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Church ponders urgent changes to lay ministry

A report proposing major changes in non-ordained specified ministries, a major agenda item for the Uniting Church’s 11th Assembly, were discussed in working groups on Saturday afternoon, July 8.

From time to time and place to place, the report from the Specified Ministries Task Group appointed after the 2003 Assembly, points to the Basis of Union’s call for the Uniting Church to continued renewal of its ministries.

Convenor of the task group Ms Colleen Geyer said the group had deliberately focused on questions of lay ministry and had chosen to leave issues around the ordained ministries for later conversation.

The church’s specified ministries include Minister of the Word, Deacon, Community Minister, Youth Worker, Lay Pastor and Lay Preacher. Non specified ministries include Lay Ministry Assistants and Lay Pastoral Assistants.

Ms Geyer said, “The proliferation of non specified lay ministries is an urgent matter for the church to address and working to incorporate these people into the new specified ministry will be a key matter for the church in the next few years.

“The proposed structure had to meet the needs of those in existing specified lay ministries as well as being flexible enough to include all the new lay ministries which are springing up around the nation.”

The report proposes the existing ministries of Lay Pastor, Community Minister and Youth Worker be amalgamated into one new ministry called the Specified Ministry of Pastor.

This ministry is ordered to also include all the lay people employed by the church to exercise specific responsibilities such as pastoral care, leadership, worship, service and evangelism in a way that represents the beliefs and practices of the Uniting Church.

Ms Geyer said that people currently employed as children and family workers, lay parish assistants, lay chaplains and evangelists could appropriately be pastors in the new ministry but it would not include small group leaders, property officers, clerical workers, Sunday school teachers, elders or church councillors.

Those currently serving as Lay Preachers will not be affected.

It is proposed that pastors in the new ministry will be accountable directly to the presbytery which will have responsibility for selection, commissioning, formation, training and supervision.

“Existing Lay Pastors, Community Ministers and accredited Youth Workers will have a number of options under the proposed arrangements but no new people will be admitted to those ministries after 2006,” said Ms Geyer.

People will be commissioned to the ministry for the duration of their appointment and presbyteries will determine whether it is appropriate for them to preside at the sacraments during that time.

Task group member and one of the authors of the report the Rev. Duncan Macleod said another significant change is the proposal that pastors can undertake their training in a number of different ways and may not be required to complete formal academic studies in a theological college.

“Presbyteries will recognise prior learning and acknowledge that people come to their ministry with significant skills and knowledge,” said Mr Macleod. “They may have achieved these in their professional career path, through involvement in the church or through informal learning in the workplace or life experience.”

If the recommendations from the task group are endorsed by the Assembly, the new Specified Ministry of Pastor will be up and running by January 2008.

Ms Geyer said, “These important proposals acknowledge current realities of a church in a changing social context and recognise the need for flexibility and simplicity.

“Our aim is to see every ministry in a specified relationship with the Uniting Church.”