Back to the Future
Published 24 May 2017
UPDATE ON THE “FUTURES” OF THE UNITING CHURCH IN AUSTRALIA
Three years ago, I was awarded a PhD from the University of Sydney on the Future of the Uniting Church. The technique used was scenario planning, whereby four possible “futures” are devised. They are not predictions; they are speculations on how the Uniting Church could evolve.
I regret to say that, with some notable exceptions, the PhD has been largely ignored within official Uniting Church circles. Most Synod publications, for example, have ignored it (despite my employing a public relations company to run a media campaign to publicize it).
The Nature of Scenario Planning
Scenario planning as a management technique is designed to encourage discussion about the future. It is not about “predictions” as such. Instead, it encourages the creation of skills for how to react to change and so acquire an adaptive capacity.
Two or four scenarios are created (never three: because the client would then go for the least threatening middle one!) The intention is to encourage people to get out of their comfort zone and “think about the unthinkable”. More information is available on the website: www.churchfutures.com.au
However, there is always a risk that the scenario planning process may be too confrontational; people prefer to be comforted rather than confronted. As the poet TS Eliot commented: “humankind can only bear a little reality”.
This has been my experience with the PhD.
The Four Scenarios
1. “Word and Deed”
This scenario is based on an Australian society with a high level of Christian Spirituality and a high level of government expenditure for church welfare.
This would see a Uniting Church as an organization of a small number of large parishes providing both spiritual activities and social welfare (virtually a set of regional missions). This Uniting Church could evolve from the amalgamation and consolidation of many existing small congregations.
2. “Secular Welfare”
This scenario is based on a low level of Christian spirituality and a high level of government expenditure for church welfare.
This would see a Uniting Church letting the congregations fade away and instead focus on the provision of social welfare (albeit derived from a Christian tradition). Much of the work of the existing Uniting Church is already focussed on social welfare and this is growing, while the congregations are currently in decline.
3. “Return to the Early Church”
This scenario is based on a high level of Christian spirituality and a low level of government expenditure for church welfare. (Current surveys show a great public interest in Jesus but a low regard for churches themselves).
The Uniting Church could reinvent itself along the lines of the first three centuries of the Christian church, when the church was marginal within the Roman empire. The Christian numbers were small but the members were enthusiastic. This scenario taps into the “emerging church movement” and sees a Uniting Church that is tired of the corporate ethos that underpins much the government-financed social welfare work; it recognizes (as did the early Christians) that it is competing in a market place of many faiths.
This sees an Australian society with a low level of Christian spirituality and a low level of government expenditure for church welfare.
This would mean that the Uniting Church should be wound up and its assets dispersed. The currently flourishing parts (such as the regional missions and Uniting Church schools and colleges) should be individually incorporated and have separate institutional existences. Uniting Church Assembly, Synods, and Presbyteries would no longer be required.
The risk is that under this scenario the Uniting Church would ignore the warnings and could just wither away, thereby frittering away its resources. It should therefore devise an exit strategy for a coherent wind up, with the remaining resources being used in ways that reflect Christian stewardship (such as assisting the rapidly expanding churches in the Global South).
These scenarios have been too controversial for most Uniting Church officials and so they have ignored them. I have had some interest in the WA and Qld Synods. I have also spoken at some regional gatherings. But overall there has been an official Uniting Church neglect of the PhD.
Observations from UK Research Trips
To obtain a different perspective, I have had the benefit of a Crawford Miller Research Fellowship at St Cross College, University of Oxford. In my trips back to the UK to see how the Methodist Church has been faring, I have been able to see how another church has been grappling with the prospect of decline.
UK Methodists number about 200,000 and are declining. Some parishes are too reliant on key members; it is not clear what happens to the parishes what these key people die. The Church is mainly seen as a social club for old people.
There is reluctance at the local level at encouraging the amalgamation of declining parishes. The Church is asset rich and cash poor. The Church has an amazing heritage (especially in its old buildings) and this is being used to encourage “heritage evangelism”. The church buildings are wonderful tourist attractions but this is not leading to an increase in membership.
In London “people born outside Britain” (such as West Indians) represent a majority of parishioners but it is not clear whether their UK-born children will follow them into church membership.
Child abuse allegations have encouraged an internal focus and so diverted attention away from evangelism.
In short, the Methodist Church grew in a religious and social environment that no longer exists. This provides a clear warning for Uniting Church congregations.
Methodists are not major players in the delivery of welfare services (very different from the Uniting Church). The Methodist Homes for the Aged is already a standalone organization.
The strength of the Uniting Church (and the bulk of its assets) are now devoted to welfare work - and this will continue as long as government is willing to fund it. The Uniting Church will, in one form or another, probably last longer than its UK antecedent.
Confronting the Future
What if the “Recessional” scenario were coming into play? The warning signs of congregational decline would result in two options:
(i) Uniting Church membership continues to decline (while the welfare work continues to expand) and so there is a gradual (or perhaps not so gradual) haemorrhage at congregational level
(ii) the Uniting Church identifies the problem of congregational decline and begins a reorganization to salvage the congregational parts that can be salvaged.
I think that the first option is the more likely because the second option requires a degree of leadership that the Uniting Church may not be able to muster. It is too focussed on putting a rosy spin on everything. There is no sense of urgency about confronting congregational decline.
Where to From Here?
Ideally there should be more public discussion of the four scenarios at all levels of the Uniting Church. Experience over the past three years suggests this is going to be very difficult. The enthusiasm and vision that underpinned the launch of the Uniting Church 40 years ago have largely evaporated. There is a sense of combat fatigue. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
Official Uniting Church statements and publications provide an optimistic spin to gloss over the Uniting Church’s congregational decline. The PhD jars with that official perception of the future.
In my presentations, I have suggested that a network could be formed to foster discussion of the PhD’s implications. There has been some interest in this proposal but not enough people have come forward to constitute a viable network.
One issue that needs to be addressed is how can the expanding welfare work of the Uniting Church still retain a Uniting Church ethos? Clearly on present indications the welfare work will continue to expand (government shows no sign of wanting to reduce it). But the welfare work could over time come to represent more of a secular government department rather than a church body.
There could be the irony that the Uniting Church, via its welfare work, outlasts its antecedent UK Methodist Church, but it will have little of that body’s Christian ethos. Unitingcare (or Uniting) could become more secular and less Christian.
These are some of the larger issues that are being ignored in the lead up to the Uniting Church’s 40th anniversary.
(A story for further reflection)
Contemplating the demise of Uniting Church congregations may seem hard to do, but here are some lessons “digital disruption” and the Story of Encyclopaedia Britannica. In recent decades the publishing company failed to monitor the rise of online reference works and ran into financial problems.
The authors identify three lessons:
(i) “the most venerable can prove the most vulnerable” [note the speed of the collapse]
(ii) “a strong corporate culture can blind business leaders to events that do not fit into their collective mental framework” [just because a company is a vital part of today’s community, there is no guarantee it will still be needed tomorrow]
(iii) even if executives do fully grasp the impact of change, they may be at a disadvantage because they are “saddled with legacy assets”
I suggest that the Uniting Church can learn some general lessons here:
(i) Uniting Church is too slow to note the speed of change
(ii) too much of the Uniting Church leadership is in denial: there is too much optimistic “spin” in official statements; there is a reluctance to reflect about the implications of the decline in membership
(iii) Uniting Church has “many legacy assets” (a lot of buildings)
Dr Keith Suter
 Philip Evan and Thomas Wurster Blown to Bits: How the New Economics of Information Transforms Strategy, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000, pp 1-7