50TH ANNIVERSARY OF LIFELINE.
Every superintendent at Wesley Mission has had a huge load of counselling of troubled and distressed people. Often because the Superintendent has a high public profile people come to him from all over the city in order to talk confidentially about their personal issues. When Alan Walker was Superintendent he was overwhelmed by the amount of personal counselling that came to him and an idea came in 1961 to use the telephone to allow a 24hr per day counselling program manned by volunteers to provide someone who could always be there when a desperate person needed help.
The idea of a Christian Counselling service received enthusiastic support from members of the church who undertook training in counselling. The re-construction of a Flinders street Darlinghurst property began in 1961 and became the first LifeLine centre. The title of the service was given to it by the sub-editor of the Sydney Morning Herald who called this new telephone counselling service “LifeLine”. Volunteers trained for 6 months in order to equip themselves to counsel people in all kinds of personal difficulties. Alan Walker opened the Lifeline Centre on Saturday 16th of March 1963.
Immediately the telephones began ringing. Each telephone counsellor worked a four-hour shift once a fortnight and summarized the details of every conversation. The following morning a small committee examined the reports and determined if any follow up support was needed. In the first year there were 11,600 calls. The first call was taken by Eric Adam, Treasurer of the Mission, Choir master, and an original LifeLine Counsellor.
The second call was answered by Ivan Reichelt, an elder from the 7pm congregation who was one of LifeLine’s longest serving counsellors having served for 26 years. Ron Freer was another long serving counsellor. Ivan took the second call in and a man with a tremble in his voice asked “Do you know how many holes are in a crumpet?” The man was not a practical joker. He was a mentally sick man who desperately needed help and he was trying to describe his own feelings about himself. Alan Walker continued to be involved heavily in the training of counsellors from 1963 to 1978. Over 15 years he trained hundreds of counsellors, but training suffered from his long absences.
The genius of LifeLine was that it had about it anonymity – people could ring without revealing who they were. It also had confidentiality because they knew that whatever they said to the counsellor would be kept strictly confidential. There was also the ubiquity of a telephone. People could turn to that phone wherever they were. Soon the 11,000 calls had reached 25,000 when I became the chairman of the Lifeline board and in 1979 took charge of the workings of LifeLine Sydney. Soon it had reached 60,000 calls p.a, then over 100,000 calls. In Australia, Lifeline centres across the country answered 541,450 calls in 2012. Lifeline Sydney and Sutherland, which is run by Wesley Mission, answered more than 23,000 calls last year.
In the 1970’s, I had developed what we call the “Cheltenham Counselling Centre” in my suburban ministry in Melbourne where we brought together people with varying skills and backgrounds and training and established a one on one counselling service. I had also read very widely in the whole field of counselling and human psychology. I had undertaken some courses at the Cairnmiller Institute, a specialized institute for people who are going to undertake counselling.
I had been counselling boys I had on probation and parole from the juvenile justice system in the slums of Melbourne. Many of them had very poor self-esteem levels and I had spent much time in helping them sort themselves out. When I was a country parson I had many people in the rural sector who did not have access to quality counselling or psychologists of any kind in the community and when it was heard that I was working in counselling and was the chaplain in the psychiatric hospital, many people came for counselling concerning their personal and emotional problems.
In the thirteen years as a suburban minister in Cheltenham we had built up an extensive counselling program with hundreds of people from the community finding their way to our doors seeking to be counselled from one or other of our competent staff. I discovered that from the very earliest days I had the capacity to listen, to analyze peoples’ problems and help them discover some answers. Because most ministers are compassionate people, those who came for counselling found that they were helped in an environment that they appreciated. And because we never charged people, there were many who were on very limited incomes for whom this was the only counselling they could afford.
By the time I took over leadership of Life Line we had a large number of LifeLine centres around Australia and overseas. Today that number has grown to 270 cities in the world where there are LifeLine telephone counselling services. When I took over the leadership of LifeLine there were two very serious problems. The first was that the type of counsellor which had been trained in recent years which had come into LifeLine reflected a Christianity that did not truly represent the evangelical commitment of Wesley Mission members. The result was that some of those counsellors were leading Lifeline away from its Christian basis. It was becoming a secular humanist advice line. This was the bane of Alan Walker’s life. This became a constant conflict for us at National and International Life Line Conferences. Usually the vote to continue our practise was won by only a handful of votes from delegates.
