What makes Sharon run ... and keep running

The parallels between endurance sports and leading an NGO

The new CEO of Mission Australia, Sharon Callister, is a committed Christian and keen marathon runner who loves keeping Jesus front and centre as she exercises a “creative servant” style of leadership.

Married with one son, Sharon says she pushed hard to gain the appointment and is delighted by the opportunity to fulfil the charity’s Founding Purpose – inspired by Jesus Christ, to meet human need and spread the knowledge of the love of God.

Her 20 years of experience in the not-for-profit sector includes being CEO of Presbyterian and Methodist Schools Association Queensland, CEO of The Salvation Army Humanitarian Mission Services, Nauru and Manus Island and CEO of The Salvation Army Aged Care Plus. She espouses being a good listener and having a sense of courage as key leadership qualities. She will join Mission Australia on February 22, taking over as CEO when  James Toomey steps down in March.

During a Zoom interview, Sharon proved so cogent and eloquent that Eternity decided to let her speak directly to readers.

Congratulations on your new role, Sharon. What excites you about this new opportunity?

I am excited about so many aspects of the role. I love the fact that Mission Australia is a Christian organisation, and it has been around for 160 years. I have a very strong faith myself and my values really just fit like a glove with those of Mission Australia.

In particular, I’m drawn to Christian organisations and not-for-profits because I love to have a purpose when I wake up in the morning and being able to serve other people who are more vulnerable and less fortunate than myself, whether my role is providing care, whether it’s advocacy and position papers, lobbying government, whatever it is.

I just get a lot of personal engagement in the kind of work that Mission Australia does and similar organisations that I’ve been involved in over the years. I was fortunate that this role became available when I was searching for a new role. And for me, it was like, “I’m going to do everything, everything in my power to make sure that I can get this job.” I think God was calling me as well. And from that perspective, he saw it was the right time. So did the board and thankfully we all were in agreement on that.

Is there anything about the role that daunts you?

It’s an amazing and exciting opportunity, but it is a large organisation and it has been many vulnerable people that we look after and significant responsibilities. And for me to say to you, “Oh no, nothing daunts me, I’ll be able to do this,” would be inaccurate.

I’m feeling very humble. And I have my eyes wide open. The role of CEO often has a lot of joy because you get to be this creative servant leader. There are always challenges along the way. And sometimes things don’t go quite as you expected. And sometimes you find yourself in that position and it’s not a nice position to be in but as the leader of the organisation, it’s your job to sort of work through whatever it is.

The role of CEO often has a lot of joy because you get to be this creative servant leader.

I was asked when I was being interviewed for the role, what did I see were the things that I could bring to Mission Australia? So I talked about my faith, leading similar large organisations, my experience and my sense of courage. I think to be a leader in Mission Australia and many other large organisations, you absolutely have to have courage because you can’t just be all things to all people. Sometimes you have to make really tough decisions. Along with that is making yourself vulnerable, being authentic and all of those things, to get people to trust you so that then, ultimately, if there are bad days or things do go wrong, people can have confidence to think, “Okay, well, if this wasn’t done the right way, we know that Sharon will acknowledge that, she will apologise if she needs to, but she has the courage to make those difficult decisions and improve as needed.”

I liked what you said about creative servant leadership. Obviously, that stems from the model of Jesus. Can you give me an example of how that has played out for you in the past?

In terms of being a servant leader, we’ve talked about being humble, but I think that all decisions that you make are decisions based on love. I think that’s incredibly important, and as I said, being authentic. The other thing, and I think Jesus really espouses this, is that you need to be a very good listener. It’s often very tempting to be the person that just will talk and tell people, “This is what we’re doing, this is the way that it is” and you just don’t really get the real picture about what’s going on. I found that, whether it’s meeting with people one-on-one or at a huge organisational meeting or a town hall meeting with lots of stakeholders, they need to see, from a servant leadership perspective, somebody that combines those three things – love in particular; for me that says that you’ve got the right approach.

“I think that all decisions that you make are decisions based on love.”

A good example could be I spent a couple of years as the CEO of Humanitarian Mission Services for the Salvation Army, and we provided welfare and support to asylum seekers or boatpeople in Nauru and Manus Island. And if ever there was an opportunity to show Jesus being alive and loving, it was that. The courage came not just from myself to lead that, but the organisation to actually accept the contract in the first place, because we were heavily criticised for it, but whilst everybody’s criticising the organisation, somebody actually has to go and care for these people. And that was us.

I just was so grateful that I had the opportunity. But it was a very tough beat if you like. And it was very polarising; it was political. And during that, there was actually a change of government as well. So neither of them changed the policy and we hated the fact that asylum seekers and really vulnerable families who’ve risked their lives to actually go and jump on a boat to find a better life, and here we are shipping them off to Third World countries. But so many of them said to us, “Thank goodness that you’re here because you’ve made an incredible difference to our life whilst we are here.”

Let’s talk about your faith. How did you become a Christian?

Well, I was actually born in Northern Ireland in a border town called Newry, which was about half an hour outside Belfast.

I was born into an Irish Catholic family, and so I was brought up as a Catholic. With my parents and five siblings, we moved to England fairly soon after I was born because there were a lot of Troubles back then, and it was not a safe place. Then my father got an opportunity through his company to come and live in Australia.

