Kelly Skilton, the founder and director of the Sonder Collective, has so much energy and passion for the mission she does. Elise caught up with Kelly to dig into how Sonder came to be, and how Kelly navigated being a young person in the Church and launching this new kind of ministry.
The Sonder Collective is an ecumenical, collaborative youth and young adults ministry. Seeing that most church communities in her area were struggling to afford ag- specific ministries, Kelly set out to create what she calls a ‘new kind of church ministry’. What we find truly special about the Sonder Collective is they hold the tension between aged-based ministry and the intergenerational kingdom of God. The Sonder Collective exists to help the local church spiritually nurture the young people in their community, believing we can do more together than we can apart.
Since being established, Sonder now gathers over 170 people from 30 Congregations across 7 denominations. But it began with Kelly saying, ‘Why don't we do this together?’
This interview is a transcript of episode one of Mission Unplugged. You can listen to the interview on spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Elise: Thanks for talking to me today, Kelly! You are the director and founder of the Sonder Collective, and you're also the youth and young adults pastor at Murrumbeena Uniting Church. But I to start I’d like to take you back a bit and ask you, what were some of your first experiences of mission?
Kelly: Thanks, I'm really keen! So yeah, my first experiences of mission were really based in my church community and finding ways that they really just shared about how we were to be people in the community. So whether it was going down to the skate park and cooking people things, or doing protests or, you know those postcards we used to sign petitions and send them in, and all that kind of stuff. That was really my first eye opener to mission in my life.
E: So take me back: can you remember a strong experience with your church, one that stands out that you look back on and go, “I remember standing here doing this”? What was that like early on?
K: Two big things: one, the church I grew up in in Glen Waverley had a community called the Kombi Crew. We had Kombi vans and we'd drive them around and just do random acts of kindness. And that was a big one. Or at youth group we would write letters so we can mail happy notes to people in their letter boxes and all that kind of stuff. Or petitions and protests, which were kind of fun—silent protests in the city where we could do flash mobs... And those things like that, which were really effective and really helpful.
E: That’s amazing—Kombi van youth group crew… So church for you has always kind of linked mission and putting faith into action.
K: Yes, so my church made it clear that in order to be the people of God, you did stuff. Otherwise what is church?
E: And you’ve said to me before that your family was always mission-minded.
K: Yeah, my family is from South Africa, and for them growing up in a time of apartheid, they really understood that it was an unjust system, and that they were they were white South Africans; they were the beneficiaries of this system. They ingrained in us as kids before we moved to Australia… we moved countries, or they did for us, so that we didn't grow up thinking that we are all better just because of the colour of our skin, and that we can advocate for the right ways and that we could actually do acts of protest when we disagreed with political systems. For me, I heard all those stories growing up of crazy things that they did like hide people in the house from the police, or you know go down the road and rip off all the signs that made people walk on the other side of the road, and things that you couldn't possibly get your head around. So that was how I grew up, which is great.
E: That’s amazing. And how did you reconcile that? How does that affect you growing up as a young Christian?
K: For me it worked two ways. One, I think I really grew up with an understanding that we are super blessed here. And not only was it that we understood that we were blessed but Mum and Dad would constantly remind us how blessed we are here, and how lucky it is that we have food. When you move from another country and you move with limitations, we didn't have a lot when we started off with my family. And so there’d be nights where, I've been told—as a kid I had no clue—my Dad wouldn't have a full meal because he needed all of us to have a meal first, or Mum would be feeding a family of six with $10 a day, that's all that her budget could allow. Mum used to put milk powder in a milk bottle so that we didn't realise we didn't have milk. They didn't want us to think we were any different. So forever I've always thought that milk doesn't really go off, like the dates don't really comply, it's a lie, when really it's just because my Mum has been running around since I was a child and chucking milk powder in so we could have milk. It was definitely amazing in a way because we knew we were really blessed and really lucky, and it then really changed our perspective on how we viewed the world.
E: That's an incredibly funny take on what is an amazing story of resilience. So how old were you when this was going on?
K: So my Mum and Dad moved to Australia with my sisters 3 years before my twin brother and I were born. I remember when I was 4, they used to advertise things on the radio and you could go and pick them up. I remember Mum overheard like that they were selling a crockery set—and this was before Kmart times, so it was before you can buy a dollar plate. So we grew up for a long time with only a handful of cutlery, and we had two bowls, you would eat in shifts. But I remember these stories of when I was a child, and then when I got to being a teenager you’d have your hand-me-downs and things like that. But Mum and Dad always made sure that didn’t go without. Dad worked really hard and made sure we had everything.
