By Stephen Acott
Some people are born to lead, others have leadership thrust upon them. Either way, being a leader is a whole new ball game, nothing like what you were doing the day before you started.
It can be taxing, yet rewarding, requiring political people skills but at the same time a firm hand. It will throw up obstacles that people couch as “challenges” and, occasionally, what those same people refer to as “blue sky” will open up before you.
It will demand of you a broad, sometimes conflicting skillset and personal attributes that may not come naturally – flexibility, intractability, willpower, resilience, empathy, purpose and vision – so much so you may end up asking yourself “why am I doing this?”.
That is a question Moderator Sharon Hollis, who has slightly over a week left in the role, never asked herself during her three-year term, which may suggest she was born to lead.
Sharon is not sure whether or not that is true, but remembers when the idea was first put to her she didn’t immediately say “no”.
“It’s not an invitation you lightly turn down, but I was a tiny bit surprised my name came up,” she says.
“My partner had died just a couple of years beforehand and I felt quite fragile, pretty broken. I was surprised people didn’t think that would prevent me from doing the role. I had to get over that.”
One of the reasons Sharon thought she may be able to do the job was her training. Her previous role was in the continuing education sector and she had spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of leadership in the church.
“What is leadership, what does it look like, is there anything distinctive about faith-based leadership? – those sorts of things,” Sharon says.
“I’d also done some tertiary study in the field of leadership, so for me it was an opportunity to take some of those things I’d been developing and use them in a new forum.
“I really like big picture things and I like a challenge.
I was interested in being able to contribute to the life of the church and encourage it to have big, bold conversations with itself, be brave.”
Moderator is not a 24/7 job, but it’s not far from it. It’s “demanding”, Sharon says, “but I’m a little bit of a workaholic … I was drawn to the fact there would be 10 things happening at once”.
This may help explain why, rather than putting her feet up and reflecting on a job well done, Sharon again responded to an invite to step on to an even bigger platform – UCA National Assembly President, a position she begins in two years.
“It’s not about leadership for the sake of being a leader, but one of the things I’ve loved about being Moderator and looking forward to as being President is the opportunity to really contribute on big canvases,” she says.
“I’m looking forward to helping the church wrestle with the contemporary culture and how our faith speaks to that culture and is shaped by that culture.
“What excites me is the scope of that opportunity and the sense of being able to do that in really diverse places and to meet the full breadth of the church. I hope to encourage and lift the full diversity of the church, such as CALD women.”
There is also the question of experience. Sharon said she spent the first 12 months or so as Moderator “finding my feet” and hopes her recent experience means she can adapt more readily to the role of President.
She also says the time it took for her to get “the lay of the land”, as she puts it, makes her question whether three years is the correct length of time for Moderators to operate under. It’s not something she’s openly agitating for, but nevertheless believes the church “needs to have a conversation about whether three years is the right length of time”.
“I think four-and-a-half years would be better because that’s three Synod meetings,” she says.
“But I do think regularly changing leadership is a good idea.”
Sharon spoke earlier of the fact her partner had died in the years before she became Moderator and whether her ongoing grief would prevent her from adequately performing her duties.
As it turned out, it wasn’t something she needed to worry about; she found being busy provided a welcome distraction, but more importantly, taking on such a significant role pointed a way forward for her daughters.
“After my partner died, one of the things I really wanted to do was help my daughters (then aged 16 and 10) understand that there is life beyond what happened and they could be happy and have hopes and ambitions,” she says.
“I thought I couldn’t say that and not live into it myself. It allowed me to demonstrate that grief is painful and difficult and never leaves you, but it doesn’t have to cripple you.
“One of the great things about Michael (her partner) was he instilled a lot of confidence in me and he gave me a lot of support and encouragement and I think I carry that now, so it’s a testament to his legacy as well.”
A sense of healing has been inextricably woven into the fabric of Sharon’s day-to-day duties. When asked what the best part of being Moderator is, she doesn’t hesitate in replying: “One of the most painful things I’ve had to do, but conversely one of the best things, for want of a better word, is to meet with people who have suffered abuse at the hands of the church and be able to offer them an apology.”
“To see the huge difference it makes to them is richly rewarding. For many of them, they’ve been waiting a long time to hear the church say ‘this was never your fault, this was the fault of the perpetrator or the institution or the congregation that didn’t prevent it and for that we are profoundly sorry’.
“You come home on those days utterly spent from the deep privilege of meeting these people and witnessing their resilience, courage and grace. It’s not fun or easy, but you go home and you think ‘that was a good day’s work’.