The second problem was that LifeLine Sydney was running with poor management which needed urgent attention. A number of important leaders were living immoral lives and others ignoring Christian standards of behaviour.
This second problem was handled quickly. I terminated the existing management and appointed committed Christian management without personal problems and baggage that was complicating the previous management. And to help overcome the secular humanist thrust moved the LifeLine centre from Darlinghurst where it operated as an independent unit into Wesley Centre in Pitt Street where it was under our eye 24 hours per day.
With new staff, new enthusiasm and the direct oversight of Wesley Mission Lifeline Sydney soon began to break all records for the numbers of people effectively helped. Soon we had topped 60, 000 calls per annum. For 25 years I have spent almost every Tuesday Night training a counselling class of 60 – 80 young and enthusiastic trainees who were completing 24 weeks of serious training. Our trainers are mainly Psychologists and Psychiatrists. Each week I opened the theme of the night, (often with a tape recording of a counseling session I had conducted in public on radio, helped the caller to identify the issue, outlined the secular psychological interpretation, and discussed various alternatives to handling the problem, then indicating how Christians could respond with the insights of Jesus on that particular issue, expounding a time in the life of Jesus when he helped such a person. Over the years I’ve had more than 2000 people in my counselling courses. At the start of the twenty first century I find that those coming for counselling training are quite different from those who first came more than twenty five years ago. In general they are younger, more highly educated, most having completed their degrees in psychology at university and most intending to give us a short term of two years only service. In the old days we had some very fine counsellors who served us faithfully year after year but these days, most, younger counsellors want to get the credit on their Curriculum Vitae and then get on with something else.
By 1981 I was taking time to examine the nature of those who were calling LifeLine and the kind of problems that people were facing. Out of that we developed a whole series of new ministries. The greatest reason for people calling LifeLine in those days was what we described as social isolation – people who felt utterly alone, who had no one with whom they could relate or talk. Quite a number of these people were repeat callers who found a friend who was willing to give support and encouragement to them. We quickly learned to encourage those people to come to Wesley Missions Singles’ Society or to become involved in some of the other activities of the Mission where they could meet with others. This had an interesting impact upon the life of the congregation because we very soon developed a large number of people attending services, groups and activities who could be described as being socially inept – good people but just unable to relate well with other people. This was going to be very demanding upon the elders within the life of the church to provide support and encouragement who needed one on one support.
A second group of callers were those who were so depressed with life that they could see no reason for continuing. These people were potential suicides. Some of those people in fact committed suicide after ringing to give a final call and their number was unable to be traced in those days. It is always distressing to a counsellor to find a person who suicidees. I remember receiving a letter at home from a man who simply told me where he had left his will and possessions and asking me to explain why it was he was killing himself to his defacto partner; where his body would be found and requesting me to go and speak to his partner and explain the facts to her. By the time I had received that letter the following day he was already dead. I notified the police about the location of the body. Then I went and told his partner who was worried because he had not been home all night. She was so supported during the time of the funeral and there after that when I looked up on the first week of the next training course that commenced I saw her sitting in the front row. She became one of our regular and very reliable counsellors.
There were many other reasons why people rang LifeLine in those days. Some days there were family issues with people unable to cope with children and we often were able to refer these to our Dalmar Child and Family Care and provide volunteers who would come to their home and help them with the business of bringing up children. Others were suffering from mental illnesses such as Schizophrenia and severe depression or anorexia and we were able to tell those people that help was available in spite of the fact that they had no financial resources. We made it possible for those people to become patients within Wesley Hospital, or Wandine Hopsital, two mental health hospitals run by the Mission.
But I found another group of people who had consistent problems with their money. These were people who were running into debt, who were unable to control the new credit cards that were so freely being given out by banks and those people that were losing money because of increasing gambling on poker machines. I realized if LifeLine was to effectively continue its work it would need to develop a subsidiary series of specialized services, along with a number of highly specialized facilitators to surrport the training and oversee the role plays. We also added weekend, livein training at Vision Valley.
