I was 26 when I left my work as a country parson to take up the prestigious position as the Minister of Cheltenham Church of Christ Victoria. This Church had the reputation of being a very large and alive Church. But that was a mirage. The reality was quite different as this young country parson was soon to discover. The life of a suburban Minister has some real surprises.
Suburban ministry is not necessarily an exciting affair. Life was busy – unbelievably busy. Living over the shop – that is in a manse attached to the church – is a very demanding seven days a week, twenty four hours a day, on call job. And if the work keeps growing and enlarging then everything is increased and the longer you stay the busier you become. When I began the work I was the only paid person on the staff of the Cheltenham Church of Christ. Twelve years later we had fifteen paid staff, including half a dozen other ministers of great maturity and ability and yet my own personal load of work was just getting bigger.
We did not want to leave the church – in fact I was planning to continue until at least my twentieth year. But events in other places overtook us. The retirement of Sir Alan Walker after twenty years at the Central Methodist Mission in Sydney and the coming together of the three denominations to make up the Uniting Church and hence Wesley Mission Sydney coming into being, meant that there was a demand for a new Superintendent.
I didn’t know it at the time but while I was enjoying 1977 as a suburban minister the Officers and Executive members of Wesley Mission Sydney were on an extensive hunt for a new Superintendent and leader of the great work in Sydney. During 1977 they considered and interviewed some forty five different people in three countries without success. They were looking for a particular person to attempt to fill the big shoes to be vacated by Reverend Doctor Sir Alan Walker.
Little did they know, nor I dream, that the search would end in Melbourne and in another denomination altogether.
One of the most important lessons in life is learning when to say “hello” and when to say “goodbye”. Learning to say goodbye in a ministry is always difficult. We had completed twelve years of ministry and the work was stronger and in better heart than at any time in its one hundred and ten year history.
We had accepted the call to minister in December 1964 and in December 1977 accepted the invitation from the people of Sydney to become the new Superintendent of Wesley Central Mission.
When we came to the Cheltenham Church of Christ, this church with the big reputation, I found to my dismay within the first few weeks that there were many members on the roll who no longer attended, that there was poor maintenance on the buildings, and that we were facing a major financial crisis due to the upkeep of properties, that there was not enough money to pay for the carrier when he brought our belongings to the church and that the church debt was three times it’s annual income. If this situation was bad enough coming to Cheltenham Church of Christ, I was soon to find that almost exactly the same situation existed in Sydney.
The rolls were not in good order, many of the people were no longer active, we had a crisis of maintenance on so many of our buildings. The Mission was able to pay for the carrier but the carrier had brought too small a van and a third of our possessions were left on the front lawn, and the Mission also was one and a quarter million dollars in debt. Starting new ministries always seemed to present to me problems of finance, maintenance and membership.
But the decision to leave Cheltenham came at the very height of our ministry. Hundreds of people gathered for the various farewells.
Our municipal council put on a dinner to thank us on behalf of the citizens, presenting us with many gifts and an illuminated address of appreciation. They claimed our program of purchasing more than a dozen old homes for demolition and the expenditure of millions of dollars had revitalised the whole community, leading to larger commercial developments.
The Rotary Club of Cheltenham which I had served as Charted Secretary and first elected President, put on a dinner for a couple of hundred Rotarians and their friends, bestowing upon me, as a surprise, a Paul Harris Fellowship.
I thanked those who had helped us so much, particularly the two church treasurers who helped me lead the church out of debt into possessing the most wonderful set of assets of any parish church anywhere in Australia in those twelve years. Of the forty Elders and Deacons we had leading the work when I left, only five had been there when I began but these five had been faithful throughout.
But the suburban ministry at the Cheltenham Church of Christ was an absolutely ideal one for someone who was prepared to work hard. I found the century-old community a wonderful place to live and a fine place in which our children could grow.
How do you sum up all of the activities of thirteen years of ministry? I reflected on the first Adult Study Program that I had commenced – studying the proposed Basis for Union of the Uniting Church. Over the next years, those Adult Study Programs were to increase dramatically. By 1968 we were running seventeen courses with three hundred adults involved, and by 1980 (the year after I had left) an all-time record of forty three thousand people were attending the hundreds of courses for adults which we had established.
In the mid sixties I was chairing public debates on whether Australia should be involved in Vietnam, and how we should get out. We were conducting public meetings opposing the building of a service station adjacent to the church, criticising the government for its low level of support in overseas aid, fighting for aboriginal land rights, and against the ravages of alcohol. At the same time, I was running courses for young mothers with children, and we were having our own third child.
By 1967 I began part of my career which could be described as “evangelist”. For a series of years I went to Western Australia, Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia, New Zealand, New South Wales conducting state-wide programs of evangelism usually for four, six or eight weeks at a time, and at the same time trying to conduct a rapidly growing church back home. My sermons started to be printed and purchased in large numbers and before long more than half a million copies had been printed and sold. The church grew too small for our services and we started to run special services in the Town Hall and in the local public hall – adding an additional 9.30am Service, a 5pm Service, a 7pm Service, an 8.30am Service as well as an 11am Service to cope with the numbers of people attending.
We started the Cheltenham Church of Christ Football Team (training and playing with them for several years). A women’s choir, a youth choir, a childrens choir were added to our main church choir.
Concern for the elderly was evident in running special programs on Sunday afternoon for older people, establishing a hugely successful garden club for those contemplating retirement, and building the first of four retirement villages at an expenditure of many millions of dollars.
At this time I was invited to start writing a regular half page each fortnight in the national magazine of the Australian Churches of Christ “The Australian Christian” and a career as a journalist began to blossom, not only in several church magazines but in one, and before long more than twenty, local suburban papers. My major editorials at Christmas and Easter time were being read by hundreds of thousands of people.