E: So obviously this is probably not completely unique, but may not be something that everyone has experienced, whereas you talk about your first experiences of mission, things like youth group drop offs and random acts of kindness, maybe something we’re all a bit familiar with... So how did those formational looks into mission and through your family affect the way you approached a regular youth group that dropped off things and wrote kind letters and got into a Kombi van?
K: It was really fun at the first church that I went to when I was maybe a toddler... My Mum and Dad were our leaders, Dad was our Sunday School teacher, and for how we then jumped into church... It's all or nothing! I find that when you come from a family that is a Christian family, and you have moved far away, and you’re in a place where like, I didn't grow up with cousins, I didn’t grow up with aunts and uncles, I had my Mum and my Dad and my siblings and that was us. So church becomes your family, and you then just commit everything in that. Which they did. My Mum and Dad are still Sunday School teaching, and I'm nowhere near being a child anymore. And they're still on our church councils, and my siblings are all in the bands and are youth group leaders. So it was modelled to us really practically what it meant to do mission and ministry.
E: So what was it like as a young person having this foundation in mission when you realised you were passionate about it, or how did you discover your passion and what does that look like for you as a young person?
K: I think I discovered I was passionate particularly when it became my choice to go to church, and I didn't have to but I really wanted to. It became a place that, like… I didn't have a very good time at school, I wasn't the smartest or the prettiest, and so I would be bullied a lot, and I would feel pretty worthless. Church became a space where I could laugh. And I think for me when I finally connected and it became something that I loved doing, it was something that... I had it all at my fingertips because the church did that, and the church did mission, and that's what we did. And so it was a matter of putting a hand up and jumping in and just getting involved. We could do a missions trip if we wanted to, or we could write these notes and we knew that they were bringing someone else joy, and I think an amazing thing that our church taught us was that it's so practical and even something as simple as a nice letter is deeply missional. It's changing the structures of what our world is thinking.
E: So you put your hand up.
K: Yeah definitely, definitely jumped on board. And it made it easy because my family always has just put their hand up and said I'll do it, let's go. Even something as simple as, I've got a cool idea and I know that the church is able to go, ‘Yes,I want to hear, what's your idea?’ Very community-focussed.
E: So what did it look like for you to put your hand up once you had this understanding that you wanted to put your hand up?
K: We were told that it’s something that you wait for, and that people will tap on the shoulder. Being able to put my hand up was always a response to something. So it's like, ‘Do you want to do this?’ And then they'd wait around the whole room and look for people going. And then they’d be like, ‘And Kelly, do you want to jump on board and do this?’ And I’d say, ‘Yes thank you for asking.’ We were always taught to wait and not just bombard our way into a room.
I think that also is a question that changes culturally. I think for a lot of other people it's when you have a space to jump up on board and do something, go for it just run and grab it and take the bull by its horns and just jump on board. And I think it's funny because we sit in those two sides—do we wait until we’re asked, or do we just put our hands up and go for it? And I think it’s a bit of both. I think we have to hear when it's an opportunity for us to put a hand up and jump in, and also listen out to those people who are telling you particular things and asking you for particular things and say, ‘Yeah, I do want to jump in and get on board with that.’
E: It really was about people making opportunities for you as a young person, but also about you as a young person making the choice to stand up and put your hand up.
K: Absolutely, and I think I think the middle ground of both—having the opportunity for our leaders to ask us to do stuff as young people, but also for being a young person to take it as genuinely as we can hear it. They deeply want us to be involved. It took me ages to realise that, but I finally realised that they want us to get involved, they value who we are and our opinions, and they matter.
E: So then looking back at your journey as now a young adult… You studied theology, but you first studied product design. So how did that work out for you?
K: I always wanted to be a designer. That was my, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ I had a plan: I was going to be a barista and then work my way through the baristaing ranks making coffee, and then I was going to study design. And, bring it on, I was going to be an industrial designer. I even made a poster of it in Year 7: I'm going to go to RMIT and I'm going to study industrial design. And when I finished Year 12, I went to RMIT and I did product design, which is a very niche understanding of industrial. It's very hands-on, almost at the TAFE side.
Product design is amazing. You do anything and everything from toothbrushes to lamp posts to CD covers to, all of a sudden, you need to design a pen lid. And everything was weird. So I started doing that, and then halfway through I realised that I didn't think that this is actually what I wanted to do anymore. Which was hard, it was the only thing I knew. So I ended up in theology.
E: So what did that look like? Because obviously it's quite a difference. Where was the sense of call for you that ended you up in theological college?
