By Andrew Humphries
As General Secretary Mark Lawrence prepares to preside over his fifth Synod meeting later this month, he acknowledges that circumstances mean it will be very different to a normal event.
Ongoing restrictions around COVID-19 mean the February 26-28 meeting will be held online, with those participating invited to attend various live-streaming events.
“Unprecedented” is a word that springs to mind for Mark, who oversaw his first Synod meeting in May 2013.
“There have been a lot of unusual Synods over the years for different reasons, but it will certainly be unprecedented in terms of the way we are meeting this time,” he says.
“That is very noticeable already as we prepare for it and it will be as we undertake it.”
Held every 18 months, the Synod meeting gives members the opportunity to hear reports, discern proposals and discuss matters that concern the general oversight, direction and administration of the life of the church.
This month, more than 220 appointed members will gather together online from their respective home locations throughout Victoria and Tasmania.
Mark says it’s important that members understand the unique circumstances around this month’s event mean it will not encompass what a “normal” Synod meeting would.
That doesn’t mean, though, that it won’t still cover issues of vital importance to the church.
“It’s really important for members and people of the church to understand that we are not trying to fit a normal Synod meeting into a virtual meeting held over a weekend,” he says.
“What we are doing is what is essential for the Synod to make its contribution in terms of its responsibilities to the life and mission of the church over the three days.
“It means there are some features that would normally be in a Synod meeting that won’t be there, but there are lots of features that will be there, but in different forms.”
Mark says part of the organisation around a virtual Synod meeting has focused on the need to ensure those logging on don’t suffer from “Zoom fatigue”.
“There will be sessions with sizeable breaks between them to ensure that doesn’t happen,” he says.
The opening day, February 26, will take five hours, including a public service of worship live-streamed from 7.30pm, while the Saturday will incorporate another five hours and the Sunday 30 minutes less.
Key items at this month’s meeting include the election of a Moderator Elect to replace Denise Liersch, the consideration of a number of proposals from the Justice and International Mission cluster around justice and faith issues, how as a church we are responding to covenanting between ourselves and our First Peoples, and the election of members to the Synod Standing Committee.
It will also feature reports from the church’s various bodies, such as Uniting, Uniting AgeWell, Uniting Housing and U Ethical.
Mark says he is confident those who attend the meeting in a virtual capacity will get a great deal out of it and he urges them to embrace the unusual format.
“I would hope that they will feel as though they have been informed of the work of the Synod over the last 18 months and our expectations for the next 18 months,” he says.
“I hope that they will feel as though they will have made a valuable contribution to the meeting in terms of contributing to working groups, while there will also be opportunities for live discussion and debate as we look at proposals.”
Mark admits organising the first ever virtual Synod meeting in a time of COVID-19 restrictions has presented one or two challenges, requiring a different approach than normal.
“There is no doubt it has been challenging and that has been the case for everyone involved in planning it,” he says.
“Planning every Synod is challenging, but having such a significant change in the method of meeting is substantial as we prepare to run it.
“There is technology that we need to get our head around to make it as positive an experience for people as we can and there is also the issue of shaping what information is needed prior to the meeting compared to what is needed at the meeting.
“So you have to have a different mindset with all of that and it certainly requires a lot of creative and reflective thought about how we best do the meeting under the circumstances.”
But if COVID-19 has taught Mark one thing, it is that Uniting Church members rise to every occasion and will do so once more.
“Overwhelmingly across the life of the church the way that each part of it has engaged with COVID-19 restrictions that we have been working through is really impressive,” he says.
“We can all feel proud about that in the best sense of the word around the way that various councils, institutions and parts of the church have continued to do worship, witness and service through this incredibly unusual time.
“We’ve all had to make adjustments to the way we operate and change expectations sometimes, but that has been done through really good faith and overwhelmingly positive responses to understanding the difficult circumstances we are in and the challenges we are addressing together, and working it through from there.”
Those who are not appointed Synod members but would like to join in the worship service on Friday evening and/or view the meeting proceedings are invited to visit the Synod website in the week before the meeting for details on session times and how to access the livestream.