The snake handling was part of a three-day intensive course, which is the introduction to a new 18-month program that aims to develop leadership skills in the Uniting Church.
Rev Robin Yang, who is minister at Endeavour Hills Uniting Church in Melbourne’s south-east, said that on Friday morning he and the other course participants from around Australia were challenged by instructor Peter Kaldor to devise a strategy for a group of people to overcome a fear of snakes.
“Then he put a twist on it and said ‘you are now going to confront real snakes and you are going to put your strategy into practice’,” Mr Yang said.
“So he turned what was theoretical into something that became very real.”
Those who wanted to participate walked into a room where a professional handler presented three types of snake and also other reptiles, including a baby crocodile.
Mr Yang said the snakes ranged from a small and delicate one to a “very, very big one”.
“They called him Darth Vader, because he had a black head,” Mr Yang said.
The course participants had varying reactions.
“There were some people who went straight up to the snakes, there were other people who just stood around the edges and those who were fearful stood at the door sweating and crying,” Mr Yang said.
“What ended up happening is when other members of the group engaged and held the snakes, those who were fearful were able to realise it’s not that bad.
“The strength of the exercise was that we chose to do it together and offered care to one another.”
Mr Yang said that before the encounter the group had scored themselves on scale of one to 10 (some chose to go over this) according to the severity of their fear of snakes but for him it wasn’t a big concern.
“I have no issue with snakes at all,” he said.
“For me to hold a snake was a wonderful experience. At the same time I felt really bad for the people who were terrified. I ended up standing alongside those who were fearful by the door, just to be a presence for them.”
Mr Yang said the experience had been instructional.
“The snakes represent all kinds of problems and fears and challenges that the church and its agencies face,” he said.
“As a church it’s not necessarily about solving the problems of how can you take away the fear, but how to lessen that and how do we work as a team to lessen that.”
Mr Kaldor is a NSW-based educator, author and researcher in leadership who has conducted this type of exercise a number of times to illustrate different aspects of complexity, especially what was happening above and beneath the surface, when facing change.
“People have a wide range of responses to snakes that are sometimes to do with their story, their background or their culture,” Mr Kaldor said.
“People don’t know how others feel about these things until they are faced with it”
He stressed that the snakes were non-venomous and used to being handled.
Participation was strictly voluntary as Mr Kaldor is acutely conscious of not allowing people to feel pressured into taking part.
“We are the absolute opposite of gung ho with this,’ he said.
“We’ve learnt over the years how to respect different people’s journeys with this, their fears; we are probably way over scrupulous and careful but for good reason.
“We’re dealing with people who are making themselves vulnerable in a group and that’s a gift that they’re bringing to the group, even if it feels not that pleasant at the time, so honouring that and respecting that is really important.”
Mr Kaldor said he had observed one participant on Friday achieve a big victory by just being able to stand by the door watching.
The three-day course was conducted by Rev Dr Jennifer Byrnes from Pilgrim Theological College and Craig Bailey from the Adelaide College of Divinity. Both institutions have academically accredited the executive leadership training program.