K: My Mum and Dad made it clear that if I started something I needed to finish it. I started product design so I can't quit now; you gotta finish it. So I did, and then I ended up at theological college. I walked in and I just wanted to do a diploma and be like, ‘Yes, I'm going to do a Diploma in Ministry.’ And then by the end of it they had signed me up for a Bachelor of Theology.
I called my Mum afterwards, and she's like, ‘Did you hear them correctly? Did they say a bachelor's degree?’ Because I never could write, I only could draw. Jumping in there was purely by luck.
I think following a call is that weird moment where you just kind of do it, and then afterwards you reflect on it and you realise there wasn’t a rhyme or reason, I just jumped on board because I really love God, and I thought, ‘Well, how else do you learn about loving God?’ You go to Bible College.
E: Yeah, it’s a fair path. So the spiritual side of following that calling, moving from what was your dream career to theology, what was that spiritual side? Was it as simple as that, just ‘I love God’?
K: In one way, yes. I really spoke about it to my family and to my siblings, and I really remember them saying something... I still have it, it was a decade ago. They told me I didn't actually need to study theology, because I already know how to serve and love God, I actually don't need to go study it. So what was the purpose, why did I want to go? And I just, I don't know, I think when someone tells you not to do something you get more determined to do it. I just knew that I wanted to go and study the Bible because I was just curious, I thought it was something fascinating.
I got there and I learnt so much more than what I even thought I was rocking up for. I just wanted to jump on board. So I asked a person who works for our church in our bigger office—for the Uniting Church we have a Synod—and so I asked a person, ‘What could I do?’ I want to learn the Bible, but I wanna learn something deep and something practical. He was the one who said, ‘Here, theological college is where you are going, here are two options: pick one.’ And that’s what I did. I didn't even realise there are, like, nine theological colleges to choose from. I had no idea, I only knew they were two, and I picked one.
E: Are there things that you learned in this early stage of your... I guess we'll call it ‘formation’, but that sounds very big... but just the early days of your life learning about mission and experiencing what it's like to live out your faith. Are the things you learnt then that you still hang onto and put into practice today?
K: I think one big thing… I think it was based around looking at the world and really seeing that it was quite broken, or feeling that the system is broken. When I was younger I always tried to reconcile how and why does God, you know, not change it, or why doesn't God do anything, or why doesn't God love everybody, and what that meant. And for me, I still hold on to that, but I see the answer a bit differently. It's that society is so contrary to how God has really wanted the world to move and to shape it, and I think it's not about questioning why it is this way—it is as it is—and we have opportunities to jump on board and get involved with amazing things. For me, church really showed me what those things were, and how simple they could be. And that's what I still remember: we don't have to do something extravagant to jump into God’s community, we can do simple things: happy letters, notes, putting some tinned goods aside so we can send them to someone who needs something. So simple, but yet it challenges the system and it shakes it up, and that's where God is.
E: Yeah, going back to ‘it's as simple as just putting your hand up.’
K: Yeah. Putting your hand up and putting some tins aside for someone in need. It’s good.
E: The Kelly Skilton two-step mission process right there! So you finished theological college, then you jumped into a position with Murrumbeena after you finished.
K: Kind of oddly, I started at Murrumbeena before I finished. I think they might have been hoping that I was going to finish my Bachelor's qualification—which I did, so that's okay!—but I jumped on board at Murrumbeena because, again, someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You need to apply for this job’. And I said no to the first six people who told me to do it, and then that seventh person who told me to apply, I finally said, ‘Maybe I should answer this, and say yes’. Maybe I should apply.
E: So what was it like in those early days; you’d finished a degree, in a ministry position to youth and young adults?
K: I cried a lot.
I started ministry with rose-tinted glasses, thinking it was going to be amazing and everything was just going to happen and fall into place. I realised that our leaders do a lot of work, and I had been the receiver of a lot of work of my leaders, and now all the sudden that's my job. I thought back… what had I been doing when I was in youth, and what had I done as a young adult when I was 21 or 22, and how was I going to be able to share that in this community?
So after crying for a really long time I realised that I could do things and they didn't have to be extravagant or amazing. It was about being that community that allowed people to laugh and to find that they're worth something there, and that our job to be God’s people is to show that to everyone and that everybody can find worth in who they are. I think that was really big in how I first started in ministry.
E: That's amazing, particularly considering that Sonder Collective, which is something that you're doing that seems quite big from an outsider's perspective, came out of your role at Murrumbeena. Can you tell me a little bit about how Sonder started? Where did that idea come from?
