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Friday, 25 December 2009

Next year in Johannesburg

Just as you are enjoying the nice cosy bit of the Christmas story, don’t forget that the next instalment has Jesus fleeing with his parents to start his new life on a new continent. In an age where most people seem to be travelling ‘out of Africa’, I shall soon be following Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the donkey - by moving in to Africa.

So that is why, after a two-and-a-half year silence, you are receiving a newsletter from me, though now elevated to the blogosphere. My desire to write again has been inspired by the big skies of Africa. However, the inspiration is not only proximity to the Equator but also proximity to the Jesuits. If you have not heard on the grapevine, let me explain.

As of January 2010 I shall be moving to Johannesburg to take up the position of Director of the ‘Jesuit Institute of South Africa’. 2 acronyms that have been associated with me – SJ and SA – making a re-appearance from earlier chapters, but now starring together for the first time. But though I shall be working with and for the Jesuits, I shall not be doing so as a Jesuit. The Society of Jesus used to have a description of themselves as ‘in the world but not of it’. I guess I am going to be with the Society but not in it!

But that is not unusual. A glance at any of the Jesuit schools or universities or the refugee service will show that most of the people employed in Jesuit works (and even running them) are not Jesuits but lay men and women. They don’t take vows of poverty, chastity or obedience and yet are still committed to ‘faith that does justice’. In fact, the Jesuit Institute of South Africa – please don’t call it JISA! – is already an organisation that is half J and half lay. We are not a large group, 4 Jesuits (vowed celibate men) and 4 non-Jesuits (married and single women). I guess I sit somewhere in the middle of that spectrum!

The Institute was set up 3 years ago and brought together a number of people and activities that were already connected with the Jesuits in South Africa. But it is still hard to say succinctly what it is for; that process of clarification is part of what I am helping to lead. The general premise is that it is a ‘centre for dialogue’ – engagement between the Church and Society, the Church and the media, the Church and academia, the Church and people’s day-to-day lives, even the Church and the World Cup! One particular area that we are interested in exploring is the Church and business – and that is one additional reason why I have been brought in.

If I find it hard to capture in a few words what the Institute is about that is because the talented team already do so much. In fact, I spent some time working with the team in October to try and find some pattern to what we do. After filling out 150 pieces of different coloured cards with descriptions of our activities and sorting them in a variety of ways the clearest conclusion that we could come to is that we are probably not very clear. But that in itself is useful.

At a previous planning exercise, we at least got to one of those sets of words beloved by consultants and variously called a Mission Statement, a Vision, a Strategic Intent, a strap line or a positioning. (Even when I did that sort of thing for a living I could never tell the difference between them). Ours is: ‘Enlarging the Horizons of Hope’. Of course there was the inevitable scholastic debate between those who wanted to enlarge the horizons, those who wanted to expand them and those Anglo-Saxons who were happy just to broaden.

I am still not entirely sure what we do with that phrase but it at least provided an opportunity to ask: whose horizons? So we did another card sorting exercise and we managed to identify at least 12 distinct audiences whose horizons the team wanted to prioritise – which with only 8 full-time-equivalent staff suggests that we may need to enlarge/ expand/ broaden ourselves before we try to take on all those horizons. And that’s even before beginning the new challenge of working with the business community.

But that is part of the reason for doing this. It’s a big new challenge and, which is especially tempting for me, something that I can be in charge of and can shape. I may have a lot less resource than I have in my current role in CAFOD but at least they are my resources.  And the focus will be on problem-solving and not just process-following.  The thrill of running a small business – that I first witnessed in the early days of Interbrand, and then experienced for myself when at Rhino Camp – is that you sink or swim by your own efforts. There is no one else to blame. There aren’t too many others to get in the way. Decisions can be made without having to get 23 people in a room or send out an email and wait for replies that never come.

Working in Jo’burg will certainly be a challenge. I don’t yet have a notion of how much living there may also be a challenge. At least I have found somewhere to live. In fact within a few hours of arriving on reconnaissance in April, I met a delightful couple, saw their lovely 2-bedroom house and discovered that they wanted to rent it out. It is in an area called Melville, described as the Islington of Johannesburg which certainly works for me. It is only 3 miles from the office – 5 minutes to drive at night and 40 minutes during the rush hour. However, having seen the local drivers I am afraid that I shall not be continuing my London modus ambulandi of cycling. Johannesburg is dangerous enough without adding to the excitement.

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