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Online Synod Meeting a winner

By Andrew Humphries

For Kathryn D’Alessandro, necessity really was the mother of invention when it came to organising February’s first ever online Synod Meeting.

Organising a “virtual” meeting, rather than one held in the normal face-to-face town hall setting, presented a huge challenge for the Synod Meeting project manager.

When the decision was made in August last year that ongoing COVID-19 restrictions meant Synod 2021 would be held online, Kathryn knew she had just over six months to meet the brief of ensuring it went ahead as smoothly as possible.

With that in mind, she worked closely with Synod Business Committee members to ensure that their decisions around how the meeting would run properly were implemented.

That paid off in a big way, with Synod 2021 going off with barely a hiccup, to the obvious delight of organisers.

Synod Meeting business manager Sue Clarkson says the successful meeting was a tribute to the way members embraced a new way of gathering.

“The business committee was delighted with the way members engaged in a positive way with grace and patience,” she says.

“We were delighted that, from our perspective, the meeting seemed to flow well with hardly a hitch.”

Moderator Denise Liersch paid tribute to the work done by so many in bringing the online meeting to fruition.

“Whenever I think about it I am constantly astounded about the number of people who gave so much of their time, whether as volunteers, or paid staff who went way above and beyond the call of duty,” Denise says.

“I think their efforts are a real statement about their love for the Church, their dedication and how important this was to them.

“What ended up being possible was above and beyond what I thought it would be and the meeting turned out better than we could have imagined.”

Kathryn says the six-month period beforehand was crucial in allowing enough time to properly work out the logistics involved in staging an online-only meeting.

“(One of the first tasks was) to get a small number of people gathered together in terms of setting up a studio environment where we could bring in most of the presenters,” she says.

“So we were able to set up the studio at Wesley Place and our Moderator, General Secretary Mark Lawrence and others involved were able to broadcast from there.”

War room mark

General Secretary Mark Lawrence and Associate General Secretary Isabel Thomas Dobson in the Synod 2021 studio.

Such a set-up required a great deal of technical expertise, which Kathryn admits meant there was much to learn for her and many others involved.

“It was certainly a big learning curve for me, that’s for sure,” she says.

“So it involved dealing with an external company called Cvent, which built us a hub where members could connect to the meeting, as well as our audio-visual crew who run that side of things at every Synod Meeting.

“They really stepped up and worked closely with our Synod IT team to work out exactly how we could get what was actually happening in the studio out to members and how members could interact and participate in the meeting.”

Kathryn says it was crucial that a number of details were sorted out quickly once the online meeting decision was made.

Among them was an acknowledgement that it would need to be compressed into what was essentially 2.5 days, rather than the traditional four-day town hall-style gathering.

“One of the first things that the business committee determined was that we wouldn’t actually be able to do a Synod Meeting the way we always did it, once we shifted to going online,” Kathryn says.

“It was determined that we needed to work out what was the essential business that the Synod should address in this timeframe and what couldn’t wait, and how we best address that in a virtual format.

“We also needed to address what we wanted to come out of the meeting, and one of them was that we still wanted members to be able to ask questions in a live capacity.

“We also explored questions around what were the most important elements that we want in a Synod Meeting and then how do we get the technology to make that happen.”

Above all, says Kathryn, it was the unknown “X” factor that made organising such an historic meeting a major challenge.

“I guess it really was the unknown, that was the most difficult thing, when you’ve never done something like this before,” she says.

“(It was a case of) you would answer one question around it all and that answer would then present another 10 questions that you would have to find a solution for.”

For Sue, a major issue was how the consensus model so central to how the Church works could still flourish in an online setting, rather than the traditional face-to-face meeting.

War room denise

Moderator Denise Liersch with technical crew members in the chapel at the Wesley Place broadcast centre.

“Making co-operative decisions using a consensus model is an excellent process when you are face to face, but it’s much harder to work out how to maintain the really positive aspects of that process when meeting virtually,” Sue says.

“It was about working out how we transfer our excellent decision-making processes into an online situation where we are distanced from each other, can’t spend as much time together and can’t quickly pop people into groups to have a discussion about an issue.”

Sue says all of that made the creation of working groups online such an important, and successful, part of Synod 2021.

“Working groups were the key to building community that people ‘attended’ from their homes, all over two states,” she says.

