Final I.I.M. Report

Final Report for the Period of Intentional Interim Ministry, Jan 2018 – March 2019

Ready to Fly?

The half-yearly report last July may be re-read (click here) as part of this report, so I will try to avoid repeating the things I mentioned there.  In the second half of the year my priorities were to focus on spiritual development and the creation of a small group experience, both of which found an outlet in the Wednesday afternoon Bible study, and as well, I wanted to continue to provide challenge and stimulation in worship and through the website. Of course, the overall goal has been to leave the congregation ready for the new minister, just like the engineer who warms up the airplane so that it is ready for the pilot to take off. So the question to be addressed in this final report is: Is Leopold congregation ready to fly?

To evaluate the congregation I am using, as a framework, the questions on the “Annual Church Health Checkup” prepared by the Baptist Union of Victoria.

Is a clear and common vision widely known and owned by the people of the congregation? 

I suspect most people would give a fairly negative score to this question, and certainly, there has been no formal attempt at visioning during this period of transition in the last 15 months.  Yet there seems to be a commonness of purpose that suggests the real response to the question is toward the positive side. The congregation is far from floundering in chaos; rather, it is in a comfortable place in which the people feel in control of their destiny. The ready willingness of the people to use savings to fund a full time ministerial settlement speaks of confidence in the church’s place in the community and the direction in which it is heading. 

At this stage, with the arrival of a new minister, it would be helpful to set some achievable goals for the coming five-year period in order to create a more concrete vision. I think this should be a high priority task, for which a date should be set soon after the start of the placement.  If it were me, I would use Pentecost, the birthday of the church, as an excuse to get people together for this purpose, and engage Presbytery to help.  

As I have mentioned elsewhere, goal-setting should give priority to building on the congregation’s strengths instead of worrying too much about weaknesses. These strengths include able leadership, communal warmth, the Op Shop, pastoral care, location in growth area, its work in the community, musical resources and buildings and grounds. Score:  Satisfactory

Is there purposeful direction to the activities of the congregation?

A committee for everything?

I find the leadership of the congregation to be quite purposeful.  What they do, they do well: efficiently and effectively.  In part, this is due to the fact that leadership is shared by a number of very capable people, unlike congregations that have one or two very strong people who take responsibility for the bulk of the work, either doing it or delegating it to others.  It has been a joy to be part of a congregation that is relatively free of political wrangling and people who revel in having power.  I hope the new minister is one who is happy to give free rein to this state of affairs, rather than try fill the power vacuum.  Score: Very Good

Do worship services inspire true worship?

Sci-Fi author, Frank Herbert, in The Jesus Incident, made, as a major thread to his story, the oft-repeated question to which no one seemed to know the answer: “What is worShip?”   My understanding of worship is that it encompasses not just what happens in church, but what happens afterward; i.e. have people, and the society they create, been changed for the better.  This is a question I can’t answer; however, I can say that the people who come to church seem to be open to whatever God throws at them.  I have done my best to ensure they leave the service with questions and the readiness to allow the Spirit to supply an answer.  The people are, for the most part, eager to participate in worship, and this openness is the best evidence I can muster to give an affirmative answer to this question.  Score:  Good??

Does our church present a positive gospel message?

The emphasis of the message conveyed by the people of the Leopold Congregation in word and, more importantly, in action is the good news of grace, forgiveness and acceptance. Score: Very Good

Is there a balance between evangelism (outer work) and discipleship (inner work)?

As in most churches of which I have been a part, the balance seems to tilt toward outer work.  The members of the congregation are good at ‘doing’, whether it be the Op Shop, nursing homes, serving pancakes at the primary school, working in the church garden, pastoral visiting, et al.  Inner work has been left to the individual.  In the latter half of 2018, 15 people (about 1/3 of a typical Sunday congregation) met weekly for an 8-week Bible study and about half continued on for another few weeks until the busyness of Advent halted the study.  I was heartened by the enthusiasm people demonstrated, not only for the work, but for getting together with one another.  The study group has been revived for Lent, and I think a foundation has been created on which can be built a program for more inner work. If so, this can be ‘power-plant’ for even more outer work.   Score: Promising

Does corporate prayer saturate the life of the congregation?

Life without prayer

I have taken the above question directly from the Baptist’s Church Health Checkup, but I don’t like it.  No, corporate prayer does not “saturate” the life of the congregation, nor would I encourage it.  However, if one starts with the reason for corporate prayer, which is to try to discover where the Spirit of God is leading us, then I can answer more affirmatively.  I certainly think there is much room for improvement by setting aside more time for what one might call corporate ‘inner work’; nevertheless, the people are mindful of the fact that they are God’s agents, and seeking direction as such is an important part of the work of the congregation.

Whilst there is corporate prayer in worship, there is room to make seeking God’s will a greater part of all of our church activities. For example, all church meetings should happen in the context of worship, rather than simply having a prayer added on to meetings at the start.  Understanding activities and meetings as worship has not been part of the congregation’s culture, and perhaps one task for the new minister would be to try to inculcate the notion that every activity of the church should be in the context of worship. Score: Needs Work

Does the church follow up those who visit?

