December 8, 2014

Vision, mission or just wishin’

Duncan Peppercorn talks to Graham Long, Pastor and CEO of The Wayside Chapel, about how he puts Wayside’s mission into practice and what he has learnt about working with some of the most marginalised members of the community in Sydney’s Kings Cross.

(SVA Consulting worked with Wayside to develop its first strategic plan in 2008.)

Graham LongGraham Long: CEO and Pastor of The Wayside Chapel

Duncan Peppercorn (DP): Let’s talk about 50 years at Wayside[1]. That’s a lot of work, a lot of care. At SVA, we’re committed to solving problems and, though we’ve achieved a lot, we have not solved the big problems in society. Why after all this hard labour is Wayside still needed?

Graham Long (GL): Because we don’t have any interest at all in solving problems. That’s not what we’re here to do. In fact, if that is your goal, burnout is guaranteed.

I don’t want you to be a problem that I have to fix. I want you to be a person that I can meet. And I think if we meet you’ll change and so will I. You’ll move towards health and so will I. That’s how it works.

The whole ‘helping’ profession in our privatised world is geared towards saving fish from drowning. [Graham laughs his wonderful laugh]

People are hardwired as social beings and yet we train them to be lonely. And when we want to fix them we give them a pill, a pamphlet or program and they walk out as alone, if not more so, maybe a little more functional in their loneliness – but not moved towards life.

‘I am a client, you are an expert.’ There’s no meeting in that. There’s no life in that.

DP: No life? Explain that.

GL: People who are damaged live in a world of stuff. Their primary concern is how do you get more stuff at the cheapest price. It’s the same for both rich and poor. It doesn’t matter if you’re homeless or have many homes. The problem with that is that it doesn’t matter how much stuff you get, there’s absolutely no transformation.

There is transformation if you can receive a gift. But in order to receive a gift, you have to see the giver. So it’s about being able to see you not as a source of stuff, but as a person who can make a gift. And that embodies this miracle of ‘We are not alone – we are here together’.

When we really hit mission, problems get solved permanently and the transformation is amazing.

DP: So, how do you know if you’re doing the right things? How do you know if the particular programs and activities Wayside is running are right?

GL: Every now or then, there’s a flashing moment of vision and you know in every cell of your body that you’re doing the right thing.

When we really hit mission, problems get solved permanently and the transformation is amazing. But that’s not the goal of the activity. The activity for us is to be together, for us to be a community with no ‘us and them’. And when we achieve that, transformation really happens. But it’s an accident out of the meeting; it’s not the point of the exercise.

You only hit mission every now and then. The rest of the time, you’re in the wishin’ rather than mission stage. And you count things to console yourself that you’re doing something productive – as you should do.

And we count things. We can tell you how many showers and meals we have provided and all that. But in a way that proves only that we’re all lost together. You’re in a machine turning wheels.

We had a session not long ago with people with mental health issues: a night where they read their own poetry, and talked about what it’s like to live with mental illness. There was a big turnout; we filled the hall. The experts on the night were the people with the mental illness. It really was a night of no us and them. By the end of that night, people knew: ‘None of us are all that well. We’re all fighting our way through this. And these people have some wisdom that might help us.’

It really was remarkable. Then you walk out and you’re back into ‘us and them’.

Wayside Chapel Grand Opening
Wayside Chapel’s mission is to create a community with no ‘us and them’.  (Photo: Cynthia Sciberras)

DP: Coming back to what we started doing together six years ago, which is planning. The essence of planning – in the way we think about it – is painting a picture of where we want to get to, figuring out the things you need to do to get there, being very clear what the goals are, and measuring whether or not you’re getting to the goals. How important is planning?

GL: It’s quite important for a number of reasons. If you don’t plan you’ve got no idea whether you’re eating yesterday’s vomit. You just don’t know. You have to have some measure of the path you’ve been walking on. You have to be able to look backwards and see where you’ve come from. So you plan.

So you plan, and you measure your progress against the plan, but in the end mission almost has to happen to you.

But, I don’t think you can make mission happen, no matter how well you plan. So you plan, and you measure your progress against the plan, but in the end mission almost has to happen to you. You have to get grabbed by it rather than engineer it.

