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The future of the Uniting Church

By Keith Suter - posted Wednesday, 31 December 2014


Does the Uniting Church have much of a future? Churches seem to be in decline in Australia and so why should the Uniting Church be spared?

I have just completed a PhD on the future of the Uniting Church. When I told people about my research, the common response was: "It will be a short a document!"

Yes, the Uniting Church does have a declining number of people in the congregations.

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But if all the Uniting Church aged care, child care, schools and university colleges etc were brought together into one corporation and then quoted on the Australian Stock Exchange, it would be larger than 90 per cent of the companies listed. The Uniting Church is a major player in Australian life – though many people do not realize this.

The PhD uses the technique of scenario planning. This is the first time that this management technique has been used on an Australian church.

Consciously thinking about the future is one of the defining characteristics of human beings. There are three main ways of thinking about the future.

First: prediction means extrapolating current trends out into the future. This is the most common form of thinking about the future. Lines on graphs, for example, will often reveal a pattern. People do "predictions" everyday and take it for granted, for example, by making arrangements to have dinner with someone the following evening.

Second, there is the "preferred" future, where a person or organization has a vision towards which they work. For example when President John F Kennedy took office in January 1961 he knew there was a need for a bold vision to revive American spirits, which had been dampened by all the Soviet space "firsts", such as the 1957 Sputnik. On May 25 1961 Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress in which he laid out his vision of putting a man on the Moon and returning him safely before the end of the decade. This was achieved in 1969. With a "preferred" future we move from what is currently being suggested by prevailing trends ("prediction") to what we would like to see happen.

Finally, there are "possible" futures of what could happen. They are not necessarily being currently suggested (via prediction) and they may not necessarily be what one would like to see happen (via preferred futures). The signs of possible change may be there – but one is simply not "seeing" them. Unfortunately in all walks of life, there is a tendency to get into a "comfort zone" and to mix with a narrow range of people. Scenario planning is not so much about getting the future right – as to avoid getting it wrong. Done properly it reduces the risk of being taken by surprise.

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Scenario planning, then, is not about "prediction" but "possibilities". It asks what could happen. It is designed to encourage people and organizations to think about the unthinkable; to think about matters which are not currently on their mental horizons.

Four possible scenarios have been created in the PhD. Each scenario needs a memorable name.

First, "Word and Deed" examines how the Uniting Church could become a church of a small number of large parishes providing both spiritual activities and social welfare. This would require the enforced amalgamation of small churches into larger "regional" ones.

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The dissertation and supporting materials may be downloaded from www.churchfutures.com.au



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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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