12th Assembly 2009

UnitingCare challenges the church

As members of Assembly prepared to consider the “key directions” for its next three years of work, some members and visitors gathered for a lunchtime forum to hear leaders from three UnitingCare agencies. A major theme was how the role of the agencies was understood in the life of the wider Uniting Church.

Rev. Peter MacDonald from UnitingCare Wesley Adelaide hosted the discussion and asked each participant to talk about what they see as the top three critical issues for the church.

unitingcare1Robert Watson, Ex-Moderator of the WA Synod, began the discussion talking from his long experience in community services as well as his current position as Mission Development Leader for UnitingCare West.

“When we start asking ourselves the question we were talking about this morning — who are we? — we’ll realise working with the marginalised will be part of our DNA as a church,” he said.

Mr Watson said he started working in community services in 1970 — nearly 40 years ago. “In those days the work we were involved in was primarily funded by the church, now our services are primarily funded by government in most cases.”

“There seems to be a concern within the church of: are we the hands and feet of God or are we the little fingers of government?

“My view is that caring services are the church. If we actually believe that we are an expression of the love and care of the broader church there are many things that flow from that.”

One question that concerned all the speakers was how agencies can “be the church” when many of the staff don’t worship in the Uniting Church. The issue of having board members who are part of the church and also bring the required expertise was also discussed.

Although most parts of the church ask their employees to work “within the ethos” of the Uniting Church, there was a lack of clarity about what that meant — for church people as much as for non-church people. Each agency addressed the issue in a slightly different way.

Rev. Keith Garner, Superintendent of Wesley Mission Sydney, said one of the strengths of his organisation was its church context.

“Church and discipleship sits alongside social welfare in a very integrated way.”

He also said Wesley Mission was “unashamedly on an evangelistic mission” but people often misinterpret what that means.

Robyn Kidd, Director of Mission for UnitingCare Queensland, said their agencies had done a lot of work to develop some values statements they expected all staff and board members to work within.

Two years was spent on a consultative process, talking to staff and asking what they value, and then aligning that with theology.

This led to six shared values: compassion, respect, justice, working together and leading through learning. These are now part of selection criteria and by-laws for all the UnitingCare agencies in Queensland.

Ms Kidd said it was amazing to see the change in culture over a very short period of time.

“Staff know exactly what it means to come and work for us. From senior staff and board members all the way through,” she said.

“We don’t ask people who come and work for us to share our beliefs but they must share our values.”

Rev. Glenda Blakefield, Associate General Secretary of Assembly, responded to the comments from the perspective of her work for Assembly and as a member of the board of UnitingCare Australia.

Ms Blakefield said some of what she had heard contained a sense of, “Caring agencies feeling not appreciated by the church”.

She also said the question, “Are caring agencies the church?” was vital to address.

“I think it’s at the heart of how the uniting church relates to its caring agencies,” she said.

“I’m convinced that prophetic, reconciling ministry occurs within the caring agencies of the church.”

However, Ms Blakefield said that did not mean the caring agencies were the church in the same way that a congregation is the church.

She said church membership was “expressed by baptism and eucharist”.

“I don’t think we can get away from that,” she said.

This statement in some ways contradicted the view expressed by Ms Kidd, who questioned whether the work of the agencies required “understanding more fully the ecclesiastical work of the church”.

He suggested that the agencies were in fact “evidencing the very nature of the church in their very life and being”.

The discussion rested on the statement within the Basis of Union that a congregation is the embodiment of the church catholic, expressed through worship, witness and service, and whether agencies do this too. 

“Is it possible the agencies can bear within them the marks of the church,” asked Ms Kidd.