K: Along with crying a lot came this idea. Partly it was because I have grown up knowing the church was a big community and jumping into Sonder, or jumping into Murrumbeena, I didn't have a large community of people. There were maybe about nine youth and young adults in the whole church. I had so many hours that I could give that even if I spoke to each one of them—I had 20 hours—I could speak to each one for an hour individually every single week and I still have 12 hours left... or 11. Oh I can't do maths, that was terrible. (Laughs)
E: That’s okay, we won’t follow you up on that.
K: And so I started really trying to think of different ways to do ministry, and I noticed that the churches all around me all had young people but they didn't have people to work with them. They didn't have employed youth workers. So I kind of just did this you know simple thing... like, you have young people and no youth leader and I'm a youth leader with not very many young people. Let’s just do it together!
So Sonder came out of a space of thinking that these churches next door to me could really do with the youth group, and I love youth group, so I’ll do it. That's where it started: pondering about new possibilities and thinking how to do this more.
E: Yeah, and really looking at the environment you are placed in and how that might affect it. So on top of that need that you saw in not just in your church community, but your slightly broader church community, you've also spoken and have on your website how Sonder came out of a vision. What does that mean?
K: Yeah, so Sonder, as well as the really practical side, was about a kind of feeling and knowing that we actually had this image and vision that a lot of people had had. I still remember seeing this picture over and over again, and it looked like a dry, dark desert, and it had cracks all through it. And there's this rich, sweet water that pulls up through those cracks, and there are little sprouts that grow in between them with little purple flowers. There's half-dug holes around it. It was this massive vision. But I had been seeing it so often, and trying to find things that it could match in my life that I didn't tell anyone about it, because I thought it was really for me.
I was talking to a friend and I shared it with them, because I thought it was for them and that they could see something with this. Only to then find out that they also had the same vision. And then another person called in, and they had the same vision. And a year later someone was speaking to us, and they were sharing this one time their brother had a vision, and it was the same thing.
So all of a sudden we realised that this is not just a pretty picture that we're all lovingly seeing. These visions were so meticulously close; people spoke about the cracks in the ground and this sweet water, and used that same language. It was just so obvious that this image was something bigger: it had to be a vision. It was something that a lot of people were seeing, not just me, and not just this friend that I had.
E: That's an amazing story. Outside the coincidence and, obviously, hearing from your friends that they were experiencing something similar, what was the process for you in taking what you're seeing and going, ‘What is this? Is it from God, or is it from me?’
K: I think naturally when you are looking at a vision, or even when you hear that quiet voice in the back of your mind, you can't help but think, ‘Is this just me? Am I just talking to myself?’ I think, for the group of us, what allowed us to see that it was bigger than just our own imagination was that it was so distinctly shared, and we were so far apart in who we were as in our areas of life. We weren’t all youth workers, we weren’t even from the same area, we were from places two hours drive apart. To be able to see what that meant practically took listening to how people were sharing it. Every single time we spoke about what these flowers were, every person thought it was about faith or about this revival or this newness growing something out of what had already been. So this idea that there were wells that were half-dug, but now they're really dry, and this water was breaking out of it and we could be a part of trying to help make sure these wells were back to what they were, and were this flourishing place that people could come and be refreshed. That's so Biblical, there are so many stories about being refreshed by water in the Bible, but we hadn't even clicked than on. It’s only now in hindsight that we realise it's something that's so in scripture.
For us what made it really practical was that we were faced with this really Earthy understanding of the reality of churches around us with no youth workers. At the same time we were seeing this vision, and they fit seamlessly with one another. And so it became our response of how we were to act this out in the world. How we were supposed to get these flowers growing, and what does that mean for us joining in with it?
E: And how did you take that and put it into action?
K: I think it starts with sharing what happened and what ideas were there, and listening to what other people had. We started by really trying to answer what this vision was sharing. When Sonder Collective began I genuinely was thinking maybe it would be for the five churches in our community, and we could all jump on board, and there'll be five churches, and it's our collective, how cool is this? We could do ministry together. The answer was how could this little pocket be a space that could flourish and grow?
It never was supposed to be something bigger than that. It was something that didn't seem so scary because our response wasn't big. It was a small thing. How can we help the young people at the church next door have friends? Easy! We’ll run youth group, and will be a collective!
This word ‘Sonder’ is an Urban Dictionary word. This graphic designer had made it, and if it’s like, ‘the realisation that every passerby has a life just as vivid and complex as your own’. One of the youth kids at that time really loved this word. I was like, ‘What a great name! Good decision! Let's put that as the name!’ And it became this amazing magical space because it really highlighted what we're actually trying to do, that all of our church communities have vivid lives, and they’re complex and we are just a portion in it, but we want to value those stories and hear them.
