By Andrew Humphries
Thanks for the opportunity for a chat, Isabel. Can I start by asking how you are feeling ahead of your September 30 retirement?
At this stage I know it’s coming and I feel it’s just the right thing to do. But I’m focusing very much on all the things that are here waiting to be done, and retirement is still feeling quite a long way off.
So there are still some things to get through on your to-do list?
There’s some things I want to finish, and there are many things I know I will not finish, but that’s not affecting the timing of my departure. Part of the nature of the role and of ministry is that there is always so much that’s unfinished, and so there is a sense of handing on to someone else. I guess one of the goals I’ve had as a parent, and in work, is always planned obsolescence, getting to a stage where life continues without me.
What prompted the decision?
I was appointed for a five-year term. That term was then renewed, and at the time I said I may not stay all of those next five years. That’s the nature of ministry calls, that they’re for a minimum and maximum and, probably 18 months ago, a conversation began about the various terms of office that were coming up among the senior leadership team, and I was very clear at that point that no, I would not be seeking an extension, and so that brings me to the end of September.
Anything immediately on the horizon, after that?
Oh, I’ve got a whole week’s holiday planned in October. And then the longer term will be that we pack up and relocate back to Bendigo. And we’re giving ourselves 15 months or so, or however long it takes, to do that.
So is Bendigo where we start in terms of your childhood?
No, it was in Naring in northern Victoria.
Was yours a family of faith?
Oh yes, a very strong family of faith, over multiple generations. It was a small farming community and my father’s family had been there since a whole group of Wesleyans left the goldfields and moved over at the time that land was being made available to smallholders. My mother’s family’s journey was similar and about 20 miles away. So both of them, particularly my father’s family, had a tradition of being local preachers. A couple of great uncles were ministers, and a great aunt spent 40 years in Fiji as a missionary teacher. My mother was also a strong person of faith, and I apparently started Sunday School aged three weeks, when she resumed teaching.
So it was about church very much being the centre of the community?
Oh yes, the centre of the community, and the centre of life.
What can you recall about that, you mentioned Sunday School, so faith would have been a natural part of your childhood?
There were daily morning and evening Bible readings and prayers around the kitchen table. Probably one of my very early memories is sitting, watching a pipe organ being assembled to be put in the church after my father had brought some of it home on the back of a ute. Electronic organs were hitting Melbourne and churches were getting rid of their pipe organs and they had one to give away. Dad played the organ, so he took them up on the offer.
As you moved through childhood, was there that sense of faith as your anchor?
As a teenager you have to work out what are your values and yes, there was a wider circle of engagement in some youth camps and decision making and owning a sense that for myself, I wanted to make faith a commitment.
And you spoke of strong values, I would assume your parents held very strong and wonderful values that you inherited for want of a better word?
Well, we probably need to backtrack a little bit because some of my family life gets a little bit complicated. I was four when my mother died, but my father took that in his stride with his faith and normalised it in a sense, I guess, but there’s been a sense from that time, that the wider church, the Numurkah church, and other people were looking out for me. At the time of my 21st birthday, I received gifts from people I barely knew, but they were my mother’s friends, and they had been praying and caring for me, and that was part of being held in the wider love of the church. So when my mother wasn’t there, and even when she was and she was ill, her sister had a major care role for me. Once mum died, my great-aunt, the one who’d been in Fiji, became my prime female carer for the next six months, because my grandfather also moved in because he was too much for her to care for, and so dad took on all that.
Did you or do you even still reflect on how your mother’s death might have shaped you?
Oh yes, but not only my mother’s death, but the arrival of my stepmother, which is another really significant part of my story. Dad remarried when I was nearly seven and the person I called mum for the next 45 years, and three older sisters, moved in.
So there was a sense of great upheaval in your early years?
I don’t think I’d even call it upheaval. Again as a child, children see things through the lens of those around them and, given dad’s faith and the belief that God is with us, you just take it as normal. And I’m really grateful for that and very grateful for my stepmother and blessed to also have people around who remembered and could talk to me about my own mother.
You would have had, I imagine, if circumstances had been different, some wonderful conversations with your mother?
I would’ve loved to have been able to do that.
So after school, your focus became teaching, didn’t it?
Yes, there weren’t many options for country kids and if we wanted to go on to further study, teaching or nursing were the options we were presented with. And so in 1974 I came down to Melbourne and was fortunate to live in St. Hilda’s College at Melbourne University. St. Hilda’s and Queen’s College shared chapel services, and so I had a fascinating range of friends from that time, including two who went on to become theological lecturers.
Tell me about your teaching career?
