10 June 2020.
GWUC – The Way out of the Covid Closure and the way forward.
I thank Glyn for his advices and the encouragement to come forward with suggestions which may be useful for Church Council and the inspiration of Graeme Frecker and his thoughts. I have not commented on the spiritual or liturgical issues where we have many far better equipped to add value. Importantly, the letter from Rev Neil Peters encapsulates those issues.
Church Council Minutes and update of activities.
I was delighted to read and understand that many people are working on and considering options as to how we may be attuned to coming out of the crisis created by the Covid situation.
At our Communication Committee Meeting we also discussed several topics and matters related to the emergence of the Congregation and the many activities which we have seen curtailed. We have also discussed the finance issues and implications at Finance Committee, including the favourable impact of Job Keeper. We are a wealthy and traditionally successful congregation who have accumulated surpluses, want for nothing, yet are quite quickly beginning to eat into the funds accumulated by those before us. Yet we are wonderful givers to any initiative or request and our Fete day is an inspiring community engagement.
What do we see ourselves as going forward?
I perceive that whatever we do now must reflect where and what we want to be in 5-10 years as well as bringing out of the current closure. Whilst it would be easy to say let us reopen on the programmes and activities that we had in place that will require detailed planning and changes to accommodate any regulatory incursions.
From my perspective that does not account for the opportunity of the circumstance given many activities will be changed and upended. The upheaval of the covid virus lockdown presents us with a time and environment to strategically review what we have, where we may want to get to and to consider and contemplate “change” in both the short and longer term.
We are aware that Synod and Presbytery are considering operational and strategic challenges and there are important dynamic changes. We sense that there are many smaller congregations struggling for survival from both a physical building and people circumstance as well as being under immense financial pressures. How could GWUC react and assist and would that be possible in terms of our Presbytery?
Do we see ourselves as a continuing standalone church or could we be a regional hub engaging with and supporting several smaller congregations thereby allowing rationalisation of labour and premises? I perceive it easier to make changes on the back of these current issues, rather than to enact processes which attempt to bring us out in the old normal. These are challenging times and even re-opening will not be as it was, and it cannot be.
Unfortunately, that timeframe from now to 5-10 years will likely see many changes with many of our aged people either passing on or be unable to attend and support. This situation requires a reckoning of where we are and what we can do and deliver now and in the short term. It also adds to the financial challenges. I sense the gap between what we want to deliver and what we can afford to deliver will become incrementally greater based on issues raised below. If we as a large Uniting Church are feeling these issues, what must be occurring in those with 30-40 members, without the financial depth and without the numbers and drive of the many talented people we are blessed with.
I sense this is also a reckoning period for the broader Uniting Church and our leaders at Synod and Presbytery. It will be fascinating to watch and see whether those bodies perceive the need for change through dramatic operational remodelling and implicit is all the personal and broader physical challenges required to drive change. History would suggest that we have been unable to grasp and lead these changes in the collaborative and participatory models adopted.
We at GWUC are faced with several challenging matters either now or in the short term.
Staffing Contracts and Financial Imperatives.
We have several staff contractual issues arising with our team over the early to middle part of 2021 and it is perhaps timely to reconsider both our strategic direction and our current and future resourcing as part of the one discussion. The conversation as to our current and future staffing needs, is likely to lead to changes. We suggest those discussion and the resultant priorities should occur based on documented knowledge as to what we are currently delivering and why we are delivering outcomes from each role. Considering how that may need to change and what detail we have to validate any changes going forward.
Financially we are safe (in the immediate and short term) with strong current financial backing accumulated over many years. However, we as a Congregation have run deficits over the last several years of $7,000, 11,000 and this year likely to be $20,000 plus, with some structural imbalances between our financial receipts, which apart from Rental Income are diminishing by approximately 2-3% per annum, whilst our expenditure is increasing in the key areas of Staff costs and Mission and Service by 2-3% per annum. These 2 items mean that we are committed structurally to funding an annual deficit or loss of 10,000-15,000 per annum from our accumulated surpluses with our current staffing and M & S commitments, before we even review additional resourcing from bequests and other areas. That is not sustainable in the longer term.
