B3 General Secretary

1. INTRODUCTION

Since becoming General Secretary in January 2016, I have been privileged to listen to and learn from Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress leaders in the Uniting Church. This journey will continue. In July 2017, along with Congress representatives, I was honoured to participate in a Reconciliation Dialogue initiated by the United Church of Canada’s Moderator, Rev. Jordan Cantwell.These experiences and connections deeply moved me, and influenced my world view and my understanding of God as Creator, embedded in the ancient stories in the Bible and also in this ancient land as acknowledged in the Preamble to the Constitution of the Uniting Church.

And so I begin this report acknowledging the First Peoples of this land, their ancient ways and knowledge, their stories and law, and their connection to and sovereignty in this land, and pay my respects to their wise Elders, past, present and emerging.

2. ALL OF THIS IS US: 40TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE UNITING CHURCH

Last year we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia – three churches coming together to birth one uniquely Australian church on 22 June 1977.

In union they would seek “to bear witness to that unity which is both Christ’s gift and will for the Church” (BofU, par 1). The Churches acknowledged that the path to union was long and at times difficult, but it was a sign of the reconciliation and renewal we seek for all.

Our inaugural Statement to the Nation, made at the time of union, affirmed our eagerness to uphold essential Christian values and principles, such as the proclamation of truth and justice, religious liberty and personal dignity, and a concern for the welfare of the whole human race.

During the anniversary year, I had several conversations with our Assembly archivist Christine Gordon. I love hearing about the history and the beginning and how we became who we are. I looked through the folder which had the original entries into the competition that was held to design the logo for the new Church. I read the original copy of the ‘thank you’ speech given at the end of the First Assembly. I read the reports from the First Assembly, including the list of the inaugural national leadership team, Synod Moderators and General Secretaries – only one woman. Things have changed.

One of the most significant times was the 40 days of prayer leading up to the 40th anniversary. The President had called the Church to prayer from 14 May to the inauguration anniversary on 22 June, in particular for the different areas of ministry and mission in the life of the Church. To begin the 40 days, the President, Moderators and General Secretaries met to pray together for the first 40 hours. It was a time of being present with God and for each other, in deep prayer and reflection. Others around the Church received a prayer each day of the 40 days. Coming to God in prayer grounds God’s Church and focuses us on whose we are.

Davis McCaughey, the first President of the Uniting Church said: “The fundamental questions have to be answered afresh: Where do you come from? Where are you going? Who are you? Union means nothing, absolutely nothing, unless it drives us back to those questions.”Forty-one years on, in 2018, these questions still have relevance.

The theme for the anniversary year was “All of this is us”. It encapsulated the variety, the diversity and the many wonderfully vibrant expressions of the Uniting Church in Australia. It is a phrase that symbolises who we are together, not one part better than the other or more wealthy than the other or more missional than the other – together we are the Uniting Church, one total expression of God at work in the communities in which we serve. All of this is us.

3. A SUSTAINABLE FUTURE

Over the past triennium, the Assembly has had to work hard to begin to rebuild the foundations for a sustainable future. This has included thinking in new ways about how the operations of the Assembly can be structured and enlivened, developing a three-year strategic plan, negotiating a three-year funding model with the Synods, entering into an agreement with the NSW.ACT Synod to provide transactional finance, HR and IT services, and revisioning the way the Assembly engages with Uniting Church members through its committees and working groups. This has not happened in isolation from the wider Uniting Church, with consultation and collaboration driving everything we do so that the work of the Assembly is relevant and accessible. With advice from the Standing Committee, the Assembly Finance Audit and Risk Committee and the Assembly Investment Committee, as well as the Synod General Secretaries and many others, there is optimism that we are facing the future with strength and hope.

The Assembly staff attend to what it means to be a team across all parts of the Assembly. We worship together once a week, we meet together across all the places our staff are situated (Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne) once a month and we look for opportunities to work together and share learnings.

