By Andrew Humphries
While ministers Bronwyn Daniels and Joseph Lee have only known each other for a relatively short period, spend some time with both and it’s obvious there is an easy rapport between them.
And that’s important because, as joint ministers at newly formed Kew Uniting Church, they have a major role to play in driving the congregation forward.
The Kew church was formally established at a service on Easter Sunday and contains members from the former East Kew, West Hawthorn and Joong Ang (Korean) congregations.
Before the merger of the three congregations, Bronwyn had been minister at East Kew for four years, while Joseph had led Joong Ang for three years.
For those three years, the pair had been in regular contact and conversation as part of a steering committee tasked with investigating a possible merger.
As steering committee chair Cathie Shaw explains, bringing the congregations in the area together had been under discussion for many years, with various forms of merger considered.
“Several congregations have been in conversation for some time, exploring the potential of a merged future together, while keeping mission as a central focus,” Cathie, formerly a part of the West Hawthorn congregation, says.
“At West Hawthorn, for example, we had been considering our options for some years, with an important consideration being the needs of several members then aged over 90. We respected their longstanding links to, and faithful care of, our existing properties.
“Discussions revealed that what we valued most in our church community was the people, the members of the congregation, rather than the buildings.
“However, we felt 130 years of heritage and mission should be respected, with a desire to ensure longstanding commitments to social and student housing be included in future plans if feasible.”
Cathie says two issues needed to be addressed from West Hawthorn’s perspective when weighing up the benefits of a merger.
“Firstly, there was that feeling that our fellowship as members of the congregation was considered more important than any actual building and, secondly, there were the 130 years of heritage on that site and we felt some responsibility to past generations to acknowledge and continue that mission.
“But that didn’t mean continuing our tradition of mission and worship was tied to the buildings in West Hawthorn. Instead there was a desire to respect the activities of past generations, while embracing an exciting and innovative approach for the future.
“All of the congregations in our region had an opportunity to think about the future and to explore their options and East Kew, West Hawthorn and Joong Ang found they were ready for a shared commitment around mission. So the three congregations decided to get together and find a way to form this new congregation.
“This was supported throughout by the Presbytery of Yarra Yarra, and we greatly value that facilitation.”
Central to that decision around mission, Cathie says, was the opportunity to offer ongoing and increased support for the neighbouring Boroondara Community Outreach, as part of a partnership.
Established in 1993, BCO is a mental health ministry which does outstanding work for some of the community’s most vulnerable people.
Led by Rev (Deacon) Natalie Dixon-Monu and a team of volunteers and part-time employees, BCO supports “people who are socially isolated, or living with a mental illness, to live with dignity and engage in community”.
Early conversations around a merger were very enthusiastic, with Natalie driving a vision that there would be a congregation on site that BCO participants could relate to, something Bronwyn and Joseph were also keen to see happen.
“That is still the vision we are heading towards and, being the amalgamation of three congregations, we feel a bit more able to do that, more so than if we were on our own,” Bronwyn says.
At East Kew, a drop in numbers meant members had to consider what was best in the long term for the congregation.
“Our challenge was how we could sustain our missional focus given our diminishing congregation, but being well blessed with great property assets,” steering committee member Ken Marshman says.
“In late 2019, the congregation formally agreed to look at the feasibility of moving to other premises, and forming a new congregation, with the primary goal of being more closely aligned to the BCO ministry.”
Ken says discussion around a potential merger led to the realisation that their goals were similar to those of West Hawthorn and Joong Ang congregation members.
And while there was some resistance, an overwhelming majority of East Kew members voted to support a merger.
“The feasibility study showed that a new congregation was in fact feasible, and that our home might be better used for the work of God,” Ken says.
“Despite not pleasing or suiting everyone, the congregation by an overwhelming majority voted in favour of a new beginning and the formation of the Kew Uniting Church.”
As Joong Ang minister, Joseph was convinced the opportunity to join forces with two other congregations needed to be grasped with both hands.
As Bronwyn laughingly explains, this meant Joseph was the proposal’s number one supporter.
“Joseph has been very encouraging all along, saying straight away that it was the way to go,” she says.“Even on the first day I met him, three years ago, he was saying that this was something that needed to happen.”
Once Joseph heard the detail around what a combined congregation would look like, he was further sold on the idea.
