Reflections on the 2017 Diocesan Ministry Conference

Shane Hubner looks back on the recent Diocesan Ministry Conference

PHOTO: Chris Shearer

By Shane Hubner

August 18 2017

I decided to park my cynicism at the door and engage as fully as I could in this year’s Diocesan Ministry Conference, held at Pullman Hotel and Conference venue from 26-28 July. The first thing to note is how much it all cost. To attend the entire conference including both evening meals cost my parish $600. This does not include accommodation for which I personally paid another $523 for two nights with breakfast at the Pullman hotel. All up – just over $1100. I have two other clergy on staff, who, luckily for the parish finances, both begged off attending for various reasons. There are two questions to ponder regarding this cost. First, was the conference input worth $600 to attend as a day visitor or $1100 if you stayed at the venue? Second, on a far deeper theological and philosophical level, even if the input was worth that investment, is it right for the church to put on such an event at such a cost, knowing that not every clergy or parish could or would pay to attend? This second question I will address at the end but first, let’s look at the input.

There were two keynote speakers, Archbishop Paul Kwong and Bishop Mark Macdonald, who each gave two addresses (total input 6 hours). There were the four bible studies on the Gospel of Mark led by Reverend Dr Amy Peeler (total input 2 hours). There were three workshop sessions (total input 3 hours). There was the Q&A session on the nature of leadership in the New Testament, with the four distinguished scripture scholars (total input 1.5 hours). There was the opening sermon by our Archbishop on day 1 (total input 20 mins) and his closing remarks and summary at the end of the conference (total input 30 minutes). Almost 13.5 hours of input for personal development and ongoing ministry training.

The quality of the input across the conference was excellent, with Bishop Mark Macdonald’s contribution exceptional. The bible studies led by Reverend Dr Amy Peeler, from Wheaton College, Illinois, USA, were engaging as she led us through the entire Gospel of Mark in four sessions. She was concise and her handouts were excellent and easy to follow. Amy always endeavoured to make her presentations applicable to clergy as we were invited to; reflect upon our own sense of call; remind ourselves of the unexpected Jesus of whom we follow; die to our own expectations as we follow the Saviour who died for us; and continue the unfinished story of Mark.

The Q&A session featuring Dr Peeler, Trinity College’s Dorothy Lee, Ridley College’s Brian Rosner, and the University of Newcastle’s Fergus King, was fantastic as each were given eight minutes to briefly summarise key missional leadership aspects and qualities from the writings of the New Testament. They did this with scholarly class and then dealt with questions from the floor for the next hour. I don’t think I am alone in saying that five hours of this would not have been enough – it was that good and hopefully future conferences might make a feature of this: biblical scholars concisely addressing current issues and concerns from the scriptures in an accessible format and manner.

Archbishop Paul, from Hong Kong and speaking from that context, first spoke about the church truly being ‘incarnational.’ Working from the suggestion that the most important word in the scriptures is ‘with’, the Archbishop unpacked an incarnational understanding of missional leadership in eight areas: presence, attention, mystery, delight, participation, partnership, enjoyment, and glory. He talked about the difficulties facing the church in China but emphasised the fact that he felt a level of respect, non-interference, and non-subordination had been reached with local and State officials. His second address looked at the global church and the many global issues facing all of humanity. His thesis was that the church could be a leader in international affairs through offering the Gospel process of dialogue, engagement, and reconciliation. He fleshed this out with examples from Hong Kong and in his time as Chair of the Anglican Consultative Council.

Bishop Mark Macdonald, the Anglican Church of Canada’s first National Indigenous Bishop, was an inspiration to my jaded ears. Speaking from the perspective of marginalised and vulnerable local communities of faith he spoke a word of hope to us in the privileged yet shrinking western Church. Mark reminded us that the word takes on flesh all the time – that it desires to put on the flesh of the place in which it is translated. An astonishing insight from Mark was the fact the Gospel is the only thing that the more it is translated the closer you get to the original. He went on to outline a number of issues from the perspective of people on the margin:

  • the need to recapture the environmentalism of the Gospel tradition
  • the need to have the essence of the faith freshly translated for our modern culture (and ditch the rest)
  • the need to remember that God’s horizon confounds human prediction and is not limited to human capacity to see it or do it, and is not dependent on human agency

The startling thing from his address was his comments about the poor. Indigenous communities have, he argued, always been poor. He stressed the fact that from his position the poor could no longer afford the cost of doing church the way most clergy in Melbourne understand church and that we need to become a church that the poor can afford. He picked up the interesting point about us (the church that is) growing through being small.

Mark’s second address was for me the highlight of the conference. He spoke of four different ways of seeing. His first way of seeing was based on an indigenous idea that truth is found in taking time to look all around (in all four directions), the discipline of taking time to think, to walk around the entire mountain before calling it a mountain. He mentioned that this leads to peacefulness in that one may be ready to die for the truth but never kill for it!

His second way of seeing was based on Mark 12.18ff – the story of the Sadducees asking Jesus about the woman who is the wife of seven brothers, and whose wife will she be in the resurrection. Jesus answer was that they knew neither the scriptures nor the power of God and he points them to the story of Moses and the Burning Bush. Mark’s point was that the inclusion of the Burning Bush was not for shock and awe, but more a miracle of seeing. It is used not to impress us but for us to see the Bush as it really is! This is seeing in a different way – seeing the power of God’s fire/life in every creature and all creation.

The third way of seeing Mark described was of staying out of the ‘duh’ zone and moving into the ‘Gospel zone’. The ‘duh’ zone was that space around Jesus – always filled with people, and disciples, who were forever missing the most important aspects of who Jesus is - always ready with a theological nicety to debate but not truly seeing Jesus! Outside of this zone is what Mark called the Gospel zone. There is plenty of space in this zone with people on the margins who are not interested in theological questions but just healing and hearing. People like blind Bartimaeus, the women at the well, and Zacchaeus. It is in this zone that the Sermon on the Mount comes to life: the poor are blessed, the mournful laugh and the Kingdom of God is realised. Mark’s challenge for all who had ears to hear him was the need for us to live in the Gospel zone instead of being caught in the ‘duh’ zone too often.

The fourth way of seeing was Mark’s use of Luke 10.1-12 – the story of the sending out of the disciples. Mark’s point here was that we forget how afraid people were of travelling and yet Jesus sends them out to be reliant on the hospitality of others. Jesus tells them to bless every home and heart and, picking up from Ezekiel 11, every house is a little temple of the Presence of God. Mark reminded us of the audacity and difficulty of what Jesus is calling us to do: to not rely on us showing hospitality to others (expecting them to come to our church) but relying on the hospitality of others out in the world so as to recognise God’s kingdom where it truly is!

A big thank you must be expressed to Bishop Brad and the team for the excellent conference I experienced. I felt it was worth the cost, which in purely monetary terms worked out at about $80 per hour of input. However, upon reflection I wonder if there is a way to bring all the clergy together for fellowship, discipleship, and professional development that doesn’t preclude people because of cost. The irony of hearing Bishop Mark say that the poor could not afford our way of church while sitting in an expensive ball room was not lost on me or others. I appreciated the provision of a space away from the daily grind in an atmosphere where we do not need to worry about life for a day or three – but can it be done in a way that all clergy can participate?

The Revd Shane Hubner is the Vicar of St Peter's Box Hill