In a Diocesan first, the Annual Clergy Conference took place from Tuesday 19 May to Thursday 21 May via the video-conferencing platform Zoom. Over a hundred clergy from all regions joined in during the three days. One of the unexpected advantages of COVID-19 was the availability of a variety of speakers from around the globe to contribute to the conference.
Clergy began each day with morning prayer followed by bible studies from the lectionary led by Jackie Stoneman, former Principal of Mary Andrews College in Sydney, from John 14:18-31, John 15.1-11 and John 13:36-14:6. Clergy were reminded that as disciples we are called out by God to a secure, intimate relationship through Jesus’ death and resurrection, no longer of the world but still in it, waiting for the final consummation of his plan, but also of the resources available to us in the love of the father and the son and the presence and empowering of the spirit. ‘We can relax in the plan of God that will come to completion, we can be assured of the Spirit’s presence and ministry in and through us and we can rest in the peace of Jesus.’
On day one there were two seminars from Scott Harrower, Lecturer at Ridley College, on a theological and practical perspective on dealing with trauma. He expanded on how the church and those people who compose it might be involved in working alongside the trinity in order to restore a sense of safety, community and self to those who have experienced horrific events and trauma and become trauma safe churches. Scott is the author of the book God of All Comfort: A trinitarian response to the horrors of this world.
Two speakers were able to zoom in in the early hours of their morning from the UK for the Wednesday evening session. The first was Amanda Jackson, Director of the WEA Women’s Commission, presenting on the topic of leadership with creativity and courage in times of challenge. She shared stories of people she has met around the world along the way and drew on the story of Judge Deborah, whose biblical model of leadership is like that of a mother (caring, pushing, seeing potential, giving life, all the while knowing nothing happens without God), and clergy were reminded that it’s what you do as pastors and leaders in the everyday that gives you the mandate to then reach into lives in crisis and challenge.
Nicky Gumbel shared inspirational stories of recent life as the Vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton in the UK, seeing this pandemic as a moment for the kingdom of God to advance. He shared the steps their church has used to respond to the situation: prayer – the importance of prayer and hearing the Lord; pivot – to services and courses online, which has brought about skyrocketing involvement; proactive – seize the opportunities; positive – but not overly optimistic; prioritise – they have prioritised those people outside the church, aiming services at them.
He also shared how, to his surprise, he has discovered that the Alpha Evangelistic course, which he pioneered, works better online, for three reasons: i) more people come – they have more time, they don’t have to travel so it’s shorter, and there’s greater flexibility for people in different situations; ii) people are more relaxed – they are sitting in their own home; iii) better connection – people actually opened up more online and formed deeper connections sooner.
Throughout the conference there were local stories, from clergy working in different ministry fields and parish contexts, to share on how their parish or ministry has been affected (practically, relationally, workload, finances, morale?), how it has adapted to restrictions, how this has been received and what changes might have been seen as a result, and any changes they might make for the future.
Stories came from Reverend Gaynor Elder sharing on Hospital Chaplaincy and opportunities she has had to talk to people receiving no other visitors, Reverend Sally Cullen on Rural chaplaincy and Binda parish and the challenges of those without ready access to technology, Reverend Tim Narraway on School chaplaincy during school closures, Jane Carmody on Braidwood parish and how they have continued operating without a parish rector, Reverend Ian Powell sharing about Wanniassa online initiative Godwithscars.com, Reverend Natalie Milliken working in Junee Correctional Centre and the particular challenges for
inmates who were released early from the centre without adequate preparation.
The conference ended with a session from Bishop Mark, informing clergy and detailing the Diocesan response to the current situation.