Along the way little pieces jumping on board and realising in hindsight that something that we were doing that was so small, God has been weaving a big picture that we don't even know sometimes.
E: So Kelly, your home church Murrumbeena actually got on board and have been supporting the Sonder Collective. Can you tell us a bit about how that came to be?
K: When I started at Murrumbeena it was only part-time and I had this cool idea of Sonder. It was something I was doing in my spare time. After a while, the church could see that it was responding to the needs of the community. What I loved so much is that the church came up with this decision: they thought the most effective thing to let Sonder run best is to actually have me employed full-time.
I didn't know it was happening, and I randomly rock up to a random meeting and they were like, ‘By the way, we want to change your contract so not only are we going to pay you for youth work in this church, but we want to pay you so you can do youth work in any church. And you'll be covered to drive to them, and all this stuff.’ Maybe I just cry a lot, but I just burst into tears because I couldn't believe that something could change a structure, and that other people are willing to say, ‘No, we're going to back this. We're going to take a risk.’ That was when there were maybe eighty people, and maybe it was a fluke! And if it was a fluke, they were happy with that, they were happy that we tried something missionally. But I think they deeply knew that’s what would help if I had more time to be able to do conversation and chat with people.
E: That’s pretty incredible considering a lot of our experience, especially as young people and as churches, is being a bit cautious about funding, and knowing that asking for financial support from the church can someone be a difficult thing. That's really interesting to hear. Do you know how that conversation started without you?
K: We were really lucky in a way as this church community that people had gifted finance to it for us to do missional things. It's the same reason why grants exist; people have money to do these things. For them I think it was having that really close experience of seeing that it was effective, so I didn't need to prove that it was effective—which you would usually do in a grant, you need to write down why, and what it's for, and all that stuff. Where these guys knew what was going to be for, they knew how it was going to help, and they could see exactly where it was going to be used. So it came about because they genuinely could see that, without it the mission would be hindered. So in order to effectively help mission, and effectively be the church, is to help others. They could do that, they could up it, so that it became a job. Which is so exciting, and so weird at the same time, that my job description literally is, ‘Director of the Sonder Collective,’ which is just odd and I love it.
E: So that's the beginning of Sonder. So take me through what it looked like setting up this youth group collective from the beginning. What did you do? How did it come together as in the beginning?
K: It was a lot of phone calls and emails and introducing myself to people, and being so vague and so hopefully all at the same time. Like, ‘Hi my name is Kelly, I work at a church around the corner from you. I have this idea and I would love for you to be a part of it. No, I haven't done it before. No, it hasn't been running. But if you get on board it could run.’
A lot of the time it was about people being willing to put their hand up, quite literally, and saying, ‘Yeah, I want to jump in on that, too!’ and see if it could really help young people in all of our churches, not just one church. Which is why we always say we are many churches but one Church. Because even though we're many, we all do the same thing, we all share the same message, and how could we do that together? So it came about with a lot of emails and phone calls and introductions and hopefulness.
I still have in my desk at work this sheet of paper, and I have written down every church in the area and all their connection points. I had formatted this letter that I was going to send out, and it was really just about connecting and how could we get people knowing that we're on board, and we want to do stuff together? It's not just what we want to do but we want people to jump on board and chat and shape it, and what do they have, and can we do something that their church has been wanting to do that they haven't had numbers for? If we all do it together we can run that, you know, missional lunch on a Wednesday! We can do that homework group! Now we have people!
And I think that was really fun. I think people could see that it was going to be really good.
K: So what was the response when you were connecting?
K: A lot of people were really excited, and then a lot of people couldn't jump on board at the same level that their excitement was. So for us, we jumped on board with a couple of churches in the area, and again it comes down to those willing to put their hand up and jump in.
I remember calling my friend—‘friend’ is a loose word, I remember calling my ‘acquaintance’ who is now an incredibly close friend of mine—I remember calling her. She lived in Shepparton, and I knew that they had a smaller congregation, and we had a smaller congregation. And for some reason I decided to call her and ask if she wanted to come on camp. She said yes, and now that's that's our Yonder region, that's Jen and her husband Cam, and they run the whole rural Victoria space. That all started with this random phone call. We laugh because we don't understand how we even had each other's phone numbers—it's so random. I don't even know how that came about in terms of why. Practically, it just happened.
They jumped on board and that's what really kicked it off: realising that there are the people in other churches wider than just Murrumbeena and Carnegie that wanted to do this. They wanted to really invest and have a pocket like this for them and their young people at their home churches.