The Assembly’s work is grounded in the commitments of the Uniting Church as set out in our guiding documents, and also holds to the following values:

Hope: We participate in God’s Mission in the world, working together to make a difference.

Justice: We seek peace and wholeness for every person and creation, where all are able to flourish.

Compassion: We care for others with empathy, guided by the love of God in action

Respect: We accept and honour diversity, uniqueness and the contribution of others.

Integrity: We dedicate ourselves to being honest, consistent and working ethically in our interactions.

Innovation: We collaborate for courageous and creative possibilities and solutions in everything we do.

4. NEW WAYS OF WORKING AT THE ASSEMBLY

At the Assembly over the past two-and-a-half years, we’ve been changing and transforming how we work and how we contribute to and connect with the wider Uniting Church. Our commitment to collaboration across the work areas of the Assembly and with other parts of the Church is vital as we explore what we can do together to be about God’s mission our areas of responsibility.

In 2017, following resolutions by the Standing Committee from the previous triennium, the Assembly was restructured in a move to a more collaborative, project-based framework for its work. In the development process, the uncertainty of the Assembly‘s future was considered as well as realities that spoke about its identity. Those factors which influence or would influence the Church in the future, the operations of the Assembly and ability to deliver on both its regulated responsibilities and the recognised national priority areas which it fulfils for the Church as a whole, were identified.

The realities indentified:

  • we are a Church committed to Christ
  • we are in a Covenant relationship with the First Peoples
  • we are part of a culturally and linguistically diverse Church
  • we are ecumenical by nature and in our commitments
  • we are not the same Church we were in 1977
  • we are encouraged by the emergence of next generation leaders
  • we are a demographically skewed Church in terms of age
  • we can’t continue to work in the same way we have in the past or we do now
  • our structure and other responsibilities can make effective collaboration difficult
  • we work in a changing Australia which leads us into mission and ministry in a rapidly changing and diverse country
  • we can be fixated on past ways of working, and this can result in reluctance to release resources for new opportunities
  • we do not have the same resources that we did; and we probably won’t have the resources we do now in the future

The Assembly has specific responsibilities, but priorities for the future of the Uniting Church mean we have to be willing to work together across all parts of the Church. Therefore, how the Assembly is structured and how it operates has to enable it to participate in any new endeavours identified by the whole Church.

The renewed structure established the Assembly Resourcing Unit (ARU) - a new collaborative, project-based team to facilitate Assembly work in keeping with the directions identified by the Standing Committee, as well as undertaking work assigned to the Assembly by the triennial Assembly and the Standing Committee. The principles that underpin the ARU are also envisaged as how this unit and all other operational units of the Assembly will work together for solid and valuable outcomes. While ‘resourcing’ is often a term used to refer to the financial services of an organisation, here it is used in a broader sense – to resource the work of the Assembly, to resource the national work of the Uniting Church, to provide resources and resourcing to specific projects. It is anticipated that the new way of working will also provide the potential for flexibility if further re-organisation is required in the future.

The ARU is led by Assembly Associate General Secretary, Rob Floyd, with a team of significant national leaders in the Uniting Church including National Consultants, Apwee Ting, Charissa Suli and Lindsay Cullen.

The Assembly Services Unit provides services to all parts of the Assembly in strategic finance, administration, governance, and media and communications, as well as facilitating the Assembly’s involvement in some areas of national cooperation. National Director Strategic Finance and Admin, Leo Iosifidis and National Manager, Media and Communications Matt Pulford provide leadership in this team.

The three national agencies of the Assembly – UnitingWorld, UnitingCare Australia and Frontier Services – have also experienced transformation throughout the triennium. (Read their reports at B10, B14 and B15) We welcomed new National Directors (Sureka Goringe at UnitingWorld, Claerwen Little at UnitingCare Australia and Jannine Jackson at Frontier Services), new staff, the significant development of Strategic Plans for the Agencies, as well as moves to more integrated and future-focused governance arrangements.

In a collaborative endeavour and understanding the importance of having significant theological expertise across the Assembly, Ji Zhang was appointed as the Assembly Theologian in Residence, particularly working across the ARU, UnitingCare Australia and UnitingWorld.

