District Church Council (DCC) meetings in parish locations have been held for some years now, usually twice a year, and usually in one metro and one regional location each year. This occasion saw the North East Zone parishes meeting together online. Sixteen members from across the Goulburn Murray (Shepparton/Echuca), Benalla-Wangaratta, Bendigo, and Wodonga met virtually with DCC on Saturday 24th July. Pastor Brett Kennett, pastor for congregational support, also attended as consultant to DCC.
The congregational focus allows DCC to hear from leaders across the whole of the District and to understand the differing and similar concerns among the membership of the District. A by-product of this type of meeting is that congregational and parish leaders in similar areas hear from one another directly and share experiences.
Typically, DCC approach congregational leaders prior to the meeting to respond regarding blessings/joys, challenges, and opportunities. Even in this time of isolation and restriction there were still many joys being shared.
Challenges included each of these parishes having experienced pastor vacancy for some time in the last 30 months and two currently remain in pastor vacancy.
COVID-19 with the lock downs and restrictions rated highly around challenge due to decreased attendance and subsequent decreased financial contribution. The challenge of reengagement and maintaining/building volunteerism were also mentioned here.
Other challenges included the tough decision to close a congregation. In another congregation the movement of families with children to other locales led to the closure of the Sunday School and in some congregations a high rate of casual employment means members work multiple jobs over long hours and are therefore less ‘present’ for worship and other activities. Leadership development was another space in which congregations were feeling challenged.
One positive outcome of COVID restrictions, and pastor vacancy, was the opportunity to review mission and ministry opportunities and consider the property of the church and how to best make use of this. One congregation noted some advantage after successfully applying for grants for equipment to support online presence while in lockdown. All the congregations saw opportunity to engage with the wider local community through activities such as the local Lutheran College (Wodonga), African House, the local op-shop, and participation in the Winter Shelter program. A comment was made that there is greater awareness of blessings previously taken for granted. In Wodonga a building project to relocate the congregation onto the college property is both a challenge and an opportunity. The example of what has been achieved through African House at Shepparton was cited as an inspiration.
The joys and blessings included the successful recent call of a pastor for Wangaratta-Benalla. Another was the sense that identity of the parish is still strong despite lockdowns. Wangaratta-Benalla parish also recently enjoyed the opportunity to host the Lutheran Women of Victoria Retreat. The Goulburn Murray parish felt the blessing of being able to reach beyond the parish through livestreaming worship.
The use of members’ talents in areas such as music, cooking and property management were mentioned, for the way they lift both members and the local community. The pastoral care and fellowship through provision of meals was a highlight for Bendigo while for Shepparton the support of worship by the African Choir was felt to be a great benefit. The locals are excited about the opportunity for the African Choir to participate in the 2021 Desert Song festival.
Relationships beyond the direct congregation were also mentioned a blessing. Shepparton has a relationship with the Hope Evangelical Church in Burundi, and Wodonga congregation have a relationship with Victory Lutheran College and are excited as the church building project moves forward. Participation in local projects such as the Winter Shelter were seen as a blessing. The Bendigo Congregation is looking to further it’s journey as a Sending Church. The material of the New & Renewing Churches was acknowledged in helping identify the local community culture.
Multicultural and multigenerational ministry are highly valued by these parishes. The strong teaching provided by pastors and lay staff is valued and the catechism teaching at Shepparton was specifically highlighted.
Some points were raised at the meeting with specific actions arising. Others will be considered by DCC and its subcommittees in the longer term.
- Support of young adults in regional areas particularly in training and educational scenarios
- The desire to legitimise digital worship, with Pastor Brett Kennett and DCC member Rev Dr Tim Stringer tasked to develop some high-level options in this area
- The possibility of inter-church visits which might be digital in some circumstances
- The value of both lay and pastoral leadership and resourcing this
- Sharing of the Face Book accounts to promote activities and share inspiration
- LAMP 2 remains incomplete. A letter to the appropriate bodies has been written to encourage further prioritisation of this project.
- Visits by Pr Brett and Bp Lester have been valuable in helping determine future parish life.
Pastor Brett noted that a reduction of size of (or closure of) congregation does not mean local failure if a local country town has shrunk. Churches may close but the mission continues.
As you read this story perhaps you will be inspired to consider your congregations’ joys and blessings, the opportunities, and the challenges. We would love to hear from you about these at District Office. You may also wish to submit a question or provide a word of encouragement as our District Church Council continue to meet to further the business of the Church.