Our demographics reflect the same challenges. The significant share of our offering and planned giving income arises from an ageing group in their 70-80 and beyond age group. These people whether on an age pension or self-funded superannuation will also be experiencing significant income reductions through interest rates at historically low levels, superannuation funds generating the poorest returns for many years as well as increasing costs, particularly when utilities and government services are increasing annually beyond inflation rates.
I would suggest our ability to run a worthwhile planned giving programme, as has been mentioned via Presbytery, will be significantly compromised by the post Coronavirus environment. Similarly, the smaller population of working people & families within GWUC congregation will have little capability of assisting to balance and manage our financial needs.
It may be fine to continue as we are for the next 5-10 years, but I suggest that fails to take account of the extraordinary environment which we are in, following the Corona Virus and I expect that we will view an extended tail to any financial recovery individually and as a Congregation.
Our historically sensible investment options are likely to be challenged.
We as a forward-thinking congregation have sensibly invested in several initiatives over many years. I am suggesting that we will need to be tighter in our approval of initiatives going forward because the surpluses of finance within our operation appear unlikely to be replicated.
Diminished Membership and Roll
Over the same period our roll of members has diminished from 700-800 to the current level of 400 plus. This may reflect the changing pattern within our society and community as to church involvement and engagement, and certainly the changing cultural and demographic circumstances of Glen Waverley. As a congregation with roughly half the numbers of members we are seeking to deliver more services, expand our community engagement, rent our premises out substantially more, expand our Youth engagement, offer more cross-cultural services and provide enhanced welfare support etc. An ambitious programme which we continue to struggle to resource.
We have done very well to deliver what we do!
An admired and much-loved program of 40 years, Leisuretime has been an outstanding program to which we as a congregation have enthusiastically worked and supported. It has recently experienced challenges as to the volunteers and support to facilitate the delivery to the 23 (maximum) number of guests. There are issues as to finding committee members but critical gaps in our volunteer numbers to make it happen. In several cases the volunteers are more senior in age than our guests. It is symptomatic of so many areas.
We wonder as to our volunteers returning in number to allow this program to continue, modified as required to meet the health contingencies and regulations. This presumes significant change and the need to manage and resist any premature openings given the demographics and susceptibility amongst this vulnerable age group.
We also must determine the risk and the reward quotient here amongst these aged guests and volunteers.
Sunday Schools / Youth Leaders.
In late 2019 we were unable to retain the long serving volunteers who for several years had worked wonderfully to provide leadership in the teaching and nurturing faith for Sunday School type activities going into 2020.
We have overcome this situation by employing a student training in teaching from within our young Adult groups and meeting the cost of this part time employment through use of a Bequest. A workable outcome with a quality young person, but it represents employing a person, because we are unable to meet the need internally.
At our recent Communication Committee meeting we discussed the situation that Robin Pope after several years as editor has advised that she has now completed her last Newview having been unable to find a replacement. This rings the same bells as the writer and Faye Wagon experienced some 10 years ago where after 8-9 years, we were unable to find a replacement Editor until Robin agreed to become involved. Robin has worked tirelessly, and we have come up with a resolution using our Office Manager to merge the Newview and Monthly bulletin into a “new” publication. In reviews, people within GWUC all want and value Newview, but we have no resource to take it over and make it happen.
Lawn Mowing and Cleaning and Gardens Roster.
The regulatory changes as to Cleaning and the quality of cleaning required for our commercially rented premises forced us to outsource and employ professional cleaners. For several years we have experienced challenges with rosters.
We have struggled with diminishing numbers of people on the Lawn mowing roster. We have a wonderful Property Committee who work to ensure we can overcome some of these issues.