5. ASSEMBLY STRATEGIC PLAN

An important part of looking to the future (the McCaughey ‘where are you going?’ question) was the development of a three-year Assembly Strategic Plan which was approved by the Assembly Standing Committee in March 2017. In the Strategic Plan, we acknowledge:

That the Assembly affirms our faith in the Crucified and Risen Christ, who constitutes, rules and renews the Church.
And in the light of this faith, that we will live out our covenant as First and Second Peoples, our commitment to being a multicultural Church, oriented towards justice, and that engages constructively with ecumenical partners.

The Plan frames the work we do, focuses the work of the Assembly, provides transparency of Assembly projects and resourcing requirements to Synods, ensures projects out of the Strategic Plan are delivered in a timely way, and allows appropriate levels of accountability and reporting to the Standing Committee for Assembly projects and areas of work.

The Strategic Plan was developed following an online survey to which over 400 people responded from across the Uniting Church, and a one-day workshop with 35 people from different parts of the Church.

Four directions ground the plan – Live out a joyful faith, Grow with God, Be a voice for justice and Journey as one Uniting Church.

In three of the directions in the Strategic Plan, an opportunity to partner with Congress has been identified in response to the Covenant. These partnership opportunities were identified in consultation with Congress.

5.1       LIVE OUT A JOYFUL FAITH

The first direction – Live out a joyful faith - focuses on inspiring and renewing our faith and ministry.

In each of the directions, initiatives were also identified which would provide a foundation for the work of the Assembly over the three years of the plan.

Some of the most vibrant communities of young adults and young adult leaders are in our culturally and linguistically diverse congregations and conferences - Next Gen Arise in the Queensland Synod, the youth community in the Tongan National Conference, the Intercultural Next Gen Conference that was held in Perth this year, and many more examples.

In January 2017, I volunteered on the registration desk at Yurora. For a day and a half, I took people’s names, got their lanyards ready and told them where to go and who to talk to. I specifically remember the time when I felt a wave of relief come over me, and it was when I had to find a name on the spreadsheet that I could spell. At that same time, I realised how incredibly diverse this group of 1000 young people who had come together were. The promise and potential of the next generation of Uniting Church members, and what is offered to the Uniting Church by our many diverse cultural groups should fill us with hope.

The Assembly through national events like Yurora and the National Young Adult Leaders Conference, and resources that are developed, continues to nurture and resource leaders of today and leaders for the future.

The Transforming Worship Conference (2017) was convened as a national conference of the Uniting Church in Australia, working closely with the South Australian Synod. The Conference was attended by over 150 people, with representation from each Synod and many Presbyteries. The event represented an opportunity for Uniting Church people to reflect on worship, with input from a number of local and international speakers. Participants were also able to experience a diversity of worship throughout the event.

Living out a joyful faith also involves celebrating our journey and achievements as a community of faith. 
 
In 2018 the World Council of Churches (WCC) marks its 70th anniversary. Contributing to a collection of stories and memories of this international ecumenical organisation, the first woman President of the Uniting Church Jill Tabart on behalf of the Uniting Church, reflected on taking the consensus decision-making practices from our Church to the WCC and the difference this has made to the way it meets. In a visit to Australia in 2016, WCC General Secretary Olav Fykse Tveit reflected how this gift from the Uniting Church took their meetings to places of real dialogue.

The Assembly continues the commitment of the Uniting Church to ecumenical relationships through memberships not only with the WCC, but also with the Christian Conference of Asia, the World Communion of Reformed Churches, the Pacific Conference of Churches, the World Methodist Council, the Global Christian Forum and the National Council of Churches in Australia. Uniting Church members serve in various ways on these ecumenical bodies, serving on committees, leading areas of work and participating in projects. National dialogues with other churches and faiths in Australia add to this commitment.

