ROS – Mission and Ministry Network – Part 2 (Peter)

Mission and Ministry Network and the Four Marks of the Church (Rescuing Our Soul Conference – Part 2 of 3)

IMG_1644In my first year at Uniting Communities I was fortunate to be introduced to Rev Dr Les Underwood who was appointed to a ministry role at UnitingCare Wesley Port Adelaide.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, Les has extensive relationships with leaders in agencies and parish missions in the east of Australia, mainly in New South Wales.

Touring Sydney with Les

Les didn’t tell me about this at the time, instead he invited me on a tour.  In late 2006 we flew to Sydney together.  Over three days we went from the largest agency to the smallest parish missions in NSW.  Each time we walked in the door we were warmly welcomed and Les set the tone by listening to their particular issues, hopes and concerns.  By the end of the tour I had been in front of a wide range of passionate and driven people who were engaging with people who were experiencing poverty and isolation in doing something in response to the gospel.

Four particular characters stood out to me;

Each of these people are using different church models to what was happening at my place – Uniting Communities.   I’m not about to walk you through the detail of the similarities and differences but wish to note that each of them;

  • was responding to the damage which isolation and poverty does to people and,
  • had a shared common heritage – they were the descendants of the Uniting Church or its predecessors (predominantley Methodist and Congregational).

At each place we were warmly welcomed.  We ate together and discussed the work they were doing.  We listened to the way each place was responding to their understanding of the gospel within their community.   We always discussed the quality of our relationships to other parts of the Uniting Church – to the Congregations, Synods, Presbyteries, Assembly and UnitingCare Australia.  Some of us were very politically active, others courted the influence of civic leaders, while other relied on their locals who lived around the building.  As we left each site Les and I were always given words of appreciation for showing interest in their ministry.  This touring experience made Les and I both realise that there was a need for a deeper conversation were all were invited.

The National UnitingCare Australia Mission and Ministry Network

Using email I madIMG_1642e an open invitation to those in agency and parish mission settings to gather in Melbourne to what was the first gathering of the UnitingCare Australia Mission and Ministry network.  Les opened the gathering with a reflection about ministry and the work we all do in the community and Rev Lyn Burden closed the day with prayer.

Here is the agenda from the day, where you will find some topics which are familiar to the ROS conference.

  • NATIONAL MINISTERS GROUP Meeting – Melbourne 23 November 10am – 3pm,
    Centre for Theology and Mission, 1 Morrison Close, Parkville Vic
  • Welcome – Peter McDonald (Chair)
    • Recognition of Traditional Owners
    • Opening Reflection – Rev Dr Les Underwood
    • Present and Apologies and Confirmation of the Agenda
  • Session 1: Introductions, Our Roles and Activities
  • Session 2: Forum: Maintaining our Christian Identity:
    • Identifying Key Issues and Trends
  • Session 3: Going Forward Together
    • Group Contribution to Conference April 2008
    • Group Arrangements -Next Meeting
    • Closing Prayer – Rev Lyn Burden

Since that time the network has met at least annually.  There has been a small group at the core of keeping this opportunity functioning including Lyn Burden, Les Underwood, Colleen Geyer, Gavin Blakemore and myself.

IMG_1651Unfortunately I don’t have a list of who attended on the first day but I hope you can start to notice that the network started and has grown to reflect the breadth and variety of urban ministry in Australia. We are spread throughout the continent, some of us are small, some of us are large and some of us are huge!   We all have some form of relationship with – Congregations, Synods, Assembly and the peak body UnitingCare Australia.  And from my touring around and listening I know that near all of them have concerns about the performance of the administrative and theological leadership around us.

National theological administrative leadership

I was an elected member of our National Assembly from 2009-2012.  This was a privileged opportunity to get near the administrative and theological leadership of the Uniting Church on a national level.  It was in this forum that I was made aware of the tension between the national administrative and theological leadership and church agencies and parish missions.  Let me offer one example.

The Assembly meets quarterly in Sydney from a Friday afternoon till Sunday lunch time.  There are opportunities over meals to hold longer informal discussions.  It was as such an opportunity that I recall a spirited debate between myself and one or two members of the Assembly.  We were discussing whether agencies and missions were part of the church.

