Anyone who’s visited or lived in the Blue Mountains knows it has plenty of things going for it but, until recently, no one would have said a growing number of young people was among them.
However, not only are increasing numbers of younger people and families with kids moving up to the mountains, young rectors are joining them.
Three of the four youngest rectors in the Diocese minister in the Blue Mountains area, and the average age of senior ministers in the eight parishes from Glenbrook to Lithgow is just over 41½ – almost a decade below the diocesan average.
This is certainly not how it used to be, says the Rev James Delanty from Leura.
“I wrote an updated history of our church because next year we have our 125th anniversary,” he says. “A previous minister, Arthur James Fraser, who was at Leura in the 1920s, was reflecting in his autobiography on his experience of being a rector here and referred to Leura as ‘the armchair parish of the diocese’ – because one day the minister goes from being the rector to another one of the retirees! But it’s changing up here because it’s not as full of retirees and there are younger ministers keen to work together to reach the mountains.”
At 31, Mr Delanty is the youngest rector in the Diocese, and took up his parish just after turning 30. His 35-year-old ministry mentor, the Rev Tom Melbourne, has been rector of Central Villages Anglican Church in Lawson since 2018, while the Rev Murray Colville, 36, arrived at Katoomba last year.
The Bishop of the Western Region, Gary Koo, notes that mountain parishes are “seeing young families coming in and are looking for people to reach them, so [younger rectors] is a reflection of the change.
“It also reflects that the mountains are a family-friendly area for people to serve in... The reality is that Sydney house prices are driving families further out, and the increasing work-from-home opportunities are making the mountains a more desirable destination for young working families.”
Adds Mr Delanty: “There are more prams getting pushed around, playgroups getting formed, playgrounds having to be refurbished, because there is such a need. The locals are aware of it, the ministers are aware of it – we can see that the demographic is changing.
The demographic is changing.
“A lot of people moved up at a similar time to [my family]. After the first COVID lockdown, people said, ‘We don’t want to do that again’, so they moved. When the second lockdown happened, they were so happy to be up here. The locals are excited about that.
“There’s a day care just around the corner, and because we’ve got kids in the day care it’s a massive opportunity for us to be inviting people to come to church because we’ve got a young family... We do life together and it’s natural to invite them.”
Mr Colville says there are still plenty of retirees in the region, as well as a strong artistic community and residents dealing with social disadvantage. Parishes need to consider how to serve and care in different ways.
We do life together and it’s natural to invite them.
He is full of praise for the work the previous minister at Katoomba, the Rev Ray Robinson, has done among these groups, but adds that with the growth in number of younger families and treechangers “escaping the city”, churches also need to prepare for the next season of ministry to a growing number of youth.
“We’ve been running youth group in my house with our part-time kids’ and youth worker,” he says. “We want to be able to bring the ministry back into the church building but we need leaders to make it more accessible to others. I’ve been putting that in front of our congregation in the last while, and people have put up their hands to say they’re keen to be leaders, which is great because we want it to grow!”
Mr Melbourne, who is leaving Lawson for Armidale in September, says the parish is “really looking forward to its next rector being a first-time rector who brings with him energy and passion and zeal for the gospel.
“I think most assistant ministers would find that while there is a learning curve to be navigated in becoming a rector, the fundamental skills and attributes you already have are the same: you know Christ, you know how to care for his people, you know how to teach them his word.
“Hopefully you’ve been given experience in organising teams and setting vision and things that fall on a rector’s plate, but it’s really not quite as humungous a leap as some of us fear it is.
“For some of the older saints in our congregations we’re the age of their grandchildren, and that makes for an interesting dynamic. We’re seeking to be pastors to those people as well as to people who are our peers. It needs to be thought through well but there’s no reason why it doesn’t work. We’ve also seen the real love and concern the older congregation members have for us, which has been lovely.”
All three ministers appreciate the village vibe of the mountains, where parishes are clearly defined, each village within a parish has its own identity, there is a strong sense of community and a good deal of support for what the churches do in the community.
“What’s God going to do next in the Blue Mountains?” Mr Colville asks. “I’d be very keen for more young rectors to minister up here – it’s a great community, it’s a great team and there’s a great team feeling between the rectors as well. And it’s not far from Sydney...
“If we’d known how nice it would be to live in the mountains, we might have felt guilty about taking these jobs! We thought, it’s far away, it’s cold – but actually it’s just lovely.”