In 2017 and 2018 the Assembly provided funding to Synods to host or co-host Iftar dinners during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan as an opportunity to stand together with Muslim communities in harmony and peace. Interfaith relations with other faith groups offers us the opportunity to build community based on mutuality and trust.

5.2       GROW WITH GOD

We are committed to growing with God, and developing leaders for ministry.

Two of the initiatives in this direction of the Assembly Strategic Plan are part of the National Cooperation Agenda (see Journey as one Uniting Church).

Uniting Leaders is a national collaboration that was developed from the National Cooperation Agenda, and is currently under the oversight of the South Australian and Queensland Synods.

In April 2018, the first cohort of leaders from across the Uniting Church began in the newly created National Executive Development Program. This program provides a postgraduate award through the University of Divinity in Melbourne and the Adelaide College of Divinity. It provides executive leadership skills for current and potential leaders (lay and ordained, stipended and voluntary) across the Uniting Church – and within the Uniting Church context. This program developed from a shared national belief that leadership training for future leaders of our Church is vital.

Developing consistent and clear professional standards for ministers in the Uniting Church is a key outcome from the national work out of the learnings from the Royal Commission National Task Group and the National Conversation on Discipline. A national workshop was convened to scope the project to develop the standards, and the impact that a more consistent approach to professional standards for ministers would have on the various Councils of the Church.

We understand that Ministers are called to serve God faithfully and that their ministry to others should therefore be “characterised by the love, care and compassion that was embodied in Jesus Christ.” (Code of Ethics 1.6). The Code of Ethics provides an ethical foundation for that faithful ministry. That is, Ministers demonstrate ethical behaviour consistent with their calling as expressed in the Code of Ethics.  The Code of Ethics will provide a foundation for the Professional Standards which will resource ministers and the Church in effective ministry practice. This national project, due for completion in the next triennium, is under the guidance of John Cox (Executive Officer, Royal Commission National Task Group) and Jane Fry (General Secretary, NSW.ACT Synod).

5.3        BE A VOICE FOR JUSTICE

The Uniting Church has been oriented towards justice from its beginning, offering a prophetic voice into the Australian society as we have sought to live out the Gospel in our communities.

In the Inaugural Statement to the Nation, the Uniting Church said,– We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth's resources for their use and enjoyment.

At this Assembly a renewed statement on climate change will be brought for the Assembly to adopt, For The Whole Creation. This statement has been developed over the past triennium by a group of UCA theologians, climate scientists, representatives from our partner churches, members of Congress and people working across the UCA in climate change response and mitigation activities. A group was brought together initially in 2016 by UnitingJustice Australia to set the broad parameters of the renewed statement. The statement was then worked on under the coordination of Rev Dr Sef Carroll from UnitingWorld and members of the ARU. A wide range of people from across the UCA have reviewed and contributed to its content.  

The Statement recognises the urgency for significant action on this issue and calls upon Uniting Church members to stand with vulnerable people and nations affected by climate change. In this respect we stand with our partner churches in the Pacific, particularly island nations such as Tuvalu and Kiribati, already feeling the effects of rising sea levels, who are among the first people facing the reality of being climate refugees. The work of UnitingWorld in the area of climate justice is significant in this initiative. We also have much to learn from the First Peoples of this land, who understand the changes that are happening because of their deep connection to the land over thousands of years. A significant theological paper is also being prepared to support the Statement and our Church’s position on climate change.

Our voices and our actions make a difference. God’s creation is precious and we are caretakers of it, not just for ourselves but as it says in the Statement to the Nation, for future generations.

The Assembly has remained active in its voice for justice for asylum seekers and refugees. During the past triennium we have been active in the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce, providing input and guidance to the Church on the Sanctuary movement and more recently the Dignity not Destitution campaign.

The Assembly has significantly contributed to the justice work and voice of the Uniting Church over the past triennium, through UnitingJustice Australia, the ARU and the work of the President. (See Reports B16 and B16A)

5.4       JOURNEY AS ONE UNITING CHURCH

Working together across the life and Councils of the Uniting Church is important as we face current and future challenges

Over the past triennium, the Assembly and the Synods have been working on a number of national cooperation and collaboration initiatives.

