An incomplete guide to the convoluted names and governance of UCA

This is blog 6 for ROS.  I was asked to explain the way the churches governance works.  So, just like my other five blogs, I’ve prepared some observations and offered some examples.  I’m not attempting to describe the whole system.

This paper is missing a description of the Basis of Union and the way it shapes our governance processes.  For example the Basis describes us as a pilgrim people on the way… and this theological description is translated into a governance via an expectation that our councils of the church will focus discern God’s call within a community of people.  A quick search will turn up literatureon the Basis where you will find work prepared by Rev Dr Andrew Dutney and others.

I’ve gathered my thoughts under three headings.  The Governance Theory – that which is intended in governance.  This is where you will find the ideal.  The second heading is Our Governance Practice where I’ve described what is actually happening.  In all organisations implementation is always different from theory and the UCA is no different.   And thirdly, dot points outline the Future Governance Issues which are before us.

If this is the first piece you have read in the series I recommend you read the previous.  There you will discover that I’m blogging for a Conference held in Melbourne by CTM (Sept 2016).  I’ve argued that the provocative conference title Recapturing Our Soul sells the issues and opportunities short.  And then offered an alternative way of framing the same issues so we can all seek to learn from one another’s ministry experience.  So as we begin this section I wish to let you know that I’ve spent my last ten years of ministry in a church agency which was separately incorporated 50 years ago.

The Governance Theory

The Uniting Church in Australia: its congregations, councils and institutions, is at law an unincorporated association with a trust structure. The Church’s legal presence within each State is facilitated by the relevant property Trusts, established by the respective local State Acts.  The Trust holds the unincorporated association’s property, and allows the unincorporated Church to sue and be sued. The Trust is not the Church. The Act simply allows the Uniting Church in Australia to act as determined by the Basis of Union.

The Uniting Church governance rests in a series of inter conciliar councils.  The four councils are

  • Assembly (National)
  • Synod (State)
  • Presbytery (Regional)
  • Congregation (Local)

Each council has a primary area of responsibility

  • Congregation – (call of Ministers to placements and local worship)
  • Synod (property, insurance, resourcing of Presbyteries, training of Ministers)
  • Presbytery (pastoral oversight of Ministers and congregations)
  • Assembly (theology and liturgy)
  • These councils are required to respect and give heed to the areas in which each have primary responsibility.

Church Governance – Parish Missions and Church Agencies

In some places you will hear the term ‘mission’ not as a verb but as a noun or pronoun.  Many were created by parishes (from a previous governance model) and related directly to a congregation and congregational church council.  These existing bodies are local.  Always local church leadership, nearly always geographically local and often offering a emergency relief in the form of food clothing and vouchers.

Then there are the church agencies. These organisations are nearly always connected to the Synods.  Often larger with leadership drawn from beyond a single congregation.  Sometimes the agency is connected to a traditional congregation, sometimes the congregation has past into history, often still with a chaplaincy and faith community still in place.  More likely to be in complex service areas (e.g. DV counselling, sexual assault counselling for children) and not always doing emergency relief.  Hospitals sit in this category.  In some States the term Church Agency includes educational institutions like schools and colleges.

While it would be nice for the world to sit neatly inside my two categories, this is not the case.  There are always variations and exceptions, for example some Church Agencies continue to use the word mission in their title (e.g Wesley Mission Sydney).  I’m not fussed – the idea I’m trying to convey is that there is no single governance system, that each parish mission and agency has its own governance systems and often size plays a dominant role in shaping how it looks and operates.

The Governance of the State – Unincorporated Associations and Incorporated Associations)

As the States went about expanding their powers each Synod went about interacting with the governance of the state differently.  We have some church agencies which operate using the trust structure of the Synod as unincorporated associations while others operate as incorporated associations with direct ownership and control of its resources, while others created their own unique association legislation (WA) to form its body corporate.

There are many historical and cultural factors which likely informed these decisions.  Some of them would have included;

  • quality of relationships / trust / lack of trust between body corporate and Synod
  • risk profile
  • theological stance to the world
  • power and weight of local imperatives

Each of these factors is pointing to an issue or opportunity that in governance into practice.

Our Governance Practice

The Synod has always been a significant / dominant player because of its role it has as custodian of our property and finance.  Synods holds the property along with the financial and insurance systems which surround them.   Each Synod has made its own unique changes to the theoretical system.  I am most familiar with South Australia where we have combined the Synod and the and Presbytery into the one body.    In SA the Uniting Church looks like this

  • Congregations
  • Presbytery / Synod of SA with networks based on theology (not geographic location)
  • Assembly

In South Australia the Methodists used state incorporation legislation liberally.  We have 20+ separately incorporated associations, each with its own particular governance arrangements.  Separate incorporation means that each has its own board.

