Reflecting back: Act2 Focus Groups
October 31, 2023
written by Rev Cyrus Kung, Act2 Administration and Engagement Officer
As a part of the Act2 Project's ‘Collective Discernment’ phase, 12 Focus Groups explored conversations around Workstream 1, Local Communities of Faith and Discipleship, and the Directions offered in Section 5 the latest report Act2: In Response to God’s Call. This built on similar Focus Groups in the ‘Exploration’ phase earlier this year.
The Act2 Project team invited ministers, lay leaders, members and participants in Uniting Church local communities to be part of specific and relevant conversations about issues, opportunities and challenges in their context.
The Focus Groups captured a diversity of experiences from across the Uniting Church. Here are 4 key findings from these meetings.
"There is a desire for solidarity and connection with others in ministry"
Warmth towards the adoption of the Directions
Across the different focus groups, there was overwhelming warmth towards adopting the four directions as an integrated set of tools. There has been feedback about sharpening and further clarifying some aspects of the directions but an overall positivity toward them. People felt they were needed. This warmth comes particularly from the affirmation that local communities of faith and discipleship are the beating heart of the Uniting Church and that conversations about the future need to take seriously the opportunities and the challenges of these communities.
Desire to hear from one another
In our conversations there was a noticeable desire to hear stories from different parts of the country. Some participants found joy in being able to connect with others that had similar experiences of both triumphs and challenges in ministry. There is also a desire for solidarity and connection with others in ministry. In sharing stories of challenges faced by others in both similar and diverse contexts, people were assured that other parts of the Church are also facing significant changes in their life. These findings affirmed those of the Act2 report that many of our local communities see value in being a part of a larger Uniting Church body although they can at times feel disconnected from it.
It is important to also note that some people struggle with what it means to be the Uniting Church and how to fully participate in it. This was noted across the focus groups, by large communities, small communities, new communities and communities coming to an end.
Identity and Changing Landscapes
The focus groups all articulated landscapes of immense change but also the hopes and values that have been constant. Discussions of change opened conversations of grief, lament and identity crisis. Both emerging and established communities look to the wider Church for clarification and affirmation of their identity amid changing landscapes. Local communities usually found it easy to name the places of life-giving discipleship within their own context, but more difficult to name this in the wider Church.
The four directions spoke to different aspects of Church processes that are causing friction amid the changing landscapes and identity of local communities. Some of these frictions were structural (Direction 3), some were about a lack of pastoral mechanisms (Direction 4) and others about a lack of clarity in theological and ecclesiological understanding (Direction 2). This lack of clarity and friction is impeding discipleship and mission (Direction 1) however there was a recognition that both cultural and systems change is required to recentre local communities on those core tasks.
The Centre and the Margins
How each community saw themselves in relation to the centre and the margins of the Church had some significance in understanding their place within the decision making and implementation of change in the Church. Those who saw themselves in relation to the centre of the Church were much more concerned with the lack of energy and resources they could use moving forward in their ministry. Those that saw themselves in relation to the margins of the Church were also concerned with a lack of resources, however it was more so to do with losing the current mechanism they had for seeking resources out.
Another concern expressed was about the lack of recognition from the wider life of the Church. Communities within the diaconal ministry of the Church, culturally and linguistically diverse communities, non-traditional, larger/multisite congregations and emerging communities were amongst those that felt the most strongly about a lack of recognition and place within the current structures of the Church.
Our local governance structures do offer workarounds and the ability to participate in ongoing ministry, but an ongoing concern for local communities of faith is whether the structures promote a growing and healthy ministry in both the margins and the centres of the Church.
As we come towards the end of the ‘Collective Discernment’ phase on 30 November we will bring together these insights with the insights from the councils, governing bodies and members across the life of our Church. This will feed into the final integrated set of recommendations to be shape as part of the ‘Recommendations for Action’ phase between now and the 17th Assembly in July 2024.