Some of these have been in the operational or back of house areas. For example, the National Insurance Project is a collaborative project between the Assembly and five of the six Synods. The Assembly also facilitated a National Incorporation Conversation which was resourced by the substantial work done by the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania regarding incorporation, and considered the structure and legal identity of the Church now and into the future. A small task group has been set up to continue this work from a national perspective.

Other collaborations have been in the areas of ministry and mission (Uniting Leaders and Professional Standards). This commitment recognises our interconnection and the importance of working together for the future of the Uniting Church. Cooperating and collaborating nationally benefits the whole Church as we bring the gifts and skills of many people to contribute to important projects.

6. ROYAL COMMISSION

Throughout this past triennium one of the major ways we have journeyed as one Uniting Church has been our response to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

The national response of the Uniting Church through the Assembly and the Synods has enabled the Church to attend to issues raised by the Commission, to learn from research produced by it, and to continue to put policies and processes in place as we work towards a safe Church for all. This work has been led nationally by the Royal Commission National Task Group (see Report B24) and John Cox, Executive Officer for the National Task Group. However, it has been the coordinated response by Synod Task Groups, Synod staff and Standing Committees, Assembly and Synod agencies and staff which has enabled significant outcomes to be achieved as we move towards the goal of the Church being a safe place for all.

In March 2017 the Standing Committee approved the revised “National Child Safe Policy Framework” as replacing the version approved in August 2015, aligning it with research from the Royal Commission regarding elements of child safe institutions. This provides the overarching framework for policies in each Synod, cascading down to Agencies, Institutions and Schools. An annual national audit is carried out across the Church to assess implementation and learn from what is happening.

In March 2017 the President, the Queensland Synod General Secretary and I appeared for the Uniting Church before the Commission in Case Study 56. National policies and processes, and the responses of the Church during the life of the Commission were interrogated.

Following the conclusion of the Royal Commission’s work and the handing down of its report to the Government, the important work of analysing its recommendations for the Uniting Church and its institutions and Agencies has begun. The commitment of the Uniting Church to a National Redress Scheme which provides redress to survivors of abuse in our institutions has been a major focus, and the announcement made by the President that the Uniting Church would opt in to the National Redress Scheme being legislated for federally and in most state jurisdictions, is a significant and necessary step forward. Again to enable this to happen, the Assembly and the Synods have worked together across all Standing Committees.

7. CONCLUSION

There’s been a lot of change at the Assembly over the past triennium. We’ve said goodbye to amazing leaders of the Uniting Church – Terence Corkin, Elenie Poulos, Chris Walker, Craig Mitchell, Tom Kerr and Lin Hatfield Dodds. Their contribution and legacy remains and reminds us constantly of what the national work of the Church should be. The current Executive Leadership Team at the Assembly – Rob Floyd, Sureka Goringe, Claerwen Little, Jannine Jackson and Leo Iosifidis – are guiding the Assembly into the future with their considerable experience, expertise, enthusiasm and faithfulness.

We’ve changed how we work, not just at the Assembly, but nationally across the Uniting Church. We think and act more cooperatively and collaboratively, aware of what is able to be achieved if we do it together. It has been a joy and a blessing to share national leadership with the President, Stuart McMillan and with the national leadership team of Moderators and General Secretaries.

We’ve been challenged about what the future for the Church will need to take account of, from the sobering and confronting work of the Royal Commission to the data that shows us we cannot continue as we have in the past. Celebrating our 40th anniversary has done that for us too. We looked back and our history reminded us that the Uniting Church was an innovative endeavour for a particular time and context, and we can’t afford to stagnate when the mission of God is taking place in an ever-changing world. This will, I believe include looking at how the Uniting Church is structured, and being brave enough to consider something new.

As we look to the future of our Church, together, we are called to live out a joyful faith, grow with God, be a voice for justice and journey as one Uniting Church.


Colleen Geyer
General Secretary