The mission of Woollahra — Double Bay Uniting Church
Written by Bethany Broadstock
What does Innovation look like in the Uniting Church?
For Rev Vanessa Williams-Henke and Uniting Heart and Soul in Sydney's Double Bay and Woollahra, there are two key ingredients: an openness to take risks, and embracing a “radically honest” approach to ministry.
Rev Vanessa Williams-Henke took up placement as the minister in mid-January. In a short amount of time she has inspired a heart for mission which has led to exponential growth of the community over its two worshipping sites. Since 15 January, the congregation has grown from a small but engaged group of around 14 people to over 50 each week. Over the Easter weekend, more than 100 people worshipped there.
Vanessa says there has been nothing revolutionary about her approach. She asked the existing church community to trust her, she says, and simply opened the doors. The church began to use the worship space as a worship space again, knowing that - with capacity to seat 150 people - growth could take place there.
Vanessa credits the community for its willingness to take risks and their positive response to what she described as a “radically honest ministry” that speaks plainly and openly about the reality of life. “I keep it simple and I talk about things of the heart. I make the stories relate for right here and now,” says Vanessa.
At the same time, the congregation has re-oriented to an outward-facing approach by intentionally reaching out towards the wider community. Through provocative signage and word of mouth, Facebook boosting, and a professional communications strategy, the visibility of the church in the community is growing.
“Our messaging is bold and brave and at times outrageous”, says Vanessa. “I try to think like a seeker. I think, if I was a non-Christian what would I want to hear? And I try to operate like somebody who might not be into God at all.”
This posture perhaps arises from experience, as Vanessa was once outside the community of faith but was surprised by the call to ministry after what she calls a purely experiential encounter with the Holy Spirit.
She entered ministry reluctantly but with a commitment to remain herself: “If God was going to call me,” she says, “I was just going to extravagantly be me.”
“I come from a position of vulnerability and I think people respond to that because it’s real.”
Vanessa has brought a passionate, evangelistic and entrepreneurial style to her ministry. Discerning the work of the Spirit and responding to the Spirit’s prompting continues to be foundational and is inspiring the mission of the church.
New and exciting opportunities are arising from a simple process - to recognise and take account of the extent of resources held by the church and available for mission, and then to consider how best to use them for the betterment of the wider community.
In doing this, there is a strong commitment to harness partnerships and draw on the insights of existing models - joining with ‘the places of life’ that already exist.
One of the key aspects of the mission strategy for Woollahra-Double Bay is considering options for how best to use or potentially redevelop commercial real estate owned by the church.
There are plans for the location of the church in the Bay to become the site for a collaboration with the Wayside Chapel to establish a luxe Op shop and gallery for local artists. Under this arrangement, Uniting Heart and Soul (Woollahra-Double Bay) will provide the real estate for the mission and Wayside Chapel will use the shop as a training space for young people.
Mural art works have also commenced at Double Bay Chapel Court, some of the most prestigious commercial real estate owned by the Uniting Church in the Bay.
In response to discerning the needs of the community, the church is also exploring the possibility of partnering with a psychologist and establishing counselling rooms to serve the area of Woollahra-Double Bay, which has one of the highest incidents of domestic violence in Sydney. It is hoped that the service will be fee-help based or very low fee, removing cost as a barrier to assistance for people in various situations of violence.
Alongside these possibilities, Vanessa now dreams that a church plant may be in the future.
“I’m humbled by the growth, humbled by what I’ve been able to do with my team very quickly and bring about change.”
“I’m still in shock that I’m actually doing this thing they call ministry. I’m still in shock God is using me in this way.”
Vanessa agrees that the exciting ministry emerging at Woollahra - Double Bay is innovative because it is about always “trying to think outside of the box”, but the ultimate purpose is the same: “let’s be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, and that’s my default position.”
Join Lets Yarn About Innovation with the Assembly Resourcing Unit this THURSDAY 15 APRIL @ 7.30pm AEST to talk about what innovation in the Church looks like for you and the new and exciting ways we can be Church. Everyone is welcome.
Check out other stories of Innovation.