“When I heard the vision at the first meeting around what was proposed, I was like ‘wow, this is a very good idea’,” he recalls. “After that I prayed that it would come together.”
And less than three months since Kew Uniting Church was formed, Joseph says Korean congregation members have fully backed the change.
“Our members have certainly embraced what we have now,” he says. “They see what the future looks like and what possibilities have been opened up.
“We have taken things slowly, as it obviously represents a coming together of different cultures, but we are getting to know each other well.”
As Bronwyn points out, members from the three congregations are still in the early stages of bonding but, like Joseph, she is excited about what the future holds.
“We’re very much still in that early phase of getting to know each other and how we can best work together,” she says.
That theme of working together applies just as much to Bronwyn and Joseph as the new congregation’s ministerial leadership team, but already they have established an easy and comfortable rapport.
It’s a relationship built firmly on open communication and dialogue. “I think we have already established good communication with each other,” Joseph says.
While the early weeks have been encouraging, that didn’t mean putting the Kew congregation together was all plain sailing.
Those involved in the merger needed to work through a number of issues, including what on the new congregation should be named.
While Kew Uniting Church appears to be a fairly obvious brand for the new congregation, it didn’t come without some controversy.
“One of the biggest things that needed to be tackled was getting the name right, and that was a lengthy process,” Bronwyn says.
For Joseph, open dialogue was the key in coming up with a name everyone was happy with.
“It’s one example of how we solved an issue around proper consultation,” he says.
“We had the issue itself, we consulted people about it and we came together to talk about it and find the right solution.
“What we have come up with is what I feel is a wonderful name – Kew Uniting Church.”
Other issues, such as place, time and style of worship, also needed to be addressed.
Initially, the English-speaking congregation members met at Normanby Rd in East Kew, before moving to the Highbury Grove site in Kew.
Currently a service is held on Sundays at 10am for English-speaking members and at midday for Korean members, with a morning tea held in between.
“Being on site together on a Sunday is a very exciting development for us,” Bronwyn says.
She admits, though, that some congregation members may have struggled with the move towards the merger and is mindful of making their journey as smooth as possible.
That journey might entail, she says, the appointment of a support worker to ensure the transition works as well as it possibly can.
“At the moment it’s just us and the steering committee doing everything, so if we had someone come in with some new ideas around us getting to know each other and working together, it would be great,” Bronwyn says.
“You know, it’s also about caring for the people who might be feeling a little bit lost with the move, while a liaison worker between us and BCO would also work well.”
Cathie says the Easter Sunday service was an obvious and appropriate day on which to mark such a momentous event.
“It has taken many years of discussion, debate and thinking to get to this point, with the critical support from the Presbytery of Yarra Yarra, and one of the reasons for choosing Easter Sunday was that it seemed very appropriate in that it really does represent new beginnings and new life,” she says.
“By choosing this date we are also saying we are now ready to move on to the next phase of working together more closely (as one congregation).”
Cathie says another wonderful aspect of the Easter Sunday service was the fact it marked the acceptance of Joseph into the Uniting Church.
“It really was a triple celebration: it was Easter Sunday, a service for our new congregation and recognition for a new minister,” she says.
The aim now, Cathie says, is to reimagine how congregations like Kew can function and look towards a much more flexible approach around how worship can be conducted, and mission achieved.
“That’s particularly important for many who support BCO and are seeking places of worship that might be more flexible,” she says.
“We really want to be a centre of inclusion for those who attend the outreach centre.”
Fellow steering committee member Michael Jung, who represented the Joong Ang congregation, says members were delighted to now be part of a broader congregation.
He says the creation of Kew Uniting Church marks the culmination of a great deal of hard work by many people and presents an opportunity to reimagine what a church can offer to its congregation.
“It represents something I had been dreaming about for the past 10 years,” Michael says.
“During that period I had been thinking we should combine congregations and in that way we can continue to learn together.”
As Kew Uniting Church, and what it represents, begins to take shape, Bronwyn and Joseph’s gaze shifts towards what the congregation might look like in five years’ time.
“I would like the congregation, in five years, to have become a great working group,” Bronwyn says.
“Members would all know each other, work well together, look out for BCO and find ways to work with it. It would be great to have a new building in five years and I think that’s a good time frame in which to aim for.”
Joseph envisages a time when missional work represents one of the most important duties carried out by the congregation, as it looks towards moving past just being a physical church building.
