Friday, 25 August 2017

President's Addresses to UnitingLeaders Conference

Eating Crow

I would like to acknowledge and pay my respects to the Kaurna Nation, their elders past and present, and all descendants of this clan/nation. They are irantiyarta, sovereign of yarta-ana, these lands and waters where we meet today. I pay respects also to all other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with us, Australia’s sovereign First Nation Peoples.

In the 1300’s I’m informed, numbles was the name given to offal from which the umble pie came. A poor man’s pie, filled with offal. According to Webster’s dictionary by the 1500’s the umble pie had become the humble pie.

As a young man working in a middle management position for a Northern Synod established entity – the Arnhemland Progress Association, the then General Manager, my boss, called me into his office one day and said to me: “Stuart you are going to have to eat crow on this one.”

Now friends, I knew what the expression to eat humble pie meant, but I had never heard the expression eat crow, and it didn’t sound good!

Turns out it is very much the same as umble pie – very distasteful, really pretty foul and very hard to swallow. My boss was giving me a lesson in leadership, when you make a mistake, promise something and can’t or don’t fulfil your obligation, swallow your pride, own up, say sorry, and seek to restore relational damage. And do it quickly!

A google search tells me that the expression: “eat crow when it’s hot” comes from that very fact of doing it quickly. The relational damage, the hurt to the person or persons involved will be lessened if we own it almost immediately and it’s much easier to swallow.

The Uniting Church in Australia is committed to developing humble, generous, servant hearted leaders. This is why I’m delighted that UL17 conference is also the second President’s National Ministers’ Conference.

At breakfast tomorrow for those who have registered, I’ll be sharing some things about the UCA DNA – the whole people of God and the kind of inclusive community that is imagined in the Basis of Union.

Nancy Beach is going to share with us about healthy cultures, and I’m really looking forward to what Nancy has to say. 

The Assembly Standing Committee in conjunction with the Assembly Office leadership team have adopted the following value principles:

Hope, Justice, Compassion, Respect, Integrity and Innovation.

And recognising the centrality of the whole people of God to the Uniting Church, we’ve set our strategic directions and they are:

  • Live a joyful faith: inspiring and renewing our faith and ministry
  • Grow with God: developing leaders for ministry
  • Be a voice for justice: encouraging and facilitating a prophetic voice, internally within in the church but also in the public square
  • Journey as one Uniting Church: collaborating with other Councils of the UCA to address current and future challenges. Collaboration which I believe invokes the synergy of God into the midst of what we’re doing.

“All of this is us”, our 40th anniversary tag, together with the values and strategic directions, this is all about enhancing a culture which understands the mission of God to be the reconciliation and renewal of the whole creation, as something we participate in together, as co-workers with Christ.

Mark Connor is going to talk to us about developing leaders, and because that’s the second strategic direction, and the whole reason we’re here, I’m really looking forward to what you’ve got to share with us Mark. In an article in New Times (SA Synod’s magazine) Rev Nigel Rogers says: “Christian leadership emerges from discipleship.”

That’s an interesting thought. “Christian leadership emerges from discipleship.” The UCA is also absolutely committed to growing disciples. You know some of the slogans used over the years: “Life-long learners” to name one.

I was always taught two things in studying management and leadership:

First, the 80/20 principle i.e. when applied to leadership in the community 20% of the people will be leaders. What we do know is that the whole people of God are all disciples.

Second, all good leaders will also be followers. I want you to think for a minute if you think of yourself as a leader, who are the leader/s you are following right now?

Of course all disciples are the followers of Jesus. Indeed in the National Church Leaders group we changed our name from Heads of Church, in recognition that there is only one Head and that is Jesus Christ.

I was encouraged by a leader I was following in my 30’s to contact those who had discipled me, nurtured my faith and mentored me as a leader. It was a great thing to do, to honour and thank them. I would encourage you if you have never done it to consider doing so. The boss who taught me so much about business and asked me to “eat crow” I reconnected with just a few years ago. He is almost 90 now, we have shared some wonderful memories and you know he’s an encourager, I know he prays for me and he regularly contacts me to encourage me. He’s become one of my followers, but I’m still following him because he’s a wise elder in my life.

God is transforming our Church by the Spirit into a truly intercultural community. The rich contextual experiences and theologies of the diverse cultures who make up the Uniting Church is God’s gift to us.

But as we so often say in our liturgies of commissioning, installing or inducting: “there is no gift without the corresponding service.”

The gift of linguistic and cultural diversity enables us to engage in the mission of God in prophetic and new ways. Leadership involves perception, the prophet Isaiah says of God: “I am doing a new thing, now it springs up, do you perceive it?”

Our engagement with international partners is in a new mission paradigm of mutuality where we have as much to learn as we have to share. Where we are no longer limited by western Anglo constructs, rather we are now a diversity of cultures. For example the leadership of our local and international Pacific ministers and lay leaders in the interconnected theologies, ecological, economic, social and justice concerns of climate change, poverty, domestic violence and women’s leadership offers us here in Australia and our partners in the Pacific and Asia wonderful models for change.

