Naomi Ireland knows more than most how God’s plans are not our plans. The lifelong Christian was just 14 when she decided to be a missionary, but her sights were always set on a Spanish-speaking country.
Now aged 38, Naomi has finally achieved her dream but she has no need of Spanish in her new role as Children’s Ministry Officer for the Anglican Diocese of the Northern Territory, a position funded by the Bush Church Aid Society.
In this newly created position, she will support the Anglican churches in the Territory – predominantly those in remote communities in Arnhem Land – to teach children the Bible.
A vibrant, outgoing and slightly brash personality, Naomi plans to learn Kriol and as much as she can of every other Aboriginal language in Arnhem Land so that she can best support churches in the Territory to grow the next generation of believers.
With years of kids’ ministry behind her, including rewriting Connect materials published by Christian Education Publications (CEP) for Scripture in schools, Naomi is in the perfect position to write new programs for kids’ ministry in the Top End.
“Kids are my favourite people – I love Jesus and I love kids and I want kids to know about Jesus and I want them to understand the Bible well,” Naomi enthuses.
“And I love the Outback, which is something that surprised me a little bit too, and I have a real heart for indigenous Australians, First Nations people, and a real strong desire to be a good ally for them.”
Kids are my favourite people. – Naomi Ireland
A Christian for as long as she can remember, Naomi knew from Year 8 that she wanted to be a missionary, but there were a few misfires along the way.
“I remember not always speaking the truth with love when I was younger. I had to do some growing up in that area. My poor friends at school sometimes copped it a little bit too much, asking too many questions like whether they’re going to hell or not. And I didn’t necessarily come back with the most gracious responses when I was a kid.”
The only daughter in a family with four big brothers, Naomi laughs readily, guffawing especially hard when she remembers bringing Christian youth into line by putting on her “cranky voice”.
Naomi was first inspired to dream of going into the mission field when a close friend came back from the Dominican Republic speaking Spanish.
“I fell in love with the language and we also had link missionaries in Chile and in Spain too at the same time, so I kind of thought I’d go to Chile …. that was right up until mid-Bible college and then my mum bought a house in the south of France, and so I thought, ‘okay, well maybe Spain.’
That idea was reinforced when one of Naomi’s closest school friends, Tania Snowdon, ended up in Valencia, Spain, as a missionary with her husband, Mike. But her ministry somehow took a different direction.
I’ve always had a heart for indigenous Australians, and I think over the last five years or more, that’s really grown. – Naomi Ireland
While Naomi was staying with the Snowdons on their last home assignment at the CMS Summer School in January 2020, she bumped into NT Bishop Greg Anderson.
Now, anyone who knows Bishop Greg knows what a persuasive advocate he is for Christians to come and serve in the Northern Territory. And in Naomi’s case, he was sowing into fertile ground.
While working as children’s minister at St Matthews Anglican in Manly, she had become really good friends with Neville and Kathie Naden from their partner church, the Living Desert Indigenous church in Broken Hill.
“I’ve always had a heart for indigenous Australians, and I think over the last five years or more, that’s really grown,” she explains.
“I have a real heart to learn and support them and to listen and to be able to hear what they need and see ways that I can be supportive. And it’s not just the Indigenous churches – I’m here to support right across the diocese, but you know, a particular focus of my job is in Arnhem Land.
“So it’s just a matter of how can I support each of the churches in the Territory to be able to teach the Bible to kids. I could have done that in Sydney, but I kind of thought to myself, there are lots of children’s ministers in Sydney. And I know not many of them would necessarily think of coming to the Territory. So here I am!”
NT Anglican bishop Greg Anderson comments that Naomi will be able to strengthen and encourage Sunday school teachers in the far-flung churches of the NT that they are working all on the same team with the same goals of engaging children as disciples of Jesus.
“All parishes are so different and my hope and expectation is that with appropriate resourcing from Naomi, children’s ministry could really take off in those places,” he said.
“Weekday afternoon children’s ministry groups used to exist in Aboriginal communities in living memory, so it’s part of people’s lived experience, and with the right resourcing, it could happen again. If it did, kids would flock to it, so it’s such a great opportunity.”