The Uniting Church is in a crisis. Its membership is in decline but the church bureaucrats ignore the signs of impending doom. For example, the publicity material often contains photographs of happy smiling young people – but a person visiting a Uniting Church congregation will find few such young people.
In 2014 I was awarded a PhD from the University of Sydney for my dissertation on possible "futures" of the Uniting Church. It was on the identification of four ways in which the Uniting Church could evolve based on the secular management technique of scenario planning.
Four scenarios were devised:
(i) "Word and Deed" (the amalgamation of parishes into a small number of big parishes, providing both spiritual and welfare services)
(ii) "Secular Welfare" (just letting the congregations die off and concentrate on the expanding welfare work)
(iii) "Early Church" (letting the welfare agencies go their own way and instead return to the thinking of the early church, such as the use of house churches), and
(iv) "Recessional" (winding up the Uniting Church and letting the thriving parts go their own way, such as the Uniting Church private schools, hospitals and aged care facilities).
The "Recessional" scenario is not coming into play because the social welfare work is expanding.
The second scenario is "Secular Welfare" – a Uniting Church providing extensive community services but without congregations. This simplifies governance, management arrangements and risk management capabilities, and reduces unnecessary duplication and competition between Uniting Church agencies.
The "Secular Welfare" scenario envisions one Uniting Church agency that will run all the community services. The parishes have been wound up or just allowed to wither away. Some chaplaincy services may still be provided. Theological training will have been largely wound up, with the training of chaplains done via the Internet and/ or outsourced to other organizations.
Uniting Church parish missions with their own community services will have the services transferred to the central agency. Uniting Church schools – which already have a high level of autonomy – will be completely self-governing and responsible for their own affairs.
This Uniting Church has no congregations. For those mainly big parishes that are self-funding there is the prospect that they could continue to exist as independent parishes – and could even form their own "union" (however, given their reputations for individualism they will probably prefer to operate on their own). Many current congregations have a limited future (given their declining membership) and so their properties could be sold and the proceeds transferred to the new organization.
Freed from worrying about congregations, this Uniting Church will be able to move into new community service activities. It will not be weighed down with concerns about congregational matters. It will be able to tender for government contracts without the risk of theological complications.
This Uniting Church recruits from a wide range of professional people. For example, business people with a few decades in the harsh business world may well want to join it to give something back to the community and derive the pleasure of knowing that they are helping people – rather than just serving the corporate shareholders. They in turn will bring their management skills from the business world to make it even more professional and business-oriented.
Current congregations are largely aging and declining, while the community services are professionally managed enterprises and are growing in size, influence and ambition. Flourishing examples of this scenario may be found outside the Uniting Church. For example, Barnardos began as a British Christian welfare agency for children; it now sees itself in Australia as a child welfare agency involving people with all faiths and none; it is committed to social justice for children but without any specific Christian doctrinal approach.
If congregations continue to fade away while there is a continued willingness by government to outsource welfare work, then "Secular Welfare" could become the possible future for the Uniting Church.
The Uniting Church therefore needs to think about the implications of the second scenario: such as how to wind up congregations gracefully, and how to ensure Christian values are maintained in the welfare institutions (which are often financed by secular government).
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