You got your accountancy degree, left university, and then, from what I’ve gathered, you went to work in the corporate world?
Yes, I did a variety of commercial-type roles in energy distribution initially. And then into media with Radio New Zealand and a bit of education work. But each of those were corporate roles using financial or other capabilities. And then I had this kind of midlife challenge, if you like, about what the real value was that I was contributing. I went on a school camp with my daughter down in the Marlborough Sounds. We were out in the bush one day, and one of the little girls said to me, “Are you Vanessa’s Dad?” And I said, “Yes, I am.” And the little girl said, “Do you live with her?” And I said, “Yeah, I do. Why do you ask me that?” And she said, “I don’t see my Dad.” We had something like 55 kids with us on this camp, and we did a straw poll: the vast majority didn’t have dads active in their lives. I got enormously challenged by that. Where are all the dads? We had this generation of young people growing up without decent male role models. I don’t know if I was naïve about that or just hadn’t paid attention. I decided I needed to do something about that.
About the same time, I was travelling to Melbourne on a business trip. One of the people I worked with turned up the day before with a book for me to read. It was called Half Time by a guy called Bob Buford. The byline on the book is: “Changing your game plan from success to significance.” Bob Buford is a Christian businessman in the United States. The philosophy of the book is this: you take time out mid-career to work out what God really wants you to do. The second half of your career needs to be about being significant in your context, whatever that looks like. I was quite convicted by that. I remember reading it on the way back from Melbourne. I thought, “This is a life-changing moment for me.”
At that stage, I was working at the Open Polytech as the General Manager of Corporate Services. There was a job advertised for Barnardos, a children’s charity. That was back in 2000 when you had job ads in newspapers. I remember cutting the ad out and putting it beside my bed and thinking, “I’ll just pray on that and reflect on that.” About a week later, someone turned up in my office with the same ad and gave it to me, saying, “This sounds like you.” I thought I’d better apply for it then. I rang the company up that was doing the recruitment, and they said, “Oh, we’ve been waiting for you to ring. We thought you’d be a suitable candidate for this role.”
I left my job and joined Barnardos New Zealand as a change manager. I then became the CEO about 18 months after I’d started and was CEO for the next eight-and-a-half years. During that season, I spent a lot of that time working with central government and complaining, in the right context, how difficult it was to work with them. So, then they decided to offer me a job. I went and became a senior public servant. I became the Deputy Chief Executive of the Ministry of Social Development, which, at that stage, was the largest government department. I sat with a group of colleagues who were all career public servants who had been in their careers for 30 plus years, and I’ve never been in government before. It was a fascinating journey, one that was never going to last long for me.
Why do you say it was never going to last long?
Well, government is this massive machine. And, because it’s a machine, it must have some rules about how it works. But those rules are sometimes quite abusive for people who work within the system. I’ll give you some examples. The first time I travelled with my staff, I’d been booked into a better hotel than my staff because I was “more important.” But, for me, it’s like: we can’t be doing this! Or another example: I’d have meetings with people throughout the day. If you were meeting with someone who was less important than you were, then they came to you. Because of my role, I was deemed to be more important than almost everybody. And I said, “Well, I’m not doing this; I’m going to go and meet with people at their desks.” But I was told I can’t do that. When I pushed back, they said I’d break the system. It sounded to me like it needs to be broken. I constantly came up against the bureaucracy and constantly got into strife with ministers and my boss—until, eventually, I got fired.
And then, through a variety of steps, I ended up at the Wellington City Mission. I knew the board chair, and he’d invited me when I left government to join the Board of the City Mission. I did some due diligence and decided yes, it’s something I’d like to do. I never got to a board meeting because I was in Auckland most of the time. They then were looking for a new City Missioner and asked if I’d put my hand up for it. Initially, I said no, that doesn’t sound like me at all.
Why did you have that response?
I’d been in the most fascinating experience—I’d left government, as I said, very suddenly. I didn’t know what I was going to do. It was a very stressful time and process for my wife, my family, and my close friends. But I didn’t feel that stress; I felt a complete calmness. I don’t know why because there was every reason not to be calm. I just had a real sense that God was holding me in this place.
When I finally agreed to put my hand up for the City Missioner role, God had spoken to me very clearly in between the time I said “no” until the time I was invited to go for an interview. When they asked why I’d applied for the job, my answer was, “Well, for the first time in my life, I have a complete confidence that God’s got a plan for me. And it may or may not be this job, but what I do know is that if it’s not this job, then God’s got something else in store.” It was a sense of certainty that I’d never experienced before.
I did say to the board at the time, “Can you cope with me? Because if I do this, I’m going to push you quite hard. And I get a sense that God is going to push all of us quite hard.” They said they were up for it, but I’m not sure they knew entirely what they were signing up for. That was four-and-a-half years ago. I started in May 2018, and it’s been the most privileged position. Every day, we see miracles happening.
It sounds like your whole worldview—your approach to career decisions and the work itself—is always framed around how to best help people.
When I first started work back in 1982, at the end of my degree, the big idea was to have a career plan. What were you going to be doing in five years, 10 years, 20 years? And, therefore, how do you set yourself up to do that? I was never very good at that. I said, “I don’t know—it’ll be what it is.” I’ve always been quite casual about lots of those things. When I had my commissioning service as the City Missioner back in 2018, I had a pastor friend who was in the congregation. He got up and spoke about the story of Esther—of being prepared for times such as this. I look back now on a career that feels haphazard and random and all over the place. And yet, it’s all inherently logical. I couldn’t have had a better preparation for what I do now than what I’ve done over the last 40 years. It’s cool to be able to reflect on that and say, “Yeah, actually, I can see a plan in this. I can see God’s will.” It must be God’s will because it wasn’t mine. I didn’t know what I was doing. There’s a logical, contributory pathway that’s happened right through my professional career. And it’s kind of cool.
Which has now led you to your work with the City Mission. Tell me about your work there: what has the last five years looked like for you?
It doesn’t feel like a job at all; it just feels like something I have the privilege to get up and do every day. When I was the CEO of Barnardos back in the 2000s, I thought that was my dream job. And then I did a stint in government, and I ran this this major child agency of 3,500 people, and that felt like a dream job too. But now I’ve got my third dream job. And it’s even better than the others. Every single day, I get the privilege of sitting alongside people who are doing life hard. That feels like an enormous privilege; I get way more out of my interactions with them than I’m sure they get from me.
I look at all the resources and knowledge and relationships I have, whether that’s in the commercial world, in government, or other places, and I ask, “How do I use those relationships and those capabilities to benefit people who are struggling?” Most of those people are struggling not of their own choices and decisions but because of how life has happened for them. There’s just a real sense of calling into this work.
And the most remarkable things happen. I’m constantly sitting in my office thinking, “How did that just happen?” I’ve wandered my way through the theology of miracles, asking, “Should we expect miracles? Should we be just grateful when they come? Is it wrong to expect them?” I don’t really know any of the answers; I just know that we’ve seen a huge blessing in what we’ve done.