All of our family was involved. Each of our children trained as counsellors, two served as facilitators, another the counsellors’ representative on the LifeLine Board, my wife became a volunteer fundraiser raising over $500,000 to support LifeLine while I chaired the Boards, and gave the weekly instruction. Our son in Law trained as a counsellor, became Chaplain to the Movement and a lecturer.
We had YouthLine that was organised and run by youth for youth. Chris Varcoe was the oustanding leader of this youth ministry. Eventually YouthLine handed over most of its activities to the Kids Help Line where it continues strongly to this day.
CreditLine I established to help bring specialist counsellors with training in financial management, such as accountants, tax experts and bank managers who became counsellors. People who often rang with very deep problems and then came with bundles of unpaid bills and accounts to work out their situation one-on-one with one of our face to face financial counsellors. The task of credit counselling is today an enormous one and the work has spread now to cover the entire nation. Every credit counsellor throughout Australia has access to a special hotline into our CreditLine when they have problems and need advice. CreditLine is today the largest financial counselling service in the nation. Our first director of Credit Line, Dr Betty Wuele deserves all the praise for CreditLine’s great growth over ther first twenty years.
In 1981, there was concern with the large number of immigrants into the community who were suiciding. I decided to establish Ethnic LifeLine, a service where we trained people from a score of nationalities and provided counselling in more than twenty languages plus a free interpreter service. This service took off like wildfire, not so much from people who wanted to commit suicide from different ethnic backgrounds but from people who wanted someone to translate the instructions on a new washing machine that they had purchased or to understand the ingredients in a packet from a supermarket. This free Ethnic LifeLine counselling and interpretation service eventually was taken over by the State Government and run as a free government service providing interpretation to new arrivals who did not speak English.
In the middle 1980’s a chance conversation with the then premier Barry Unsworth alerted me to a growing problem. Barry Unsworth indicated that his advisors had told him that gambling was going to become a major issue in society over the next ten years. He encouraged me to set up specialist counsellors just to deal with compulsive gamblers. These people needed strong psychological training in compulsion as well as general counselling skills. I employed Mitchell Brown as the first full time gambling counsellor in the nation. Today he has built up an enviable record as being the father of gambling counsellors. We have been responsible for training most of the gambling counsellors in the nation. We likewise provide a nationwide telephone service for counsellors in remote and rural areas. In recent days this work has expanded into various ethnic communities and we provide Korean and Chinese gambling counsellors to deal specifically with the problems from those communities. With the opening of the casinos not only has the number of compulsive gamblers increased, but the State Government levy upon casino turn-over has meant that the government through the Casino Community Benefit Trust of which I have been a trustee since its incorporation, has been able to fund up gambling counselling across the state.
The old problem of suicide stayed with us. By 1990 I began to despair at the continuously increasing number of people who killed themselves each year. Because of the effectiveness of a campaign the Wesley Mission had run in 1979 to introduce seatbelts, .05 random breath testing and several other methods, the road toll in Sydney was being reduced year by year. The time came when suicide was the major cause of death outranking that of even road death among healthy Australians. Today 2800 people every year commit suicide and about 14 times that number contemplate or attempt it. That led us to set up a national strategy called Wesley LifeForce Suicide Prevention Service.
Today in conjunction with local community groups we have conducted hundreds of seminars training tens of thousands of ordinary Australians to identify the signs of suicide and to take practical steps to help a person who may be a future victim. We recently conducted seminars in 64 country towns throughout Victoria and are at the moment completing hundreds of seminars covering every community in NSW.
The final area of work, which became a specialist support service to people in need, was the establishment of Wesley Legal Service. This is a service which has brought together a group of qualified barristers and solicitors who work for Wesley Mission and who take up the cause of people who have lost their homes, jobs and personal self worth because of their own stupidity through gambling. The numbers of people who lose their home and who face court because of gambling debts is enormous. Frequently their families are very severely disadvantaged because of the sickness of compulsive gambling. Recently one of the solicitors reported that at she had been preparing with a QC a fraud case where the client stole $900 000 from her employer and lost it all on poker machines. She is only a young woman who has a passion for tennis and loves walking her pet dog. But she went to jail for a long period of time. The Counsellors also working with another prisoner at Emu Plains who stole $76, 000 from her employer and put all of her money into poker machines. She is now doing two years prison . We conducted an appeal on her behalf. The solicitors appeared on behalf of a young father who has three children under the age of five who received an over payment of $60, 000 from Work Cover and did not return it. He spent the money on the poker machines and was to be sentenced to a prison term. Our legal team eventually was able to have him released on a 2 year bond and he went home tearfully to spend Easter with his wife and three young children.
