Church planting needed to mobilise parishioners

By Mark Brolly

November 13 2019Churches need to plant new congregations in inner Melbourne to unlock the mission potential of young professionals and prevent them “drifting into nothingness”, according to the retiring Lead Minister of St Hilary’s Kew, Bishop Stephen Hale.

Bishop Hale was reflecting on his 10 years at the multi-site evangelical parish, which also includes St Silas’ North Balwyn and St Augustine’s Mont Albert North, and which sponsored the establishment of Merri Creek Anglican in 2013 to serve Melbourne’s inner north.

“This is about unlocking the mission potential of very capable people ...,” he said. “When you do a plant, there’s more people get a chance to roll up their sleeves and be part of something genuinely exciting and new.

“Professions are unbelievably demanding in what they expect of young people and it’s very easy for them to go into drift mode. If they are signed up to be a part of something new, I think it can be a key step in terms of their discipleship and ongoing discipleship into the next stage of their life rather than drifting into nothingness.”

Bishop Hale, who was Bishop of the then Eastern Region of the Melbourne diocese from 2001-09, led his final service at St Hilary’s last month and is having three months’ leave as he discerns his next move.

“I’m in conversation with a few different people,” he told TMA. “I’ve done a lot of consulting along the way ... I was the Youth Director for eight years in the diocese and I ended up inevitably working with lots of churches around where they were up to and where they were going and what they were on about, and the youth ministry was one thing out of a mix of things.

St Hilary’s parishioner Hannah Fitzgerald, Mrs Karen Hale and Bishop Stephen Hale pitching in at this year’s Food Drive. Photo: St Hilary’s Kew.

 Bishop Hale and his wife Karen, the Head of Religious Studies at Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar, have two adult children – their son James is assistant chaplain at Trinity Grammar School in Kew, while their daughter Kate and her husband are first-year students at Moore Theological College in Sydney and hope to come back to Melbourne to do student ministry.

Bishop Hale grew up in Sydney “classically Church of England”, as he puts it, but after a brief rebellion against the church for about two years from the age of 14, “came back with a vengeance”.

“I probably would say I got converted at that point,” he said.

He studied at Sydney University and taught at Leeton, in the Riverina diocese, for four years. While there he worshipped at the Anglican Church in Leeton and ran youth ministry for the whole town through the Uniting Church.

Returning to Sydney, he studied at Moore, and was abruptly, though fortuitously, appointed curate at Castle Hill, then on Sydney’s north-western fringe, having already moved into the parish of Caringbah where he had been sent initially.

“It was brilliant, I always say it was the making of me,” he said. “Castle Hill was incredible. It had an enormous kids ministry ... This was 1985, we had new families every week. It was classic outer suburbia.”

Bishop Hale said the parish was lower middle-class, with successful tradies, “a lot of can-do people”.

“It became the biggest Anglican church in Australia while I was there.”

In 1988, he was invited to Melbourne by Archbishop David Penman to head up a new youth department. There were eight paid youth ministers in the diocese when he started and about 80 when he finished eight years later.

In 1996, he went to Diamond Creek as vicar, later becoming Archdeacon of Box Hill during his time there – with responsibility for two-thirds of the Eastern Region.

Consecrated in 2001, he took on oversight of the whole Eastern region, where half of all people who attended church in Melbourne worshipped.

“We did a lot of really strategic stuff in the Eastern Region in those eight years and we pulled off some significant consolidations.”

He moved to St Hilary’s in 2009, planting a new congregation at St Silas’, which had come into the St Hilary’s fold three years earlier, and later taking on St Augustine’s Mont Albert North.

“Part of what observably is happening is that lots of churches are just being amalgamated to survive and that is not a recipe for happiness, in my opinion. Forced amalgamations or amalgamations by necessity don’t generally lead to good outcomes, they just lead to a lot of tension because you’ve got to have a bigger reason to amalgamate than just survive.

“We’ve only done it by invitation, we haven’t had an aggressive strategy to take over churches. They’ve invited us to take them over and we’ve done that.”

Bishop Hale said the main reason St Hilary’s was attracted to taking over St Augustine’s was its proximity to Box Hill. “There’s lots of professionals and Box Hill is a health, education, retail, transport hub. It’s (St Augustine’s) brilliantly located to take advantage of that and that will be cross-cultural, primarily Chinese.

“So we’ve only done it for strategic intent, we’ve not doing it just to keep church doors open.”

St Hilary’s itself has just received council approval for redevelopment of its John Street site in Kew after years of contentious debate.

Bishop Hale said its community engagement through its community care arm, St Hilary’s Hope, including its annual Food Drive in the City of Boroondara, has given the parish a very visible and positive public connection.

“It does illustrate that if you work hard at being community-connected and having a presence in your community, and not be perceived as being just a private club for religious people, it does bear fruit,” he said.

“At the end of the day, people are still looking for community, they’re still looking for a sense of purpose and meaning and they’re looking for some answers to the big questions. The Church may be battered and bruised but we’re a very good place for all those things to be sorted out.”