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Vale John U’Ren

9 May 2023

Whitley records its sadness at the recent passing of John U’ren and extends sympathy to Rosemary and all his large family.

John was the founding director of the School of World Mission (1989-1999) at Whitley. Prior to this he had become well-known as a leading figure in Victorian evangelical circles in many roles but especially as state director for Scripture Union. John was a Methodist and a close friend of Dr Athol Gill with whom he shared a strong passion for social justice. Athol had long hoped to establish a mission education program available across all denominational boundaries and this dream was shared by Harold Henderson then the head of World Vision Australia. Finally in 1987 the SWM was established as a joint venture between Whitley and World Vision and the first courses were launched in 1988 with 47 students.

John wrote about those early days:

When I began my tenure as SWM Director in 1989 I joined an amazing and significant faculty team at Whitley College. The permission-giving environment allowed for an exciting, creative and risk-taking period. What evolved was a mission study network
‘down the street and around the world’, to use part of the SWM slogan! 

SWM established a significant cross-cultural connection, locally and internationally. The first enrolled SWM student was a young Korean woman, Meewon Yang who is now an ordained minister coordinating the multicultural ministry of the Baptist Union of Victoria. There were soon students from 27 different nationalities and at one stage, after the Tiananmen Square massacre, 31 students from China were enrolled. In 1990 there were three SWM units but by 1996 there were 39. Over 35 welfare and mission agencies were affiliated with SWM for student placements and ‘mission plunges’ for field experience. John had an incredible gift of networking! Many international guest lecturers were brought to Whitley for intensive courses and special lectures. Over ten years, John recalled, 22 overseas lecturers served the SWM at Whitley. Her also worked to ensure that Whitley would appoint a lecturer in missiology and accreditation for SWM courses was gained.

The untimely death of Athol Gill on 9 March 1992 shocked the SWM and Whitley community. John lost a close friend and mentor but he continued to serve the SWM until 1999. (John was always a Collingwood supporter whilst Athol was a fanatic follower of Carlton but their friendship survived this test.)

Eventually, in 2006 SWM was integrated into Whitley College and Dr Ross Langmead as the Professor of Missiology continued the vision of SWM in his leadership. Ross paid tribute to John as one who had transformed the study of mission in Whitley and many places. He continued to network and organise events as SWM and John had done. Mission was now an integral  feature of Whitley’s life.

John was not an academic in the traditional sense (he had left school in Year 8), but was a compassionate dedicated lover of Jesus, a wide reader, and had a huge capacity for friendship. Generations of students and friends recall John’s commitment in the words of Micah 6:8 that figured prominently at his memorial service: we are ‘to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God’.

Whitley joins with John’s numerous friends in gratefully recalling his gentle but firm leadership of the School of World Mission in its foundation years.

(John wrote a moving farewell to SWM in Mission Horizons, newsletter of the SWM, September 2006).

Ken R Manley
(Principal of Whitley College, 1987-2000).