Elizabeth Megaw is an emerging leader in the Uniting Church, holding leadership positions in her congregation and in the wider Uniting Church SA. New Times spoke to Elizabeth about the challenges and rewards of church leadership as a young person.
Being bold for change
Posted in Leadership
International Women’s Day (Wednesday 8 March) is calling on women to be bold for change in 2017, and urging people to help forge a more gender-inclusive working environment and world.
The Uniting Church in South Australia is home to many strong, female leaders. New Times asked two of these leaders, Dr Deidre Palmer and Rev Sandy Boyce, to reflect on leadership, change and gender parity in the Uniting Church.
What does being bold for change mean to you?
Dr Deidre Palmer: It means having the courage to participate in God’s transforming action in the world. Embodying God’s deepest desires for justice, reconciliation, equality, love and abundant life for everyone and the whole creation.
Rev Sandy Boyce: It is easy to equate Christian faith with people being simply ‘nice’ and ‘compliant’. The imperatives for followers of Jesus means following his example to challenge those times when people’s worth is diminished, when systems perpetuate injustice, and when opportunities for peace and reconciliation are undermined. Being bold means anticipating that things can be different, and being prepared to work for change for the common good. In services of baptism, I remind the congregation that ‘through baptism we mark the beginning of a life-long pilgrimage in the way of Jesus. Baptism is a celebration of belonging: it is deeply personal but never private’. Christian faith is not privatised, pietist and self-absorbed but engaged with the world in which it finds itself.
How do you think the Uniting Church approaches gender parity?
Deidre: One of the strengths of the Uniting Church from its very beginning is its affirmation that women and men, girls and boys are called to offer who they are and express their gifts fully through the life and mission of the Uniting Church.
Sandy: I’m so proud of the Uniting Church for its commitment from the outset to lift up the ministry of the whole people of God – men and women, old and young. For welcoming the wisdom of women who serve in leadership in every part of the church locally and nationally. For supporting and enhancing the ministry of women. For not privileging and preferencing one gender over another, but to be open to the vibrancy of God’s Spirit flowing in and through both women and men (and children!).
What does it mean to you to be a leader in the Uniting Church?
Sandy: Leadership comes in many forms and in many nuanced expressions. There is not one model or approach. Flexibility and adaptability is required, and a capacity to develop different approaches for particular contexts. Wisdom to discern is deeply embedded in effective leadership, growing from a faith in Jesus that is deep and continually growing.
In my role as Deacon, the lens for leadership is not only about being a practitioner in a ministry of service, but equipping and enthusing others in ministries of service. Deacons also use other descriptors like ‘advocates for justice’, as ‘carers who offers support and encouragement’, ‘educators’, ‘enablers’, ‘bridge builders’, and ‘prophets prepared to challenge injustice and offer alternatives’. Women offer fresh insights as leaders and there is generally a receptivity to a style that is premised on relationships, collaboration, connections and cooperation. None of this is exclusively gender-based, of course, and leadership is enhanced when the way God has gifted each person is affirmed and supported.
Deidre: Christian leadership is grounded in Christian discipleship. It’s as we faithfully follow Christ’s lead that we are formed as leaders. This leadership is shaped by Christ’s servanthood, love and respect for all people. Leaders in the Uniting Church are called to encourage and equip the whole people of God to engage in Christ’s ministry and mission.
As a woman in the Uniting Church, I have had the privilege to exercise leadership in youth and children’s ministry, as a Christian educator, working with congregations, as a teacher engaged in formation and theological education, as Moderator, and now as President-Elect.
I have had the joy of working across generations and cultures, I am very aware that in the Uniting Church my gender has not been a barrier to me exercising the gifts God has given me, in service to Christ, the Church, and the world.
There is sexism, subtle and not so subtle, in various parts of our Church, but it is not endorsed by our Basis of Union, our Constitution, our Regulations or our interpretation of the Scriptures. We affirm, develop and encourage the gifts of all our members – women and men, girls and boys.
