7 Questions with Peter Carolane
Name: Peter Carolane
Current title: Lead Minister, Merri Creek Anglican
Current organisation: Merri Creek Anglican in Australia
My name is Peter Carolane, I am married to Jo Knight, and father of two boys Leo and Ezra. Since the age of three I’ve immersed myself in music – having trained as a classical violist, and for the past 25 years have performed and produced records in the Melbourne band scene. I am the founding minister at Merri Creek Anglican, a church planted in Clifton Hill, Melbourne in 2013. My background was in youth ministry: I am the founding director of Mustard schools ministry, and I led the youth and young adults ministry team at St Hilary's Church Kew. I was awarded PhD in 2009 from the University of Melbourne in colonial mission history. I have a large record collection, I love classic films, and enjoy working out.
1. What have you found most challenging as a church leader?
One of the biggest challenges I have faced as a church leader is to find really effective mission strategies that work in inner-city urban Melbourne. The common models that work in suburban churches don’t necessarily translate. Inner-city Melbourne is highly secular (more than any other postcode in Australia, 51% in my postcode say “no religion” on the census, compared with 30.1% average across Australia). Most people are generally respectful to the church, but indifferent, and really busy – so organised religion really isn’t on their radar).
Mission strategies that have worked most effectively involve a combination of community service, and bespoke approaches that work around people’s hectic schedule. We rent all of our meeting spaces, so most of our mission activities and programs occur in public spaces - rather than church buildings. We try to be present and visible in the neighbourhood as much as possible and have a focus on the arts and issues of justice.
2. How did you become a church leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?
After about eight years in youth ministry at St Hilary’s Kew I was traveling with the Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Freier on a ministry exposure trip in the Northern Territory and he suggested I might think about ordination. At that stage I didn’t have any theological qualifications – a requirement for ordination. However, I was soon to complete a PhD in history at Melbourne University, focusing on an Anglican missionary who worked amongst Aboriginal people in Victoria in the nineteenth century.
A year later I knocked on the Archbishop’s door to discuss ordination again, and he agreed to it on the basis that after my PhD I would commence part time theological studies. After a few more years at St Hilary’s as an assistant minister I planted a new family congregation for St Hilary’s and found I really enjoyed the whole startup process – forming a team, setting a vision, and implementation.
I wasn’t sure what my next step should be and I happened to sit across from an amazing Christian man called Brian Gardner at a wedding reception. Brian was working as a corporate career advisor – he heard my story and offered to coach me around the area of what ministry direction I should take. I remember him saying that we want to work out “who is Peter Carolane PTY LTD?” We discovered that the answer to this question involves three things: 1) entrepreneurial church leadership; 2) communicating (written and spoken); and 3) music. At that time I was doing points 2 and 3 in my non-work time. But we determined that my dream ministry role would incorporate all three – this led me to consider church planting.
In addition to Brian’s directions, I had been encouraged by several church leaders at that time towards church planting. So it seemed God was showing me a clear direction. St Hilary’s sent our family out to plant a church in Melbourne’s inner-north, which we did in 2013. And now I am a church leader!
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
I divide my day up into four shifts: 1) before breakfast 2) breakfast to lunch 3) lunch to dinner, and 4) after dinner. I try and only do two shifts per day. I don’t have a set structure, but I usually start by clearing emails, and doing menial admin tasks, then I might do some creative thinking and writing about future planning for church. I often meet people in the congregation for lunch. In the afternoon I often do some preaching prep or other kind of creative work.
For me, my daily planning is about finding balance. It’s easy for church leaders to be workaholics and this is idolatrous. It leads to burnout, is toxic for your mental health, and screws up your family. Basically, I want to get to the end of my life and have been a good husband and father, have not had a major moral stuff up, and still love Jesus. To achieve this, I need to manage my time carefully and prioritise rest and physical, emotional and spiritual health.
I make time to read or listen to the Bible (I’m a huge fan of the NIV audio bible read by David Suchet), and pray and reflect. To maintain physical health, over the past eight years, I have seen a personal trainer three times per week. I have a ministry coach, a mentor and a psychologist who I see for clinical pastoral supervision. All this might sound a lot, but I spread these sessions out over the year.
In the past decade I’ve devoted more of my working hours to training leaders. I am a state coordinator for Arrow Leadership, and I coach and mentor young Anglican clergy.
4. What one book had the most profound impact on your church leadership? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
A few years back when I was going through some difficult times, a friend gave me the book “The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax” by the English Anglican/puritan Richard Sibbes. It’s a short but profound book looking at the way God ministers to us in our weakness. It was a great comfort to me as I read about Christ who intentionally brings us low, only to bring healing and to grow us stronger. He does this giving us a haunting and yet divine glimpse of the horror of our sin. This causes us to be drawn closer, and to depend more deeply on his grace and love.
5. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
Always be grateful to God for the people he has provided to you to serve.
6. How do you develop a healthy leadership pipeline in a church?
I have found church leadership pipelines are all about setting a leadership culture. This involves: 1) identifying future leaders in the church; 2) inviting these potential leaders into a mentoring relationship; 3) speak a bold vision into their life – “have you ever considered becoming a pastor?”; 4) bring them to training conferences; 5) give them leadership opportunities that are a bit above their station.
While we should try and pursue excellence in church leadership, we should not make ministry and leadership seem elite. Church members should be inspired to aspire to church leadership, without being scared off.
A healthy leadership culture involves finding a balance between talent and depth. Sometimes young leaders can be highly talented, but lack depth. The risk of putting charismatic and skilled young leaders into significant church leadership too soon, is that they can often crash and burn as they are confronted with the “grey” and the complexity of life in ministry.
On the other hand, in many denominations (such as my own) too much emphasis is placed on “experience.” The old and crusty denominations, dominated by a painfully cautious and process obsessed Boomer culture, are better to promote fresh faces and take a risk – because what we’ve been doing isn’t working (look at the dismal statistics on the Census and NCLS data).
7. If you had to pick just one story, what would be the most meaningful story from your time as a church leader so far?
Back in March 2020, we had our last in-person service before the first COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne. I dropped my sermon and replaced it with a panel that would explain to the congregation why we were deciding to stop having public services. The government and Anglican leadership would not yet announce any restrictions until a few days later, but we were deciding to move online anyhow.
On the stage was a young husband and wife Michael and Mandy. Mandy is one of my wardens (Anglican lingo for “very important Church Council leader”) and Michael was on the stage because he is an infectious diseases physician who could explain COVID-19 (at that stage it was still new). Mandy and Michael go back to my time in youth ministry. Michael came to faith through a year ten retreat Mustard ran for Carey Grammar perhaps 17 years earlier, and he and Mandy were both part of the youth congregation I had led during that time.
In fact, Mandy and Michael’s story is repeated several times with other people in my church. It’s difficult to explain the profound satisfaction that I get from travelling with the same people through such a long period of time: from highschool, to uni, adulthood, work and marriage and children. It leads to depth of community, and profound trust and love. I once mentored Mandy when she was in highschool. Now, a big time lawyer, she advises me in my leadership. This is the body of Christ at work over time, and (as one of my old mentors used to say), “it’s a real hoot”.