Denise Liersch’s path to Moderator has been unconventional, but no less enlightening. She steps into the role at a time when the Church is undergoing ‘huge transition’ but sees no reason to worry
By Stephen Acott
It always pays to try before you buy. Shop around, try on different things, different brands, even if they’re all essentially the same product. Otherwise, how do you know you have exactly what you’re looking for?
The same could be said of faith. You may have been brought up going to church, sitting through services, staring at the Cross trying to get your head around exactly what that represents, but around the corner another church with a different name is more or less doing exactly the same thing, just coming at it from a slightly different angle.
What if that church, with its peculiar idiosyncrasies, would resonate more deeply with you? There’s only one way to find out.
Rev Denise Liersch didn’t set out to sort her faith this way, it’s just the way it ended up occurring. But she thinks her faith is stronger for the experience.
The Moderator-to-be is about to take up office having travelled an unconventional, but deeply faith-affirming, path. For the first 25-odd years of her life, Denise was Catholic. Then she found the Baptist church – or it found her – before she finally became part of the Uniting Church.
“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have faith,” Denise, 58, says.
“I grew up as a very active Catholic. I went to Mass every Sunday, went to a Catholic school – my whole family was Catholic and mum, in particular, was a very devout Catholic.”
But as Denise grew older, questions started popping into her head. Questions and doubts. It wasn’t anything to do with being Catholic, but there was something gnawing away at her subconscious. She just couldn’t put her finger on what it was.
“I had lots of questions when I was in my late teens. When I was about 20, I got to know some people who weren’t Catholic and that was my first exposure to people who were Protestant,” she says.
“I was living in a shared house with some other non-Catholic Christians of various traditions who were really serious about how they lived out their faith and that made a significant impression on me. It was a time when I was also looking at how I lived my faith.
“I was also working as a physio and some of the people I worked with were members of the local Baptist church. I was still going to Mass, but I also started going to church with them, and the service was very different to my experience of Mass. It appealed to me and I ended up going regularly for a couple of years.”
But still the questions came and the doubts hadn’t subsided. Denise hadn’t lost her faith, but she did feel a little lost and uncomfortable.
“My discomfort wasn’t about being Catholic,” she says.
“It was about feeling pressured in the Baptist Church to be re-baptised as an adult. I didn’t feel comfortable about that, but couldn’t articulate why. I wanted to work that out, theologically.”
That would take some time, a few years in fact, but eventually Denise would arrive at the Uniting Church and all the pieces would fall into place. She’ll explain why shortly.
First, a little more about our next Moderator. Denise is married with two children – a son, 32, and a daughter, 29. She is what you would call “a good talker” but, importantly, to use another idiom, she never strikes you as someone who likes the sound of her own voice.
She’s warm and effusive, with an ever-present smile that radiates cheer and grace. It’s impossible not to feel welcome in her presence.
As much as Denise may like to talk, she is also an avid listener. She makes you feel your thoughts are important, that you have something worthwhile to contribute to whatever it is you are discussing. Her opinion is clearly no more important than yours, even when canvassing topics she has more experience and expertise in.
Denise doesn’t appear impatient, she thinks before she speaks, and, if she’s a glass-half-empty kind of person, then she hides it well.
She doesn’t say as much but you get the impression Denise’s faith has shaped her personality – particularly her grace. Interestingly, it turns out this was one of the principle reasons Denise made the move from the Baptist Church to the Uniting Church.
She credits the father of one of the friends she was living with as the key person in her decision to join the Uniting Church. His name was Murray John and he was a Uniting Church minister.
“Murray and I would talk a lot and, through him, I learned this language of grace and that made sense to me of what I experienced and felt. My connection with the Uniting Church grew from there,” Denise says.
That wasn’t the only thing that resonated with Denise, however.
“One thing about the Uniting Church that particularly appeals to me is the strong belief it has in its people,” she says.
“The gifts that each person brings is part of what makes the church the church and, in a lot of other faith traditions, that’s not necessarily the case. Ordinary members in other churches don’t have the opportunities to contribute to the community like we do in the Uniting Church.
“Our engagement in what you might describe as a secular world also appeals to me. In the Basis Of Union, we talk about being informed by scripture, but also by science, history and psychology. The Uniting Church has this emphasis on participating in the world reflecting God’s way.”
Denise doesn’t strike you as an ambitious person. In fact power is something she rails against.
When asked what she’d say to Jesus if he were to knock on her door looking for somewhere to start in a bid to set the world right again, she instantly thinks of climate change and domestic violence. Then she pauses, considers the question some more and continues: “I’d ask him to talk to people who feel so strongly that they’re right and everyone else is wrong that they’re going to force their opinions on others. That goes for politics, workplaces, families and even the Church.
“This belief that exerting power over others is the way to get a better share is wrong.”
Power is an interesting and increasingly relevant topic right now when discussing the Uniting Church – or any church for that matter. The 2016 Census revealed, for the first time, more people identified as having “no religion” (30 per cent) than as having a religion (Catholics were No.1 with 22 per cent).
And, closer to home, if you look at the diagram at the top of Page 20, you will see 68 per cent of our congregations are aged 60 or more. That’s not a group our youth-obsessed society tends to be much interested in listening to.
But does it matter? Unsurprisingly, Denise says no. She says the Church is better placed in the margins, not necessarily on or near centre stage.
“At the 2015 Assembly, a theologian from the China Christian Council, Rev Dr Lin Manhong, spoke about churches in China and how they don’t have denominations per se,” Denise says.
“She spoke about how Christians in China are a very small percentage of the population and how a number of things they do don’t fit with government policy.
