When Michael Easton took up the newly created role of community outreach worker at Avenel, Nagambie and Seymour Uniting Church, a congregation member told him: “We’ve employed you but we’ve got no idea what you’re going to do.”
While some might find this daunting, Mr Easton is using it as an opportunity to dream.
He is busy researching where the linked congregation, which worships at church sites in the Victorian Goulburn Valley towns of Seymour and Avenel, can best engage with the community.
The church was able to employ Mr Easton because of a bequest that also provides funds for the upgrading of their Avenel property.
This has given Mr Easton scope to think about both his role and how the church facilities could be tailored to meet community needs.
Already he has identified the lack of a place for families to hang out and have a meal that isn’t associated with gambling.
“The council was quite disturbed when I told them that the main place for families to gather was the club, the pokies place,” Mr Easton said.
“One of the dreams I have is a gathering space for families, a play centre café.
“We could also run sessions on basic parenting and life skills, giving people a safe place that also grows their capacity to thrive.”
Mr Easton is also exploring the potential of building low income housing on the Avenel church site and whether the church could partner with the nearby TAFE to provide skills and training for people experiencing homelessness.
However, as a former finance worker Mr Easton knows that the capacity to follow dreams is not limitless.
“My challenge is that around all these needs there’s a whole lot of dreams, but I need to find out what dreams could gather momentum,” he said.
Mr Easton said his previous career gave him some important grounding for ministry.
“Banking was important for me because I gained finance and people skills,” he said.
He has successfully utilised these skills by running financial literacy programs.
However, Mr Easton came to believe that there was a deeper non-material need to be addressed.
“The symptom may be financial issues but the cause is people’s purpose in life and where they belong,” he said.
“I guess if we see ourselves as belonging to Christ our money then becomes something that serves us and serves a particular purpose. We would make better use of money as a result of that.”
In his current role Mr Easton, who is a qualified lay preacher, hopes to assist both the community’s material and spiritual welfare.
“Faith is the core of what we have to offer,” Mr Easton said.
This does not mean overtly trying to convert people but engaging them in a way where they might be open to talking about spiritual matters.
Mr Easton said there was one unfortunate similarity between the two institutions he has worked for.
“Churches, like banks, do not have a good name in the community at the moment,” he said.
“For me it’s about building a sense of trust with people.”
He had an opportunity to do just that early on in his new role when a congregation member had the idea of getting Mr Easton to conduct the prayers at a candlelight vigil held in association with the Cancer Council fund-raising event Relay for Life.
Mr Easton ended up running the whole service.
“The people who were there really appreciated how it happened, the tone of it all,” he said.
“So there were some extra connections built. They knew that I was the Uniting Church outreach worker there to support and encourage them in what they are doing.”