An incomplete guide to the Uniting Church and how it plays in the social sector

After reading my recent posts, Dr John Flett sought me out to provide some background social information for his German academic colleagues who are contributing to the Rescuing Our Soul Conference in September 2016.  This is the second blog in that series.

In my previous blog A Rough Guide to the Social Sector and the way the Uniting Church plays I offered a ridiculously brief description of Australia’s social sector.   I am writing this because John was looking for someone in the social sector to respond to Prof. Dr. Annette Noller of Leitrim Diakonenausbildung, Evangelische Hochschule Ludwigsburg, who asks;

Could you try to explain in your own short words for me
–          how the Australian social system functions?
–          how it is financed?
–          what is the role of the churches in society and social systems  (how much are the directed by state rules, finances, fees etc.)?

Could you explain in your words the word
–          ‘church agency’ and the word ‘church affiliated organisations’?
–          How are they financed and how much are they directed from governmental rules and laws, how is the connection to church or parishes organized (structural)?

This blog will address the first three dot points.  I’ll respond to the last part of the question about the language of ‘church agencies’ and ‘affiliated’ in my next blog.
In each of these blogs I offer one example so the reader has an example of the social policy and the practice.  I have set a personal goal of keeping each of these blogs as short as possible. Our social and tax systems are extremely complicated and that the descriptions here are inadequate because of the lack of key detail.
How does the Australian Social System functions?
  • I’ve written a very basic example of how people apply for help in the previous blog.  And I noted the way the system is moving toward a more competitive model.  Parts of the social sector are being changed.  For a range of reasons but at the heart there has been a request of people who are disabled who are totally sick of a ‘allocated’ system.  They, and their carers, have argued for competitive provision for decades so they are given some choices in their lives.
How is it financed?
  • There are three levels of Australian government.  The two levels which are relevant to this are the State and the Federal Commonwealth.  The federal government raises taxes (income tax (on a sliding scale against income) and flat GST 10% on most items).
  • The Federal government then spends some of its income on welfare either – directly itself (i.e. income support for single parent families, Medicare, NDIS) or by funding the states (i.e. hospitals, community centres, education etc).
What is the role of the churches in society and social systems (how much are they directed by state rules, finances fees etc)?
I’m going to offer some dot points (each of them one could write a PhD, but as I don’t have time for that single lines will do;
  • I am most familiar with the Wesleyan Methodist Missions which took hold and established itself in the life of the Australian colony by responding to needs using evangelical charity models.
  • The churches esp. Methodist church was offering charity assistance for over a century before the state got involved in the welfare of its citizens.  We ran orphanages / children homes from 1890s-1950s while the State didn’t see any role in dealing with destitute children and other issues like or opium use, back yard abortions and the grinding affects of poverty in the post war Depression.
  • The Australian government came to developing systematic welfare to its citizens in the late 1950s.
  • Once the State started picking up the welfare of its citizens then the churches social services went one of three ways – 1) not respond to change and become irrelevant, 2) get out of the work altogether or 3) continue on and evolve.  Here is an example of each.
    • Not respond to change and become irrelevant – Christian Women’s Temperance movement (which was instrumental around alcohol reform and the first wave of feminism and the right to  vote – continues on with its same message to this day and has been completely irrelevant to contemporary conversation about drug use and harm minimisation for over 40 years.
    • Get out –  The church got out of the Flying Doctor (which was developed by the Presbyterians and the Inland Mission movement).  I don’t know the back story to how they went about this but this is now a organisation which started by Rev John Flynn who wanted to provide a ‘mantle of safety’ for the white settlers living in extremely remote Australia.  The Flying Doctor now has no connection to the UCA.  This is a rare example of the the church to ‘getting out’.  We usually become irrelevant or we change.
    • Change and evolve – all of the agencies that exist today have had to change over time.  Uniting Communities no longer does some of the core functions which the agency did for many many years.  (e.g. our therapeutic community at Kuitpo was once our core identity).

Agencies which have changed have to work out how much government contracts for which they are willing to tender.  The agency I work for has about 75% of our income from government sources.  I don’t know how many agencies have a higher or lower % from government sources.

Each contract provides us an agency with an opportunity to do a particular piece of work for the community or for isolated people.  And each contract has limits to what we can and can’t do.  The negotiation is in the way one ‘pushes the boundaries’ of each contract and with getting social work done.

There are been times when church agencies have challenging ethical / morale / theological decisions to make.  Here is a brief case study.

Breaching is where an agency is required to inform the govt dept. that a client hasn’t attended an appointment.  When the social worker informs the department – the clients income payment is cut for a period as they have not fully completed with the requirements of seeking work.  No consideration of the social circumstances of the client is taken into account.  Some social workers and organisations have decided that as that is not in the best interest of the client they will not comply with breaching requirements.  These organisations then refuse to take the contracted work.

If we refuse the work then private companies will take the work on and won’t advocate against breaching – they will simply comply with the request, breach clients and fulfil the contract and get paid.  Clients will end up in the streets with no income and other NFPs will pick up the pieces.

  • What is the best way to create positive policy change for clients?
  • Some claim it better to be inside the system seeking change (removal of breaching) and be accused of being complicit with government along the way?
  • While others stand outside the system and make representations but have less influence to negotiate any policy change?
  • If a client doesn’t attend, isn’t that a reflection on the agency and its services?  Your client should want to attend because the value add you are offering is enticing.   In other words the govt contract should be punishing your agency for poor performance in employment services and not the client!

I have heard Uniting Church agencies take all of these positions on this issue.  This is a reflection of their individual culture and leadership – some more strident and others more likely to negotiate.

  • What approach would you take to this (or any other social policy issues)?

The Synods Presbyteries and Congregations are at arms length from the state.  We must operate in a way that is legal, like any other community organisation, but other than that the State has no direct control over us.

Church social service agencies which enter into agreements with the State have contractual relationship with the state to deliver an agreed benefit our outcome for clients.

In the next blog I’ll address the language around church agency, associations and affiliation.  I’ve given this blog the title of

Incomplete Guide to the names and governance anomolies of agencies: the third incomplete guide to the structure of the Uniting church, our names and the logical governance consequences of a hybrid centralised and decentralised church.


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Rev 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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