E: You say the vision came about in around 2015, but then by 2016 Sonder had the two groups, Sonder Yonder and Sonder Murrumbeena running. That's an incredible turn-around. What were you doing in that first year? You’ve told us that Sonder Yonder is the regional collective, how did that come to be and what were you doing and that first year where it just kind of jumped in?
K: I think it's that remembering that we were never supposed to be something big. And so the response changed a little bit, and what I love about it is that there's something deeply communal about a collective: that's the whole point, we're supposed to be collaborative. I remember Jen and Cam posting this idea saying, ‘Cool, if we have Sonder Murrumbeena and Sonder Yonder, when we come together we are known as the Sonder Collective.’ And it made me go, ‘That's weird, because I thought the ‘collective’ was just about our individual churches,not about our regions. But imagine if we had regions! What would this look like if there was more than just Sonder Yonder and Sonder Murrumbeena? What if there were other people?’
We started running camps, and I think the big thing that really kicked it off in 2016 was going all-in and running camps, and being community, and doing phone calls with one another, and connecting people across this space. Because now all of a sudden our two youth groups that could never run a camp by themselves—we just didn't have enough people or enough leaders—we could now run a camp! It was super weird!
So we were really excited because camp ministry is just phenomenal, and the fact that we could do it together really is what pushed it. We realised that we needed to phone other people and ask if they wanted to jump on board too.
E: So how did getting started in camps look?
K: It started looking at State Youth Games [Victoria]. I grew up going to State Youth Games with my church community. They were such a blessing. They let us go for the first year along with them. It literally looked like me and six people; that was our first year at SYG. And then our second year, by ourselves we had fourteen people. Then the next year it was 30, and the next year it was 60. It was just so odd; we started with six and we thought, ‘This is cool and fun!’
And again, we only had to focus on a little bit because we could jump on board and get involved with the community that was already doing amazing things. We then decided to do a youth camp. I nearly didn't run it that year because I didn't think we had enough momentum, or that it was just going to be too much work. And my minister now, Jay, she was like, ‘Do it. Just run it.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, I will…’ So we did. We got a speaker, and it was incredible. It was just amazing. I'm glad that we just jumped at it, and just took that leap, because it wasn't the plan! And yet it happened anyway!
E: Great to have someone to give you a little push when you need it.
K: Hundred percent agree!
E: But looking at Sonder now, you gather over 170 people from 35 church communities running camps both in-person and online. What have been some key things that have grown Sonder from that little idea for two church communities into this collective of 170 people?
K: Yeah see, one big thing is hearing people who are also passionate as well. So the Bayside region, which started as just Brighton, was someone who put their hand up. And again, they had a vision! And so, it’s one of those things where you say, ‘Who we to deny?’ so we were like, ‘Yes, let's do it!’ And then the online region... we've had the online region going now for 8 months, and it came about because three people put their hand, and they were like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could run community online, you know? Across churches? And we could all gather together, where there are not a lot of people?” Well that was sounding awfully familiar... so they jump on board. Now these people are our region coordinators, and they run the program and find activities and things to do for not just the people in their church, they open it up wider. So how it became larger than just a little community here is people really connecting and knowing that it's about gifting, and it’s about giving, and whatever we're doing, why can't we just open it up for other people? We've always done it so insular, and so just for our church. But Jesus doesn't change from one person to one hundred people, so why does our message change? It doesn't, and so let's just do it! And having people passionate about that too.
And then, for me, realising I'm not the only one, and it's actually not even crazy! It's a great idea, and having other people willing to jump on board and take a risk is what has pushed it. Because it's not just me sitting here at the computer, it's a lot of people who are loving it and now I can share it and articulate it.
And running into someone random at a random event and them telling me about this amazing community that they've heard of called the Sonder Collective, and do I know it? And I'm like all like, ‘That’s so awkward…’ I’m like, ‘Yes I do…’ Do I tell them or not? Having fun moments like that really just allowed me to see that it's going further than my little head is thinking it's going.
E: Did you tell them?
K: I did! [Laughs] I told them and we took a picture together, and we sent it to the group of people who knew us both, and we said, ‘I heard you've been talking…’
E: That's so wonderful.
K: It’s happened a couple of times, which freaks me out and excites me all the same time. I do believe that's why there are so many churches that are jumping on board, because people are sharing it and jumping in too. They’re they're just not sharing and running away, they tell another church and they say, ‘Come with us, let's go on this camp.’ So it's been really, really cool.
