After 26 years I am soon to finish at Whitley College, and there are some things I am happy to be leaving. Though not entirely leaving, in that I will take with me some of the lessons learned and habits developed through this time.
The Timetable. Well, of course, every college has to have a timetable of classes and activities, and I am not meaning to say this is a bad thing. The first thing I want to talk about is not the college timetable, but the timetable for my daily commute: the train and tram, and occasionally a bus.
Five and sometimes six days a week I have made my way in to Parkville. When I first started it was almost always by car, as I would drive my children to school, on my way to college. I never could get them to understand that leaving five minutes late from home usually meant twenty or twenty five minutes late by the time I got to College!
The daily commute is a part of life for most people, and something that many pastors don’t share and perhaps don’t really appreciate. As the father of a young family, I used to think also about those people (very often but not only men) who leave home in the dark and return in the dark after a very long drive and long day’s work in the city or inner areas. Some would scarcely see their children. I used to think about the commitment of those parents—working to pay for a home they actually get to spend so little time in. I’m using the past tense here, but the reality is this is how it is for so many people today. By contrast, others (including many pastors) can pop home at lunchtime, or be there early to pick up a child from school etc. If you have that flexibility, be thankful for it! When you think your life is stressed, think of those other people who are simply away all day and have no choice about it.
The daily commute actually provides a structure to one’s life, and that can be a very good thing. I’ve often encouraged very busy students to use their commute as thinking time. Some who travel together use that time to de-brief or even debate the issues from class. All good uses of time.
The commute, with its transport timetable, goes with the other timetables that make up my working life. There’s the weekly timetable of classes, and the sense too of a semester as a process which has a beginning, a middle and an end. There are valuable rhythms in all these things, worth understanding and working with and through. (I’ve never forgotten the insight of my English Tutor in first year university, who explained to us that it was mid-second-term and everybody got ‘the doldrums’ at that stage of the year. Just accept it. She was so right! We got over it.)
Structure can be a valuable and helpful thing, in enabling us to plan towards and achieve our goals. The real difficulty is when the structure becomes an end in itself. All too easily we become the slaves of the system, the timetable, the structures—and while we need them to carry us along at times, if that becomes our way of operating all the time, very soon work and life become tedium and meaningless.
I am looking forward to moving out of these structures and the routine of the timetable. But I know that in my new roles (most of which will simply be free-lancing) I will seek to provide some structure of my own. By choice.
There are some aspects of my daily commute and weekly timetable I will deeply miss. It’s interesting to reflect on this, as some of these things are largely ‘incidental’.
I find people really interesting, and I actually wish that somehow I could know more about the people who share the same train carriage each day. Some become very familiar, but no one speaks. About three quarters of the passengers on any bus, train or tram are in their own worlds, with ear-phones of many types, listening to music or reading on their tablets or phones. Me included, often. At times of course you do hear people speak, much too loudly. One day the entire carriage was forced to listen as a mother received a phone call from one distressed child and then sought to discipline two others for whatever it was they were accused of doing. Then, at other times, I find myself daydreaming about the lives of the people sitting opposite me. What might their work or their home life be like? Do they look at peace with themselves, or coping well with professional life, or are they stressed and maybe working too hard, under a lot of pressure? I never find out, but I can just quietly care, and sometimes pray for these total strangers.
One part of my daily commute I will really miss is my coffee at Melbourne Central Station. Over the years, I’ve frequently different cafes, and gotten to know the people serving. I admire baristas. How they keep tabs of the never-ending list of who is next, and next, and next I don’t know. Just now my coffee is made by a lovely young Italian man on a working holiday, and served by a young Chinese woman whose English has been getting a lot better. They are my friends, really, although our friendship is confined to this context. Even so, caring for one another in this way is important. I don’t take that for granted, just because I am paying them. The same is the case in the cafe up the road. I know those people, they know me, and we care about each other. I will miss that!
There are so many other aspects of the ‘timetable’ of college life that I will deeply miss. We meet as a staff on Monday morning, for prayers, and on Tuesday for worship and on Wednesday lunchtime for midweek prayers. I’ll miss that structure and rhythm. I will miss lunch with the staff, which is more than food: it’s the expression of our belonging to each other. I love that aspect of the community life we have developed.
There are other aspects of that life I will not miss. Recently a colleague who retired a long time back reflected with me on all this, and simply but profoundly said: ‘It’s the people stuff that is the hardest.’ Managing programs is one thing, but managing people is something else again.
My work has been about developing and enabling people, leaders. This is very different from managing, though that has to happen too. There is an ocean of material, books, programs, podcasts and all the rest, about how to do this, and some of it is useful and insightful. (Meaning that a whole lot of it is not!)
I’d say just one thing, really, but this one thing amounts to a huge thing. You can only work with people and lead them, help them to develop, if they are on-board with you and your objectives. It is commonly called ‘engaged’. What is essential for any well-managed corporation, college or workplace is that every member of the team or staff has a commitment to the common objective, strategy and the steps in the program. They need to know their work is part of this strategy, and they need to be able to articulate that. ‘I do this, which is part of this bigger picture.’ If they are not able to see their work in that way, they are not really with you. And when that is the case, the whole enterprise is in trouble. Believe me.
Jim Collins’ excellent book Good to Great popularised the idea that ‘you need to have the right people on the bus’. That is crucial. But there is more to it than that. The right people also have to be facing the right direction, heading the right way. They need to be working the same timetable and going to the same destination.
There are some things in the daily commute and timetable of events, processes and all the rest of it I will miss deeply, and some I will be glad to leave behind. I have learned valuable lessons, some of them through exciting experiences and a few through regrettable episodes. But all along I have been richly blessed with so many good friends, colleagues, and fellow travellers.