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Trans-Tasman gathering cultivates rural ministry

The conference featured a traditional umu meal.

By Paul Titus

Clergy and lay people from rural parishes on both sides of the ditch gathered in the top of the south last month to share experiences, do some soul searching, and recharge their batteries.

The Trans-Tasman Rural Conference is a gathering of people in rural ministry held every four years. This year it was the turn of churches in Marlborough and Nelson to host the event.

About 150 people attended the event, half of them Australians and half Kiwis.

One of the organisers of the event was Rev Martin Harrison, minister at Brightwater in the Anglican Nelson Diocese. Martin says models of rural ministry and leadership were a frequent topic of discussion in the conference’s workshops.

"Both lay-led teams and ordained ministry were examined. Neither model was held up over the other. Each model has strengths and shows plenty of vitality and life.

"What seems to work best is ministry from the grassroots up, that is when people work out for themselves what it means to be the local church rather than have something imposed on them."

Martin says rural communities tend to be interconnected. Churches exist within the community and the community within the church.

"We visited Awatere during the conference, for example. There the whole geographic region is the parish because there is only one church. The church lives and breathes the district and experiences its ups and downs.

"That is very different to disjointed urban centres, where people get in their cars and drive to the part of the community they want to be part of."

While the drought that has plagued Australia was not a particular focus of the conference, the image of drought is a useful one in thinking about rural ministry, Martin says.

Farmers tend to be independent. In times of drought they work harder to try to beat the dry weather. But they cannot beat the drought because the conditions are out of their hands.

Churches are similar. In tough times rather than be isolated it is better to network together, seek input from others, examine what you are doing, get refreshed and stay sharp. The Trans-Tasman conference was an effort to do this.

Whereas most of these conferences are held in a single location, this year the hosts put on a movable feast.

Those who attended the event began in Marlborough and visited a variety of the regions’ rural industries – including mussel and crayfish processors, a winery, the salt works, and a traditional sheep and cattle farm. They also got to experience marae living by spending two nights in the wharenui at Omaka Marae near Blenheim.

Following this the venue shifted to Nelson Lakes and then to Teapot Valley Christian Camp outside Brightwater where there were two days of days of workshops. Workshop topics included sustainability (of both the land and rural ministry), pastoral care, non-clergy churches, and evangelism.