When the future PM sits in your pews
Pastor Michael Murphy reflects on ministering to ScoMo
Michael Murphy was lead pastor at Shirelive (now called Horizons Church) in Sydney’s Sutherland when Scott Morrison and his wife Jennifer arrived in the congregation.
“I met Scott and Jen just prior to that. We began a friendship when he was fellowshipping at a church in the city and he was looking to come to a church in the Shire when he moved down there about 12 years ago,” Murphy tells Eternity.
“We had a desire to help and support political leaders no matter their political persuasion.”
“The Shire” is what Sydneysiders call the peninsula on which sits the Horizons church building, a big white oblong a couple of blocks from the railway station. “The Shire” is a nickname sometimes used with affection, sometimes not, but always with a slight tinge of Tolkien.
“We built some really strong relationships with mayors in the Shire,” says Murphy. “We were sometimes called upon to do disaster relief. One time when we had one of the bad bushfires through the Shire we had 300 firefighters sleeping on our floor. We were wondering where we were going to put church on the Sunday.
“Kevin Schreiber, who was mayor at the time, had become a great friend. We had a desire to help and support political leaders no matter their political persuasion. We knew most of the federal and state members. Bruce Baird, who was the local member before Scott, was a close friend. So the relationship between Scott and I was kind of a natural thing, and for our church to embrace him and Jen when he was just a backbencher. And we started the journey from there.”
“There were no favours asked for, even as he started to get into ministry portfolios.”
Horizon Church has quite a long history for an Australian Christian Churches or Assemblies of God church, having been founded in 1949.
Under Murphy, who had become lead pastor ten years before the Morrisons showed up, the church became younger in outlook and demographics. He says it “changed its methodology to reach the community more completely, not changing the core message. The church is conservative theologically.
“I’d call it ‘a contemporary spirit-filled church but with an age-old message that doesn’t change,’” he says. “We want to embrace the power of the gospel to transform a life. If you came to the church it wouldn’t be that different to an alive Baptist church or something like that.”
Murphy has a good understanding of different denominations thanks to working as a leadership consultant across denominations and across the world. He says: “When we left five years ago and handed the church over to pastors Brad and Alison Bonhomme, there were a couple of thousand people with an average age of 25.”
Shirelive wanted “to reach all generations but with a strong children’s ministry, a very strong youth ministry, regularly present in a number of the high schools and so forth.
“We were pretty active in our community ministry. We had a counselling and medical centre, for example. We really tried to help people and their families. We had the down-and-outs and the up-and-outs and everything in between. It mirrored the population of the Shire – middle Australia with people who are pretty sports-crazy.
When a Christian takes on a high-profile role, there can be a tendency to kind of ‘claim’ them.
“Sometimes I would bring the football score of the Sharks somewhere in the liturgy on a Sunday … It’s not suits and ties. We’d wear jeans and polo or T-shirts. We encourage ‘come as you are.’” It’s a description that matches the Sharks-top-and-baseball-cap-wearing images we have seen of the new PM when off duty.
“There were no favours asked for, even as he started to get into ministry portfolios. He and Jen would sit up in the bleachers. She’d be involved in kids’ ministry. He was really just one of the congregation.
“The down-to-earth Scott you see, that I think is starting to come through and people are warming to a bit, is actually, genuinely him.
“I saw something he put out about strawberries and he made a little statement, ‘I am cooking a curry and Jen is doing a pav – and she’s going to throw some strawberries on it.’ That is actually who he is.”
“If I am helping him and Jen to keep focused on why they are doing what they are doing, and their spiritual journey in Christ, then that foundation will form his policy.”
Talking about what it was like to have an increasingly prominent person in the congregation, Murphy says “the primary role of a lead pastor or minister is to look after them and their family. When a Christian takes on a high-profile role, there can be a tendency to kind of ‘claim’ them and to forget that they are leading for the whole community and not just your denomination. So I put some thoughts on Facebook for people to consider. It’s basically ‘pray for him before you preach at him.’
“That is not trying to shut people down; they have freedom of speech. But I saw the early signs of some grandstanding. We can all have different views on policy. He is in the party room and I am not.
“My attitude is if I am helping him and Jen to keep focused on why they are doing what they are doing, and their spiritual journey in Christ, then that foundation will form his policy. I know not everyone would agree, but I wouldn’t see my role as inserting influence in policy. Now, as a style of church, we definitely encourage people in the marketplace.
“In fact, about three years before Scott arrived … I had actually spoken over our congregation and said that I believed community leaders and even a prime minister would come out of our congregation. That wasn’t necessarily prophetic but something that was informed by our theology that says ‘serve God in the marketplace, in key leadership roles, in the arts, in sport or in the church like I have.’
“Like any prime minister he’s got a big tough job. I want believers and the readers of Eternity to empathise with that.”
Michael Murphy was lead pastor at Shire Live /Horizon Church for 18 years, after 12 years as associate pastor at Hillsong Church. He runs Leaderscape Consultancy, coaching leaders in the corporate and church sectors. He is chairman of the Alphacrucis College council.