Recapturing our Soul: A Conference on the Relationship Between Congregations and Agencies

A Reflection on the ROS Conference by John Flett

From 2-4 of September 2016, Pilgrim Theological College, in association with UnitingCare VicTas and the University of Heidelberg’s Institute for the Study of Christian Social Service, hosted a conference reflecting on the relationship between agencies and congregations. Over 80 participants gathered to hear 16 experts in the field discuss different aspects of the problem, from extended theological reflections, to forms of funding and modes of advocacy.

It is clear that both the church understood primarily in congregational terms and the church understood primarily in social service terms are under various pressures. When under pressure, the temptation is to stake claims concerning priorities. The intent of the conference was to encourage a different type of dialogue which resists the tendency toward framing all relationships in terms of competition and management. And, to this end, the conference generated good positive energy.

The German delegates assisted this process both by opening enough cultural distance to help us see ourselves more clearly and by bringing a different range of insights to help us sight different ways of engaging with each other. Hanns-Stephan Haas’ reflection as a CEO of an agency in Hamburg demonstrated how positive and creative forms of service provision center on congregational participation in the everyday lives of those in need. Annette Noller’s discussion of the hybrid church and its existence in plural places raised important ecclesiological questions. Both stressed the need for solid educational grounding in the theological and social service fields, for all those involved in agencies.

Lucy Morris, recent CEO of BaptCare WA, gave a full and frank account of how certain narratives of the human and the human good, framed by funding models, can shape the agency culture and behaviour. Johannes Eurich asked after the possibility of a Christian corporate culture, one that encouraged taking pause precisely so as to support the quality of service given. Stephen Pickard, Executive Director of the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, developed a theological rationale concerned with the plenty of God and so with defining the church only ever in relation to the poor.

Alongside these keynote presentations ran parallel sessions focused on the areas of theology, funding and advocacy. Not only did this breadth illustrate the complexity of context, it demonstrated the range of competencies that exist in Australia and the benefit of talking together.  Key representatives from different agencies and from the UCA agencies in SA, NSW and QLD, along with the national body located in Canberra, were all present.

All in all, the conference generated important energy. It is, however, only a single conference and the key finding to come from this, concerned the need to be intentional about keeping this conversation going.