By David Southwell
When Doncaster East decided to ask some tough questions about its future it could little dream the answers would lead to a new $8 million community and worship centre.
Until 2012, the circumstances facing Doncaster East (which later became Anderson Creek Road Uniting Church) would be familiar to many congregations.
Former church council secretary Robert Bairstow said with few young people attending, the ageing congregation in the increasingly empty church had to look at how viable it was.
“We decided that before we all got too old and were incapable of doing too much we should take a decision of either coming together with other congregations or looking at how we should disband and provide some other benefit to others,” Robert says.
The call went out to amalgamate with other churches in the northeast of Melbourne.
Manningham Uniting Church was formed from the formal amalgamation of Doncaster East, Doncaster, Templestowe and Box Hill North congregations.
In 2015, Manningham began to make decisions on which of its various sites and buildings to sell or redevelop to expand mission possibilities, but also to provide financial security.
“Generating income from weekly offerings is not going to sustain anyone, there needs to be some other mechanism to support that,” Robert says.
Anderson Creek Road Uniting Church in Doncaster East was closed and sold, Doncaster church and manse was also sold, but is still being leased by Manningham, while the Woodhouse Grove site in Box Hill North is being retained but redeveloped with a mix of church buildings and residential housing. A manse in Doncaster East is being prepared for sale.
“We don’t believe we are going to return to the 1950s and ’60s where you are going to have massive churches in our context with lots of kids in Sunday school,” Robert says.
“What we’ve done with our property has definitely been driven by the congregations, but supported by presbytery and Synod through the Asset Strategy Program. The ASP has given us a great vehicle to be able to implement the project.”
Proceeds from property sales are funding the construction of Manningham’s new centre in Templestowe, which will incorporate the existing brick church along with purpose-built worship spaces and offices for the church.
The centre is also designed to be a place of community engagement, with a street-facing café, small playground, spaces suitable for children’s activities, shared workspaces, a commercial kitchen, large function rooms and an auditorium.
“It’s designed and built to attract mums with prams and older people with walkers and wheelchairs,” Robert says.
“One of the key aims is to make every part of the complex accessible to people of all ages and abilities.”
The centre will also help earn its keep.
“It’s going to be there for the community, but it’s also going to be income-generating,” Robert says.
“We recognise we have to earn money from the spaces we build, we’re not going to have exclusive use from just about anything on the property.
“The aim was to provide something for the younger generation into the future and, so far, that seems to be working.”
It’s not just the metro areas that are finding a missional use for property sales. Church property sales in Ballarat have helped fund a much-valued chaplaincy service in the local hospitals and aged care facilities.
Health Care Chaplaincy Coordinator Andrew Shearer-Cox trains and organises a team of nine volunteer assistant chaplains to assist him in pastoral care.
He also organises worship teams made up of volunteers from all the Ballarat Uniting Churches to conduct monthly 30-minute services in aged care homes.
Andrew says the job is highly rewarding.
“When I am with AgedCare residents and we are singing some of the older songs of our tradition and seeing them engage for that moment with faith and with God, I really enjoy that,” Andrew says.
“It’s also a privilege to be able to sit with their family at the end-of-life stage and provide them with comfort and support or offer a prayer or blessing if that is the need.”
Until 2013, the Chaplaincy Coordinator was a part-time role, but money donated from the sale of Ballarat West Uniting Church allowed for it to become a full-time position.
The dispensing of funds from the closing of Pleasant Street Uniting Church in 2018 has also helped with training and the program’s website.
More funds are expected to be donated from the impending sale of Wendouree Uniting Church, where the chaplaincy has been based for the past six years.
“Chaplaincy is one of the few UC programs or ministries that I feel has quite significant ownership by each of the Ballarat congregations,” Andrew says.
“Every congregation in town has either contributed financially, or with volunteers, or in kind, such as the office space at Wendouree. And everyone feels they are part of that ministry.”
Andrew says the ministry offered by chaplaincy is highly appreciated by UCA members and others.
“Just on the weekend I was called into intensive care at the Base Hospital. A family had requested a chaplain for their relative,” Andrew says.
“The person had actually put down they were CoE by affiliation but the family couldn’t at that time find an Anglican chaplain. Using the directory the staff member got in touch with me.
“Because we provide a full-time designated chaplain ministry and other congregations don’t around Ballarat it can be easier to call us. We are not interested in taking over and, where possible, we will link people with their respective denominations or congregations.”
Andrew, who is employed by the Presbytery of Western Victoria, says the benefits of the chaplaincy extended to surrounding districts, which include Stawell, Ararat and Horsham.
“We’re keen that it is seen as understood as a presbytery-wide minister, not just around Ballarat,” he says.
“When someone is coming to town from surrounding areas a minister or elder or pastoral person will get in touch with us to see if we can make a link with that patient and we become an extension of their pastoral ministry.
“It’s really good when I walk into a room and tell them that their minister or elder has asked me to drop in on them. For that moment I am representing their congregation.”
As well as supporting chaplaincy a portion of the proceeds of the sale of Wendouree Uniting Church will go to a new meals program for Uniting Ballarat to combat social isolation.