Success and succession at the Wayside
KINGS CROSS: In September 2017, the Rev. Graham Long AM, CEO and Pastor at the Wayside Chapel, announced he would be retiring from his current position at the end of 2018. Last month Graham announced that Assistant Pastor Jon Owen would be taking on the leadership role at Wayside, commencing July 1. A migrant to Australia of Sri-Lankan and Indian heritage, Jon is a qualified social worker and for 20 years was a member of Urban Neighbours of Hope, a religious order dedicated to living and serving amongst the poor.
In what follows, Graham reflects on 14 years of ministry at Wayside.
So, I’m on the home run at Wayside. I look forward to working alongside Jon for about six months. Most organisations and certainly most churches make a mess of succession but I’m hopeful that Wayside will achieve strong generational change and will usher in 10 years that are even more astonishing than the last 10.
We were in trouble when I arrived in 2004. Wayside still had a good name although we were broke. We were broke, to the extent that we had serious discussions about our continuation. Our Winter Appeal to the public for funds in 2004 didn’t make back the cost of postage. Our famous theatre that was the hottest venue in the 1960s had been condemned. Our whole site was in a bad way. I conducted one wedding in the old chapel, standing in an inch of water. Before the days of civil celebrants, Wayside was the only show in town for people of mixed religions or of no religion. In 2004, we remained open about 14 hours, seven days a week, yet we had only a small handful of part-time staff. It was a tense place because not only did our volunteers not know each other, but there was no semblance of consistency between the various shifts and various days. Somehow, we kept operating through luck and through the heroic efforts of a few giant characters. We routinely took risks that would make Cirque du Soleil hesitate.
It became quickly apparent that leadership when it is exercised, is both taken and given. I suspect it must be taken before it is given. Where leadership is not taken, a kind of game exists where democracy is held to trump all values but in reality, an atmosphere of internal power shifts is created and the only certain outcome is that nothing will happen. Having been taken, leadership must also be given by a community. Indeed, leadership is not a singular activity, even when taken. If everyone shares in leadership, there is no leadership. The priesthood of all believers usually means no priesthood at all. So, I had to take some early leadership. I had to have an effective Board if anything was going to happen. I formed an early partnership with Ian Martin who became our Chair. Without being in partnership with Ian, we’d be celebrating nothing at this time.
We had to find a way to articulate our mission in a way that made sense, not to the church authorities but to the people to whom our mission is directed. It was no small feat to develop a language that was free of “welfare speak” as well as from “church speak”. Eventually we expressed our mission as, “Creating community with no us and them”. It was a winner and still is. It was not that it was a catchy set of words, but rather that it named our mission in a way that made sense. Lots of people from all walks of life could understand what we were about and felt they could help and get involved. It also became quickly clear that our mission was not a set of cognitive propositions to which we required agreement but rather our mission was an activity. Creating community is achieved through movement of the feet, not through exercise of the head. It captured our hearts and it recaptures us regularly when there are moments when the distinction between, rich and poor, sick and well, housed and homeless, saved and lost, educated and not educated all disappear. In such a moment, it is not the case that “we” the experts, deliver services to “them” the needy. In such a moment the good news, the liberation and the fullness of what it means to be human, flows in every direction. We’re saved or lost together.
So, we began without a dollar in the bank and we replaced our buildings without entering into any debt. We built our team of staff to over 100 people and nearly all that growth has happened without government money. We launched into new projects and broke new ground. We took the governance of the project at Bondi and learned some lessons about how to be one organisation in two places. It was not an easy process but it is one that has delivered transformation in both places and set off a series of projects that will one day be the pride of Bondi as well as the pride of Kings Cross and indeed, Sydney.
Our active volunteers today are about 800 people. I started writing a note to just 12 people in the hope of building some coherence between volunteers. Every week the number of people reading this note grew so that today our inner circle, numbers about 18,000 readers. For years I’ve regularly read this note on ABC 702 and so I have no idea what the size of our inner circle might be. Our note is not about asking for money, it’s just about helping people fall in love with what we do. Make friends, help them fall in love with what we do and money will follow. Every year we set budgets that cause me to shut my eyes and tremble and every year, even in the financial crisis, people supported us and even enabled us to stretch further.
Now on my home run, I’m filled with gratitude that I could have shared this journey with so many people who were all better than me in what they did but happy to add their skills to mine. We’ve been captured by the awesome.
Rev. Graham Long will remain at Wayside in the role of Pastor Emeritus, to provide ongoing support to Jon. After a well-deserved break, Graham will return to Wayside in mid-2019 to teach courses in philosophy and leadership.