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Rainbows, kava bowls, and foolish hope: Hui conjures future for Methodist Church

By Paul Titus

The March hui on the future of ministry training and the mission of the Methodist Church was a cathartic event.

The 47 people who gathered at the Franciscan Friary in Auckland expressed some of the pain and sadness they feel at the current state of the church. But they also had strong sense of optimism and applied imagination and lateral thinking to consider new ways forward.

Some of the images people used to describe the work of the church included that of a rainbow with repeating colours of mission and ministry with no separation between them; a kava bowl that belongs to no one but offers hospitality and a sense of belonging; and a wind farm that can change direction and provide sustainable energy to its people.

And one of the most provocative thoughts to come from the gathering was ‘may the spirit bless you with the foolishness to think you can make a difference in the world, so you can do the things others say cannot be done’.

Trinity College principal Rev Mary Caygill says it has been more than a decade since the church had a major rethink on ministry training. With dramatic changes taking place in society and the church, the hui was a good chance to take stock and chart a way forward.

The conversation at the hui was framed around a series of questions: Who are we as Methodists? Where have we come from? Where to now?

A key point of discussion was the need to for the Pakeha section of Tauiwi to reclaim the Methodist ‘treasure’ of the circuit.

“A circuit structure would make use of teams of ordained and lay ministers to look after the needs of the congregations in the circuit. We now have a disparity of resources between those congregations that can afford full-time presbyters and those who can’t. A circuit model would allow us to allocate resources in a connected way,” Mary says.

Discussions at the hui focused on the need for collaboration among cultural groups and imperative to be both bi-cultural and multi-cultural.

While some sections of the church decline, Pacific Island synods are gaining in numbers and confidence and one of the most important things to emerge from the hui was a claim from Pacific leaders for the right of a place to stand within the church.

Former MCNZ president Rev Aso Saleupolu was one of those who articulated the views of Pacific Island New Zealanders. Aso says a discussion on ministry training that addresses their needs was long overdue.

“For a long time the Fijian, Tongan, and Samoan members of the church have felt like guests in a Palangi house but we are not guests, we are members of the family. Some people ask if Sinoti Samoa is temporary because our children will speak English so there will be no need for cultural groupings in future,” Aso says.

“But we think there will always be a Samoan synod and a Vahefonua Tonga. This is not because we want to separate ourselves from the rest of the church but because we need a space where we can nurture and hold onto our identity. In Pacific terms we think of this as a fenua where we can bury the umbilical cords of our children and have a connection to the earth.”

In practical terms this means the church’s Pacific Island groupings would like to see more resources put into training ministers for their congregations and lecturers appointed who can teach Pacific theology. Currently the few ordained Pacific Island ministers are not only responsible for the pastoral care of their congregations but must also spend considerable energy translating material from English and preparing liturgies and resources for Sunday school, youth groups, and Bible study.

Mary agrees there is an urgent need to do more to train New Zealand-born Pacific Island ministers.

“Vahefonua Tonga had 20 candidates for ministry training last year but they only sent two forward. Added to this is a significant increase in candidates from throughout the Connexion this year so we have a surplus of candidates. We have to apply some very creative thinking about how to process, accommodate and use the flexibility of Trinity Theological College programmes to maximum advantage. This is a very exciting time and not a time to be turning quality candidates away.”

The need for the hui was triggered by the resignations of people in two key positions in the Methodist Church. Rev John Murray left the director of mission resourcing post and Robyn Brown left the position of directing the lay ministry education programme. A key outcome of the hui will be to find creative ways to respond to these vacancies and hold together the work of ministry education and mission resourcing.

Chair of the Board of Ministry Jan Tasker says the board has been meeting on a regular basis to consider the findings of the hui. It has received a transcript of what was said and discussed it with Te Taha Maori tumuaki Rev Diana Tana. It is on track to have a report and job descriptions ready for the June synods so they can consider it prior to the stationing process in August.