Heather Ackland started her career juggling figures and ended it trying to figure out ways to help congregations with their missional work.
By David Southwell
“How I can help?” can be a dangerous question, but it’s something Heather Ackland has been happily asking for the past two years.
Heather is retiring after 36 years of working for Synod, with the past two spent visiting all presbyteries to ask what Synod could be doing to better support congregations’ work of mission.
“At the moment I have been stopped in my tracks by COVID but it has been great to get out and talk to people,” Heather says.
“I’ve enjoyed doing that and enjoyed trying to help them.
“Most of the questions we asked presbyteries were about what congregations were struggling with. I’d then tell them a bit about what Synod could provide.
“I have also been a bit of a liaison for congregations, where they haven’t been able to get on to the right person, I have been able to follow that up for them and help Synod staff understand the issues. I think that’s been appreciated.”
Heather says, if anything, the responses she has received when asking about difficulties have been too polite.
“Sometimes, I think they’re too nice,” she says. “I’d think ‘you could say it a lot harder’ because I know their issues. But I’m there to listen and to take it in.
“There are a lot of demands on congregations. One of the things from the Major Strategic Review is how do we lessen that burden?
“Some of the challenges were consistent, like difficulties in getting treasurers, that’s an ongoing issue.
“We were often told that communication with Synod is an issue, not getting responses or not getting promises kept.
“These challenges I fed back within the Synod and we tried to improve what we are doing and introduce some new services. I think Synod listened to the feedback, for instance I believe communication has improved.”
Among the new services to come out of Heather’s troubleshooting are congregational website training, a central bookkeeping service, free access to the online suite of tools in Microsoft Office 365 and an app to acquit credit cards for minsters.
With her on-the-ground knowledge, Heather is well placed to assess the challenges of the COVID lockdown period.
“There are some congregations that have stepped up, they have people giving electronically and they are maintaining that and there are others who haven’t, their members just can’t do that,” Heather says.
“I think the country ones are feeling it more. I think there has been more adaptation in the city.
“I have been advising congregations on how to sign up for the JobKeeper scheme. We’ve also quickly implemented Zoom licences for congregations that are available at a lower cost.”
Heather says although there have been improvements, there’s much more Synod can do to support congregations.
“We could do more in training for treasurers, for those who chair congregational meetings or church secretaries,” she says.
“We need to simplify things, which is part of what we are trying to do, keep instructions and processes simple so they are not too long to read.”
Heather has spent most of her Synod career in the finance area, becoming Director of Accounting Services before taking on the two-year stint as the Project Manager for Congregational Business Support Services. She says she is looking forward to retirement and “being a bit more flexible in what I do”.
However, the 61-year-old intends to keep being helpful as an elder and treasurer in the Craigieburn and Wallan Uniting Church.
“I want to get involved in Messy Church, trying to set that up in our congregation,” she says.
“I am also on the board of Aitken College, so I will continue that for the moment.”
Heather says after beginning her career as an accountant in private industry, she saw working for the UCA as a calling.
“I’ve been privileged to work for the church,” she says. “It’s been great to work for something I believe in, it’s my church and my values that match.”