Autobiography on the Move – Bruce Hamill

Bruce Hamill is on the move to a new style of ministry in Wellington…

Autobiography like truth should be hard work. Maybe it’s the pressure from Martin Stewart but I feel like it’s a good time to put in a little hard work.

I am in Darfield after about twenty one years as a minister in the PCANZ. The car is laden to the gunnels and the scooter (my mode of ministry transport) is perched alongside two bicycles on a tiny trailer. We have accumulated a surprising amount of worldly possessions and most of these are books in a container on the curb which will follow us to our third ministry job in windy Wellington. This third position is a step into the unknown. I am downsizing to half-time and entering the unknown world of being a ‘Community Minister’ for a congregation that already has a regular Minister and a “Chifam” worker. Reading the job description produced in me the strongest sense of ‘call’ thus far in my ministry journey. I was really excited to learn of a congregation that wanted to employ someone to work in both congregation and community in order to build bridges to enable the congregation to move out in mission in their community. The reason for my response it best understood with a little autobiography.

It feels good to be back in Darfield, even if only passing through. Some old friend in our first parish organised a dinner last night and twenty of those still around (it is thirteen years since we left) turned out to eat and share memories and hopes. It was great to learn what had happened to families of those whose kids grew up with ours. I was impressed by the courage and cheer of those facing their final years. I was also moved to learn of some significant ministry that folk had been involved in since we left. My eight years in Darfield in rural Canterbury were where I learnt the basics of Presbyterian ministry. After printing out the PhD on the floor of an old flat in North east Valley in Dunedin, I had taken a vacation from the world of academic theology to immerse myself in this business of pastoral ministry. I was truly ready for the change. However, five years into my first job the strange business of ordained ministry seemed to force me to ask the fundamental theological question once again and with practical urgency: What does the life, death and resurrection of Jesus mean? And by ‘mean’ I don’t want to suggest I was concerned primarily with the best theory to explain it. I mean, What does it mean for my living and what does it mean for the life of the church? Practical questions forced me back to question the nature of the gospel itself. So by the time my due period in Malvern Cooperating Parish was coming to a close I was reading and writing theology again and it was appropriate to be heading back to Dunedin where I could engage with the lively new Department of Theology and Religious Studies.

The parish I shifted to was a new parish in Dunedin called Coastal Unity. It was an amalgamation of St Clair Presbyterian Church, Caversham Presbyterian Church, and St Margaret’s Green Island. I was a full-time associate minister. I was in a team ministry with two others. The southern congregations of Dunedin proved to be at least as traditional and aging as my previous rural congregations. So as I addressed the theological questions with increasing urgency, the traditional Presbyterianism into which I had been reasonably thoroughly enculturated became the foil for my questions and emerging answers. When my answers didn’t fit with the world in which I was ministering I began to feel trapped. I once described it with overdrawn self-pity as ‘institutionalised like Brookes in Shawshank Redemption’.

I can identify three key elements which together became a kind of turning point in my ministry leading towards the direction I am currently following. They can be summarised under the headings (i) theological (ii) relational and (iii) contemplative.

Theologically, I found myself moving away from the magisterial reformation tradition of Luther and Calvin which form the basis of contemporary evangelicalism. This was not a drift along some continuum between dogmatism and wishy-washyness, or between fundamentalism and liberalism. Rather it was a matter of clarity about a very different way of answering the basic question about the gospel: What does the life, death and resurrection of Jesus mean? Rather than leave this question in the too hard basket, I began to realise that there was another distinct way of thinking about this question which pre-dated the reformation and was predominant in the first millennium of the church’s history and which is expressed in some respects in Eastern Orthodoxy and in the Anabaptist tradition of the reformation (sometimes called the radical reformation).  I like to characterise the contrasting answers by suggesting that Paul is right to tell us that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” and western Christianity is most deeply wrong when it begins to think that God might, in Christ, be reconciling himself to the world, doing a deal with himself, satisfying his own retributive justice in order to pardon sinners. The former pauline, apocalyptic and world-transforming (rather than world-pardoning) Christology means, in the language of the church fathers, that God became human so that human beings might become divine. For the Anabaptists, this saving work of Christ means that being reconciled to God is inseparable from its impact on our relationships. It is its impact on our relationships. Being reconciled to God involves being reconciled to one another. This means following Jesus in his enemy-loving peace-making, and it means living concretely in communities which practice reconciliation. What the life, death and resurrection of Jesus does is create a ‘body’ which is itself an expression of the justice of God. It is, as Coastal Unity put it in their vision statement, ‘an embodiment of the kingdom of God’. Rethinking salvation for me meant rethinking the nature of the church, especially the extent to which we live concretely in the kinds of everyday relationships which might express practices of reconciliation. It also meant rethinking the church’s relationship to violence and to state-sanctioned violence – especially in the light of Jesus own saving engagement with human violence. It also meant rethinking the church’s relation to economically structured violence against both humanity and the non-human environment. Enough theology for now!