Well, my teaching career was not particularly glorious. In my second year, I went on a school excursion and fell over most unspectacularly while rollerskating. No one saw it happen, but I managed to break both bones in my leg. So I then had quite a bit of time off after that, and the church at that point sent my husband Kevin off to Tasmania for his first ministry placement, and so I needed to resign from teaching in Victoria. I couldn’t teach in Tasmania as they would not even send an application form to an out-of-state person. So one of the options presented by the then Commonwealth Employment Service was a job interview with a politician. So I spent a couple of years as an electoral assistant for Senator John Watson. It was a very interesting time. My degree was in history with politics, so I had a keen interest in politics. I had a great deal of respect for John and how he exercised his political career.
So amid all of this, how is your faith being sustained?
I was always a regular attender of worship and enjoyed fascinating conversations with Kevin, around what he was reading as he prepared for the two services each Sunday. I’ve always expected to be engaged in the life of a congregation, not just turning up on Sunday. At this time I was hearing a call to discipleship, but never a call to ordained ministry. So it’s that thoughtful reflection of, well, what is God calling me to do? How am I to live with integrity following the way of Jesus? What’s that call for me? Congregations are aware that ministers come and go, that ministers’ spouses come and go, but the congregation has to keep on going. And I guess that then meant asking what’s available in terms of presbytery involvement. We’re still talking the very earl y days of the Uniting Church, so there was vision and excitement in how things were being shaped in those times. So the first thing that I did beyond the congregation was join the Synod Standing Committee in Tasmania.
And you were Tasmanian Moderator from 1997 to 99, weren’t you?
Yes, out of the blue came a phone call telling me that I had been nominated as one of the Moderator-elect candidates. By that stage I was working with the Tasmanian Council of Churches, with a whole six years in the Mallee at Ouyen, and children in between, too.
What can you recall of that period as Moderator?
Oh, it was a fascinating time. I knew the congregations well, visited them and was clearly involved with their joys and difficulties, so it was a rich time.
And so about a decade later, you become Moderator of what is now the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania? And I guess it’s the same thing, you’re not aware you’ve been nominated, but you’re comfortable with being nominated?
Comfortable is not the word I would’ve used, but I was open to listening to the church and to exploring it, and having the conversation about what the process might mean.
What did you enjoy about the role?
The engagement with people and seeing the hugely different ways in which individuals and congregations, communities and agencies go about being light and salt in their communities?
What about the challenges?
Oh, there were multiple challenges. It was a particularly bumpy time for the Synod and I think part of it was the whole church has been, from the Christendom model being the centre of society, we had known and been saying for decades that that wasn’t the place where we should be, we needed to be on the margins, but the experience of moving from the centre to the margins is not a comfortable one for many.
There was controversy around the closure of Acacia College at this time, wasn’t there?
That was an extremely complex and painful situation around the dreams that had been held for the college as a Presbytery initiative. While I was Moderator the Standing Committee had to say ‘no, we can’t keep financing this’, and it was my job to announce to an entire school staff of about 90 that they would not have jobs in six weeks’ time. Then, an hour later, having to tell a very large gathering of parents that their children would not have a school to go to in six weeks’ time is not something that I would wish on anyone.
How do you steel yourself in times like that?
It’s a case of putting one foot in front of the other and knowing that these decisions are part of the role, and that this is what is required. The decision had to be made and it was my role to convey that and I needed to do that as clearly and as well as I could. One of the things about being Moderator is that lots and lots of people pray for you and that does make a difference.
So you sensed that level of support?
Yes, but I also felt plenty of isolation and plenty of other emotions as well.
While all this was happening, there was a great deal of controversy involving Methodist Ladies College and the decision of its board to sack principal Rosa Storelli, wasn’t there?
Yes, the Acacia College and MLC issues were happening simultaneously. The board had decided to end Rosa’s tenure, she then read the school’s constitution and saw that the Moderator was the ‘Visitor of the school’ and so called on me to act to have the decision overturned. I had a crash course in what several centuries of English legal tradition meant in terms of the powers given to ‘The Visitor’, which are extraordinary, and so yes, again, this was a responsibility that fell to me. I couldn’t walk away from it. And so we had vigorous engagement and outcomes that probably didn’t please many people at the time. The number of churches, schools, universities and hospitals Australia-wide and across many denominations that have changed their constitutions to remove ‘The Visitor’ after that is probably one of my more unintentional and unexpected legacies.
All of this brought with it some media attention, didn’t it?
Yes it did, and that was pretty challenging. Media attention, if it is given in a muted way with balanced reporting is one thing, but media attention in the heat of the moment when you don’t recognise what’s being reported isn’t much fun. It’s ironic that so much of my time as Moderator was related to school issues, considering I was someone who had such a firm commitment to government education.