In a word, yes.  Following up ‘first-timers’ is a high priority for the minister and the pastoral care team.  The initial follow-up is done well, but there is room to improve the next stage: helping newcomers feel ‘at home,’ and incorporating them into the life of the church.  One useful avenue has been the Friendship club, which meets bi-monthly on the first Thursday, and this will continue to be a good way to ease newcomers into the congregation, provided they happen to be women in their later years.  Otherwise, there are few opportunities: choir (if the newcomer can carry a tune), Op Shop (if the newcomer has the time and inclination), bible study (if it continues).  The gifts of newcomers need to be identified, so they can be guided into appropriate roles in the life of the church.

As I have mentioned before on the website and at other times, small group life is vitally important.  As a minister in a permanent settlement, I would make developing an extensive network of small groups my very highest priority.  A person who is relatively new to the congregation came to see me while I was writing this report, and asked me how to get to know people.  This individual has been with us for several months, but has struggled to form relationships. This highlights the fact that a congregation’s greatest strengths can be its greatest weaknesses. The congregation is strong because it is small and intimate and its members are bonded to one another, but the strength of these relationships makes it harder for a newcomer to break in.

In addition to ideas I have put on the website, the arrival of a new minister is a great excuse to gather people into small groups in order to have a series of occasions to ‘meet and greet’ the new minister.  Score: Initial contact – Very Good; Incorporation into the life of the church – Room for Improvement

Is the church aware of the world at its door and beyond?

Yes, the congregation and its members are involved in many ways in community. It is one of the strong aspects of the Leopold Congregation. The Op Shop is a valuable resource in this regard, and the two local nursing homes provide extensions of the congregation. Score: Very Good.

Does the church develop leaders?

As already stated, the congregation is very-well-led by a number of highly competent people, so the answer to the question is apparently ‘yes.’  The situation has arisen partly because it has been necessary, for it has been quite a few years since the congregation had a full time minister to itself, so the new minister must take care to allow and encourage these leaders to continue to lead, and not ‘let them off the hook’  🙂

There has not been any intentional leadership development of which I am aware.  I have tentatively arranged for Jeanne Beale to lead one of her workshops in Leopold this year, and I am hoping this can be the first of regular training exercises.  Score: Very Good

Does the congregation have appropriate structures and wise administration?

As I commented in my ‘Halfway’ report last July, the use of a church council, meeting monthly, may be more suited to a larger congregation; however, it is a borderline call.  Judging from the sort of business an administrative committee must handle at Leopold, the work perhaps could be done more efficiently by individuals and task groups operating independently, and reporting, say, three time a year or so to a meeting of the whole congregation, with special meetings of the congregation to be held when an urgent decision is required.  I also commented that the consensus model would be an improvement on the current parliamentary method.  Those comments aside, the administration of the congregation is very good, (so I might have to yield to the argument, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’).  Score: Very Good

Do our congregants have a sense of community?

Very definitely!  Score: Excellent

Does the congregation practice redemptive love?

Same answer!  Score: Excellent

Does the congregation live as a people of hope and expectation?

Risking the future

In any group, there is always a vanguard of a few people who see possibilities and have positive expectations of the future. Among a people of faith, one might expect this attitude would be universal, but in practice this is rarely the case. Leopold congregation has good reason to be positive about the future, but I get the sense that most people are happy with the status quo and are content to live in the present. To actually live in expectation of a future that is yet unseen is sufficiently scary to try one’s faith daily.  In order to do it. people are going to have to share their faith and experiences to a much greater degree than happens now, and this will require spiritual leadership and opportunities for people to share their journeys.  Again, this is where a network of small groups is extremely helpful.  Score: Needs work

Do we have new people joining our church?

Newcomers haven’t arrived in invading hoards, but we have have had several new people join in recent months, and there is an intention to hold a formal service of welcome for them within few weeks.  Could the congregation do more to encourage new members?  Of course. Score: Satisfactory

Do the people of the congregation contribute generously?

Whilst the members of congregation do not give enough to meet the budget, a considerable percentage of them contribute in many other ways, readily volunteering their time and energy.  It is conceivable that monetary giving could be increased  (there hasn’t been a stewardship program in many years), but it is even more conceivable that the size of the congregation can be significantly increased, which is a much better way of raising funds.  Leopold is a rapidly growing community, and only a very small percentage of people who identify their religious affiliation as Uniting Church on the census come to church. Score: Room for Improvement


Church Council?

Leopold Congregation is in good shape, and the future is bright.  With capable leaders, a harmonious environment, an ample number of people who contribute, an excellent suite of buildings on a good, highly-visible property in a rapidly-growing community and the faith to take on a full time minister even though the budget will go into deficit, there is a lot of ‘upside’.  Yes, its members are predominantly in the latter third of their lives, but this should be no barrier as long as the work is shared and not left to a few.  It is an open and accepting group of people, who need only to create the structures to help them incorporate new people in order to bring about a church that will grow along with the outside thriving community. Is it ready to fly?  Yes, if it wants to.  

From the standpoint of a clergyperson, the warmth of community, the excellent resources (both people and physical), the openness to new ideas and the potential for growth make Leopold a great place to minister.

Bob Thomas (Rev), I.I.M.

March 2019