My colleagues were arguing that some of the agencies were lost and no longer part of the church. And that others didn’t know their place.   I started by arguing that agencies and missions are by definition part of the church – that their foundational documents say something about being connected to the Uniting Church,  because they have been created by the UCA.  They might be the black sheep of the family, they may be a long way away – but they are still part of the family.  You can’t choose who is in and out of the family – that is established by history.   But you can choose how good or poor the relationship by whether you talk to them.

At some point the debate moved to concerns that some agencies saw themselves being the church in their own right.  And as I’d come to discover there are some agencies and parish missions that see themselves as a ‘more true’ reflection of the church especially when they compare themselves to the declining 1950s style congregation down the road.  A question arose in this part of the discussion. ‘What do you need, as a minimum, to constitute a church?’  (Notice I’m not using the word congregation, or assembly or presbytery here).  I can’t recall where this topic landed but this question stays with me because it made me aware that the questions we ask really shape how we think. And what we think we become.  We were engaging in reductionist logic – attempting to answer to this question by stripping back layers and working out a definitional sort of answer.  Later I’d realise that this type of question and the corresponding positions people take can be profoundly damaging to individuals (including myself) to organisations and ministry as a whole.  This I will take up in the part 3 of this series.

Four Marks of the Church

The third part of our conversation that evening was where I was introduced to the Four Marks of the Church.  For those of us who have lost our church history to history they are at the opening of the Nicene Creed they are;

I recall my opponents arguing for the marks as a definitional test.  Because that as agencies and parish missions cannot hold the first mark “One” thus we can’t be described as “church” in and of our own right.  And I accede to this internal logic of the Four Marks.

The Four Marks are from the first council in 2nd century.  While I’m not terribly interested in the Marks themselves I am interested that some in our leadership uncritically offer this pre-modernist 2nd century Nicene Creed as a test to work out which agencies are in and which agencies are out the current post-modernist world.  There is something bizzare that some bring a pre-modern creed, past moderism and apply it into post modern world without any consideration of its original context.

But before I offer my substantial criticism of this approach I wish to recognise that the creed can and should be used in that peculiar modernist exercise of naming and putting things in boxes.  It does index us into a particular space and place in the categories of things.  The Uniting Church is the modern genus of Reformed Evangelical, which is a subset of the Protestant churches, which is a subset of the church catholic.

Irrelevant Leadership

Many of us, who are in non congregational / social ministries have had this, and other theological debates, with our leadership.  And I would hazard that most of us experience it as irrelevant.  Profoundly irrelevant.  It makes no improvement for our clients, nor staff, nor mission, nor vision.  It adds precious little to our understanding of one another other.  It brings little to our membership – Congregations don’t learn anything about us or themselves.   Assembly none the wiser about our respective contributions.  Our social and political advocates don’t know what to do with it.  There is little discernment into what we might be called to put down and what we might next need to take up.  What conversations like this create is an erosion of the precious (little) trust that exists between leaders and groups.

We need a better starting point, a set of questions which carry us into deepening our appreciation of one another, that raises issues and concerns that we hold of each other, and that discerns God’s call on our lives for the future. Not a question which marks us as lost and lonely.

Post Modernism – both a pain and an opportunity

Meta narratives, like Christianity, have been taken apart by the post modern questions which relentlessly interrogate the step from individual story to over arching common narrative.  As I understand it post modernism privileges the local story.  It strikes me that there is much to learn from the local narrative.  I have learnt a theology of congregational hospitality from Keith Hamilton and the ongoing story of Parramatta Mission.  I have learnt a theology of clear language from Graham Long and the ongoing story of Wayside.  From Rev Joanna Hubbard (who we will meet in part 3) I have learnt a theology of genuine wonder and inquiry, the place of powerful questions as well as a practice of shared leadership.

I experience a theology of strengths based practice, a theology of assets and not deficits, when I walk in the door of UnitingCare Wesley Port Adelaide, Exodus Foundation, BlueCare Queensland, Wesley Mission Victoria, and the place I know best – Uniting Communities.

There is stuff in each of those organisations which will teach me about a compassionate God already present in the community in which we serve.  And there is much to learn from when we gather with our colleagues from congregations and other settings if we are just able to land the right question.

For this practice of working out the right question and holding a inquiring attitude is a ministry.  Just as preaching teaching and discipleship.  Creating a space to share some of this learning with each and all of us is at the very heart of our UnitingCare Australia Mission and Ministry Network annual gathering.  And is why we always seem to get a few more people than we expected!


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.

Peter’s Response to Conference Theme “Recapturing our Soul”

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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