Directors have particular duties which include the requirement to act in the best interest of the incorporated association.

I work for Uniting Communities, one of the three large agencies in SA.  Our constitution gives the Synod the role of appointing our board.  The Synod can also remove the whole board,  but cannot remove any one individual board member.  The powers the Synod has over most agencies are similar.  They are both limited (appoint but not nominate) to dire circumstances (removal of whole board).

If I had time I’d systematically work my way through the following topics to describe why we have a governance relationship with the Synod which is designed as limited and dire. 

  • quality of relationships / trust / lack of trust between body corporate and Synod
  • risk profile
  • theological stance to the world
  • power and weight of local imperatives

As this is a blog I’m going to offer a few insights against these topics.  Some Synods have seen the risks in parish missions and church agencies that they have moved to centralise and strengthen the relationship.  In SA the Synod has moved to distance its church agencies.   The has moved decided to remove our name “agency” and calling us “organisations in association with the Uniting Church”.  The SA Synod is risk adverse at the moment.  Here are a list of past and present issues which are worth considering as shaping our governance practice and relationships.

  • Synods are too conservative to manage agencies (Synods will preference the wellbeing of the whole church institution over the welfare in individuals in distress)
  • In our historic material (books and sermons) mission preachers sometimes bemoan the lack or slow response congregations and Synods make to the issues that disadvantaged people are facing in the community.
  • Synods inter-conciliar governance does not facilitate quick decision making required in current governances space.
  • And the act of incorporating them is an attempt to keep the Synod from limiting the work of the agency and is also an attempt to limit the risk to the Synod.
  • It was later found that incorporation doesn’t remove the risk it only minimises it.
  • Predominate theology of service was a was “hub and spoke / wheel” theology – where the congregation was the hub at the centre “Mission is the beginning of Service”
  • Welfare has had evangelical edge along with other themes like seeking the ’deserving’ and offering ‘charity’.
  • Synods are suspicious of church agencies which are separately incorporated and our ability to operate separately from the UCA.

Church Agencies

  • May have started as a parish mission but now is a large agency
  • Has kept up with changes of governance standards.
  • Have sought support of church members for our work.
  • Most of the church agencies are now at the progressive end of the social / theological spectrum.
  • Abandoned notions only assisting the “deserving poor” and “evangelising poor people”
  • Struck out into areas congregations and Synods would not go.  For example harm minimisation instead of prohibition of poker machines, harm minimisation and drug injecting rooms (WaySide Chapel),  valuing people regardless of their sexual orientation (BFriend Uniting Communities Adelaide).
  • Synod members who hold an anti GLBTIQ agenda know that church agencies support GLBTIQ people to over come isolation and discrimination.  We are outside a conservative view of the world.  We sometimes use our independence to criticise the conservative church and give GLBTIQ people a platform to tell their story.
  • Most Uniting Church agencies I suspect would support marriage equality law reform for GLBTIQ people.
  • Uniting Communities has intentionally run a project where we make a contribution back to Synod congregations in the area of community development and ministry –

The Future Governance Issues

Some quick dot points;


  • The Victorian  and Tasmanian Synod is considering separately incorporating.
  • This challenges the inter-conciliar nature of the church as board members are required to act in best interest of the Synod (and only the Synod).
  • The whole council system is not working as originally intended.  We don’t have the people we need to fill four councils of the church so we are re designing the system in an ad hoc manner.
  • Lack of people skilled and experienced in organisational culture to be on church agency boards.  Less Uniting Church people able to make a contribution to church agencies.

Agencies / Parish Missions

  • Competitive service provision to customers is challenging church agencies and parish missions to improve our services – is calling us to move from charity models.  Clients are now customers – and customers are king!
  • NFP mergers and take overs on the horizon.
  • The rise of national competitors
  • No ability to become a member of the church agency – become a member of church Uniting Communities.



Copy of IMG_1444Rev Peter McDonald is the Executive of Advocacy and Community Relations at Uniting Communities as well as the Minister in placement.  His profile is here and he will be attending the Friday and Saturday of the ROS conference.


Catalogue of work prepared for “Recapturing our Soul”  Melbourne 2-4th Sept 2016

Beginners Guides – Background information written with our visiting German scholars in mind.
After reading Parts 1-3 Dr John Flett asked me to prepare a brief description of 1) the Australian social service sector, 2) Uniting Church agencies, 3) Uniting Church governance, and 4) The relationships between the three.

Hence my “Incomplete Guides” written for beginners. The guides are ‘incomplete’ as they do not describe the whole system.  Rather they pick one or two issues as an example of what can be found within it.


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