“It sounds really trite but a willingness to say sorry without making excuses or qualifications can be very healing for some people.”
Three years is a long time in the life of a church but, in other ways, it’s just a blink of an eye. So much has happened – same-gender marriage, voluntary assisted dying, asset selling and the National Redress Scheme are just four seismic subjects Sharon has had to negotiate through on behalf of the Synod – and yet the church itself still looks and feels pretty much as it did when Sharon took office. And that can be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on the topic at hand.
When talk inevitably moves to the church’s immediate past and future, statistics spring out of nowhere. Numbers in steady, seemingly unstoppable rewind. While these statistics are troubling and significant, Sharon isn’t deflated by them. In fact, if anything, she has noticed a perceptible change in mood and collective air of optimism emerging from presbytery to presbytery.
“I think there is a steady trajectory the Uniting Church is on which is that our membership is ageing and declining,” Sharon concedes.
“We’ve known that for more than a decade. Rural communities, in particular, have got to ask questions about their sustainability – not because they’ve done anything wrong, but because their towns are in decline, too.
“But that’s not the only narrative and that’s the risk of a statistical analysis that you look at it and you think it’s all doom and gloom. There are communities that are growing and we need to listen and learn from those communities.
“Synod went through a really rough patch with the need to sell property and that was pretty difficult for a lot of people, but in the past 18 months I’ve noticed a buoyancy in the church, a bit more optimism that we’re beginning to implement a strategic plan and give attention to some of the priorities.
“We’re in this period of deep, transformational change and one three-year period is not enough to see the effectiveness of that, but I feel like things are moving. Some of that movement is death and decline, but some of it is also people being open to new ways of being a Christian church, new ways of expressing the Gospel.
“I also think we have more power than we sometimes think we have and we don’t always make the most of it. We are having to learn how to say ‘I’m a Christian, I’m from the Uniting Church, this is what I believe and this is why I believe it and I think this might be of interest to you’.
“The places that are growing are the ones who are able to articulate that, both as individuals and as a faith community. They are the congregations that will thrive in the next decade.”
This is the biggest challenge immediately facing the church – how does it find its rightful, realistic place in the world? And who should lead the way? Interestingly, for a church with such an overwhelmingly ageing demographic, Sharon says the people to get behind are the young members.
“We need to accept this is the way the world is and not be frightened about it, or moan about it,” she says.
“We need to say here is a fantastic opportunity for us to be able to make a claim for the Christian Gospel in fresh, new ways with people that have never heard this before. We’ve got this chance to represent to people this Christian story unencumbered by cultural influences that don’t actually help us tell the story. That’s so exciting.
“We’re going to have to be brave and courageous, we’re going to have to take risks, we’re going to have to accept some failure and we’re going to have to have spiritual practices that nurture us so we don’t give up when we fail.
“That’s been the challenge for the church in the last decade and it will be for the next decade at least.
“Young adults are really important because this is the world they live in natively – they should be our guides. I think many of the young members of our church get burnt by the institution so we need to learn how to set them free and let them mentor us into this new way.
“The way has been that I, as an older person, should mentor you, but we have to flip that.”
That Sharon is so open to change should serve as an inspiration to us all. Growing up in a devoutly Christian family, Sharon has only ever known one way of church, but that doesn’t cloud, much less impair, her vision for the future.
“You can get nostalgic and hang on to things that work for you, but that can be a disadvantage when you’re trying to encourage fresh spiritual practices and fresh expressions of Christian community,” she says.
“Like many things in life, the strength can become the weakness if you’re not alert to it. One advantage is I’ve always felt held and known by God and that’s been helpful in this job.
“I sometimes think faith is a gift. The downside of it is it doesn’t always help you understand the social drivers that we are wrestling with.
“If you’re in the church you’re in it primarily because the story of Jesus Christ compels you and draws you into a community of other believers, but if you’re in this church it’s because the way this church functions is right for you. Once you’re in it and it works for you it’s hard to see why it doesn’t work for others.
“For me, as a Christian, the deepest sense of satisfaction comes when you are able to use the gifts you’ve been given in discipleship and we need to do a lot more to encourage people in the church to understand their daily lives in which they live their Christian vocations – things like how you are at work, what sort of emails you send, the kindness you speak with, the causes you pursue in your spare time, the way you are a parent, a child, a sibling – they all speak to faith.”
And that, in a nutshell, is what we should all speak to. No matter who is Moderator.