In late November, 2021, Rev Chelsea Size was ordained a Deacon for the Uniting Church in Australia. She tells me that her lifelong call to ministry started a long time before her specific formation for ordination within this church. It all began in her childhood, in a quiet rural town in South Australia. Her family were deeply involved in their local evangelical Church of Christ congregation. In this congregation, women were not allowed to preach or preside over communion, and she didn’t know any female church leaders or even that it was possible. But visiting women would tell of life alongside people on the margins in the mission fields of far-flung Australian and overseas locations. They talked about God’s call in their work and something rubbed off on Chelsea. She remembers when she was about seven, keeping a bracelet from the visiting women and pinning up their missionary postcards. Something of the Spirit moved her; she remembered the stories and planned to explore one day.
The first big opportunity came when Chelsea was 18, when she joined a month-long mission trip to India. In that experience, she felt the sense of call around and through her, and the suffering people she encountered “drew it out” of her. It was the first time she had experienced something other than her white comfortable family life, and it made a lasting impact.
Chelsea met Jesse, and the rest, as they say, was history. They shared the values of faith and justice, and with this, an emerging sense of call. Chelsea and Jesse experimented with Christian community life, with other young adults in Adelaide and with Urban Neighbours of Hope in Western Sydney. But the pull of rural environments and the Aboriginal community drew them eventually to Port Augusta, in the north of South Australia. The now married couple found “mutual liberation” in following Jesus on stolen land. In their ministry alongside people on the margins, they witnessed to the hope of God’s presence, and were profoundly changed by their encounters with Christ’s flesh and blood. They also discovered a real need for the church in these places.
Then one day, about 10 years ago, Chelsea and Jesse discovered a brochure about the diaconate in the Uniting Church. While having small connections with the denomination in the past, they were surprised that it seemed to describe their calling exactly. Both husband and wife began their formation remotely, in Port Augusta, which really drew out the process. Chelsea also took time out to attend to her two young children. However, in their ministries on the ground, she believes that the marginal communities formed them, just as much as the theological formation.
Chelsea did struggle with the idea of being ordained. Her calling to work on the margins seemed to upend and resist ingrained structures of power, which was clearly the witness of Jesus. As she understood more, she recognised the privilege she had been born into, and is still growing in that journey. She wondered whether it would be helpful to have a title of ‘elevation’. It was a real wrestle with God: “What does this mean?” Although Chelsea had never questioned her sense of call, it was not a job pathway and she didn’t feel the need for ordination to affirm her call or standing in society. However, eventually, her pathway began to be clearer.
Ordination in the Uniting Church, ideally, is a new relationship and recognition of your role in the church. There are two pathways: the Minister of the Word and the Minister of the Deacon. Both Jesse and Chelsea discerned the second path. Although all Christians are called to service and diaconal ministry, the hope for the renewal of the diaconate is for leadership in liturgy and equipping others for these ministries. The way that the deacon presides and develops the liturgy is “always in terms of the preferential option for the poor”. Voices from the margins are necessarily included in the liturgy, as well as justice advocacy, prophetic witness and involvement of the people of God. The deacon recognises and enables the gifts that all people have for ministry and service. So the liturgy of a deacon is alongside people, and looks different: they are all in it together. While this is a wonderful remit, it is not easy to achieve in practice.
In practice, Chelsea has worked as a school chaplain, in community development, supply minister for the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress Church in Port Augusta, Training and Formation Coordinator with UAICC SA, Community Pastor at a Henley Fulham Uniting Church, assistant to Jesse with ministry at Para Hills Uniting Church, and Aged Care Chaplain. She has also been very involved with community groups, such as environmental advocacy, and brings something to these as a professional religious woman. The deacon is a symbolic role, and some look to her with more traditional or more contemporary expectations.
What Chelsea has found is that a young female ordained person is a surprise for many. She has always felt a responsibility to represent her faith community positively, but this is now greater. The ordination means that her “call is affirmed back” and that her life proclaims that she is “caught up in a different narrative and story”. People now see her through another lens, but this carries an opportunity for enriching conversations about spirituality and people’s experience of church. She has found that being a deacon invites “a very specific kind of presence: non-anxious, non-defensive, compassionate and curious.”
Liturgically, Chelsea has found that the most transformative liturgies are shared with people she has become part of – especially around the campfire. There is a groundedness when people recognise or connect with liturgy that “speaks to their hearts”. When the biblical narrative relates to people’s lives, she finds herself in an “inner circle” alongside the people she celebrates with. Again, there is a mutual liberation in the experience, with healing and growing taking place among all present.
At her ordination, Chelsea got to choose the readings, prayers and songs. Her mother also made her stole. She couldn’t stop listening to the songs for weeks beforehand, as she absorbed their words. One song, by Craig Mitchell and Leigh Newton, includes the lyrics:
We are a body We’re bothered and broken We are a family so fractured and frail Here is a household We’re doubtful, divided We are all pilgrims
And then the chorus is a call, despite the fractions and brokenness of the church, to “walk on” with the Lord in hope. For her gospel readings, Chelsea chose not only the more popular Beatitudes passage, but also Luke 14:1-24, about Jesus’ radical command to humility and table fellowship. Days after the ordination, Chelsea found herself at the privileged place of a dying woman’s bedside in the aged care residential home. It was a new experience for Chelsea, but she drew on the connection she already had with the woman. She prayed and sang with her, and read Psalm 23 from her new ordination bible, the Inclusive Bible. It made her theology “really practical” and as she held the woman’s sense of dignity, she discovered something “incredibly important and sacred in those moments”. They were together right until the end.
Chelsea is inspired by a beautiful line in the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union: “God in Christ has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church’s call is to serve that end…” To her, it is all about interconnectedness, that God connects her with her faith, the liturgy and those she ministers alongside. Congratulations and God’s blessings on your ministry, Chelsea!