DP: Do you think that’s true for all entities, or specifically Wayside?

GL: I think it’s true for all entities whose mission is big enough. If your mission is: ‘I’ve got to sell this many bottles of coke’, or ‘reduce the number of people with disability who don’t have jobs’, that’s mechanics, that’s just stuff. It could be important stuff, but it’s just stuff.

If you’re meeting people in order to solve a problem, then your burnout is guaranteed.

At Wayside, 100 people a day come through. We do so many showers a day. We provide meals. And we want to do that in a way which is consistent with mission – that optimises our chances for mission. So therefore we have to have food which is nutritious, fresh and cheap, and that requires planning. You have to build a kitchen, suck people into the program, train people, but in the end it’s all geared to having a community with no ‘us and them’, which is way bigger than people eating and showering and getting a clean pair of undies.

It’s a distinction I sometimes use with the volunteers. You can solve a problem in order to meet someone, or you can meet someone in order to solve a problem. The difference is black and white. If you’re meeting people in order to solve a problem, then your burnout is guaranteed.

DP: If you look back over the last five or so years, since the time we developed Wayside’s plan with you, how have you changed the way you meet people? What have you learned about the practice at Wayside?

GL: It’s a never-ending battle. Because we live in a world where the culture and the oxygen that we breathe is pragmatism. It says that you will only know you’ve done a good thing if you can measure it, and say ‘here it is’.

…it’s a very seductive thing to be a rescuer, to think that I’m fixing these people.

We get all these people who are TAFE-trained or university-trained and their insecurity says, ‘I must be an expert; you must be a client’. Already the language is working against mission. So it’s a never-ending battle to overcome that and teach that. I suspect that will never end.

Even I have to be reminded, because it’s a very seductive thing to be a rescuer, to think that I’m fixing these people. You think, ‘It must be because I know something’, and the truth is I don’t know anything.

DP: Despite what you have asserted about the mission being disconnected from the activities, and that you can’t work towards it, Wayside’s mission is delivered more clearly than most I’ve seen. Because if you want there to be no ‘us and them’, the critical thing to do is to put us and them together so you discover that you’re not us and them.

GL: Yes it’s very simple. It’s as simple as breathing. But it’s very difficult to achieve because it’s against the culture.

The truth is that we trip up all the time, and we have many different ways at Wayside to help each other and put each other back on track.

We didn’t vote for this culture we’re in, it came to us through hundreds of years of history – through our schooling, our entertainment, even our helping professions. It’s all geared to render you as an individual. And we love the idea of the power of one. That’s our great myth, and it is a myth. It’s insane. And it produces insanity. At Wayside, we try to swim against the current.

The truth is that we trip up all the time, and we have many different ways at Wayside to help each other and put each other back on track. On the first day in the café, you know that to give a cup of coffee generously to someone on the worst day of their life is worth more than a session with a psychiatrist. But on about day three what really matters to you is who put the bloody sugar over there. That’s the culture – it infiltrates. Little things become big, and big things become little. So it’s a never-ending battle.

I’m fed much more by the vision than what’s going on.

DP: As you look forward at the situation in this country, do you have hope? And what does the broader for-purpose sector most need to do to make that hope a reality?

GL: Hope is an essential ingredient, but it’s not a rational one. Everything that’s rational says we’re losing this battle in a big way. Everything is going backwards in a very depressing way if you’re just talking about the evidence.

But I’m fed much more by the vision than what’s going on. I expect that I’m only going to live another five minutes anyway, and I only have to have done my best. I’m not even trying to fix the world.

I think the world will be far more fixed to the extent that this vision lives.

DP: What does that mean for other organisations? There are none quite like Wayside. But there are lots of organisations whose objective function is the addressing of disadvantage in our society. What do you think they could learn from Wayside and how Wayside thinks about this?

Wayside YouthWayside’s mission frames what it does without using the language of disadvantage. (Photo: Cynthia Sciberras)

GL: Remember my earlier comment about saving the fish from drowning. Well, once upon a time there was a fish who liked to swim near the edge. One day a great big wave picked him up and threw him out onto the sand. People walked past and saw this fish out on the sand and thought, ‘this isn’t right, this fish shouldn’t be here on the sand’.

