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Speech bubble graphic by Holly Jewell.
Graphic: Holly Jewell

Breaking open the word: Lay preachers in the Uniting Church

The ministry of lay preacher lies at the heart of the Uniting Church’s vision of a Christian community which celebrates the gifts of every member. Dianne Jensen reports.

Caroline Holmes from Fitzroy North Rockhampton Uniting Church has clocked up 53 years of lay preaching, and she is busier than ever.

She is one of an army of lay preachers who lead worship every Sunday, living out the Uniting Church affirmation that both lay and ordained people are called to lead the church and to preach the gospel. Without lay preachers, the witness and revelation of the laity would be lost and many small congregations would founder.

“It is a ministry that is vitally important to the life of the church and it needs to be valued as a ministry that lay people can offer to the church,” says Caroline. “Lay preachers are not just filling in until someone more qualified comes along.”

Caroline was commissioned by the Presbyterian Church in 1962 and was recognised as a lay preacher at church union. After missionary service overseas she began preaching in rural centres such as Biloela and Emerald before moving to Rockhampton.

“It’s something I can’t not do—it’s like asking someone what breathing means to them,” says Caroline. “I am an educator through and through but lay preaching is different from education; it’s actually a sharing of what is in the gospel of Christ.”

She is a tireless advocate for continuing education, and would like to see the Queensland Synod provide more support for lay preachers.

“I think for lay preachers it is absolutely imperative that they keep abreast of what is happening theologically, but there is no financial support to do that,” says Caroline. “That’s a disappointment because I think the church relies incredibly on its lay preachers.”

Speaking in tongues

Blue Care chaplain and retired teacher Gewa Au is one of around 30 lay preachers in the congregation of Logan Central Multicultural Uniting Church just south of Brisbane. He was accredited in 2013 and conducts services at Blue Care aged care and respite facilities in Labrador and Woodlands on the Gold Coast.

“The lay preaching course was an introductory course for those who were already leaders within the congregation, including Samoans, Tongans, Papua New Guineans, Fijian, and Sudanese,” says Gewa, who hails from PNG.

“English is a very difficult language and multicultural people find it difficult to explain things. What the lay preaching did was give them foundational information about the New Testament, the Old Testament and Christology, and information about worship within the Uniting Church. It also provided them some good leadership and preaching skills.”

While participants were excited by the opportunity to preach to their communities in their own language, Gewa says that the training was also a forum to discuss cultural issues and Uniting Church beliefs and practices.

“When people come from a cultural background sometimes they come with a set understanding and they come to these courses to fill a gap … but if they come with an open mind they can explore further to where they are being called.”

Working through, face-to-face

The lay preaching course offered by Trinity College Queensland reflects the complexity of the role. Students complete six basic units which encompass Biblical and theological study and worship and preaching as well as an understanding of the lay preaching code of ethics. Presbyteries undertake further assessment, which is followed by accreditation and commissioning.

The flexible Trinity course is attracting students from Victoria, New South Wales and the ACT via their synods.

Rev Mel Perkins, adult faith educator and lay ministries coordinator at Trinity College Queensland, acknowledges that the depth and breadth of the training often comes as a surprise to those gearing up for a quick route to the pulpit.

“For us it’s a learning time and it’s not a tick-the-box and get-through-as-fast-as-you-can kind of thing. One of the things we find particularly with the online environment is that it takes as long as it takes—and that actually helps in people’s formation because it allows them time to really work through things.”

The combination of online and face-to-face study options provides the opportunity for a reflective learning process, she adds.

“We really mix up their assessment pieces so it’s getting them to connect holistically but also looking ahead to worship and preaching as well their own spiritual life … We set the parameters in a sense—we know that God does the work along the way and we find often that students are quite changed.”

Eric Woodrow from Indooroopilly Uniting Church in Brisbane agrees that the lay preaching course delivered more than he anticipated. Eric has been involved in music ministry and leadership in his local congregation for years, and is now completing his presbytery worship and preaching requirements.

With a background in food science and business, he was expecting an approach to learning which would include definitive answers and a good sprinkling of graphs and dot points. Instead, he was challenged to consider theology and faith from a different perspective.

“It seemed like all the stuff you learned at Sunday School wasn’t as black and white as you thought,” says Eric. “All of a sudden it was being made very clear that the Bible wasn’t a scientific document, it was a theological document where a theme was more important than the actual number of people gathered … so that was certainly challenging, scary—it really puts you on your back foot.

“You start off with this vanilla sense of the Bible and after you dig a bit you get salted caramel! There’s a complexity there that is interesting, challenging, inspiring!”

A charge to keep

The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) developed its own national leadership development program for Indigenous church leaders ten years ago. Calvary presbytery minister Rev John Adams says that while there are no accredited lay preachers in Calvary, a number of Indigenous lay people have completed a Cert III in Christian Ministry and Theology and are currently studying Cert IV units. Congress has negotiated with Nungalinya College in Darwin to continue these courses from 2016.

“The courses include units on worship and preaching, amongst other things, and the training is designed and contextualised for Indigenous people,” says John.

Central Queensland presbytery minister Rev Brian Gilbert has first-hand experience of the crucial role of lay leadership in the bush.

“With many congregations experiencing long periods without a minister in placement, the ministry of lay preacher has taken on increased importance,” says Brian. “Accreditation as a lay preacher does two things: it gives the church confidence that a person has gifts pertaining to that ministry, and it also gives an individual skills and knowledge which will enable him/her to more competently prepare for leadership.”

North Queensland presbytery minister Rev Garry Hardingham points out that the shortage of ordained ministers in rural presbyteries is compounded by the limited numbers of retired ministers—there are currently seven across the presbytery.

“In rural congregations which can’t afford full-time ministry or have multiple preaching places, lay preachers are essential to the good ordering of the church and keeping the doors open,” says Garry.

“Good quality training for and supervision of our lay preachers is essential in maintaining the integrity of the message in these communities.”

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