We came to Australia when I was 13. We were excited but really anxious. And one of the first things Dad did was to go to the local Catholic church and introduce himself to the Priest, who said, “well, you’re not going to go to any other parish but here.” My dad had a lot of leadership roles in the church and he really influenced me.

So I was basically brought up a Catholic, but there were some things about the Catholic religion that I found difficult to deal with as I progressed through my teens and my adolescence, and I really felt that I just didn’t feel that connection. So when I joined the Salvation Army, I started worshipping with the Salvation Army. Especially I attended a Salvation Army church called GSA in Brisbane where the head pastor was a very good friend of mine from a sporting background as well. So GSA is a church for the lost, the forgotten, the addicted, the recovering. And it’s kind of like a church where no other church would take the parishioners if you like.

“There were some things about the Catholic religion that I found difficult to deal with.”

It’s amazing that that has been part of my journey and then God’s led me to Mission Australia. And so I felt that that was much more “me” in terms of worshipping and even in other Salvation Army churches as well. It’s funny because I worked for the Salvation Army for 10 years, and I thought that I was just joining an aged-care organisation and what I actually was joining was a huge family of people. And I still count so many of them and our Salvation Army officers as my friends and I still catch up with them. Sometimes I’ll worship with them. Sometimes I’ll go running with them. It’s just truly beautiful.

But the funny thing is, I had to leave my job in Queensland last year because of COVID borders. I needed to be in Sydney regularly because my parents were quite unwell. And sadly, my dad passed away a few months ago. Really heartbreaking in one sense. But I was able to reflect and think, “Well, you know, I’m really glad that I had that opportunity to spend more time with him before he died.”

But now it seems funny my mum and dad were both in the Salvation Army nursing home, which under my leadership we designed and opened during my time at the Salvation Army. So I know it quite well and I was really happy. But Mum is still a Catholic through and through and while she loves chapel, she wants to go back to church. So I actually started taking her back to church and worshipping back at the very first church that we were at when we came to Australia.

How has your relationship with Jesus changed along your spiritual journey? What have you learned about yourself in terms of following Christ?

Well, it comes back to that one thing that I was talking about in particular – listening. So listening to God for many years, was a good thing for me.

If I leave myself open to listen to God and reflect and pray, then I can hear him loudly and I’m directed by him, in my life – I feel where he wants me to go. And I haven’t always felt that. I had a real transition in my faith when I was at the Salvation Army and the opportunities that they gave me.

If I leave myself open to listen to God and reflect and pray, then I can hear him loudly.

It was like, God had placed me there so that I could really start to feel that. And I really did. I feel much closer to him now. And I’ve got the reputation in organisations that I work with, whether I’m a prayer warrior, whether I’m just trying to connect people with God.

In organisations like Mission Australia and my last organisation, it can be tempting for people to come into the organisation to disregard faith. But faith is the most important first part of the journey because that’s your founding principles or your founding mission. And I take delight in actually bringing that back and making that the centre of what we do. My approach to leadership is to ensure as an organisation that  I honour God and our Christian foundations and will ensure that this continues throughout my term as CEO. Finding God’s presence in all we do is extremely important to me.

Now, on a different note, tell me about how marathon running fits into your life?

Well, I’m a keen endurance athlete and I have been for many years. I was always quite active when I was young.

Marathon running is wonderful for your physical health and for your mental health. There’s a lot of discipline that’s required in marathon running but there’s a lot of joy that you get for it and testing your body, saying “I could not never possibly do that” and training for it and then doing it. So there’s a lot of parallels actually between the endurance sports that I do, and my role as CEO.

I think that I get discipline, resilience and obviously lots of energy from being strong and fit and it’s always helped me for those times when things are really tough, when things have gone wrong. Just having that mental and physical strength and fitness is amazing. And I think it really complements my Christian faith as well because, if you’ve got a strong Christian faith, that’s a very important foundation for building resilience as well. So if you put underneath and layer it, and then you do all of your training and your fitness work, and then you have experience like I have in my previous CEO roles, it’s like Jesus built me to be this kind of person and this kind of leader. And so I love the combination of it.

It’s like Jesus built me to be this kind of person and this kind of leader.

And I love the fact that also my husband and I, we have just one son, but he’s 26 and he is got the marathon running bug as well, and the fitness bug. And one of the things that made me happy is that, three years ago, my son accepted the challenge to run across the Sahara Desert with me on a seven-day, 250-kilometre marathon. The bond between us grew through the sheer enormity of what we did.

There were 800 other people doing it and I just think, “Wow, again, I’ve just been blessed with such good health that I can do that.” And I just love it. But I don’t just run. I swim and I cycle, do a bit of triathlon as well. And I can’t imagine doing what I did in my life without having that as part of me, because it just helps me in so many ways.

Do you read the Bible regularly? Where do you go for spiritual sustenance?

I tend to do more morning devotionals, evening devotionals, and depending on where I’m at and what I’m doing, those kinds of things are inspiring to me.

I receive Bible verses of the day and that’s a neat thing. But I tend to like books too like one by Bear Grylls [Soul Fuel]. When I read stories like that from Christians like him, I just get so motivated and all of the things he talks about from being in the SAS and being dropped in the jungle, near-death experiences and the like, for him, it always comes back to his faith. The book is an inspiring read and it includes beautiful verses.