus groups as well as less formal individual discussions across Victoria and Tasmania to explore and refine the Vision and Mission Principles.
In the more formal group discussions people were asked to consider and share what inspired them to be a part of the Uniting Church.
“The Vision evolved from the passion and desire for the future direction of the Church expressed by people across the Church in Victoria and Tasmania,” Dr Talbot said.
Synod general secretary Mark Lawrence said the consultation process had proved a valuable opportunity for people to think about being part of the wider Church.
“People were excited to share their stories of faith and what matters to them,” Dr Lawrence said.
“They were able to step back from the day-to-day running of their part of the Church and discuss their faith and values with people from different areas of the Church.”
The MSR team reported that the drafts “were seen as a succinct, straightforward and accessible expression of who we are as a Uniting Church”.
It said people saw the principles as a useful roadmap and way to help the Church re-engage on the journey.
Other responses varied from how the statements were “very Uniting Church” because of their mix of Christ, community and social justice themes to the less favourable view that they were merely ‘motherhood statements’.
One congregation that has given the Vision and Mission Principles something of a try-out has been St Stephens in Wodonga.
“We used the Vision and Mission Principles to help us with a mission study,” Helen Collins said.
“As a congregation we think these are a really good way of taking stock and reflecting on where we are at, where we are hoping to be, and how perhaps we could do things a little bit better.”
Rev Deacon Mat Harry, who is minister at the Hampton Park Uniting Church in Melbourne’s southeast, provided feedback on the Vision and Mission Principles to the MSR.
Although he said the MSR statements were nothing new – and his Church was living by these principles already – he saw them as useful.
“They help with setting the culture and creating the space that people can offer their gifts into the life of the church in a way that is set around objectives,” he said
For the larger Church in Victoria and Tasmania he thought the statements could play an important role.
“One of the things that I think the Uniting Church struggles with is that there is no formal leadership as such, so the responsibility of leadership falls to everybody and, in some senses, falls to nobody,” Mr Harry said.
“This means it is difficult to work out our priorities because when it comes to decision time there may not necessarily be a framework in which decisions become more easily made.
“But if this can be picked up by the Synod then that will hopefully assist when decisions need to made and priorities need to be set.”
Rev Paul Stephens, presbytery minister mission and education for the Yarra Yarra Presbytery, has (somewhat appropriately for a proposed roadmap) given the Vision and Mission Principles a road test by showing them to congregations he has been helping manage change.
“They have been very good, very helpful,” Mr Stephens said.
“They have been useful working with congregations to remind them of our calling in Christ.
“There is a warmth about them. People recognise that this makes sense. This is who we are and what we are called to do. They capture the core things about us as a church.”
Rev Robert Elkhuizen, mission officer for the synod’s Property Services unit, said the Mission Principles have been incorporated into the Property for Mission Workbook, which is a resource for congregations to assess their property for mission requirements.
“It is now established practice across our synod that all decisions about property begin with a prior conversation about mission,” Mr Elkhuizen said.
“I believe the MSR Vision Statement and Mission Principles can provide a really helpful starting point for congregations wishing to explore the call to God’s mission.”
Rev John Clarke from Uniting AgeWell, said the principles would help the wider Church, including the care agencies, engage in a shared framework.
“Uniting AgeWell’s mission aligns strongly with this Vision and the Mission Principles, as would the mission of other parts of the Church,” he said
“Having an agreed focus will assist us to have a coordinated effort and speak the same language.”
FIRST AND SECOND PEOPLES
The final version of the Vision may look a little unfamiliar to many who have previously seen it in draft form.
During the final round of consultations early this year there was a growing move to have greater recognition of the Church’s relationship with the original inhabitants of Australia.
It was a catalyst to insert ‘First and Second Peoples’ into the Vision statement.
Rev Tim Matton-Johnson, a minister with Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) Tasmania, was one of those who met with the MSR team and contributed to the discussion.
“The inclusion of First and Second Peoples reflects the language of the Uniting Church Constitution’s preamble,” Mr Matton-Johnson said.
“We thought as we talked to the MSR team it would be helpful to have these statements related to the Covenant in there as a reminder of our shared story.
“It’s good to have that language in there.”
WHERE TO NOW?
The adoption of the Vision, Mission Principles and Statements of Intent for the Synod is only the first step in their promulgation.
An implementation team is being established to help develop resources and tools for the wider Church community to engage with them.
“We will invite groups to dream, wonder and explore with prayerful open discernment how their current and future activities may live out Gospel values as reflected broadly in the Vision and Mission Principles,” Dr Lawrence said.
“The Vision and Mission Principles provide a focus and starting point for spiritual discernment. They list possibilities of what we can do to enable a renewing Church to emerge.”
In terms of the MSR’s wider work the Vision, Mission Principles and Statements of Intent will be a starting reference point for other proposals being considered at Synod 2016, including changes in Synod governance and other recommendations.
“As a Church we seek to be a worshipping, witnessing, and serving pilgrim people.” Dr Lawrence said.
“The Vision, Mission Principles and Statements of Intent are an aid to thoughtful and prayerful discernment for this journey.”
A call to us all
They call us back to the heart of who we are – Jesus followers. They remind us we are people who recognise in Jesus the presence of God, and the joy of this calls us to live as people who shape our lives both collectively and individually by the story of God among us. The Vision and Mission Principles give language to how it is we will follow Jesus and what marks our participation in the reign of God.
They capture both who we are and who we are called to be. Because the principles are both descriptive and aspirational they invite us to continue to live more fully into the life of God, made known to us in Jesus Christ through how we act in the world and share our faith.
As I think about chairing Synod Standing Committee over the next three years, I hope the Vision and Mission Principles will aid our discernment. They can do this by providing a reminder of what our priorities are over the next few years and therefore where we should be putting our energy and resources. They should shape our agenda by helping us know what is truly important.
As we set agendas and make decisions, we need to ask ourselves how do these decisions help us to follow Christ and walk together as First and Second Peoples? Do these decisions help us to seek community, compassion and justice for all creation?
In saying this I don’t mean to imply that the Vision and Mission Principles are tick boxes we check decisions off against. Rather they are the guiding principles that call us back to the particular way we have discerned we are to be God’s people in this time and place. They are a reference point for reminding us how we want to live God’s story as God’s people over the coming years.
It is my prayer that the Vision and Mission Principles will assist the church across our synod to return again and again to our primary call – to be Jesus followers – and that this call will have a high priority in the discussion and deliberation of the church across the Synod.
walking together as First and Second Peoples
seeking community, compassion and justice for all creation.
God in Christ is at mission in the world and sends the Church in the Spirit to:
- share the Good News of Jesus Christ
- nurture followers of Christ in life-giving communities of reconciliation
- respond in compassion to human need
- live justly and seek justice for all
- care for creation
- listen to each generation and culture so as to live out the Gospel in fresh ways
- pursue God’s Mission in partnership
Statements of Intent:
Focus on Vision and Mission Principles
Foster faith, deepen discipleship
Be lighter and simpler
Seek reconciliation between First and Second Peoples
Grow leadership capacity
Nourish contextual expressions of church
Act together across cultures and generations
Deepen partnerships and trust
Share our resources
Build resilience, strengthen accountability