Uniting Voices – Choir Leader.
Music is a wonderful gift that our congregation has always benefitted from and been strongly serviced. However, some 2 years ago we were forced to seek alternatives as to a Choir Leader as we were unable to resource from within our congregation. We achieved an outstanding result with Lyn Bromage joining us as an additional activity in her busy life. It again highlighted the difficulty in resourcing forward leadership options and with costs involved.
It has been a wonderful result to our Choir, the congregation, and the broader music life of GWUC.
Free Spirit and Choir of Hope.
We have been blessed over many years with the leadership and strength of DebLeigh and she has been the driving force behind the success of Free Spirit whose music we all love.
Deb has also taken on the commitment to lead the project of the Choir of Hope and outstanding community reaction.
Music has been a key ingredient to the life of GWUC, but with the demise of the Orchestra, the difficulty in finding a new leader for Uniting voices and our dependence upon Deb Leigh regarding Free spirit and Choir of hope we also recognise the challenges ahead in this important area.
These are in no way criticisms of anyone or of our leaders, but these few examples encapsulate the leadership and resourcing challenges of resuming without contemplating major changes to the way we operate. We have done well, applying band-aids to overcome operational headaches. My assumption is that these challenges will increase over time and our ability to deliver many of our key programs may be threatened.
There are a variety of similar program issues warranting review. Several such as our Welfare Program and the Chinese Group have already expressed the need for supplementary resources and likely we will use Bequest funds as a short-term resolution.
We have a caring and passionate community which has facilitated a range of extensive programs over several years. But we sense we are reaching a crisis point in terms of available Leadership and support to continue to deliver our range of programs.
But we also need to take account of the physical changes within our congregation. Should we be looking to grow our capability of meeting and offering more to the growing Chinese communities? Every Church will be seeking to offer more given the dramatic increase in units and accommodation. How would we do it and how would we differentiate ourselves? What resourcing would be required and over what time frame? I sense timing will be important. How do we define and recruit these people? Can our existing programs be modified, and can we develop the Mandarin and Cantonese resources?
Our Congregation is ageing and “it is tired” and unable to do many of the things we have previously just assumed. Whilst the passion remains, the ability to enact is diminishing and our ability to deliver via volunteer input is diminishing.
Lack of Internal Leadership coming forward to replace those who have given so much.
We have increased our staffing resources and ministry team members to assist in this delivery. That might all be good as a supplement to deliver in the short term. We are struggling for leadership internally, across every facet of the organisation with current arrangements requiring the committed few to take on more. We have significant holes in our leaders with nearly all in their later years. As well we have many senior people holding on, tired but with no alternative resources to takeover and to add a new vibrancy.
Quite simply we have over 20 -30 years been unable to provide the environment to attract the next generation of people to Worship and then to want to lead. We have a significant hole in our age and people numbers of the age group 40-50. I am unaware if it is there and we just do not know or see it in our range of activities. I may well be speaking from an uninformed view.
Yet against these observations we can identify success and outstanding service across our community and congregation. This is not meant to be a critique of failure. Rather, we have done remarkably well, given several inherent issues and challenges.
Unlike several other Churches the Uniting Church has continued to operate a variety of churches of different size in relatively close geographic proximity without creating hubs of resources and or diversifying opportunities. As a broader Church community the Uniting Church is asset rich in terms of property, which we have control over, but also deteriorating physical assets of varying quality in many locations, diminished sizes of congregations struggling for viability across several fronts, a variety of shortages as to placements and the same demographic challenges which GWUC is facing and as we understand some chronic financial challenges.
The financial reality of the post Covid environment will likely see many small churches be unable to meet and commit to their Mission and Service obligations and be challenged as to ongoing viability. That will also likely impact both Presbytery and Synod operational capabilities. There are many groups working on some of these challenges. I suggest we should be both part of the issue and provide some answers going forward. However, I am only codifying the issue because I assume Presbytery and Synod will be major drivers in these critical areas.
