Called to a city - Keith's 12 years
It came as a call from the far side of the world 12 years ago: an invitation to the Rev Keith Garner to consider applying for the position of Superintendent of Wesley Mission was a bolt out of the Caribbean blue.
The email arrived while he was preaching on a mission in the Bahamas. A considered Keith Vincent Garner weighed the options. He knew there would be a cost if he and wife Carol moved to Sydney. His children were graduating from university, he held a major position with the Methodist Church in Britain, and his parents were advancing in years; but he felt called to the significant Word and deed ministry of Wesley Mission. It embraced his heart and mind. He has appreciated the support of the church and his family in taking up this uniquely-shaped role.
Keith responded “positively but tentatively” to the offer and what God was placing before him. He knew about some of the work and ministry of Wesley Mission. He had been inspired by the late Rev Sir Alan Walker at a mission he had shared with him back in the UK in 1982 and had read Alan’s works and kept in contact with him and his wife, Win. He had met Gordon Moyes on a visit to Australia.
“I realised that the organisation was very large and had a significant role to play in the life of Australia,” Keith said as he reflected upon 11 years leading one of Australia’s largest church and community organisations.
Wesley Mission’s resilient history, dynamic potential and pivotal standing attracted him to the position and continues to inform his leadership.
“It is a place of great mission and ministry,” he said. “It gave me an opportunity to further develop a media presence that had already begun in Britain. It enabled me to exercise a Word and deed ministry combining my Christian vision with that of leading a large welfare and community organisation. The combination was unique and yet exciting to me.”
The challenges were, and remain, numerous. Sydney is a multicultural city of five million people with diverse communities facing a range of social and economic difficulties. It is a metropolis of tribes and towns, cultures and classes.
“We are facing a new kind of Australia of an ageing community in a country that has always been thought of as young and lucky and, added to this, are the complex social needs that are ongoing,” he said.
“The difficulty of raising money remains something that I take seriously, as well as the fact that coming to another new country would involve huge challenges. We share approximately the same language and some of the same cultural nuances, but there were also very many things to learn.”
While adapting to a new personal situation, he set about familiarising himself with the extensive work and ministries of Wesley Mission. He also came to appreciate the sheer size and complexity of the nation. To help Wesley Mission realise its potential, he did his homework and initially formed a small ‘kitchen cabinet’ of leading community and business advisers and then fashioned a vision for the organisation which is continuing to serve it well.
“One vision was that if we were going to continue to serve God in the many avenues of service, we would need to do it in a joined up manner and to discover ways in which we can develop a vision which unites our Christian vision and our compassionate support to those in need,” he said. “This is how joined up thinking and practice originated and was developed by my talented colleagues. Our integrated approach to mission is both unique and compelling.
“I think our social context has helped to change us. We have had to become leaner in some areas and more adventurous in others. We are seeing the nature of the care of those in the community becoming more person-centred and this continues apace.
“When people come to us in need, it is not usually one issue that they have to deal with, and the wrap-around services of Wesley Mission are an example of how we can really meet people in the totality of their need in order to help them. It is also of huge encouragement to our staff to know that they do not operate independently, but as a team. The Wesley Community Services Board is a wonderful group of men and women fully committed to our values.”
During the past decade Wesley Mission has grown to be among the largest charities in Australia. This has come at a time when the community services and aged care sectors have become more competitive and nuanced. To help Wesley Mission achieve its goals, Keith oversaw and managed the complex process of incorporation.
“One of the things that became increasingly clear to me was that we had to be prepared to take the step of becoming an incorporated body,” he said. “One of my challenges was to hold together the unity of Wesley Mission as the largest Uniting Church parish in the country and the close to $200 million community services organisation.
“As our community services were incorporated, we joined many others that are much more vibrantly connected to the community and able to operate in the ‘for purpose’ space. It became increasingly necessary to be incorporated, but in a way that retained our core Christian values.”
