“I actually think leadership grows out of discipleship,” Dr Deidre Palmer says.
“As an educator, as someone who contributes to people’s formation in faith, I see leadership arising from inviting people into a deeper relationship with God.”
Youth worker, Christian educator, academic, theologian, social worker, counsellor, Moderator – from July 2018, Dr Deidre Palmer will extend her invitation to discipleship to the whole Uniting Church in Australia and beyond in the role of national President.
“Abundant Grace Liberating Hope” is the theme she has chosen for her term.
Growing up, Deidre grew to appreciate God’s abundant grace at the Seaton Methodist Church in the western suburbs of Adelaide in the early 1970s.
Church activities were a big part of Deidre’s life through high school and as she later completed a Bachelor of Arts and Diploma of Education at Adelaide University.
Deidre remembers travelling to Sydney to attend the first Uniting Church Assembly at Sydney Town Hall in 1977.
“As young adults we felt that it was a movement of the Holy Spirit in our time. I still believe today that the Uniting Church is a movement of the Holy Spirit,” she said.
The Holy Spirit moved again when Deidre met Lawrie Palmer on a Uniting Church Youth Committee.
They married in 1978.
Life was a “wonderful adventure” with Deidre working at the SA synod in children, youth and young adult ministry and Lawrie as a doctor.
In 1981, US religious educator John Westerhoff came to Australia to speak about intergenerational ministry.
“I’d been looking at doing some further education,” Deidre says.
“He suggested I do a Masters in Religious Education where he taught at Duke University.”
A few months later Deidre and Lawrie were living on campus in North Carolina. After two years she was ready for the next challenge – a PhD at Boston College.
When it came time to head home to Adelaide to write up her thesis, “An educational approach towards a discipleship of equals in a socially prophetic church” the Palmer family had grown.
Daughter Kate arrived in 1986, the PhD in 1989 and second daughter Joanna in 1992, by which time Dr Deidre was looking forward to parenting, part-time teaching and Uniting Church life.
That was until a teaching position in Christian Education at Southern Methodist University in Dallas opened up. Deidre applied, was successful, and the family headed back to the US.
“I loved my job in Dallas,” Deidre says.
“I had a fabulous group of women colleagues. We used to meet every week for lunch as faculty to support one another. They were amazing women and I’m still in touch with some of them.”
Again, a deep sense of call drew Deidre back to the UCA.
“I felt that in being in ministry in the Uniting Church I was pouring my energy into a church whose vision I was deeply committed to – to the equality of women and men, to every member ministry, to the voice we give to children and young people,” Deidre says.
She came back to Adelaide to teach Christian education, which she still lectures in today at Uniting College and Flinders University.
In 2005 a visit to South India sparked another academic adventure – this time into social work.
On her return Deidre was inspired to enrol in a Masters of Social Work at Flinders. She went on to work for Uniting Communities, counselling adult survivors of child sexual abuse.
“As a social worker, I heard their stories and responded to their suffering by inviting them into narratives of hope,” she says.
“As a Christian, I believe that this work is a vital expression of Christ’s compassionate ministry, especially in an area where Christian organisations have failed.”
Deidre was working as a counsellor when members of the SA Synod nominated her as moderator-elect.
That confidence in her leadership was resoundingly shared by members of the 14th Assembly in 2015 who chose her as President-elect on the first ballot.
As is the case with all incoming Presidents, Deidre’s first task is to preside over the Assembly meeting.
Beyond the 15th Assembly youth and young adults will definitely be a focus.
During her time as moderator, Deidre canvassed the views of young UCA members about what they thought their church should be doing in the public space.
“These young people are amazingly gifted and committed to shaping our church. We can move courageously into the future, because we see the hope among us now,” she says with abundant hope.