Could we become a hub Church for several other Churches, integrate the emerging and developing Broadcasting capability, combine resources, and provide an integrated framework to resolve some of the administration and technical support? Could we assist some other smaller churches and provide these groups with services from or at GWUC?
In the past the broader Uniting Church leadership has shunned many of these types of proposals. Will covid-19 be the catalyst for significant structural change and renewal, rather than through incremental changes ultimately delaying issue resolution and imperilling the longer foundations? These are difficult structural changes requiring strong leadership. I query whether these changes can materialise under a consultative and participative committee style of governance and management. I sense that a cooperative and participatory organisational structure will be challenged and will become too hard, yet an authoritative directed approach is likely to alienate many of our traditional leaders within congregations. Change is often hard and painful, and we can rightly query whether it is worth it.
From a distance Presbytery and Synod leadership reflects many of our local issues. The Zoom meetings have in many ways reinforced these issues. There is necessarily a high degree of self-protection amongst congregation leaders and in their dealings with Presbytery. I sense that for many smaller churches, survival will become an even higher priority and difficulty going forward and coming out of the closure. I sense many of our older group will be reassessing their engagement and participation and the e-services have provided an illuminating demonstration of our ability to adapt to technology changes and enhancements.
Of course, it would be easier and simpler to just plan to re-open within the Health and regulatory regime and see if any changes are warranted down the track. I believe this is an important issue for our Committees and Church Council to contemplate and progress.
We may do that, but I would hope that we can commence some of these discussions internally.
What should we look like going forward?
I am assuming we can re-open and then have most of our tenants and renters resume under operational rules relating to Covid resumption. We will manage and implement those to our usual high standards when we reopen as an active Church in terms of Church Council’s recent advices.
We can then say that our rental income really equates to the cost of running our Worship Centre and premises and the associated increased cost of cleaning.
We need to review our structure of worship using our facilities, against those regulations and governance rules and look to use our Broadcasting capabilities and the resources of staff and support that we commit to these areas going forward. We can suggest that we have one service using the Broadcast means weekly and use with our existing and other Churches, but I believe it could be expanded and that we develop a detailed proposal to commercially produce a service weekly or fortnightly which we market and “sell” to other interested congregations or groups, perhaps though Presbytery.
I sense the issues of personal distance and isolation will be with us for an extended period and that some of our older members may not return. The regulatory changes via government and Presbytery/ Synod will change what we do in terms of groups using our facility, the numbers permitted within our Church Services.
We also have approximately 70-100 people who do not have electronic access through emails etc. We have a significant communication challenge to that group.
Music has been an important part of GWUC, but I sense choirs and musicians will be a challenge as commented earlier.
Operate a tighter worship and service regime:
I would suggest that we need a total review of our Services and their delivery. However, perhaps it is easier to modify the existing.
- Consider the 8.00am group as a successful stand alone but with 40-50 people where and how do they meet and what restrictions will be in place?
- Move to one traditional Service / Contemporary Service? (Say 10.00am but understand there are politics to run out) and how to integrate electronically. What numbers of people can we accommodate? Is electronically going forward any different to what we have done over the last several years?
- Reassess our Ministry to Seniors because as more people age and have special needs we may have to do this differently. What do we want to do with it?
- Determine what we want re Children’s and Families in a structural sense before or whilst reviewing the staffing and Position Descriptions. What do we want to commit to going forward?
- Implement weekly Prayers on-line.
- I have no comment as to the Indonesian Services or group.
We have established a strong viable online worship format; we need to build on that and integrate with our traditional worship. Some would suggest we already do, but can we do more?
But this is only playing around the edges.
What Issues of Service Delivery will we deliver going forward?
We live within a wonderful Christian caring community, generous in many ways but also challenged as to our forward direction and ability to deliver services and frameworks, with an ageing congregation.