There were certain key relationships which shaped my journey in Coastal Unity. The team ministry was a supportive structure. However, about four or five years into my time at Coastal Unity, Selwyn Yeoman came back to NZ and joined our ministry team after our senior minister had moved on. Selwyn and I spent many a long lunch sitting in the Dunedin sunshine talking the issues through. He brought to my focus a concern for the goodness flourishing in creation as a central aspect of the work of Christ in the world. We also talked a lot about the nature of community and the hospitality of Jesus. Into this mix came Tom and Cat Noakes-Duncan who came to Dunedin from a background in Urban Vision. They brought both an Anabaptist understanding of peace and community as well as experience in missional communities which were small enough to be both relational (reconciling) and places of profound hospitality for the last, the least and the lost. These folk came into my life at a time when our parish was undergoing a two-year process of discernment. There were clearly quite divergent perspectives on the nature of the church and its mission at work in our midst, but the extent of the divergence was, I suspect, partly masked by the diversity of the team ministry, and partly simply by the enormous gulf between the church culture of Coastal Unity and the thinking that some of us were developing. All of this changed rapidly when at the end of 2012 Ken Baker retired and Selwyn Yeoman moved on to be Master of Knox College.

2013 found me being the sole Minister in the midst of these deep changes, alongside our Child, Youth and Family Coordinator, Mary Somerville. At about the same time as we were left holding the baby/vision it was also bearing fruit (if you can excuse the mixed metaphor). A ‘free lunch’ called ‘Lunch@Sidey’ started. It was basically a way of building friendships with the most vulnerable and needy in our community. It has since grown to be a very diverse community of about 30 or more people and has become a joint venture with the local Presbyterian Support group ‘Stepping Stones’ who provide about half the participants. A further development came when All Saints Anglican Church started a project to provide half-priced fruit and veges. We became a depot for the project and some of those who came for vegetables stayed for coffee and even lunch. Thursday mornings began to buzz in our parish and community. Around this time a group of people in the parish decided to meet together in a small community of discipleship which would focus outward on helping local people in practical ways, especially in gardening. We stole the name ‘Grubby Angels’ for this. It has since evolved into a group whose project is to build new gardens for those who are unable to do so themselves and support them in growing vegetables. Jan, my wife, led the group. Life was extremely busy but very satisfying as we were constantly extending our relationship with the community. Mary’s Youth Group was growing and some of them were keen to help out with these projects. I was loving the relational ministry but feeling quite stretched as far as the pastoral needs of the parish were concerned. Unbeknown to me, however, deeper differences were about to crystalize around conflicts within the parish. Perhaps God knew what I didn’t and was preparing me for troubled times.

The third factor in my turning is the contemplative. I was part of a group for missional leaders led by Kevin Ward. We were exploring our own particular leadership strengths and needs.  A Canadian ‘expert’ in the field (in a skype conversation with each of us) made a comment about my ministry to the effect that I needed to develop ‘spiritual authority’. I was partly puzzled by the phrase and also felt that he was touching on something very significant. I decided to go on a seven-day silent retreat under the guidance of John Franklin. The other influence which opened my mind to the contemplative tradition was the powerful account of prayer offered by Sarah Coakley. Anyway, learning to pray was not the same as learning about prayer, and the experience of God in the stillness (both internal and external) of En Hakorre (near Ranfurly) was exactly what I needed to handle the challenges of ministry I was about to face in 2014 and 2015.

