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View from a declining parish: Scottsdale, Tasmania

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Recently, Radio National’s
Background Briefing did a story on Scottsdale in Tasmania’s northeast, looking at how inland country towns can survive at a time of economic decline.

Eternity asked the pastor of two local Presbyterian Churches, Greg Munro to reflect on the program. You can listen to the ABC story here.

I was surprised at the overall accuracy of the report. Yes, they did get it pretty much right. Others I have asked for comment have said that perhaps it was a little too negative, however, it is certainly true that employment and the local economy are not exactly buoyant at the moment.

St Andrew's Scottsdale

St Andrew’s Scottsdale

Dorset is no stranger historically to large employers leaving the area or closing down, but the recent mill closures have had a worse effect than losing the Simplot factory ten years ago. When Simplot closed about 130 jobs were lost, representing 30 local families, but somehow almost all managed to stay in the area and find other employment. This has not been the case with the mill closures. Some 50 or so workers took up the offer of alternative work at Bell Bay, about 80km away, with transport there. Others lived off redundancy packages while looking for work; some went on the dole; some got FIFO work to mines in WA. But none of those are long term solutions. Our neighbour finally moved near Launceston airport because he was doing FIFO. Many tried to stay as long as they could, and the effect on the town was perhaps delayed by a couple of years, but you can only live for so long that way before you just have to move for work. Every person moving away has a flow on effect to local businesses, schools, churches, service organisations and sporting clubs.

Whilst it’s true that there will not be one big single solution to replacing jobs lost, it’s also true that there has been a steady trickle of new small businesses and ventures. The Musselroe wind farm at Cape Portland provided some employment in its construction. Current federal attitudes to funding non-coal burning energy sources may mean that further expansion of this industry will be negligible in the near future, but the wind farm should bring a few more tourists, especially when the roads to it are improved. The Barnbougle Dunes and Lost Farm golf courses continue to be a success story for the area, both listed in the world’s top fifty public courses. And other ventures, such as House of Rhu Bru, and the Little Rivers Brewing Company were mentioned in the Background Briefing.  The Northeast has faced similar crises in the past, and has always reinvented itself to face them. North Easters are very resourceful and resilient and they know that historically they have had no one but themselves to rely on. They are particularly cynical of the role of state and federal governments to do anything about the employment problems, as mentioned by the Mayor in Background Briefing.

It was strange listening to the report and recognising every voice on it, including some in the background that were unnamed! There is no anonymity in ministering in a country town. The young man helping out with the Dorset Community House who has just moved back to the area because it is cheaper to live here did the plastering in our house renovations. Jan Hughes, proprietor of Beulah Heritage B&B and Rhu Bru, who was one of the main interviewees through the piece, uses our church hall to run a photographic exhibition and competition each year for the Dorset Rotary Arts and Crafts festival, and has had me along to Rotary to speak about my time in Bangladesh with Wycliffe last year. I was just talking to her a couple of weeks ago as we set up for the exhibition about all the kind of things mentioned in the BB report. The report also mentioned how the burden of community involvement and service falls to an increasingly small number of local residents. They spoke about local Chemist Steve Love, who renders many community services gratis. One of those is to audit our church books. And there are similar connections with others interviewed. Country ministry is an immersed, incarnational ministry. You cannot be merely an unknown stranger as the pastor of a local church, like you can in the city when you visit your local suburban shopping centre.

How does the economic situation impact the churches? There is a Catholic Church and seven Protestant Churches in Scottsdale, a town of 2,000 people. So although regular church attenders probably make up ten to fifteen percent of the population (higher than the national average!), Christians are spread pretty thin across denominations. No one church has all the gifts it needs. One may have good preaching, another good musical resources, another good childrens’ work, or another people who are good with youth. But no one has everything. Fortunately, we are all united on the fundamentals – we all agree the bible is the complete Word of God, Jesus really did die for our sins and rise again to life on the third day, that he intercedes for us at God’s right hand and that he will return to judge the living and the dead, and so on. So we do as much as we can in cooperation, and have a strong ministers’ fraternal that tries to be part of the community as much as possible as a gospel presence.

The employment situation does affect us. And this is on top of the normal drain to the cities that every country area experiences. Effects include the following:

The stress of FIFO lifestyles have meant some parishioners have been less regular in attendance, with one spouse left to look after children and manage the household by themselves.

Parishioners in some churches have been directly affected through losing their jobs. But there is a secondary effect also. When the children of older parishioners move away for work, those older, retired members are also often absent. They spend time away from church travelling to be with their families. In some cases they even move as well.

Local business owners are affected by the stress of the economic situation and are often too tired to attend church. Some may want to retire but can’t find a buyer for their business and can’t retire until they do. They feel a responsibility to their employees and customers to soldier on even though they really don’t want to.

The local Salvation Army pastor has had a lot of extra work coming from the social services wing of their church, and they have had to restructure things recently to prevent that from taking up all her time. Two of the other churches also run op shops in the town, and there is plenty of room for three shops selling low cost second hand gear.

The lack of employment for college or university trained people means that children leave after year 10 and most don’t return, ending up at university and then employed in Launceston, Hobart, or on the mainland. Our own congregation has lost several this way over the past decade. There is a demographic gap in the 18-35 age group in the area, and even more in th
e churches, which are all greying. Tasmania recently overtook SA as our greyest state, and the northeast is probably the most grey part of Tasmania. One of our few growth industries is aged care. We have a 90 unit retirement village, a 30 bed aged care hostel run by Prescare, and a high dependency wing of the local hospital, as well as a large medical centre. The greying of the area puts a strain on all voluntary organisations, including churches. Service organisations like Rotary, Lions, etc; the C.W.A.; Chamber of Commerce; even the Dorset Council itself, are full of grey heads. Ageing generations feel trapped with no one to hand on responsibilities to. Many small branch churches in outlying villages have closed over the past 20 years, along with other local resources such as sporting clubs, shops, post offices, schools, police stations, etc. 

One part of scripture I like to recall when I think about these things is Isaiah 42:3-4:

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope.”

God is the God of small things as well as big things. He is the God of the struggling rural branch church of 15 faithful people as much as the God of Hillsong or St Andrew’s Cathedral. And small churches can be every bit as faithful in sharing their faith and being light and salt in their community as large ones can, as the next verses in Isaiah 42 remind us:

“I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles,  to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.”

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