In her mid-30s and working as a social worker, Michelle Parrish’s life was threatened by a schizophrenic client. She took time off work to recover from the incident at her home on the Central Coast and found herself burnt out from years of challenging work. It looked like the end of her career. It was at this low point that she began a search for God that changed the way she lived—and worked.
That was over 10 years ago and Michelle is now the Manager of Wesley Aunties & Uncles which currently provides mentors for around 81 children. She has seen it through the toughest of times, overseeing Aunties & Uncles joining the Wesley Mission family. The change has been the result of her faith—and a providential meeting with strangers.
In Michelle’s work in the United Kingdom and Australia with foster children, she has seen children in some very desperate and sad situations. “It was hard not to get emotionally involved with the children and young people I managed,” she said “I’m naturally a very empathic person and sometimes this does not help too much. I was taking a lot of their pain on board and feeling it. I was overwhelmed by the human misery that I saw and trying to solve it on my own strength.” Her faith has allowed her to recognise her limits and leave room for God to work in the lives of those around her. “I see now that I am only a small part of the big picture,” she said. “God can do so much more than I can on my own.” Michelle credits this new understanding to stay the distance in a field where many people burn out .
The change prepared Michelle for even greater challenges in her life, the biggest of which brought her into the Wesley Mission family. It is a big change from Michelle’s understanding of faith in her early life. “I always thought that if you were a good person, didn’t break the rules and tried to do the right thing, then you wouldn’t experience the wrath of God,” she said. “I suppose you could say I was a God-fearing Christian. I didn’t really understand or hadn’t experienced the love of God.” At the same time, she was not interested in developing an active faith because of negative experiences with Christians. “As a child I learnt about Christianity from my grandmother who read me Bible stories and talked to me about Jesus’ tolerance, sitting down with prostitutes and drunks,” she said. “But I looked around and would see Christians not helping people less fortunate or not being kind or gracious”. However, like many people, as Michelle grew older she started to look for answers to the bigger questions. “I think the older you get the less confident in life you become because you know what can go wrong,” she said. “So, in my 30s, I started to search for God a bit more, to find this personal relationship with God that people often talked about and this loving God. Who was He and where was He? I didn’t know if He was going to be there because I didn’t know what that felt like.”
Her search was initially very intellectual. However, she ended up experiencing God in a very emotional way. While she was off work recovering, two unrelated local women repeatedly approached her. They said they felt led by God to ask her to provide a list of some needy families for them to deliver Christmas hampers to. Michelle was at first very wary. “They were the kind of Christians that I didn’t quite understand. They seemed a bit full-on and a bit intense,” she said. “I said, ‘Sorry, I don’t have a list of families for you to deliver hampers too. I can’t help you’.”
The coincidence, however, of each woman approaching her at the same time, and their persistence, intrigued her. “They wouldn’t stop calling me so I eventually gave in and worked with them in delivering the hampers,” she said. “I’d been searching for God at this time and here He was sending people to talk to me.” She started to get to know one of the women. In a tearful conversation late one night, the woman told of her life as a survivor of child sexual abuse and how she came to connect with God. She said God had healed her and enabled her to forgive. It had a profound effect on Michelle. “Through that conversation, I stepped into a different place,” she said. “It’s like God drew me close and wanted me to know He was a God of love and could really help and heal people. For me at that point there was no turning back. It was so real and so powerful. I felt for the first time the love of God. It was the knowing that God is not only real but He can do things in us.”
She did not know it at that stage but these changes would prepare her for her biggest challenge yet. Michelle had been working as a case manager at Aunties & Uncles, a mentoring program for children, which was then struggling financially. She was asked by the Board to manage the organisation. After a lot of prayer and reflection, she couldn’t discern any call of God to take the role and turned it down. “I walk slowly on the Christian path to make sure I’m being led by God,” she said. She was then asked one last time to take on the role for three months. This time she felt God’s support and strength and on that basis took the job. While she knew a lot about the industry, she knew nothing about running an organisation. It wasn’t long before she had to make the most painful decision of all and cut staff by half. “It was a very scary time and I felt very ill-equipped as a manager,” she said.
What kept her and the remaining staff going during that tough time was the thought of the 280 children in the program who got so much from the relationship with their mentors. “I was moving forward but careful not to run off at an angle,” she said. “I sought God and prayed a lot through this time.” She was eventually given a date to either close the organisation or find another organisation to adopt it. All staff cut their hours and the organisation was frozen for six months. Time was rapidly running out. “My relationship with God really intensified at that time,” Michelle said. “I actually did lean on my church and my pastor and we put together a prayer team. We prayed weekly in church and private meetings, sometimes daily, for the program.” A conversation with a long-time foster care colleague—Wesley Mission’s Child & Youth Mentoring Services Executive
Manager, Nigel Lindsay—changed things and a breakthrough occurred. Further discussions with Wesley Mission followed and eventually Aunties & Uncles was saved by its adoption into the Wesley Mission family in 2010. Michelle has been flat out since then cementing the changes to the organisation. “I now tell God I’m fine to take on some big challenges but I also just need a rest sometimes,” she said, laughing.
For a determined social worker and case manager, used to forging ahead when she saw a challenge, it was a big step to involve her faith in this important transition for her and many others. “I have a personality type that likes to take charge but I now know I need to leave space for God to move and direct me,” she said. Most Christians face this same issue, trying to discern God in difficult situations … and to listen. “You sometimes reach a chasm in your life that you just need to leap across,” she said. “God picks you up, takes you to the edge and then it’s up to you whether you take the leap. For me that’s walking in faith.”
In the years that Michelle has had an active, growing faith she has also given a lot of thought to the fact that she now shares the same faith as those Christians who initially turned her off. “Now as a Christian, I realise that it’s a journey for everyone, no one is perfect, we are all at different places along the road,” she said. “Back then I was outside, looking in and I expected Christians not to make mistakes and do the right thing all of the time. God’s work for me is about reaching those who don’t know him yet and encouraging those who do to continue on their personal journey.”