E: So earlier in our conversation we talked a lot about how important it was for you to have people make space for you when you were ready to put your hand up, and it really sounds like Sonder has become a place that when people put their hand up there is space for them to bring their gifts. How have you gone about building this place where people can say, ‘Yeah, I've got a vision, I've got some gifts, can I give it a go?’ and making that work?
K: I think it really comes down to the worst thing that can happen is that it doesn't work. And, okay, let's try again. So with the online community, I think it's a great example in a weird way at this time, because last year it was, ‘Let's jump on this gaming platform…’ We have two people, Alana who is so pumped about it and Will who is passionate about gaming and online games. And so those two, and Aiden—those three jumped together and they started dreaming, and have made this amazing community online. So my job is to foster that conversation, and give space to say, ‘Yes, we can actually do this, and we can make this a reality, what do you want it to look like?’
I think for me it's realising that now my job is not to put my hand up but is to give those spaces for other people to be able to put their hand up. I think that's been the weirdest part for me moving from being, now, older in ministry, is to be that person to give opportunity and space, and do what I was taught which is to say, ‘Yeah, let's give it a go,’ and crack down, and and respond in this way. Or push and challenge, and ask, ‘How does that represent God, or why do we want to do that, what's a heart behind having another community? Why, and what purpose is it serving? And where is God already at work? Is this something that we need to do, is there something we can jump on board with already?’ And those questions really help us to be able to stick to what we're doing and not run off randomly, and to be able to effectively respond as Sonder.
E: So talking the whole journey of Sonder, has the vision changed over time?
K: The vision in itself that we responded to hasn't changed since it began. That vision is identical. I think for us, it's what gives it some foundation that we can lean on. Whatever programs we put forward, those deeply change. Those are all over the place. Every region runs in a different way that suits them and who they are, and so some months they're doing Bible study fortnightly, and then in three months time monthly is working better. Those practical things change. But because the vision hasn't changed, and it's remained sturdy, it's allowed us to have a reference point and ask, ‘Are we still responding how God has called us to respond, and are we still responding and joining in with this crazy picture that all of us saw, and finding it still life-giving, and are these things that we're doing actively actively responding to what we thought it was going to be?’ And if the answer is ‘yes’, then we know that we're on the right track. And if the answer’s ‘no’—which it hasn't been, thank goodness, not yet at least—then we need to reassess. It's been amazing to reflect back on what this vision is, and jump on board.
E: Yeah, so coming back to that vision has been something that's been able to help you in the development of Sonder. And is that part of your spiritual practices around Sonder and growing?
K: Part of our spiritual practices are really being able to connect and talk with one another, and to listen and to hear. Again, sometimes we don't do that best, just to be honest—there's a lot of us now, so we often are feeling like we’re chasing each other constantly! This wider idea that, even though we are chasing each other constantly, there is a group of people all over Victoria that have the same exciting passion about the same thing.
So prayer is now wider. There is always someone praying for Sonder, and I think that it takes the stress off us as individuals, and so it allows our spiritual practice to actually be one of faithfulness and just being able to lean into what we know we can do because someone else's leaning in somewhere in this community, and they're doing what God wants them to do and they’re responding prayerfully, or missionally, or doing things. And Collectively it allows us to really hear and understand different ways that our faith is forming.
E: So how has the Sonder journey shaped or changed your ideas of mission? Or has it?
K: I don’t think it’s changed it, but it's giving me a better ability to see it. So this idea that we always say is that mission local. It doesn’t have to be very far, you can just be in your neighbourhood. Which sounds lovely, but how do you put it into practice? Which again, those random letters of kindness, and those really practical things for helping those in our neighbourhood... For me it's weird because Sonder helped me see that something as practical as helping the church next to us is still mission, and we realise now that we can respond to bigger steps of mission when we're working together as two smaller churches.
A great example is that a church needed leaders for an event, and that event was then serving in the community, and they were doing amazing things. But they didn't have enough people. So they called out to the Sonder Collective, and there's like fifteen leaders just here, because all of a sudden we were all in a place that we could connect and be passionate about what other church communities were doing too. It allowed us to reach locally more widely, which is fun and interesting and changes your perception of mission.
E: Yeah it's really great to hear how the bringing together has really made your capacity to put your hand up, at a simple level, but to reach further and do different things has really grown. That’s such an amazing thing to hear, because I feel like, coming from a small church background, a lot of us feel that isolation and that real limitation of our resources, so it's very great to hear how Sonder’s dealing with that. Do you have any learnings from the journey, or advice for young people who are looking for their first step to put the hand up, but also maybe for your younger self? What do you wish you had known back in those early days?
