By Andrew Humphries
American statesman Benjamin Franklin is often credited with the line that there is nothing certain in life, except death and taxes.
As time marches on, perhaps there is one more certainty in life we can add to Franklin’s list, and it’s one that has serious implications for religious organisations such as the Uniting Church.
An ageing demographic and shrinking numbers mean that, at times, sad and sometimes painful decisions need to be made around whether particular congregations should continue or, in some cases, whether amalgamation is an option worth considering as some form of ongoing existence.
For long-time congregations, such decisions must be taken with care, as many years of history and wonderful relationships are thrown into the melting pot for consideration.
Port Phillip West Presbytery Mission Development Strategist and equipping Leadership for Mission Minister, Linley Liersch, knows exactly the delicate path that must be negotiated as any amalgamation of congregations is considered.
Last December, the congregations of Corio-Norlane and Lara signed an historic memorandum of understanding which saw them enter this year as one congregation.
Linley says the December 4 amalgamation, which also marked the final Corio-Norlane congregation service, represents an exciting opportunity for its members to continue worshipping as part of a strong
Lara congregation, and brought to an end more than two years of discussion between Presbytery and the two congregations.
She says Corio-Norlane members were facing the same issues that any congregation faces when numbers begin to dwindle.
“When I first met with the congregation they were down to 16 members and their leaders were quite tired and worn out, and were struggling to hang in there,” Linley says.
“This was a congregation that had done due diligence on their buildings and maintenance up to that point, but from then on they would be eating into their finances and would struggle to maintain their buildings.
“We began to talk to them about their future and they weren’t easy conversations to have, particularly having them in and around COVID-19 lockdowns.
“In the end, they recognised they couldn’t just stay as they were and needed to make a change.”
With Corio-Norlane already having established a relationship with Lara in a number of areas, Linley says an amalgamation represented the best-case scenario.
“The members did have a sense that they had a lot in common with the Lara congregation, and they felt it would be a good match,” she says.
Linley says it was important to tread a respectful path as discussions progressed, mindful of the emotions at play in such a big decision.
“Corio-Norlane is already an amalgamated congregation, so they had already surrendered one property and there was a sense of members saying, ‘we have already done this, so how much more can we bear?,” she says.
“There was a real sense of sadness there, but as a congregation that had faced so much change in their lives, also a sense of inevitability around it.
“In the memorandum of understanding, we said if someone is in old age sometimes they have to sell the family home and move somewhere where they can have more care, so this idea of the congregation as being part of the human life cycle gave them some language to use when we were bringing them together.”
Corio-Norlane Church Council Chairperson Grahme Parkes says, while sad, the decision to amalgamate made sense on a practical basis.
“Certainly our congregation was ageing, and maintaining the buildings was becoming onerous,” he says.
“Filling office positions was starting to become more complicated, so the congregation was, in a sense, becoming a bit tired.
“This amalgamation gives us an opportunity to reimagine what the congregation can be, removes some of the burdens, and allows us to bring some of our communal life into Lara.
“It also opens up missional opportunities for the congregation in the sense that we can be among the people in our community, more than people just coming into the building.”
The decision to amalgamate means the Corio-Norlane church and church hall will be sold, with part of the proceeds used to continue funding the congregation’s main missional project, a community meeting hub called the Listening Lounge.
Turning 25 this year, the Listening Lounge has become an important part of the social fabric of the area and a wonderful example of missional work that serves the whole community.
“The Synod will benefit from the sale in that it will have a regular income coming in which will fund our portion of what is needed to cover the partnership with Lara, and part of the money allows us to continue with the Listening Lounge,” Grahme says.
“It provides a safe space for people, where they can come and talk and seek advice. We provide tea and coffee and a sandwich and it’s a real gathering place for people from all walks of life.
“It’s a very important space to have available for people and I hope it can continue for another 25 years because it’s been such an important part of our missional life and outreach into the community.”
Linley says she is excited to see the Listening Lounge continue and celebrate its 25th year.
“We asked them what their legacy was and they chose the Listening Lounge as their mission,” she says.
“They have really taken it on and maintained it in and around COVID-19, and they are thrilled to be able to continue funding it.”
Linley says the Corio-Norlane congregation should be congratulated on their decision to amalgamate.
“It’s a selfless decision where they have put mission ahead of pride in trying to maintain their own identity,” she says.
“They have a real heart for the people that the Listening Lounge reaches out to, and they are a community that is open to the needs of others.
“Sometimes congregations fear that Presbytery might be only about closing them down, but this is a story where Presbytery has worked with a congregation to think outside the box, and it takes a brave community to reimagine themselves, which they have done.
“It also requires an honest conversation between the congregations, and I think a point has been reached where it is a lovely blessing for the Lara congregation as well.”
Grahme and his Lara counterpart Grant Trewin are both excited about what their amalgamation holds for the future.
In fact, Grant believes it provides a wonderful injection of vitality into a Lara congregation which, while still thriving, faces its own challenge with numbers.
“Ten to 15 years ago we would have had about 80 to 100 people attending a service, but now it’s about 40 to 50 people,” he says.
“We’re thriving in many ways and are very passionate and keen about what we are doing, but I couldn’t say that we are growing in numbers.
“That’s why we are very excited about what the amalgamation might bring in terms of growing the congregation.”
Grant is also mindful of the fact that Corio-Norlane members should feel they are entering the amalgamation on an equal footing with the Lara congregation.
“We would like to think it’s going to be more of a partnership, rather than us just taking over, and that partnership is what we are encouraging,” he says.
“Hopefully they will continue to attend our services and we would only be too happy to organise a mini bus to make that easier.
“We would also encourage the Corio-Norlane congregation to choose a couple of representatives to come to our Church Council.
“That gives them a voice and they can see what we are doing, and it also gives us an opportunity from our end to become more involved in some of the things that they are doing.
“I’m really excited about what the amalgamation brings.”
Grahme, too, is looking forward to seeing what 2023 has in store for the former Corio-Norlane members in their new home.
“Yes, there was some sadness around the decision to amalgamate, but most of the congregation was in favour of it and could see what the future looked like if we didn’t consider it,” he says.
“Some things need to be tweaked but we’re excited about what lies ahead.”