At the end of my first year as sole charge minister in Coastal Unity, our Ministry Settlement Board decided to go into recess while the Parish reviewed their policy on money. We had see-sawed from being overstaffed to being understaffed. However, in spite of having significant financial reserves from building sales (from which we could use the interest), our regular giving was not great and we were regularly drawing from the untagged investments. The Ministry Settlement Board noticed our ‘deficit budgets’ and wanted us to discuss whether as a parish we were prepared, if need be, to draw from our reserves (i.e. continue this practice of deficit budgets). The vote was close. There was just one vote in it. Key leaders in our Board of Manager (‘Resourcing for Mission’) were opposed in principle to drawing on our reserves, however the parish as a whole supported it and the Managers continued to propose deficit budgets.  This was the beginning of a kind of schizoid existence as a minister. I was loving the preaching and the missional engagement and dreading the meetings and the conflict with our Managers. It was complex. There were personality issues as well. But I was convinced that the question of financial policy was fundamental to the mission and nature of the church. The church is not a business, i.e. it is not duty bound to either ‘break even’ or make a profit. Its finances merely exist as tools in its missional life, to be used in a way consistent with Jesus own teaching on money and Jesus own self-giving existence. Unless, as an institution, we are prepared to die, we will not live. As a member of Session, and especially as Minister, I felt duty bound to bear witness to the gospel in this area. I had no big spending plan, just a matter of evangelical principle at stake.

Anyway, it was hard going, and I will spare you any more detail, save saying that, in spite of my criticisms of reformed theology, I was grateful for the support of Presbytery and its structures in this difficult time. My colleague, Mary, probably had a more difficult struggle than I. Over the last three years we worked closely together. I had great admiration for her gift with teenagers, her great organisational skills, and her sacrificial hospitality.  She got little encouragement from certain quarters and considerable opposition. In the end a straw broke the camel’s back and she resigned from both her job and the parish. I had been questioning my situation for a few months at that point – maybe someone else might have the leadership gifts that this parish needed?  However, I really didn’t want to leave the ministries and missional projects I loved. With Mary’s resignation I turned to the great interweb in the sky and saw a job description that made my heart soar. I felt like ‘Community Minister’ was what my time at Coastal Unity had prepared me for. But not wanting to rush, I waited, prayed (at least for a few weeks) and looked around me. Southern Dunedin Presbyterian churches seem to be falling to pieces and yet the need in South Dunedin is greater than anywhere. Perhaps I could cut my time with Coastal Unity and address the need on my own doorstep. I paused. But the mission of God is not the work of individuals. It looked like a case of needing to gather a small community. The parish in Wellington were ready to move into their community. What’s more, Jan, for whom change is always to be avoided and who would have to leave a good job and her family, also felt the same sense of God’s call in this, even if it was only half-time. So I put my name in the hat. The position was not necessarily for an ordained minister, so when they offered it to me they also offered to formalise it as a ‘call’. I am grateful. As I complete this autobiographical reflection sitting on the Interislander heading into Wellington, I feel deeply grateful to God and to the effort the Wellington congregation are putting in to welcome us and overcome any obstacles in our way. I really have no idea how it will go or what it will look like. I have two months study leave till I start work and lots of ideas are already brewing, what’s more my wife has not yet divorced me, so life is good.

9 thoughts on “Autobiography on the Move – Bruce Hamill

  1. Great reflection Bruce, always from the heart. Blessings for the next ministry in Wellington. Ruth and our family send their love to you, Jan and the children. Windy Wellington is a wonderful city. It’s our hometown; so when I visit next we can catch up. Take care.

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  2. Bruce, I find the following excerpt form your story very meaningful and practical. ‘being reconciled to God is inseparable from its impact on our relationships. It is its impact on our relationships. Being reconciled to God involves being reconciled to one another. This means following Jesus in his enemy-loving peace-making, and it means living concretely in communities which practice reconciliation’. It’s a good slogan for us all. Perhaps our traditional concept of family is too limited. in my older age I’m feeling more connected to people everywhere.

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  3. A very thoughtful reflection on your journey and crossing the “Red Sea” to a new and the challenges sounds so exciting. Go well and Go with God’s love surrounding into the place He now calls you.
    Blessings
    Helen W

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  4. Thank you, Rev. Dr. Bruce Hamill, for your years with us at South Dunedin’s 3 churches as chief minister of the Saint Clair, Caversham and Saint Margaret’s Green Island parishes. You, and your family, will be greatly missed. Thank you, also, for kindly printing out for me the 1840 Psalms, (although I was not a member of your congregations). I hope that you have a great time together in the Capital.”Peace” be with you.
    best regards
    Anthony Skegg
    (South Dunedin)

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