So, what makes a good Moderator?
There’s something strange in that somehow in the processes of discernment what happens is that the person there does have the gifts and graces for what is needed at the time. Some of that is by the graces and miracle of the Holy Spirit and some of it is through the gift of the whole church and the system we have, and there are others around that shape and provide that encouragement needed to seek God’s way forward.
After your term as Moderator there was a relatively short break before you took on the role of Associate General Secretary. How did that come about?
Well, again that was someone else identifying gifts that I was probably slower to identify in myself. As a layperson, when you conclude a role there is no expectation of the church finding ongoing work for you in a way in which as a Minister there is that mutual obligation of continuing, so I had no idea what would follow when I finished as Moderator. My assumption was it would mean that Kevin would be free to listen for a call to some nice regional spot again, and we could escape Melbourne. However, before I finished as Moderator, the Placements Committee had put my name against the Associate General Secretary position, and I could see that it would be a challenging, fulfilling opportunity.
What’s the essence of the ASG role?
It’s to support the General Secretary how ever that is needed, but particularly through some of the committees and in minister-related conduct and complaints matters – my predecessor used to summarise the role as ‘HR for God’! It’s to provide advice and pastoral guidance to presbyteries, congregations and ministers. I get lots of questions about the regulations, helping people find their way around them and enabling them to make decisions with confidence. I’ve had oversight of the Office of the Gen Sec and the Culture of Safety teams. An exciting new dimension was after the Major Strategic Review when two new subcommittees of Standing Committee were established. I became the Executive Secretary of the Ministry and Mission Committee. That has a very wide brief, but it gives such a broad vision of what is and can happen within the life of eLM, presbyteries and our congregations and opportunities for the Synod to work with those possibilities and resource them.
What have you enjoyed about it?
I love being able to provide context and support for people in their ministry roles and, particularly in the first few years in the role, I had a direct involvement as secretary of the Placements Committee, and that built on what had already been 12 years as member, chairperson, and Moderator. So I knew that committee inside out and its role in offering the support to allow others to get on with the hands-on work of the ministry.
What have been the major challenges of the role?
Conflicts in congregations and with ministers and times when it doesn’t seem as if we are living up to our values and as people of grace and goodwill. Issues of historic child abuse are excruciatingly damaging. I have had the privilege and enormous responsibility of listening to survivors’ stories, and apologising to them on behalf of the Church. It’s hard work, but so important to survivors, and to us as Church in what we learn and in working to keep all people safe. We can never be complacent.
And I have to say Covid-19, as ‘Crisis Manager’ was added to my Ministry Description in very early 2020. I co-ordinated the team that had to transition the whole Synod Ministry and Operations to working from home in the space of a few days, as well as advising/encouraging/cajoling congregations to meet the stringent and changing conditions required of them, across two states, plus our sliver of NSW. We met daily initially, then weekly. Jobkeeper, then work permits were enormous administrative challenges. I’m still amazed and grateful at how staff worked together so well in such personally challenging times. Ministers and congregations were making similar efforts and changes, mostly with goodwill. It was such an unprecedented time, and so tough when churches couldn’t allow people to gather in person. I checked every one of the hundreds if not thousands of requests for workers’ permits, as my signature was the one linked to the huge financial penalties possible for breaches of the conditions. I also proof read every one of the 153 FAQs the Comms team produced. It was an unforgettable time for the whole of society.
How has the Uniting Church changed since its inception in 1977?
I don’t think anyone fully recognised the rapidity with which society would change and the church’s role would change. So that period is almost too long to look at, given the changes that have happened even in this last decade. I think we are largely over the hump of needing to convince people that some changes have to be made to how we operate. It is so obvious to many congregations that their size, questions around compliance, maintenance, and the sheer uncomfortableness of their buildings are saying we need to do things differently. I don’t think you’re having to preach that message now. You just have to help people in those stages and say, ‘okay, practically how do we put this in place?’ I think that’s one of the really big transitions in this decade.
How is the Uniting Church placed for the future?
We will have to be nimble and we’ll have to continue to make some really difficult decisions, but with people of faith that shouldn’t be a deterrent to us. Our focus on wanting to share the good news of the gospel, the difference that living Jesus’ way can make, that should enable us to do what we think is both unpalatable or really difficult.
How has your faith sustained you throughout your life?
It’s sort of an inherent part of me, and I recognise how fortunate I am in that. For some people it is a huge struggle and people have deep faith too, but for me it’s the air that I breathe, and I’m aware that God is present, enabling and sustaining.