The NSW/ACT Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia, at its April 2016 meeting, made a commitment to find new ways to support ministry in the rural and remote regions of New South Wales. This was in response to a review of rural ministry provided through a partnership between Uniting Mission & Education, the Rural Ministry Unit, the Riverina, Macquarie Darling and New England North West presbyteries, and Uniting Aboriginal & Islander Christian Congress (UIACC).
For over 150 years, the Uniting Church and its predecessors have both physically supported and carried the Gospel to the marginalised, the isolated, the nedy and others across Australia, in particular to those in rural and remote Areas. Quite properly, our eyes have turned more recently to those in urban communities and also overseas; but that should not excuse the abandonment of our traditional works.
The number of ordained ministers in Western NSW has decreased by around 85% over the past 30 years, most congregations are ageing, and their capacity to function in accordance with regulatory requirements – let alone proclaim the Gospel – is decreasing as quickly as those requirements are increasing. The Church is at a crossroads; and can no longer expect that rural and remote communities will be self-sufficient.
Only two alternatives seem possible – either Synod takes responsibility for sustainably funding rural ministry in some way, – or it “forgets it” and hopes other Christian Churches will pick up the vacuum we will be leaving. Admittedly, things may kick on for another five years (perhaps longer), but inevitably, the scarcity of missional leadership and active discipling-focussed ministries will deepen a culture of maintenance ministry & “Sunday Clubs”, regulatory requirements will become increasingly burdensome, and gradually, the Uniting Church will largely become a city-based church. The greatest tragedy will be the rural communities who will not know the witnessing presence of the Uniting Church, calling us to the reconciliation and renewal of all Creation.
There are no “short term fixes” for these issues, nor is it feasible to provide skeleton support which merely serves as life-support. The Saltbush Project actively seeks to re-generate rural and remote ministry – not simply maintain business as usual. The Saltbush project proposal calls for the creation of ten Synod placements; tasked to both work closely with the three Western Presbyteries (in particular, with small town congregations that are identified as having, with the right support, potential to grow) and also to operate into the more remote areas where the Church has no real structure or continuing influence.