Knowing when to let go..

How do we know if a ministry has become something that needs to be released? This is a journey that Palmerston North Central Baptist Church (PNCBC) and Te Aroha Noa have been on. Te Aroha Noa is a highly respected community group working in the heart of a neighbourhood of Palmerston North which has some unique challenges.

In the late 1980’s, Geoff Pound was the pastor of PNCBC. He was on a journey of wrestling with the isolation of the church from its community and had a deep heart of compassion for the Māori community in particular. His desire was to see the church become a force for positive change in the community, working alongside others to see this happen. A particular neighbourhood drew the church’s attention, and taking over an empty Brethren church building, they began by opening up a gym in the suburb of Highbury. This was a community of Housing New Zealand homes, known to be facing the challenges of poverty, gang activity, family violence, and hopelessness. The church had brainstorming sessions around how they could use their time and skills for the benefit of this community. Geoff and the community pastor, Reverend Graham Brogden, also engaged with local kaumātua and through a relationship with the then Bishop Hapai Winiata, the name Te Aroha Noa was gifted to this emerging mission by the bishop.

Out of the gym a variety of activities were generated by a passionate team of church volunteers. Soon they had an op shop, a budgeting service, a nursing clinic and a hospitality and care team. A community leader was employed and the activities continued to develop around the needs of families, in relationship with others in the community. From the start there was a philosophy of being family-centred and responsive to what the community wanted, rather than what the church people saw as priorities.

In 1989 Bruce Maden arrived at the church, fresh out of Bible college. He was soon caught up in the wave of community-focused activity and as a Trust got set up, he became the new team leader. A house was bought and a new whānau centre was born.

Bruce has now led this work for nearly twenty-six years, and continues to ask the question of what our faith looks like out in the community. Bruce is a constant learner, and so he developed a relationship with Massey University to continue research around best practice. He developed a workshop known as Creating Transformational Change, that has seen the learning of Te Aroha Noa dispersed throughout other communities in New Zealand.

If you visit Te Aroha Noa today, you will find a vibrant agency continuing to offer a range of effective services for families with complex challenges. At the same time, you will find an agency that is not driven by the funding dollar, and is still working with the community to empower change from within the community. With social workers, therapists, and educationalists, they keep asking the question of how they can do things better. Bruce will hand over the reigns in coming months, but will still be available to continue with the creative edges of what they do and to provide mentoring support for his successor.

But what of the journey with the founding church? As Te Aroha Noa grew, so the tensions developed with the local church from which they were birthed. The church became unable to offer appropriate oversight to an increasingly large and complex entity. A Trust Board needed to include a range of expertise that could not always be found within the church. For some years the relationship became strained, and the culture between Te Aroha Noa and the church became increasingly different. The church was not located within Highbury and the congregation was less involved with some aspects of its work. The work had become more professionalised and the volunteer base shrank. Trust was diminishing and the new entity needed its independence to continue to grow. Finally, under the pastoral leadership of Digby Wilkinson, the church allowed Te Aroha Noa to be set free.

This ‘setting free’ happened some years ago, but the ultimate outcome is enlightening. Te Aroha Noa has continued to be a place of hope and expertise in transformational change, and the church has been enabled to come into relationship alongside as a partner. The current pastor is very supportive and strongly involved on the Board, but is a colleague rather than an overseer. The church has also been set free to re-imagine what it means for them to be involved in their community in a new way, rather than resting on Te Aroha Noa as their expression of community engagement. There is strength and health for both partners.

It takes wisdom and discernment to walk the difficult journey where ministries that are birthed out of one entity reach a stage of needing their freedom. There may be criticisms of the model of professionalism that Te Aroha Noa has adopted, but the reality is that professionalism is required along the spectrum of activities that are needed in our communities. There is also the different place of volunteer movements that will be able to do things the professionals cannot. May we all have the grace to allow the Spirit to move in different ways, in different seasons and places.

In the meantime, Bruce Maden moves on from his leadership role. He is a legend in his area of working with families, and has shown a wonderful model of leadership that allows for ongoing experimentation and change, bringing up new leadership which will now keep the culture and philosophy intact. May we be thankful for such vision and dedication to what is close to the heart of God.

This article is a longer version of that found in the October 2016 version of Baptist Magazine.


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