“The working groups allowed members to meet each day with the same small group to build community and engage with particular parts of the business – the proposals from the JIM Cluster and engagement with the Covenanting Guide.”

Also important was the need to avoid members suffering from “Zoom fatigue” as they watched proceedings remotely, while ensuring they still felt part of the meeting process and were engaged in it.

“I think people can be fatigued by Zoom meetings or sometimes daunted by it all,” Sue says.

“Not many people get energy from sitting in front of a screen, but they will be energised by coming together with other people (in a town-hall setting), so that was something we had to take into account.”

For Kathryn and Sue, the way members embraced the historic meeting made all of the hard work by so many people more than worthwhile.

“We owe a huge thanks to all the Synod staff and our amazing audio visual team volunteers from within the UCA community who worked hard in the background to ensure a positive meeting for members,” Kathryn says.

Early feedback from Synod members was overwhelmingly positive and Denise says that evaluation will be taken on board by organisers.

David answers call of duty

By Stephen Acott

If multi-tasking is a handy gift to have for being Moderator – and Denise Liersch assures us it is – then David Fotheringham will be off to a head start when he assumes the role next year.

Since David first learned of his nomination last September, he has juggled going through that process, ministering at High St UC in Frankston, buying a house and the not-so-small matter of organising a wedding.

Needless to say, it’s been a big six months or so for the 51-year-old, who was chosen as Moderator-elect at February’s Synod meeting.

David says he felt “honoured and privileged” when the nominating committee first contacted him to have a conversation. He says three more conversations ensued before her learned that he, Rachel Kronberger and Cameron McAdam would be the final three nominees.

“Early in the process, I was thinking this is something I could do and I would enjoy doing it and I’d have something to contribute,” David says.

“Then when I found out who the other two nominees were I thought they could also do it and would bring different gifts.

“Over the next little while, I came to a state of indifference, so as much as I had come into it with a strong sense of call, I got to the point where I realised this is up to the discernment of the Church and if it’s yes, great and if it’s no that’s great too because I trust that God is leading through this both for me and the church.”

David and denise

Moderator-elect David Fotheringham with Moderator Denise Liersch during Synod 2021.

When asked why he thinks he was chosen, David struggles to pinpoint a reason. “Maybe it was what I said about my vision for the church,” he says. “I talked about the broad, the local and the personal and it’s possible that played some significance, but I don’t know.”

In the video played to Synod members, David said: “Our mission is all about being faithful to God, who calls us to community, compassion and justice. There are three levels in which I see this playing out in contemporary Australian life – broadly, locally and personally.

“At a broad level, being faithful to God’s calling means following the Biblical mandate to care and advocate for people, including seasonal workers and foreign visa holders, as well as asylum seekers and refugees, who have tended to be left behind during and post-COVID.

“It means making an effort to bring care to communities following disasters and it means advocating for sustainability for the planet. This belongs to our calling as the Uniting Church in Australia.

“At a local level, it means encouraging communities of worship and growth and care with ordained and lay leadership together, particularly following the shock of a pandemic. We need to adapt in order to best use our resources with the confidence of God’s leading for the sake of our communities.

“At a personal level, our mission of being faithful to God involves nurturing lives of faith and hope and engagement with God, with the deep knowledge of God’s love.”

David says one area he would like to focus on when he becomes Moderator is “following through further with what it means for us to be walking together as First and Second Peoples”.

“We’re on a significant journey there and we need to work through what the next steps are,” he says. “And that involves a lot of listening and time.”

Beyond that, more broadly David would like to help “the church and ministers and people of the church have confidence in the Gospel and confidence in being able to step out in God’s mission and grow in faith and grace”.

Moderator Denise Liersch says she knows David well and describes him as a patient person who is “present wherever he is”.

“He’s a deep listener and is respectful of the different ways people hear and understand things,” she says.

“He’s open and curious and good at bringing people together to share a common goal. He’s able to face very hard questions and deal with them thoroughly, fairly and with respect.”

David says one of the things he’s admired about Denise’s leadership is her focus on bringing the multi-cultural church together.

“The multi-cultural worship we saw as part of Synod was pretty inspiring and I hope I can continue to build on that,” he says.

“Denise has brought a strong pastoral warmth to the role. She has had to deal with some significant issues and she’s handled them brilliantly.”

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