"A community who cares for each other"
June 21, 2022
In a bold but deeply considered move, members of Lane Cove Uniting Church, located on the North Shore of Sydney, decided to sell their Church building and ‘give back’ to their wider community with the proceeds. From this decision, a new missional direction emerged - Lane Cove Community Chaplaincy. Rev Karen Paull has filled that role for nearly eight years. She shares some of this story of innovation with us.
After much discussion and research, the Congregation decided it would employ someone who could ‘go to the people’, embodying the Church in the community, rather than expecting people to come to them. This cohered exactly with my vision as a fresh Deacon graduate trained in missional ministry. But how do you embrace a whole community with the love of God?
Beginning this Community Chaplain role nearly 8 years ago required constant listening to both our surrounding community and the Church, then responding with new and innovative ideas. There was no set structure, but a prayerful determination to relate to the wider community. I visited key community leaders by turning up at their events, doorsteps, websites and Facebook pages in a friendly and supportive way. I was seeking the ‘people of peace’ in our community, who shared our values and welcomed our presence amongst them. Early on we connected with a community centre, Rotary and Community Development staff with the local council.
I found a highly-resourced community, with many capable people keen to serve in meaningful ways. Although this is a great context, it made it difficult to find a place for this work initially. We didn’t want to duplicate what was already available in the community or in the Church space. I kept returning to the question, ‘what unique thing was I offering as a Community Chaplain?’ We began our own groups and activities based on my ’best guess’ of what was needed from what I’d heard and observed. Not everything gained traction, and some for just a while. We also partnered in the public space with community fairs, expos, Citizenship ceremony suppers, writing columns, using social media and public speaking. Gradually, we built a credible reputation.
These days, there is more rhythm to what I do, although no day is completely predictable. There are some regular activities which have sustained: community walks, weekly meditation on Zoom; chaplaincy at a community playgroup; groups exploring faith and life together; a book club, plus a growing number of coffee and dinner groups. All these activities deepen relationships and have made it possible to invite people to our unique, outdoor, contemplative worship community which we have called Sacred Space.
I write a monthly 400-word column for our local paper, maintain a website and Facebook page and advertise our offerings wherever I can. These generate unpredictable responses! People who want to join in, requests for community knowledge and referrals, pastoral chats, thanks, requests for prayer, and invitations to many events. My life is not boring!
We seek to provide a sincere and ongoing welcome to everyone and a discipleship pathway for those who are interested. Our central theme is addressing loneliness, so enabling group participants to connect with each other is important too. ‘We are a community who cares for each other’ is an underlying ethos I verbalise regularly in various ways and helps to create a safe community. Many people appreciate practices of gratitude and the holistic outlook on life we encourage as they contribute to their wellness. Many of our groups have some nature focus involved, so thankfulness for our First Peoples who cared for our environment, and our ongoing appreciation and responsibility to care for the Creation, provides an authentic route to spirituality.
It’s a good thing I love to innovate because it’s ongoing, but differently now. I often create my own activities and resources. A favourite has been to collect a rainbow of colours on our walk, (everyone is given a colour but we help each other), then reflect on the significance of rainbows in our discussion.
Most of our groups are low prep and flexible, although planning a longer, high quality walk, walking weekends away, or an innovative worship experience, takes significant time. We begin new activities as an experiment and will nuance and improve them if there is significant interest. Using online tools such as MailChimp for big email lists and Try Booking for events have been time savers.
It initially felt threatening to be a very public Christian presence in a community that largely seemed to be disinterested and occasionally hostile to Christianity. I have learned to interact honestly and peacefully, expecting the best of people. I try to be a credible representative of my God, Christianity, the Uniting Church, my supporting Congregation and this created entity, Lane Cove Community Chaplaincy, in the way I live and relate. I accept that not everyone will be welcoming of me or the message I represent, so without hostility, I simply move on to those who are. There are plenty of people and organisations left to approach. I find that most people warm to someone who is just offering to care for them, with no strings attached. But it is important to name who and what we stand for as it arises, to allow the questions and the search to go deeper.
Finding ways as a faith community or congregation to adapt to those searches for meaning? It’s your turn to be creative.
- Listen first, be humble.
- Be who you are and start in areas of your interest and passion.
- Seek to join with community organisations who hold similar values and be a good friend to them.
- Trial more new initiatives in a ‘light’ way for a period of time (e.g. 6 months) rather than one very time-consuming one, while finding your ‘market’.
- Find public spaces to promote your ministry (neighbourhood networking service Nextdoor has been surprisingly fruitful). Keep promoting!
- Be respectful and deferential to community leaders and willing to serve.
- Seek ongoing relationships as building rapport and trust takes time.
- Love and accept people for who they are, not for what you can get from them.
See more in this video from Uniting Mission and Education in the Synod of NSW/ACT, produced as part of the Our Story series exploring unique and inspiring contexts across the Synod.