Saltbush - Uniting the scattered community

Five years ago, the Synod of NSW and ACT began an innovative ministry that seeks to sustain and nurture communities of faith in rural and remote places.

It is called “Saltbush” and its motto “Uniting the Scattered Community” reflects its mandate to encourage and connect communities of faith in the Uniting Church, irrespective of their size or location, and to affirm their place within the wider church and community.

Rev Mark Faulkner, Director of Rural and Remote Ministry Initiatives for the Synod of NSW and ACT, picked up the challenge of this new ministry some years back. Seeing firsthand rural and remote congregations and Presbyteries without the support or resources to continue to function in the same ways, Mark could see that things needed to be done differently.

In the 1990s, Mark was serving as a Minister in Tenterfield, a regional town in the Tablelands of northern NSW. As part of his ministry there, he would regularly lead worship at the Union Church in Wallangarra, just north of the border.

“That congregation only ever had a maximum of eight people,” explains Mark. “They were all women, older women. They were either widows or were married to men that never came along.”

As Mark came to the end of this placement, he approached the congregation about having a conversation to discuss what would happen after he left.

He recalls, “We agreed on the evening, and I drove up to Wallangarra to have this conversation. When I arrived, the Church was completely packed with people. There were people standing around the walls and the place was full.”

Suddenly, it was obvious to Mark that the future of this small church mattered to more than just the eight women who turned up to Sunday worship.

“The Church was painted by people you never saw and the grass was mowed by people I’d hardly met, maybe once or twice. Things were fixed up, it was looked after. And so, the place was full.”

The community there were concerned about the future – not only of having a minister there - but also for the future of that church.

“I was really on the spot.  And I realised, I had nothing to offer them. That was the reality of it.”

“Yet, in the Gospels and throughout the whole of scriptures there is this constant reference to the widow as being a symbol of the least, the one who was reliant on the wider community.”

“I’ve been thinking right from those days, surely we can do better at this, than a church that has got nothing to offer the least.”

Fast forward another 20 plus years and those first wonderings were given the freedom and opportunity to become the start of something new.

Mark was appointed by the Synod of NSW/ACT to encourage and nurture the Congregations and Christian communities within the Synod’s three rural Presbyteries - Riverina, Macquarie Darling and New England North West.

From the beginning, Mark says he was clear that he was not interested in a traditional model of ministry. The need is too great, and the same model is no longer sufficient.

“Today, we are in a wholly different situation as the Church, from the congregations down to the Assembly.”

Mark provides this example. The New England North West Presbytery in which he worked as a minister in the 90s, which covers a vast region from Tenterfield to Tamworth, once had a minister in every congregation. Now they have no ministers at all.

“Our rural Presbyteries are in crisis but they aren’t even able to articulate what it looks like for them. We have these regulations that were written for the 70s but no one has had the time or energy to actually relook at what that means.”

“I get tired of hearing comments about a congregation of 10 or 20 people that no longer has any value, or the latest phrase, ‘they are no longer viable’.”

“Very few of us would do that to our families, to say if we got rid of Aunt Martha because she’s no longer viable, we could sell her house and get some inheritance. But that’s what we’re doing for the vast majority of our Uniting Church congregations across the whole country and we diminish ourselves.”

“There are Presbyteries throughout Australia that have nothing to offer their congregations other than meetings.”

“We have to completely reshape the way we go about being church. We talk about being a just church as the Uniting Church but the way we nurture our Christian communities is unjust.”

“If you’re wealthy and you’re in the middle of Sydney or Melbourne and can afford a minister, you can get a minister. But we have hundreds of congregations that can’t afford a minister and never will. We still have got nothing to offer them.”

Saltbush is going about trying to change that.

As noted on its website, Saltbush “seeks to work with individuals and Christian communities who are willing to confront traditions and habits of the past to shape new intentional gatherings for the present future reality.”

Mark says, “The creative innovation of Saltbush, if you would call it that, is going back to the roots of a fundamental belief that we need to re-nurture and re-encourage and focus on what it is to be Christian communities and be in discipleship.”

This vision has been allowed to flourish. Saltbush has since grown to having four people on its team. Their ministry includes a weekly video message and liturgy shared via their website and an online café on a weeknight. They collect donations which are put towards equipping communities with technology such as a TV and have created resources for congregations to have conversations about the way they continue to live out their life and gather together. Three times a year they produce a publication called Ruminations which talks about faith and life. Saltbush has also hosted a number of national gatherings that have brought together people from across Australia.

As the whole church discerns its future, Mark believes the answer – and the innovation that’s needed – is to go back to nurturing relationships with congregations and a focus on Christian community and discipleship.

“When we talk about discerning the future in our Synods or Assembly or Presbyteries, we think there’s going to be some new thing. But there’s not going to be any new thing about being genuine Christian community, it’s already there, we just have to nurture it.”

“I think God is doing wholly different things within the life of our world and within our society. The Church may or may not even be involved, it has to choose. That’s the innovative edge that we have to participate in, if we are willing.”

Mark says that more and more people will choose to belong to Christian communities but not necessarily to denominations.

“We are in a wholly different world where people connect as they want.”

And connection is what Saltbush does every single week.

“It’s a beautiful thing to see, even on Zoom, these odd, liquorice-all-sort bunch of people come together, with different life experiences, different backgrounds, different ages, even different theologies. We don’t have to argue that, we just nurture people exploring life and faith together. And that is what the future of Christian community I think will look like.”