Soul searching at social welfare conference

Conference convenor John Flett, Lucy Morris, Annette Noller, Hanns-Stephan Haas, Johannes Eurich

Conference convenor John Flett, Lucy Morris, Annette Noller, Hanns-Stephan Haas, Johannes Eurich.

In an increasingly competitive and secular environment, faith-based social welfare agencies are in danger of losing touch with their religious origins and supporting congregations, a conference heard on Friday and over the weekend.

The relationship between the church, its agencies and the state was explored at the Recapturing Our Soul conference, held at the Centre for Theology and Ministry from 2-4 September.

It was hosted by Pilgrim Theological College, the Centre for Theology and Ministry and UnitingCare Victoria and Tasmania in partnership with the Diaconal Research Institute of Heidelberg University in Germany.

Many social welfare agencies in Australia are undergoing a period of profound change and transformation.

One of the themes that emerged from the conference was the trend towards diluting an agency’s religious identity.

Rev Dr Lucy Morris, former CEO of BaptistCare, said “God’s brand” is not always regarded as helpful or easy to understand.

“Faith appears to be privatised and the language of faith and religion is no longer recognised and understood and accepted, particularly in agencies where our staffing and customers reflect the people of the world,” she said.

“It’s easier to change the look of an agency to make it more ‘modern’ and accessible and perhaps make God an optional choice.”

Dr Morris warned that both congregations and agencies can become “distracted by the need for survival and indicators of success.” She believes the community sector is facing a significant “paradigm shift” but with changes also comes opportunities for reflection and renewal.

“It is a time that agencies and their churches and congregation can refresh their relationships,” she said.

“We must be prepared to take risks and to see and do things differently and be counter-cultural if we wish to join in the harvest.

“We need to measure success that is qualitative, not just outcome-based, that is relational, just, compassionate and humble so that we can start to define a different counter-cultural narrative.”

Dr Morris believes it is through this counter-cultural narrative and a shared community, compromising both congregations and agencies, where the greatest hope will emerge.

The call for agencies to work alongside congregations was echoed by Peter Worland, executive director of Uniting NSW/ACT. Mr Worland recalled a conversation he had at a presbytery meeting where a young minster asked him what’s left for congregations to do now that agencies have “taken over” their services.

“Many congregations, as a result, see agencies like Uniting as galloping off with the church’s mission, leaving congregations to wither,” Mr Worland said.

Mr Worland believes faith-based agencies need to work with faith communities at the congregational level to create social change. Uniting NSW/ACT is developing co-located hubs where congregations and agencies can share activities and missions together. It has also established a grants fund to support innovative projects run by congregations and presbyteries that tackle social disadvantage in the community.

Uniting NSW/ACT was formed three years ago through the merger of three organisational boards. This was implemented to prepare for changes in government funding, but Mr Worland believes the “wicked problem” facing faith-based agencies is not external economics, but an internal issue of identity and strategic purpose.

“Many church entities are not able to articulate a sufficiently compelling purpose to determine their future,” Mr Worland said.

“We’ve lost sight in many cases of how Christianity differentiates us from others.”

Mr Worland believes it is important for an organisation like Uniting NSW/ACT to communicate to its employees what it believes in. This does not mean proselytising, but rather recapturing its Christian identity so it can embrace its point of difference from other agencies. Mr Worland said staff at Uniting NSW/ACT responded positively when the organisation articulated its Christian values.

Another characteristic of what Mr Worland described as “the distinctiveness of Christian witness” is engaging in advocacy for the marginalised.

The challenges of advocacy in the face of increasing marketisation of human services were examined by Dr Mark Zirnsak, director of the synod’s Justice and International Mission unit. He encouraged faith-based agencies to frame their advocacy in terms of human stories rather than through the language of neoliberalism.

“People are more concerned about the welfare of each other than the markets,” Dr Zirnsak said.

“If we want to make a difference, we shouldn’t be framing our arguments in the public arena in terms of economics. We should be framing human stories – that’s what people connect with.”

Visitors from Germany brought their experiences of faith-based social service to the conference. One of the keynote speakers was Prof Dr Johannes Eurich from the Heidelberg University, who spoke about the concept of ‘diaconia’. This is broadly defined as the spiritually-motivated provision of professional assistance to people in need.

Prof Eurich said sociological research indicates that diaconal churches play an important role in creating social capital.

“Studies show that churches are helpful in forming attitudes which are beneficial to civil society,” he said.

“Christian churches remain one of the major actors fostering positive attitudes towards the common good and providing an unusually large number of socially engaged volunteers.”

In Germany, more than 4 million volunteers come from the two major churches in the country.

Prof Eurich believes the work of diaconal institutions helps “make the church experienceable and tangible for people who otherwise have no direct contact with the church anymore”.

An example of agencies collaborating with worshipping communities was presented by Dr Hanns-Stephan Haas, CEO of Protestant Foundation Alsterdorf, the largest social foundation in northern Germany.

In 2005, the organisation transformed a local church in Kiel into a neighbourhood centre – a “social church” that offered free food, counselling, coffee and a quiet space for services and meditation.

“We started with an exploration of local resources. For us as a Christian organisation, the parishes and religious communities were a natural alliance,” Dr Haas said.

This project was later expanded into a Hamburg-wide initiative known as Q8, which was designed to enable people with severe disabilities to remain in their own neighbourhood while receiving adequate professional services.

Q8 developed new connections between Protestant Foundation Alsterdorf and the local parishes. The project was so successful it has become part of government policy and was recognised with an UN award.

The conference generated passionate discussions about the future of the church’s community service provision, a conversation that will continue as congregations and agencies navigate the changing landscape together.


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