Church offers a listening ear to isolated farmers

There are just 12,500 people living in the central west of Queensland scattered over an area that’s nearly a third bigger than the size of Victoria. That equates to about one person per 13,000 hectares.

Now Longreach Baptist Church, in the town known as the heart of Outback Queensland, is launching a project called Outback Connect to increase social connection and overcome isolation in rural communities. And the key is to resist giving advice but just listen.

“The prevalence of mental health and wellbeing issues is higher in rural and remote communities and the impact runs far deeper. Social, economic and geographic barriers to help-seeking prevent many from accessing support, leading to poor mental health and wellbeing outcomes,” explains Pastor Steve Ballin.

Though Steve has been in Longreach for only 2½ years, he says the church there has always had a heart to reach people in its the rural and remote context, especially since some members travelling over two hours and more than half of its members travelling over 50km to attend a Sunday service.

“Having just come through 10 years of drought, the church ran a program for several years that supported farmworkers like contract musterers so that farmers could still hire them, but eventually all the contractors left town because there wasn’t enough work,” he says.

“So we started praying through how can we support the west and this Outback Connect idea emerged mid last year, where we started looking at how do you support people in isolated situations? How do you build resilient communities? What can we do? What’s our part to play in this?”

Thanks to a grant from Carinity, an outreach of the Queensland Baptists, the church is building a growing team to provide a listening ear to encourage and support isolated people. Longreach is one of 14 churches and organisations in Queensland that have been allocated more than $350,000 in the first year of Carinity Collaborative Community Projects.

“At its most basic level, we are developing a team of people who can connect with people in isolated situations regularly, not trying to meet their needs, but trying to help them reflect on their situation, and to make the changes that they need to make,” says Steve.

The key is training people how not to give advice but to listen and ask good questions so the person that they’re connecting with can reflect, although they do carry a list of resources they can refer a person to based on their needs.

While the program is in its infancy, the team quickly realised that many people don’t feel comfortable connecting and building relationships with strangers. So they decided to launch a series of community events to build connections with people across the west.

“Our flagship is what we call a Paddock Day. We’re gathering all the farmers and anyone interested in a region together for a day and they’re given a holistic approach to wellbeing,” says Steve.

“Most of the farmers out here have a very intimate relationship with the land. When the land is hurting, they’re hurting.” – Steve Ballin

The event will have talks from ag consultants such as a nutritionist talking about the different grasses coming up after the drought, someone from an agri-business finance background talking about how to manage the selling of stock and someone giving an emotional or a mental health perspective.

“The theme that we’re running on is resilience. So resilience in nutrition, resilience in your finances, and resilience in your emotions – building that resilient community and helping them to see that they actually have a part to play to build that resilient community,” says Steve.

“We have to remember that last year we were in drought. Now things are green but the land hasn’t fully healed itself. You need a seed bank for the grasses to grow every year. The grass and herbage we’ve got at the moment are likely to disappear in the next 12 months if we don’t get more rain; and if we don’t get that seed bank built up in the soil, it won’t be long before farmers are back in the same place again.”

Steve notes that farmers are profoundly affected by what happens on their properties. “A lot of people see farmers as people who just abuse the land, but most of the farmers out here have a very intimate relationship with the land. When the land is hurting, they’re hurting. When the land is growing and thriving, they’re happy.”

The team will also offer simple training to others on how to support someone who is hurting, if they don’t want to talk to people from the church, because “research shows that about 80 per cent of our issues find a resolution if we have someone we trust that we can talk to”, according to Steve.

He reiterates that the key is to resist trying to fix people’s problems, as he discovered during a phone call to a farmer who was having some challenges with his son.

“His son was mid-teens and he was starting to push back a little bit. He was really struggling because he wanted his son to stay and take over the family farm. And the son had aspirations broader than the farm. I had a relationship with the son as well. And so everything within me wanted to drive out to the property and fix the problem, but I was like, ‘No, that’s actually not going to help these guys because then I have to be there for this problem to find a resolution.’ So I was able to just listen. I was able just to ask those questions to help him reflect on the things that he was saying. And the good news was that it took a little bit of time, but they were able to work through that, and that guy just really appreciated having me there as a bit of a sounding board.”

“Through these questions, people can access the grace, the invitation is to relationship, and the challenge of the kingdom of God, through these questions.” – Steve Ballin

Steve says the best model for how to ask powerful questions is in the Bible, where most of the questions Jesus asked were for the benefit of the other person.

“Even in the Old Testament, God numerous times asked people questions. His first question to Adam was ‘where are you?’ – that wasn’t for God’s benefit; that was for Adam’s benefit. Time and again we see with Elijah with Job, all the way through the Bible, we see these good, powerful questions actually help people to assess where they’re at and then help them to move forward,” says Steve.

“And we see it so strongly in Jesus’s life. Through these questions, people can access the grace, the invitation is to relationship, and the challenge of the kingdom of God, through these questions.”

Asked how difficult is it to get a farmer to sit down and talk about their mental health, Steve says it’s virtually impossible – if you’re a stranger.

“But Jesus modelled this as well. He went to where people were, he loved and served them, and out of that came people’s needs. And so that’s really what we’re doing. We’re going to where these people are. We’re loving and serving them.

“We’re not going to evangelise them. We’re not ashamed that we’re part of a church and that we’re Christians, and when they’re ready to talk about spiritual stuff, we’re ready to have those conversations. But if they never want to do that, we’ll never go there, but we’ll still love and serve them because that’s what Jesus did.”