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Hurt and pain to linger after Church’s $78m property sell-off

The Uniting Church’s $78 million property fire sale prompted by the Acacia College collapse had tested its members’ Christian principles with some actively “praying against” the divestment program, according to a report to be presented to this weekend’s meeting of the Victorian synod.

Words by Scott Tibballs
 

The committee in charge of the controversial sell-off project, titled “Uniting our future”, notes in the report that “the church’s polity was stretched to breaking point”. 

“The Christian spirituality of the church was found wanting at critical points,” the report observes.

It continues: “In every council of the Church, in and through the program, people have been hurt. The angst and pain experienced was real and tangible. Ending the ‘Uniting our future’ program will not terminate such pain or erase disturbed memories.”

The bitterness came despite the Church offloading just 34 properties – around half the number originally slated for sale.

“In every council of the Church, in and through the program, people have been hurt. The angst and pain experienced was real and tangible. Ending the ‘Uniting our future’ program will not terminate such pain or erase disturbed memories.” — report to synod

Strong returns had allowed it to wrap up the divestment program ahead of schedule after it raised the targeted $78 million needed to pay off debts stemming from the 2012 collapse of the low-fee private school in Melbourne’s outer north.

Originally, the Church had earmarked 65 properties for possible sale – including churches and other parish assets such as manses, vacant land, halls and tennis courts – sparking widespread angst among congregations, some of which pushed back hard against the plans.

The list was quickly cut to 56 after nine properties were identified as having “high people impact” should they be sold. The Church had given itself until the end of this year to raise the funds.

The fire-sale ended once the Church had reached its target, as promised by the synod general secretary, Rev Dr Mark Lawrence, with the last of the settlements due to be completed this month.

The Church had decided on the tough course of action in May last year, aiming primarily at repaying the Acacia College debt of $36 million but also to bolster “risk management reserves” and improve the synod’s overall financial position. Additional costs, including the cost of relocating some services, lifted the final target to $78 million.

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The sell-off ultimately involved properties on 29 sites, including 11 churches (several of which were no longer being actively used).

In the end, just four congregations had to be dissolved or relocated as a result — those at St George’s in St Kilda East, St Columba’s (Balwyn), Moorabbin-Highett-Hemming and South Geelong. A further six missions and church-related groups were also moved.

In most cases, individual churches lost surrounding assets only. Four parted with just their tennis courts (Blackburn, Geelong’s St Andrews, Ringwood and Surrey Hills). But Ivanhoe lost several properties, its tennis courts and a rose garden included.

St Stephen’s in Williamstown, despite facing the prospect of the sale of its entire complex, parted only with one dwelling after the congregation campaigned hard against the decision, at one stage threatening Supreme Court action against the Church hierarchy.

According to Rob Costa, who headed the divestment project, all Church leaders involved had been deeply affected by the process, with each person having “felt the immense weight” of their responsibility.

“There has been much prayer and long, robust conversations,” he says in a cover letter to the committee’s report that will be officially tabled at the weekend meeting of about 400 ministers and church representatives.

“[We] observed that there is a sense in which the Church finds it difficult to let go of commitments that have matured to a point where letting go is for the good of all parties.” — report to synod

The report reveals that some ministers had expressed “feelings of inadequacy” in dealing with the distress of their parishioners. It also notes that many congregations were concerned that their “good citizenship” would be compromised by the loss of assets such as sports facilities, halls and gardens that were used by non-church community groups. This Christian outreach had forged for parishes “strong links to identity, story and presence in the community”.

However, the report observes that the “Uniting our future” program had also provided an opportunity for a closer look at how local traditions and considerations had impacted on the viability of some churches.

“Presbyteries can find their role and functions distracted by the strength of local traditions,” the report concludes, noting that mission considerations were often adversely affected by “local histories, past choices, and traditions perpetuated”.

“[We] observed that there is a sense in which the Church finds it difficult to let go of commitments that have matured to a point where letting go is for the good of all parties.”

The report suggests that in many cases, divesting assets would lead to positive outcomes for individual congregations in the future as a result of their renewed focus, and closer alignment with the mission statement of the Uniting Church.

Despite the trauma around the program, it also notes that in many cases over the course of the sell-off “gracious Christian leadership” was shown, and that congregations not affected were happy to receive those which were.

According to Dr Lawrence, the relocation of some congregations and missions affected by the sales would continue well into 2015.

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