Joel Nankervis is the minister of Circular head Anglican church, Tasmania. Mark Simon spoke with him about revitalising the church.
Mark: how would you describe the state of the parish when you commenced?
Joel: The church is based in Smithton, in the far northwest of Tasmania. The town’s population is 4000 people. The main industries are farming, fishing and forestry. The town has an ‘end-of-the-road’ feel to it since there’s wilderness to the south and nothing but ocean to the north and the west. Many residents of the town and surrounding areas have historically been part of the Brethren church, and more recently, Pentecostal churches have emerged, as well as those who identify as Anglican. But many of these Christians of whatever background had become disconnected from church life.
Focusing specifically on the Anglican parish, when I began in 2017, it had been 20 years since the previous stipendiary minister. Circular Head was an Enabler Supported Ministry for those 20 years. Under this model, a local team was raised up of leaders, including 1-2 locally ordained people, and this team was supported by a trained member of clergy called an Enabler, who covered 3-4 parishes. This model operated for around 20 years in Tasmania but has now ceased across the parishes that were using it. The local leaders had become quite tired after the years of doing ministry this way. The congregation had dwindled to around 20 people.
Mark: What were the foundations laid for revitalisation at circular head?
Joel: Among the church members when I arrived were 6-8 core people who were still enthusiastic and eager to try new things. They were happy to do the safe ministry training for children’s ministry and get clearances for that. Revitalisation started with children’s ministry. The Diocese also provided new ministry development funding to the parish for 3 years at the beginning of my time there.
Mark: Can you give some key decisions or turning points that helped revitalisation get off the ground?
Joel: Right from the start, we emphasised children’s ministry. My wife Lyn led this, drawing on her own theological training and experience as a Scripture teacher in the NSW school context. At the start it was just our own 2 year old daughter as the sole participant, but then through visitation by a member of the enabler team, another family with young children came to check out the church. There were no other churches in the town offering anything for families with young children. Word started to spread.
We also kept the framework of an Anglican Prayer Book service, but included some more contemporary elements that connected with non-Anglican visitors. Some of the trappings of a high church Anglican heritage were gradually removed to make physical space for the music group, the projector screen and for greater congregational participation in the Sunday service. For music we used a couple of hymns and introduced contemporary Christian songs, so there were both at every service.
I preach expositorily, and emphasised personal, living faith. Tasmanian Anglican churches were not historically evangelical, so word got around that something new was happening and Christians in the area were attracted.
We introduced small groups (while other churches in the area had previously had groups, there had been no history of small groups for the Anglican church here). Each year we aimed to start a new group for a new demographic. There are half a dozen groups now.
I was intentional about investing time and care in new people, and with those who are willing to be involved. A key Scripture passage is the Ephesians 3 prayer – ‘God who is able to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine.’ This has been emphasised in preaching and in setting the vision for the church. God can make it work. We prayed for this promise to become reality.
Mark: What factors do you think have been most important in the parish’s revitalisation to date?
Joel: Rural and small town ministry is more relational than urban ministry. Everyone knows each other. Giving time to nurture relationships was vital. There aren’t many young adults in the area (they move away for work or university), so we’ve got inter-generational ministry by necessity all the time.
We’ve tried some outreach activities like a Lego club (which had about 30 kids coming, but then covid happened, and it hasn’t yet resumed). In the early years (pre-covid) we took every opportunity to be present at community events (e.g. parades, festivals, public holidays) – and this raised our visibility. Most outreach is now relational and personal rather than programs. Still, we have run Alpha courses and are planning to do Christianity Explored in 2023.
Mark: What has been the financial costs to revitalise the parish and how has this been funded?
Joel: The major help was the New Ministry Development funding of $30,000 per year for 3 years. The Anglican parish of Burnie gave some occasional gifts. The local offertory had picked up enough by the end of the 3 years that my position is now funded at the local level.
Mark: What training and support has been significant for you personally to lead this parish revitalisation?
Joel: The normal formative stuff: Bachelor of Divinity from Moore College, and some professional development through Ridley College. 2 years as an assistant curate in Burnie before moving to Smithton. Bishop Richard has divided all clergy into training cohorts. New rectors are all trying to do revitalisation of some kind, and so we’re all able to support each other and share ideas. The diocese has regular training sessions. The Diocese also has a Development officer, who coordinates this training and mentors me as well as others doing this style of ministry.
Mark: What advice would you give to those who want to pursue revitalisation in their own parish?
Joel: Mostly the ministry in Circular Head is bread and butter, everyday gospel ministry, centring on prayer and ministry of the word. A consistent prayer is asking the lord of the harvest to send more workers. I’ve learned that it is wise to pick the battles I fight. Prayerfully and wisely seek to discern what is worthwhile changing (if resistance is likely), and where the key thing is to love people (and therefore take a slower or different approach to change).
Making the most of growth. When we see initial signs of growth, then become even more intentional about investing time in those people, helping them grow, and find and use their spiritual gifts.
Mark: Thank you for sharing this good news story of revitalisation. Having regular attendance now in the church of over 70 people most weeks is a wonderful testimony to God’s kindness and your hard and faithful gospel work.