Parishes, schools and agencies

Making development work for the parish

Stories of urban ministryWhen thinking through parish development, what are the important questions to ask?

By Mike Flynn

May 18 2017Ten years ago, I found myself lifting boxes of unrealised plans for the buildings and site of St Columbs Hawthorn from the cupboards in which they had been stowed. My subsequent report for the Vestry in 2007 detailed 11 concept plans drawn up between 1989 and 2006. The plans would have cost tens of thousands of dollars to develop and the projects in them had estimates ranging from $1.5 to $15 million dollars. The obvious question to ask was why had none of these plans been realised?

The unexpected answer Vestry arrived at after some months of thought and prayer was that the plans had failed because their commercial bias did not serve the gospel of Jesus Christ or the needs of the Hawthorn community. We realised, somewhat painfully, that our unrealised plans were primarily written to serve the parish. When we reviewed the original vision of the worshipping community for the St Columbs properties from 1883 we learnt that they were more outward focused and had worked to construct a community centre for Hawthorn running a variety of events that centred around the worship of God. We decided to adopt that vision as our buildings goal.

When we began, St Columbs grounds were bordered by fences and hedges surrounding dilapidated buildings. As I write, it is a Saturday morning, the church is open for prayer, the choir is mid-way through a rehearsal, the ballet classes are winding up, children are playing in the playground outside my study window, junior cricket is commencing in our large hall and neighbours are bumping into each other at the Café on the campus. St Columbs is again known to its local community and some have joined our church as a result. There are certainly more pastoral and evangelistic opportunities for us to follow up on.

Here are four lessons I learnt as we changed our campus:

  • We devised our property plans around what will serve our local community as well as our parishioners. We live in an urban Melbourne that is rapidly being over built, so we asked: How will we serve those around us who are hemmed in by walls, contemporary anxieties and traffic congestion?
  • We turned away from solely commercial partnerships. Commercial ideas for church property can suffer from many evils, chief among them being they are too easy, boring and often contrary to our calling as churches. While we welcome some commercial partnership even there we try to work out how it can be leveraged to serve the gospel and the needs of others and not just produce an income stream.
  • Flee big ideas for faithful ones. We learnt that thinking about parish property sometimes suffers from mega church models and developers’ avarice. Our communities need faithful and healthy local churches not necessarily large ones sporting over-realised property developments. We worked to get a clear plan that could be broken into smaller parts for us to achieve incrementally, year by patient year.
  • Children will be safe. As we opened the campus up some feared for the safety of children. Counter intuitively we learnt that contemporary public landscaping asks we reduce fences and barriers open public areas since research shows that carers are then more vigilant of children. Fenced areas invite carers to assume children are safe once deposited within the fence line but, as any grandparent knows, that is an illusion.

This story has been shared as part of Melbourne Bishop Genieve Blackwell's call to parishes in the Marmingatha Episcopate to share their stories of urban ministry. To find out how your parish can get involved, click here.