There have been times in my life where I have been lulled into a sense that we have won the struggle for equality as women. Then I will meet an ordained woman who has been told that she was not really wanted as the congregation’s Minister of the Word because she was a woman. I have also met women in various ministry contexts who experience violence and abuse from male partners, husbands, and fathers. I then recognise, once more, that this struggle for equality and life-giving relationships for women and men is a struggle in which we as Christ’s church must continue to boldly engage.
Where have you been bold in your leadership in the Church?
Sandy: Along with Uniting Church ministry colleagues and friends, I took part in a bold stand to advocate for the release of children from immigration detention, particularly those detained in the former Inverbrackie detention centre. The arrests that followed this non-violent peaceful action also gave the opportunity to give public witness in the court system as to the reason for the action, particularly the welfare of vulnerable young children. It was not a rash decision to place ourselves in this situation, but one that emerged out of a deeply-held conviction that the welfare of the most vulnerable is an inescapable response to the Gospel.
Has there been a time when you’ve been involved in making bold or significant change for the Church?
Sandy: In 2013, I was elected as DIAKONIA World President at the DIAKONIA World Assembly. The election to this office is a privilege, but also offers an opportunity to spend time with Deacons and Deaconesses around the world serving in so many different ministries. What particularly strikes me is the faithfulness to ministries of service, to innovative pioneering ministries, to advocacy, to caring. Some of these men and women are serving in countries where ministry is challenging, and where their income is necessarily limited due to the financial circumstances of the church. And yet the ministry itself flourishes, with a confidence in God that sustains them through good times and hard times. My role includes learning from and with these diaconal ministry agents, to pray for and encourage them, to share their stories, to build connections, and to name and value what they do. A leader may sometimes do their best work in a ministry of encouragement and prayer so that others may flourish as they respond to God’s call on their lives.
What bold changes would you like to see in the Church in future?
Deidre: My vision is for our primary focus to be on the mission of God in the world – that we not be so focused on sorting out internal structures, but fully engage in doing justice, living compassionately and bearing God’s reconciling love in our world.
Sandy: I return from time to time to the Statement to the Nation 1977, and the one that followed in 1988. They are grand but grounded statements about the aspirations of the Uniting Church, inaugurated only 40 years ago. The statements try to name the essential DNA of the Uniting Church in Australia. At the same time, they are absolutely bold in affirming “our eagerness to uphold basic Christian values and principles, such as the importance of every human being, the need for integrity in public life, the proclamation of truth and justice, the rights for each citizen to participate in decision-making in the community, religious liberty and personal dignity, and a concern for the welfare of the whole human race”. Wow! When read as a whole, these statements give substance to our core business, and what directions the Uniting Church needs to return to again and again which will enable us to envision where we are headed in the future, and to which we commit our lives, in the grace and love of God.
Are there any other stories you would like to share related to what we have talked about today?
Deidre: In 1983, Lawrie and I moved to Boston for me to commence my PhD. This move came after I had spent time working for the Methodist and then Uniting Church for five and a half years, from 1976 until 1981.
I was involved in studying liberation and feminist theologies – reflecting on God’s call to be in solidarity with people who were suffering from injustice and a silencing of their voice. I had been most drawn to liberation theology’s emphasis on God’s preferential option for the poor and our call to be in situations that address situations of poverty and injustice.
It was in Boston that my commitment to equality of women and men was strengthened and deepened as I developed friendships with Catholic women with whom I was studying. They were gifted, creative, intelligent women with a passion for living out the Gospel of Christ in their various ministry contexts. And yet, they were denied ordination, and denied a voice in other decision-making spheres. It was in journeying with these women that I resolved that I would use whatever voice and opportunities I had to advocate for a discipleship of equals in our Churches, and for equality, justice and flourishing for all women and girls.
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