Most people were judgmental: ‘It’s the fish’s fault. If he’d acted like a fish, he’d never have been here on the sand.’

Eventually, a social worker came along who wasn’t afraid at all to see the fish, talk to the fish and find out his name. The social worker said to the fish, you must feel terrible about being a fish out of water. And the fish got in touch with his feelings and cried. And it was quite a moment. And the fish said, ‘couldn’t you just throw me back in the water’.

The social worker said no. I’ll come back tomorrow and we’ll chat about how you got to be in this position. So the social worker went off and eventually the fish died. Later another big wave came and it washed the corpse out to sea.

The social worker came back the next day and said, ‘Oh I played a small part in creating an autonomous fish’. [Graham laughs]

We just want to keep working with the fish out of water rather than getting the fish back into the water. It’s a cultural sickness in which we are all co-operating.

… recognise that the ‘us and them’ in the language is the primary problem. That mostly aids and abets the problem that we’re trying to fix.

DP: What you’re saying is that the biggest blight on our society is that we’re thinking about ‘I’ not ‘we’. What can we learn from Wayside, then, about how to address a major issue in society such as intergenerational disadvantage?

GL: I think to recognise that the ‘us and them’ in the language is the primary problem. That mostly aids and abets the problem that we’re trying to fix. ‘How can we fix them.’

At Wayside, we’re not a soup kitchen. We say to the poor, if it wasn’t for the rich people walking through here, we wouldn’t be here. Do you want them to go away?

And we say to the wealthy people, ‘This isn’t an interesting case – this is your brother, this is your sister.’ This makes all the difference in the world and occasionally the ‘us and them’ actually melts. Because if this is your brother, of course you want to do something about it – that changes everything.

That’s not easily achieved. And until we – as a culture – face that, we’re pushing water uphill.

DP: How do you frame what you are doing without using the language of disadvantage?

GL: We say ‘we’re here to create a community with no us and them’. That’s our mission. At a very high level, we say ‘love over hate’. But the one we use all the time in our work is ‘to create a community with no us and them’.

We say it as bluntly as we can, in a lot of different ways: ‘If you walk out of here feeling met rather than worked on, then we’ve had a good day’.

With our church, our slogan is: ‘We’re not much like a church, which might work for you if you’re not much like a Christian’. In other words, it’s not about a club for the perfect; it’s a community.

In some ways our Sunday gatherings are very radical. When we say the benediction, you’re likely to have an attorney-general on one end and an ice addict on the other end.

The hardest thing is to keep reminding each of us why we’re here: the mission.

DP: Could Wayside exist without the underpinning of the Christian faith?

GL: People often ask me what part of this is secular and what part is religious. And I always say 100% secular, 100% religious.

DP: But my question is a different question.

GL: It could, but it would become a welfare agency. It would become something not unlike a government department. If that happened, it would still function, but I’d be long gone.

The hardest thing is to keep reminding each of us why we’re here: the mission. We keep talking about it and keep pulling each other up. When someone’s decided that where the sugar bowl is is the big issue, then we remind each other that’s not the big issue.

Our values are: No secrets, no cowboys, no rush, no complacency, no judges.[2] Most of our 700 volunteers could tell you that.

DP: Wayside is very visible. You’re very good at talking about Wayside and good at talking about the challenges the people that you meet at Wayside are facing. How important is that to Wayside?

GL: Very. I resisted that for a long time and I went to a lot of trouble to make sure that this is about Wayside, rather than Graham Long. But it’s become very clear over the years that Wayside has to have a voice. Eighty-one percent of our funding is by private donations. You have to communicate with these people, because that’s where our money comes from. It’s not by submissions and filling out forms; it’s by telling stories and helping people buy it and fall in love with the work. And that requires a human voice. These days I just accept that I am that voice. 

DP: What do you understand by the word ‘leadership’?

GL: I understand the distinction (between management and leadership). Over the years I’ve had to become more leader and less manager. I think today I’m 90% leader and 10% manager. That’s because I’ve got a good team who do their job.

My never ending task is that they get the vision and pass it on.

I spend most of my time setting the framework that gives meaning to what we do within the team, with our senior people. My never ending task is that they get the vision and pass it on. We’ve made some progress, but it takes years for them to see it.