Most nights of the week I was now on television conducting the epilogue at the close of transmission, with a special ten minute program on Sunday nights. Every July we were conducting mini missions in the local church, turning the worst attended cold winter months’ evening services into the highest attended of the entire year. By 1972 I had begun a series of training programs every January for other ministers, entitled the Summer School for Successful Ministry and fifteen hundred church leaders attended this school. My first book “How to Grow an Australian Church” became an instant best seller and thousands of copies are still purchased every year by churches around Australia, some twenty years later.
One of the marks of an effective ministry in a suburban church is the recruitment of other people into full time ministry service. The Church at Cheltenham, in the century before I arrived, had seen one man go into training for the ministry. Now Ron White, Noel Metaxa, Paul Cameron, Mandy White, Dr. Philip Hughes, Reg Hickman, Tom Fraser were all graduated and ministering in their own churches and six other full time persons had responded to God’s call for training and had gone on to the overseas mission fields, with others going to aboriginal mission fields.
From being the only minister I was joined as congregations began to grow and our finance improved by Ian Corlett, Graham Chapman, Geoff Benson, Stanton Wilson, Malcolm Humphreys, Maurie Connery, Philip Bradley and a group of dedicated secretarial and pastoral assistant, Joy Rainey, and administrators like John Flavin..
But in those thirteen years of ministry the real mark lay in the number of buildings that were built around the Cheltenham Church of Christ. A new manse was constructed, a new office for the church, a twenty-three unit Christian retirement centre was constructed and opened in the presence of fourteen hundred people. We then built Greenways Village, which went on to have ninety seven units and a nursing home, and then the Christian Retirement Centre stage 2 of thirty six new units plus two new tennis courts, then Pine Lodge with sixteen more retirement units, three houses to be demolished for car parking, and another to be built as a centre for administration. The church was developing and growing, adding to it’s properties, and going out in faith in multi-million dollar developments. When the time came to announce my retirement I indicated that I wanted to stay for one more year – our thirteenth – so that in that year we could completely clear any debts on the entire property leaving the multi-million dollar campus in pristine order with new buildings, a regular maintenance program and no debts at all.
During all of this time my wife Beverley was active in four different women’s organisations, and as pianist for two choirs. Our children were engaged in Sunday School activities, girls clubs, boys clubs, Christian Endeavour, Christian Youth Fellowship, Teens Club, tennis and netball teams.
Looking around on the final service after thirteen years of ministry I invited more than four hundred people present whom I had welcomed into membership of the church to stand. Many hundreds had been baptised over that thirteen years, and one thousand people had been buried. I had united in marriage more than two thousand individuals and seven out of every eight members of the church had joined during my ministry. The church was throbbing with life and was in good heart.
That was why the Methodists from Sydney who, having looked over the credentials and interviewed some forty five other possibilities for the position as the new Superintendent of Wesley Central Mission, caught the plane to Melbourne and on one Sunday morning in each of our morning services I observed some ten or so strangers. They were very obviously on a preacher hunting trip. We invited them into our home for some light refreshments and for an interesting three-hour discussion before they returned to their plane and the flight home. They were a very impressive group of people who came with a tremendous challenge: to come to Sydney and attempt to fill the shoes of Australia’s best known preacher the Reverend Doctor Sir Alan Walker.
It took a couple of months of letter writing to finalise some details and finally we said “God willing we will come, but you must wait another year as I want to leave this place debt free”.
During that year I was required by the Uniting Church to do some additional studies in Church Polity and Practice which I joyfully undertook. At the end the farewell services were conducted, the tearful goodbyes were said, and then over the horizon came one of the most rickety old furniture removalist vans that you could possibly imagine. Shifting a parson interstate was a very expensive business and the new Uniting Church administration – not that of Wesley Mission – was ever watchful on expenses like removalist’s fees. The unwashed, unshaven and uncouth men who jumped out of the van, hired from “el cheapo van lines” (or a name something like that) started to roughly man-handle our furniture and belongings. We were full of foreboding as we saw them try to stuff our precious possessions into their too-small old van. There was little we could do about it. When the afternoon came, about one-quarter of our possessions were still on the front lawn. The man in charge said “Sorry about that – we just can’t fit them in” and jumped in the van and headed off towards Sydney. What do you do when a quarter of your possessions are stacked on the front lawn and someone else will shortly move into the house that you have occupied? We had to hire another van line to come immediately and pack them and take then into storage. It would be months before we got the remnants of our possessions back and then most of them would be broken. Others we stuffed into our car with the four children, the dog and the cat, and headed off to Sydney overnight. The journey to Sydney was a nightmare through torrential rains and flying glass as a stone from a transport smashed our windscreen and no overnight replacement service was available.
But the time had come for us to leave and so my career as a suburban minister came to an end. It had been the most incredibly exciting thirteen years of our life and here we were in our late thirties being given the once-in-a-lifetime challenge to go to the largest church in the nation and there minister to a new group of people.
As we headed up the Hume Highway we left behind all of our relatives and all of our close friends to undertake the challenge of Sydney. Little did we know that many of those close friends would, over the next few years, shift to Sydney and almost without exception all of our closest relatives would in sad, and sometimes tragic circumstances, all die.
Thirty years later we look back to leaving Melbourne, and there is no way in the world we would ever want to make the return trip.
My life as a suburban minister had ended. From now on I was to be the Superintendent of a great mission in the heart of the city. The night we left, I hastily scribbled in my journal and looking out of the window at the never ending stream of cars stopping at the traffic lights at the corner of Nepean Highway and Chesterville Road, that wide intersection that was dominated by the lovely white Church with the high white tower saying farewell to my life as a suburban minister.