“A new building would be wonderful, but it’s also about what activities and programs we can offer to people and about how we can engage with them,” he says.
Like Joseph, Michael hopes the new congregation will lead the way in offering new ideas and themes for Korean worshippers within the Uniting Church.
“I am Korean, but my life is here in Australia, so there is a sense that we need to change and adapt in terms of worship and that’s what Kew Uniting Church offers us,” he says.
“If you ask my daughters to read a Korean Bible they wouldn’t understand anything in it, so that was my thinking, that we have to combine with a congregation like this one and learn from Australian churches.
“There is also an opportunity for Australian churches to perhaps learn something from us in terms of our culture.”
Michael says a new way of approaching worship could benefit everyone involved in the new congregation in terms of building up numbers.
“Numbers are decreasing among many Uniting churches and, if we just continue down the same path, my guess is just about everyone will disappear,” he says.
“So we need to build up numbers and fill our churches and to do that we need to do something new.
“It might be that our Korean congregation has a role in bringing something fresh to the Uniting Church and I think we have to try everything we can (to remain relevant).
“That means using avenues like Facebook and other things that will bring people to church. We need to give them a reason to enjoy their time in church and let them know that whether they are a church member or not, they are welcome to join us.”
Community comes first
With a new beginning comes some grand plans, as Kew Uniting Church members look to the future.
Among those plans is a vision that encompasses a major redevelopment of facilities at Highbury Grove in Kew.
And while a great deal has to happen before any upgrade becomes a reality, it’s hard for ministers Bronwyn Daniels and Joseph Lee to contain their excitement as they contemplate what might be possible.
Part of their excitement lies in the potential a redevelopment offers to improve facilities and services offered by Boroondara Community Outreach, located next door to the church.
Natalie Dixon-Monu says new and updated facilities for BCO would make a world of difference for staff and those who make use of its services.
“The current facilities really aren’t fit for purpose and it’s always a bit of a struggle because it’s also a shared space with other community groups,” she says. “We really don’t have enough room for all of the activities that we run.”
Bronwyn and Joseph’s hope is that a redevelopment will provide an opportunity for BCO to continue meeting the needs of the community, operating from a purpose-built facility offering full amenities.
“Our goal is to be able to support BCO in any way we can and one way to do that would be to improve its facilities,” Bronwyn says .
“So with Synod’s Property Services team there is a project control group up and running to look into what is possible.
“There is a property here at Kew, as well as at West Hawthorn and Kew East, so some sort of property sale and redevelopment will happen and, while we are open to anything, we are taking leadership from the property control group and they are looking at the best way we can support both BCO and their needs.
“BCO has a very big clientele and does outstanding work. They are really kind of hidden away in a disused church hall, so it would be nice if we could support them by using some of the property finances to build a suitable facility for their use.”
Already, meetings have been held to discuss what BCO, as well as the congregation, needs in terms of space and, with Kew’s younger Korean congregation including a number of children, Bronwyn hopes their needs can also be met in any redevelopment.
“We’re picturing a family safe meeting space and an outdoor eating and playing space,” Bronwyn says.
Natalie says it’s vital that BCO remains at its present site.
“We’ve been here for 27 years and people might come back here years after their last visit and can still find us,” she says.
“One of the problems is that a lot of agencies within mental health services chop and change location and so when people are in crisis they don’t know where to go. In our case they know to come here because BCO has always been here, so it’s essential that we remain here.
“It’s also essential because we are a four-way crossing site in terms of public transport. People can come on trams from the Balwyn-Doncaster area and from Richmond, Box Hill and St Kilda, so we’re the junction for public transport.”
Bronwyn and Joseph are also keen to see BCO remain at its present address.
“I’ve been thinking of the best way we can support BCO and I think it remaining in Kew is the best option,” Joseph says.
Bronwyn, too, believes familiarity will work best for BCO’s participants.
“People have been coming to BCO for over 25 years, so they know public transport routes and that when they arrive there will be people to assist them,” she says.
So, what could a redeveloped site include?
Natalie hopes for a facility with up-to-date showering, laundry and toilet facilities, as well as everything needed to be a community hub.
“There are very few places left in this area where you can just drop in and have a meal or a coffee,” she says. “We really do anything and everything here and whatever people need we figure out how to provide it.
“For example, we’ve cooked 30,000 meals out of a non-commercial kitchen here, so a better kitchen would be fantastic.”