In the 2 years since becoming President I have learnt so much from through the leaders of the diverse cultures who are the Uniting Church in Australia today. You have heard or read about the Theology of Impact from the Middle East. Even in their most difficult circumstances surrounded by such conflict, the Evangelical Protestant Church in Lebanon and Syria practice a theology of impact. They see themselves as the salt and light to impact their communities. So many presbyteries and congregations in our Church need to hear this message. The Cosmic Christ of the Chinese Church who inhabits every aspect of creation taking us into a much deeper understanding of God and our relationship with the whole creation. The deep understanding of forgiveness our South Sudanese sisters and brothers teach us out of the tragic history of their homeland. And so much more.

You also know something of my story, 36 plus years alongside Yolŋu and other First Nation Peoples, I have been formed and developed as a leader through the leaders who have mentored me from these cultures. “Yaka liya gäna” literally “not a head without a body”, that is if a leader asserts themselves over the people and abuses power then they are no longer one with the people and their leadership authority will be removed. Much like the passage in Matthew 20 when Jesus is recorded as speaking about the “religious rulers” who “lord” it over the people.

Humble, generous and servant hearted leaders is what God is calling forth.

There’s a Japanese proverb which I used in a sermon at Darwin Memorial Uniting Church earlier this year for the opening of a reflection pool in their Peace Garden which is a memorial to the story of reconciliation and peace between the Japanese people and the people of Darwin through the leadership of Mr Fujita and now two generations of his family. 

I’m sure this proverb loses some of its poetic beauty when translated to English:

“The bough that bears most fruit hangs lowest”: a wonderful contextual understanding of humility.

To bend low in honour of the other, the branch laden with love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, gentleness, kindness, faithfulness and self- control.

Again I’m committed to growing a broad intergenerational, culturally diverse, humble, generous and servant hearted leadership for our Church to thrive.

And I’m delighted that you are here because you want to grow and to serve so that the body of Christ grows as we partner in the mission of God for the church to serve the world.


The DNA of the UCA: An Inclusive Church

The Basis of Union reflects the hopes and beliefs of the founding fathers of the Uniting Church, yes they were all men in those days, today they would be women and men. The three Churches; the Congregational Union of Australia, the Methodist Church of Australasia and the Presbyterian Church of Australia had spent almost 40 years in conversation leading up to 1977 journeying together in partnership to discuss what might be possible in this union. In Papua New Guinea and the Northern Territory of Australia the United Church of PNG and the Solomon Islands and the United Church of Northern Australia were forerunners of this union that we entered into.

I remember as a young man in Sydney before I was called to go to the Northern Territory, an old wise man who mentored and encouraged me in the congregation I was in at the time, had been part of both of those two united churches. In the days before technology, he gave me a great box of papers about how those churches had been formed, because he thought they would be useful for me.

The fundamental theological shift in the thinking of the Joint Commission on Union which I think led to a breakthrough and Geoff Thompson has written about was the thought: “The Church is in and for the world or it is not the Church”.­ The leaders of the three Churches shifted their focus from denominational self-preservation to mission.

The Basis of Union says very early on, in Paragraph 2 that: “Christians in Australia are called to bear witness to a unity of faith and life in Christ which transcends cultural and economic, national and racial boundaries, and to this end the Uniting Church commits itself to seek special relationships with Churches in Asia and the Pacific.”

Three weeks ago I was with each of our Indonesian partners in Kupang, West Timor including Papua and joined by our partners from the Philippines and Timor Lesté. We gathered there in fellowship, sisters and brothers in Christ, seeking to bear witness to a unity of faith and life in Christ, just as we do here. There we were speaking about a theology of community organising and specifically I led a session on the theological approach of the Uniting Church to inclusive community.

In Paragraph 13 the Basis of Union declares: “The Uniting Church affirms that every member of the Church is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to be his faithful servant.  Acknowledging that the one Spirit has endowed all members with a diversity of gifts, and there is no gift without the corresponding service, all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ. The Uniting Church will therefore provide for the exercise by men and women of the gifts God bestows upon them and will order its life in response to God’s call to enter more fully into mission.”

In Romans 12:3-21 Paul addresses the concept of the body of Christ referring to our human physical bodies and the many parts which function separately but combine to be a fully functioning body. He continues this thought speaking of the body of Christ in verse 5 saying: “So in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” So we belong to one another not in a possessive way; like a man in a bad marriage saying to his wife you belong to me. We belong to one another like a good marriage this “belonging” in the body of Christ is one of mutuality, respect and consideration.

Paul explains this “belonging” most clearly in verse 10: “Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves.” Which is my understanding after 43 years of marriage, is what constitutes a good marriage. Mark spoke about love yesterday, that it was the characteristic of Christian community. Paul concludes this section with these words: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Sometimes in our world, when we get depressed, or when we think of all of the tragic and horrific things that are happening, we might feel that we are overcome by evil, but Paul encourages us to overcome that with good.

For us in the Uniting Church this theological understanding of “body” means we speak of the every member ministry, or the whole people of God which is sometimes referred to as the priesthood of all believers. So whilst the ministry of ordained persons is vital so too is the ministry of lay persons. Each has been gifted by God and called as a follower of Christ to humbly serve in the body and in the wider community.