“This makes it difficult to gather together as faith communities and do the things they want to do, including things such as providing aged care and child care services. However, she said being in a minority group was a gift because it allowed you to stay on the margins and recognise that’s where the church ought to be.
“It keeps the church in touch with the reality of life for those of us who get left behind by the mainstream.
“This is in line with the Hebrew scriptures, which emphasise how a society is marked by how well we include those on the margins.”
Smaller also means more focused, you don’t have to cast the net as wide.
Again, this is can be seen as an advantage. Denise has had 18 months to think about where she would like to lead the Synod to and, interestingly, she has this to say right off the bat: “I don’t think you can have one person saying ‘follow me’. I’m a big believer in collaboration.
“Also, in the wider community, in Western cultures, there is not a lot of trust in institutions and leaders, particularly church leaders.
“The era of Christendom, where everybody thought they knew the Big Truth that gave us purpose and meaning in our lives and we looked to the obvious leadership to find the way to achieve our goals, that’s gone. So we make up our own sense of self and where we find purpose.
“But there’s an alternative image, a Gospel image, that’s relevant to this discussion. And that is being salt or leaven, (Matthew 5 13-15) that you don’t have to be big to have an impact on the lives of people.
“You can be something little that has an influence way beyond its size. We’re not called to be big and successful, we’re called to live faithfully to the Gospel of Jesus – and there’s more than one way to do that.”
Still, it would be fanciful to think Denise hadn’t given any thought to what she would like to achieve in the next three years. Big picture, she’d like to focus on cohesion and clarity.
“Who are we as a church and what are our shared values and faith? We are incredibly diverse – theologically and culturally,” she says.
“There is a need to be able to name more clearly what it is that holds us together, the glue. Knowing who we are in the life of Jesus and what God’s calling us to live into.
“This sort of clarity will likely be something that emerges rather than something we decide to create. God tends to work that way.
“On a smaller scale, I would like to see a much greater sense of cohesiveness and communication and trust among the church councils, like presbyteries with congregations and Synod with presbyteries, discerning and working together.
“I think we bash ourselves about when we live out of a storyline of ‘the declining church’, so I hope I bring some grace to the big cultural shifts that are way beyond anything just to do with us. At the same time, I’d like to bring an invitational and hope-filled Gospel storyline, to see how we can live into who God is calling us to be, rather than what we wish we were.
“In short, I hope to bring a prayerful, discerning approach willing to hear some hard truths.”
Hard truths. There’s two words many of people don’t like to confront. Importantly and impressively, Denise isn’t one of them and she goes into this job with her eyes wide open and a tangible determination to face whatever reality she finds.
She sees that chart at the top of Page 20, for example, and wants to tackle it.
“We, with the Anglicans, have the oldest demographic,” she says.
“The lack of trust in institutions I spoke of earlier is partly why younger people are not involved in the church. And this is what my Synod theme is about: “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’ (Isaiah 43:19).
“We hear all the time people saying: ‘why aren’t the young people here? Where have they gone?’. And it’s partly because younger people don’t relate to the forms and shapes of church as we traditionally know it.
“What’s the right form for one group, won’t be for another.
“For example, the person standing up at the pulpit preaching doesn’t relate all that well to the core of the younger community.
“This is part of the reality of our times that we have to adapt to, which is not straightforward.”
This begs the question: If you were starting from scratch and building the “Church” tomorrow, would it look like the one we have?
“I think you’d come up with something pretty different, Denise says.
“What we’re doing doesn’t match what most people in 21st century Australia connect to. At the same time, our focus on our own survival puts us at risk of being too inwardly focused.
“This can make us lose sight of the call of Jesus to us: to be communities that are life-giving for whoever comes in our midst, and to live outward for the life of the world God loves.
“The shape of the church might be changing, but the Gospel and the mission of God in our world and amongst the church has not really changed at all – just how we live into it.”
When asked why numbers are declining, Denise lists a number of factors, many of which boil down to this: the cultural shifts of the times.
“The congregations we have always known will continue to be important, but there are a lot of other ways that we can be the Church,” she says.
“If you look at the change in culture in Western civilisation we are not going to have churches with 1500 people in every postcode because a life of faith where people are connected to a large institutional community to express their faith is not how our culture works for most people any more. We are moving in new directions marked by a lot more diversity in the sense that there are lots of different ways that we can live faithfully.
“We know this, but we need to look, see and name what it is that we’re seeing, including in small and scattered ways.
“We need to name where we see that it is the spirit of God who is at work in small, local groups or virtual groups of different ages and shapes – from a little group that gets together for reflection to others who are involved in support or action groups.
“I’d love to hear more from people in these newer communities and say ‘what do you need?’. But when you have declining resources and people want to hang on to what they’ve known, it’s hard to share resources.”
The Church is changing, but Denise wants to reassure you that is not a reason to be apprehensive or fearful.
“This is not unprecedented. Over history, the Church has constantly undergone change and it’s happening still,” she says.
“Alongside the forms of church we have traditionally known, the Spirit is at work in a range of new ways. Can we see this? It might be hard to recognise where this takes a different shape to what we’ve known, especially where it doesn’t match what our culture tells us is most important – such as ‘getting back our market share’.
“It’s happening more on the margins – and that’s an important place for the church to be. This is not a matter of either/or, only the new and getting rid of the old.
“We are in a time of huge transition, and new things are emerging alongside what we’ve known – the Spirit of God is alive and well in our midst transforming lives in new and familiar ways.
“This is a sign of hope. We might not know what the future holds for us , but the Spirit of God is ever with us.”
And that is reason enough to smile.