K: I think one big piece of advice is around finding those people, finding those older people, who are your leaders and people who are passionate for the things that you're doing. Finding them, and listening to them, I think is the big one. If I knew when I was younger that them being passionate about my ideas is something deeply a part of their faith response, I would have understood faith differently, but it also probably would have listened much more quickly rather than waiting for a very long time to do things. And I used to think that people were doing it because it was their job, they didn't actually care. But they do care, and it's this response that I wish I knew when I was younger so I could thank them, or jump on board with as much enthusiasm as they had.
And then something that I would tell myself, which little me would need to know but also could be really helpful, is that it one hundred percent gets better. So no matter what happens, or if the world is feeling like crap...oops, if the world is feeling dodgy, it will get better. [Laughs] And the other thing is just to breathe. I think particularly when we grow up in churches that are passionate about doing things, we get caught up in this big idea that there is so much wrong, and what could little me do about it? It becomes overwhelming. But I think if I just had told myself to breathe long ago, I might have realised that little responses are exactly what is required, and those little pockets do everything they're supposed to do regardless.
If Sonder never became big, and it was just the five churches in Murrumbeena, it is exactly what was supposed to be happening. And remember that not only is that enough, but it's perfect. I wish I knew that when I was younger. You don't have to do big things, you can do little things and they have big impacts.
E: Yeah, I know we spoke a lot about that while preparing for this interview, that desire for mission to be fixing everything. I guess speaking through your journey, coming from that young person experiencing the opportunities given to you by others and maybe struggling sometimes or being able to find those people to creating that space, what do you have to say around how you go about starting to make those spaces? I know our listeners might be young people wanting to put their hands up, but they are also probably leading others, who are thinking , ‘How can I give them the space to really put their hand up and take that next step?’
K: One big thing that always hit me in the back of my mind was that any big movement, whether it ended up being a church denomination or a big movement in itself all started with someone under the age of 25. Under 25. Like, that just baffles me. I even thought to myself when I hit 25 years old, ‘I've missed it! I'm never going to make a big impact! ‘cos I'm old now!’ Ironically, turned 25 the year Sonder started, so I had to laugh at myself.
E: You got there!
K: I thought it was hilarious that I had that pressure on myself. I think, for leaders to be able to give those opportunities, remember that not everything has to be perfect. Part of having an amazing community is to have a band that might sound a little dodgy, because it's not about perfection it's actually about worship. I think having those times when you ask, what if your sermon came from a 13-year-old in your congregation? I know some people who mentored me knew at 9 years old that they wanted to be a minister. What does that even look like as a nine-year-old? Let's chuck them behind a pulpit! What do they have to share?
Or even just ideas. We hear some of these stories, that young people want to help the homeless, and so all of a sudden they have those leaders and people in their life who made that possible. Not only is it about giving opportunity, but I think it's also about deeply listening. It's not always about doing something that we want, it's about responding to what the community wants. I think that's been a big thing for me.
E: That's awesome. I'm still shaking my head at that statistic for under 25s, goodness me. But what a great reminder. That's really awesome. Just to finish up, what's coming next for you and for Sonder Collective?
K: For me, after I did my theological studies for my Bachelor, I've now just finished my Masters. For some reason, I had learnt enough! But you can never finish learning about the Bible. I am looking at to what it might be like to serve the church, maybe forever? Which was never my plan, but what might that actually look like practically? So that's what I'm going to be getting up to. Maybe seeing about discerning what God’s actually saying in my life.
And for Sonder, I'm excited for two reasons. One, there are very faint whispers of another region starting up, which I won't say where, but the biggest problem is I had seven church communities pumped but I had no one to region coordinate. But then I had a random phone call literally a week ago asking if there was anything happening out in this area, is anything that we could be doing? And I was like, ‘Yes, we need a region coordinator.’ So now that conversation is starting, which is exciting and I'm excited and pumped. But the other thing that I'm excited about Sonder is this idea that one day I might not always be here, and I'm so blessed that I was able to to start up Sonder, and that it was something that could be directed by me, and that my church community at Murrumbeena then said, ‘Yes we're going to pay for it, so you can do it as a job,’ but it's not always going to be me, and I'm excited what they're going to do. What's the next person who's going to direct Sonder going to do, what cool ideas are they going to jump in the mix? I think that's gonna be really exciting.
If you want to get in touch with Kelly and the Sonder Collective, you can find their website at sondercollective.org, find them on Facebook at facebook.com/sondercollective, or on Instagram @the.sondercollective. You can contact Kelly by messaging the group on any of these platforms