I speak it out on behalf of Wayside. The world doesn’t have to be like that. It can be better. We can do this better.

DP: How do you develop the managerial and leadership skills of the people on the team?

GL: I want my executive team to be leaders in their own way. That means the next rung down will need to be better managers. They are senior workers that used to be frontline workers. It’s a long, hard job to get people who are used to being ‘indians’ to learn to manage their own areas. And it’s an equally hard job to get people who are used to being managers to learn to be leaders. It’s a slow cultural shift. It will take a few years and I’m happy with that.

DP: How do you make that happen?

GL: It’s mostly through our conversations. Also, if there’s a public speaking event that people want me to speak at, I throw that to one of my executive team if I can. Because if they have to think about it and articulate it, they’ll get proficient at it, and they’ll get it.

DP: Graham, how did you find your way to Wayside?                         

GL: That’s easy, I didn’t find Wayside; Wayside found me. I was a postie at the time. I got the phone call and said, ‘Perfect, I’m in’. I had no doubt whatsoever. I thought I was made for this job.

It’s beyond rational. It seemed like the perfect embodiment of the kind of faith that gets lived out. It’s not about singing songs and making Christian sausages. It’s about faith that works with sleeves rolled up, feet planted firmly in the mud. That’s my kind of faith.

…you know that you don’t own that mission, it owns you.

DP: What are you most proud of over the 10 years you’ve been with Wayside?

GL: I’m most proud of the mission and pulling together a team who believes in the mission and has the maturity to understand that you move from mission, to wishin’, (and back) to mission… and you don’t panic when the mission is a million miles away.

And you know that you don’t own that mission, it owns you. I belong to the mission not the other way round, and I’ve got a bunch of people beside me who are engaged in that mission. That’s the greatest pride.

The building[3] is an achievement. We started with no money and finished with no debt. That was a surprise. Sometimes when I say that, it sounds easy. It was not easy and I have no desire to do it again!

Just under half of the $8.2 million raised to fund the redevelopment was private donations. I got six cheques of over a quarter of a million. I don’t care how rich you are that’s a very big donation.

I’d never had to mix with wealthy people, let alone bite them for money. I didn’t enjoy the experience. But we came through it very well.

DP: Over those 10 years, what has kept you excited? Is it change, or new projects?

GL: I always think the question of ‘how do you stay excited’ is a question that reveals the poverty of our culture. As if we’re so privatised that anytime anyone wants to sell you something they say they are so excited, as if that’s the ultimate. I find that incredibly two-dimensional.

I don’t see myself as being excited about anything much. The most excited you’ll ever see me is if one of the grandchildren walks into the room. And the excitement is the result of the connection with the little girl.

DP: Where do you go from here? Maybe it doesn’t matter?

GL: It doesn’t matter much to me. The thought of my last day doesn’t fill me with any kind of dread. I’m confident that on my last day I will have a sense of relief, and I’ll know that I’ve done a good job. But life is fluid and nothing lasts forever – certainly not this.

And I’m hoping to die. I really am. I’m hoping to cross the finish line while I’m still strong. And with a thief on each arm, rather than a doctor on each arm.

There’s much worse things in life than death. I’m not keen to live forever. I don’t say that very often, because people think I’m depressed, but there’s no depression in that statement whatsoever. Life is for a season. You come and you go. And I think you live much better if you can see your death day.

DP: That’s a wake-up call for the rest of us because not many people have been, or are able to, live a very productive life without the desire to be recognised for it, or to do better than they did before.

GL: Twenty years ago I wasn’t like this, but I’m gloriously free from the need for people to say you’re doing a good job. I really am. I care nothing about what I drive, or where I live. I enjoy my freedom from all that.


[1] In April this year, Wayside celebrated 50 years of providing love, care and support for people on and around the streets of Kings Cross.

[2] In his book Love over hate: Finding life by the wayside, Graham spells these out as: openness, teamwork, patience, courage and respect.

[3] Wayside completed the redevelopment of its ‘home’ (which had become dilapidated) in early 2012. The project, which cost $8.2 million, took five years of fundraising and 22 months of construction.