We have been to court for a significant number of very elderly women all of whom have been aided by unscrupulous bank and club managers to mortgage their homes in order to get more cash to gamble in poker machines. Those managers were successfully taken to court, the gambling debts cancelled, the homes returned to the very foolish elderly women and the managers concerned both from the clubs and the banks were dismissed.
For 25 years every Tuesday Night I was involved in training over 2000 people for our telephone counselling services. My name was in the telephone book with my telephone number prominently displayed because I believe that I should be available for people to ring in times of crisis. Consequently on many nights of the week I would have calls at 2 or 3 am from people wanting to tearfully tell their tales of woe or of contemplated suicide or of a ruined life. I was glad that I was able to refer these people on to our counsellors who are available 24hrs per day and who have specialized training to help them at their point of deepest need.
By the mid-1980’s I was conducting the most watched Sunday morning television program of all, and every Sunday night the most widely listened to four hour radio program. This media exposure brought in over 1000 letters and calls every week. So we started Tele-Counsellors, trained Life Line Counsellors who had completed extra training in how to lead a person through the Bible, to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, to a sense of forgiveness and incorporation into the family of God. I always preached evangelistically morning and night, and every week some people responded. I would announce the tele-counselling phone number and their calls would be answered in the series of telephone booths we built in Wesley Centre. Later when television stations started telecasting repeat programs, the calls were diverted from the booths to the Counsellors home, so that day and night, our Counsellors were guiding people into the Kingdom of God. That week, literature and letters from me were sent to each caller and local churches were notified asked them to make a home visit to help the called become integrated into the local church.
In general we followed the philosophy of Professor Carl Rogers. We trained our counsellors in the skills of listening and reflecting, paraphrasing and summarizing. The primary role of a counsellor is to listen. By listening to what the client says we can help them sort through the complexity and confusion of their situation, understand their feelings and explore the options available with them so that they feel something useful has been done. After some time I was introduced to the American psychiatrist Dr Frederick Perls, and ‘Gestalt Therapy’. I was taught how to confront certain people with issues in their lives. Instead of merely reflecting what they thought, I would confront them with the issue so powerfully that they were shaken to their roots and their carefully built world of security was rattled. Professor Carl Rogers had said, “Listening, rightly done, is the most significant thing you can do for a person.” Now I learned that for some people, on a rare occasion, total confrontation with them about themselves and their situation was the only way to break down carefully erected walls that gave them security.
I realized that this was what Jesus was doing when he was talking with the woman at the well. She kept asking him questions about where to worship, and the difference between Jews and Samaritans. Jesus suddenly said to her “Call your husband and come here” the woman replied “I have no husband” then Jesus said with perception “You are right when you say you have no husband because you have already had five husbands and the man you are living with is not your husband.” That really shook her! She opened up to Him in the most amazing way so that her whole life was completely changed through His incredible counselling skills.
Sir Alan Walker realized that the telephone was a powerful tool when it was linked to trained committed counsellors. Wesley Mission has provided free counselling services to more than 3 million people who have come to us for counselling through the telephone in the first instance but then in increasing numbers in face-to-face supportive work. We do this because it is part of our calling to provide a mantle of care over the streets of Sydney. It was an expensive work both in terms of hours spent, and dollars that had to be raised. Every year I had a list of speaking engagements with corporations and businesses, to tell them of this work, and of our need to have their financial support. It always came.
When Jesus was to be born it was said by Isaiah “His name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Prince of Peace.” In all the years of teaching “Counselling with the Insights of Jesus” I have come to realize what a wonderful Counsellor Jesus was, how practical His teaching is at helping people handle daily pressures and stresses, and what a difference this Wonderful Counsellor can make in the lives of people who turn to Him in time of trouble. – Rev Dr Gordon Moyes, A.C..