While incorporation is helping Wesley Mission to stand alone and deliver sound financial results, a collegial management team has enabled the effective delivery of a large suite of community services that continues to grow. New service hubs have sprung up across greater Sydney and beyond, providing a one-stop shop for clients. The Wesley Centre in Sydney’s CBD has been renovated and refurbished to enhance outreach to a modern, secular and multi-cultural inner city population.
“My own contribution has been to draw together a closer leadership team which now has just six direct reports and a dozen Executive Managers of the highest quality,” he said. “This is by far the strongest team I have led in my 11 years as leader of Wesley Mission.”
Wesley Mission has a long history of prophetic advocacy. In the 1960s Wesley Mission changed dramatically, moving from an emphasis on philanthropic care to a much more vibrant gospel-centred social justice message. While Keith has continued this tradition he has also overseen new developments which have enhanced and strengthened Wesley Mission’s voice in the public space.
Governments, the media and the sector demand quality primary based empirical research. Research on issues like homelessness, mental health and financial stress has helped Wesley Mission speak in the social space and create a public conversation about issues close to its heart. The strategy has been employed in a non-partisan way by letting the evidence and the experience of Wesley Mission rise astutely above party politics. Quality research has also earned Wesley Mission the right to speak and to distinguish itself in the marketplace of ideas.
“Wesley Mission has gained a particular reputation of being able to be true to its Christian message but presented in a way that shows we understand that this message has not only to be real, but actually applicable to its context,” he said.
“As Wesley Mission is seeking to influence public policy it seemed to me that we needed to look very carefully at this element of research and our Wesley Reports have become widely acknowledged and enormously important, having been quoted in Parliament in both New South Wales and Canberra.
“It also gives us confidence when we are tendering for work, in addition to helping us understand some of the practical aspects of human need. The impact of our first report on financial stress in November 2006 was remarkable in media take up on TV, radio and in print.”
Media invitations to provide commentary on social issues arrive regularly. Wesley Mission now receives thousands of stories and mentions in the media each year. Governments have noticed the evident contribution too, with Keith receiving and accepting offers to be on the Community Council of Australia and on the Premier’s Council on Homelessness, where he has served for seven years.
“It was an honour to be elected by my peers to be the Deputy Co-Chair and then appointed by two succeeding Premiers to that post,” he said. “We are currently wrestling with the whole issue of homelessness and how we can make a significant difference in this area. It remains a challenging issue for 105,000 people in Australia who are homeless.”
His recognition in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2015 was significant for Keith, but also for Carol and the Wesley Mission family. “I value the partnership in leadership with Carol and the support of a huge number of our people in the Parish Mission, our employees and volunteers,” he said.
In 2012 Wesley Mission looked back to its Methodist foundations–the 200th anniversary of the beginnings of the Methodist work in the then colony. Hundreds of Wesley Mission congregation members and supporters marched through the streets of Sydney and then several thousand joined together in worship at the State Theatre. The Rev Samuel Leigh arrived in Australia in 1815.
“Our original roots with Samuel Leigh took us back very close to the ministry of John Wesley,” Keith said. “I found it fascinating how many people were genuinely interested in capturing the Wesleyan message. The words of John Wesley’s rule in our entrance to the Wesley Centre and his vision expressed in his words – “I look at all the world as my parish”–are inspirational to me.”
The Easter Mission continues to reach millions of people throughout Australia and the world via live web and television broadcasts and media coverage. From the re-enactment of Christ’s triumphal entry to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the sentencing and crucifixion march on Good Friday, and to the dynamic Sunrise Service at the Sydney Opera House on Easter Sunday, the good news of the Gospel continues to be heard in the public square.
While there has been much to celebrate and rejoice about during the past decade, achievements must be the right kind of success: “Delivering caring and compassionate services and to be the organisation that knows what it is to embrace our values is the best possible measure of success,” he said.
The Wesley Mission Community Services Board last year set a goal of 50 per cent growth over the next five years for both community services and the church. “I would want to stress that growth is much more than money and programs,” he said. “It relates to influence in the community and the number of people we actually reach out to.
“Our core values–Christlike servanthood; unfailing integrity; courageous commitment–will sustain us into the future and in God’s name give us the ability and strength to continue to be a vibrant and living church.”