Whilst above we suggest issues as to opening and the delivery of services, without specifying how we do such within the guidelines and legal requirements, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t account for those in our planning and I believe our Church Council and leaders will do that capably and sensibly.
My concerns are broader, what do we wish to deliver going forward in both the immediate and short term of 3-5 years as an engaging caring congregation prepared to stretch itself and be challenged? I see little relevance in reviewing issues on a short-term basis to facilitate re-opening when there are significant challenges of broader consequence just around the corner.
Yet against that framework and accounting for the Covid 19 consequences, how can we commit to re-establishing services and committing to staffing contracts when we are conscious of the changes occurring within our congregation over a relatively short timeframe. Without restating the drastic impact which demographics will impart and the continuing difficulty in bringing forward leadership are immediate issues. Our ability to meet and fund additional paid resources whilst a means of deferring broader actions is contemplated against diminishing financial certainty and use of bequests.
As I sit in the Church and observe our ageing congregation (including myself), I query what we will look like 5 years out when theoretically we will have lost at least another 5-10% of our members, their engagement, commitment drive, participation, including their financial contributions against a backdrop where we are not replacing them. I sense Covid has only brought these issues forward.
We have invested heavily in terms of commitment and voluntary resourcing in such areas as Leisuretime and Hub like groups, but the resumption of those groups remains uncertain.
Our commitment to Choirs and music has been an essential ingredient of our worship and congregation, but you wonder and have concerns as to recovery and resumption.
Summary and Opportunities
We are all aware of the issues associated with the closure and how hard many have worked to make this happen. We have done well, the e-broadcast and fellowship has been terrific. Like the economic challenges I sense the reopening and adjustment practices will be a more difficult challenge. We will still have significant operational risk issues as well as managing the resultant regulatory concerns of self-isolating, social distancing and protection of the most vulnerable.
There is also the issue of gaining acceptance to any changes which we want to bring forward to facilitate the opening. The simplest manner would be to reshape our processes against the regulations and then to reopen and adjust by recording personal details, booking to attend etc.
I have highlighted a range of ongoing issues which threaten our ongoing operating capability, not necessarily tomorrow and or in relation to the Covid 19 reopening, but in a time frame where we need to act. But whilst I can analyse and advance considerations, I am also of the age group where my ability to aid and lead is reduced, particularly as with many others we are absent from Glen Waverley for extended terms.
However, I have highlighted a range of issues and challenges where we could start the discussion and conversation as to moving GWUC forward to contemplate facing the major challenges that are ahead of us in the short period of 5-10 years, which will potentially determine our sustainability and in what form.
We all are passionate as to GWUC, I have given careful thought as to advancing this document. It may well mirror a range of issues which Church Council is already working upon. I am in no way suggesting that I am the only one thinking in these terms or that I have the answers. We are a broad Church as to ideas and doing, but it is a start.
I now sense the time has come, where we need to address the consequences of just operating as is. That potentially reduces our longer-term financial viability and operational capacity. That may be acceptable for the immediate term, but we also miss an opportunity to consider ongoing changes.
We are blessed with an engaged and talented ministerial team working cooperatively and contributing mightily, but we are struggling to support them in a variety of areas.
We have also seen a modified means of giving and offering, the use of our bank account and I also wonder whether there are avenues as to giving through our broadcast mediums. We have opened GWUC up to a broader range of people over the closure. Our combined generosity continues to amaze as we have transitioned through the closure.
As a closing comment. I have confidence that we at GWUC can proceed to move and change. I hope the broader Uniting Church organisation, though always well intentioned, will step up and demonstrate the ability to react and meet these challenges in a strong forward movement rather than a slow evolving participatory framework.
I thank ChurchCouncil and our leadership for this considered opportunity. This is exciting and my best wishes to our leaders. I personally thank our team for all they have done and do.