For this reason during my 10 years pastoring a congregation I began to commission every member of the Church annually. Not just the ones called to Sunday School teaching or the other Church ministries but everyone was commissioned for mission. We are all called as disciples to be the presence of Christ in our schools, workplaces and communities.

Our Church structures and governance also reflects this theological underpinning of the whole people of God. We have a series of interrelated councils; at local level the Congregation, regionally the Presbytery, at state level the Synod and nationally the Assembly. Each council has responsibility for particular constitutionally designated aspects of ministry and mission with no council exercising responsibility OVER another council rather they each have responsibility FOR another council. That’s how we belong to one another. The whole People of God, lay and ordained make up the council membership of each of these interrelated councils. We don’t move motions and vote rather decision are made by consensus and so the relevant Council Chair, Moderator or President have to work hard to form community, to help the community to hear one another and to move to decisions as they are of common mind. My Yolŋu sisters and brothers call this ŋayaŋu waŋgany: of one heart, soul and mind. That’s the way they practice decision making, and why sometimes working with First Peoples can be frustrating because you talk a lot, spend a lot of time talking. They’re practices that model inclusion including an equality of lay and ordained, women and men and adequate representation of young adults in all councils. 

I have said paragraph 13 of the Basis of Union affirms every member ministry and so this means women in ministry. Paragraph 14 expressly declares an acknowledgement of God’s call of women as well as men into the ordained ministry, to lead worship offer pastoral care, to share in the government of the Church and to serve those in need in the world.

We have as a Church from the time of union indeed for some before union, recognised God’s gifting and calling into leadership of women. This is not a modern or progressive position because it is in fact underpinned by Scripture.

To name two Old Testament examples in Judges 4 we read of Deborah, known as the Mother of Israel, a prophetess who judged Israel during this period. And the prophetess Huldah who in the time of King Josiah when the book of law was found was the one the King determined to interpret for him, bypassing the many male prophets he had.

Our Church has women in significant leadership positions: The Assembly General Secretary and the President-elect are lay women; the Queensland Synod General Secretary together with the Moderators of NSW-ACT , Vic-Tas, SA and

the Northern Synod are all ordained woman as are the National Directors for UnitingWorld, Uniting Care Australia and Frontier Services.

Another significant aspect of inclusion for us is found in our more than 30-year journey having declared we are a multicultural church, one body and many members; we have then had to change and recognise the unique value that each brings to the whole. Each cultures insights and contextual understandings, the God story they bring enriches us all and enables us all to glimpse a little more of the mystery of God. Paul speaks in several letters of there being no difference or separation when we are in Christ we are one. The colour of our skin, our languages and cultural contexts all are part of the rich tapestry God weaves.

We have also been on a journey over the past 32 years with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, the First Nation Indigenous members of our Church. In this journey we offer leadership to our nation. We have entered into a formal covenant, which recognises the tragic and violent history of our nation. We have changed the preamble of our constitution to acknowledge as Second Peoples our part in that violent history and to recognise First Peoples and to recognise that God was on this land long before us. Now in this 3 year period we are discussing together what it would mean for the practises of our Church to Honour First Nation Peoples as sovereign.

Again like the journey we have been on to embrace our cultural diversity as a gift of God we have been learning what it means to honour, to learn from and grow in understanding with this most significant indigenous part of us, a precious gift of God.

Inclusion can never be tokenistic or simply formulaic; to be truly inclusive is to honour God’s creation, to understand that we are all “image bearers” of the one Creator. Inclusion acknowledges the unique worth of every human being.

For the Uniting Church this has also challenged us to hear the voice of youth and young adults. We are learning to make space for them, to mentor them in order that they may offer us their leadership. In this we follow the example of Christ who told his disciples not to prevent the children from coming to him. Indeed he said that if we did not become like little children we would not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Our youth and young adults represent the most culturally diverse and wonderful community of Christ in the life of our Church nationally. In 2012 after a National Young Adult Leaders gathering they wrote a Statement to the Church which was adopted by the next full Assembly.

We heard their passionate and compassionate commitment together to working towards God’s promised goal of reconciliation and renewal of the whole creation, to work for justice and peace.

From all of this I believe we can see that the essential DNA of the UCA is to be an inclusive community who practices a shared leadership which is Christological in essence. I said yesterday we are committed to developing humble, generous, servant hearted leaders. The collaboration of leaders of this kind invites the synergy of God to be at work in our midst. Greater than the sum of its part, is the synergy of God at work among us.

And so I let me read once more Paragraph 13 of the Basis which I am proposing is the fundamental DNA of the UCA:

“The Uniting Church affirms that every member of the Church is engaged to confess the faith of Christ crucified and to be his faithful servant.  Acknowledging that the one Spirit has endowed all members with a diversity of gifts, and there is no gift without the corresponding service, all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ.

The Uniting Church will therefore provide for the exercise by men and women of the gifts God bestows upon them and will order its life in response to God’s call to enter more fully into mission.”