The
Inspiration
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WITH JARRED FANTOM

GUEST Sue Bartho

Sue Bartho
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Episode 39

Sue Bartho: Episode Description

On this episode of The Inspiration Project, Producer Jarred (Jay) Fantom talks to Psychologist Sue Bartho about the intersection of Christian faith and human psychology, why our core sense of self will influence every aspect of our lives, and how to attain core beliefs about self based around the word of God.

Among other things Sue shares:

  • How to attain core beliefs about self based around the word of God
  • The intersection of faith and human psychology
  • Bringing spirituality into psychology to help people with mental health issues
  • How Sue became a Christian
  • What it’s like working as a Christian Psychologist and what she loves most about this vocation
  • What working in a rehabilitation centre taught her about human psychology
  • Helping people through depression and anxiety

Sue Bartho: Episode Transcript

Introduction
Welcome to The Inspiration Project where well known Christians share their stories to inspire young people in their faith and life. Here’s your host, Brendan Corr.

Brendan Corr
Hello, everybody. Welcome to the episode of The Inspiration Project, the podcast, where we get a chance to talk with prominent Christians, who’ve been able to integrate their faith and a sense of purpose in their vocation. On today’s episode, my colleague, Jarred Fantom will be talking with Sue Bartho. Sue commenced some medical studies, but realised that she was interested in something beyond just the bodies of her patients and transferred across to complete a bachelor of science in psychology. That’s been the field that she’s continued to explore throughout her career, working in various positions and taking division responsibilities, including working with some Anglican denominational support processes and supervised re-structures. She runs her own private practice at Hornsby, married with three children, and is the director of the Brunswick Heads Beach Mission - one of the key parts of her work. I hope that you enjoy this conversation between Jarred and Sue.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
Sue. Can I welcome you so much to The Inspiration Project podcast?

Sue Bartho
Thanks so much, Jay. It’s lots of fun to be with you.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
So much fun to have you here, Sue, thank you so much for making the time to be here. Now, on your website, you say that your conviction is how we think and feel about our core sense of self will influence every aspect of our lives. Would you be able to please expand on that? What do you mean by it and where do you discover this kind of conviction?

Sue Bartho
Okay. And can I add to Jay, I’m actually a qualified clinical psychologist? So some of those introductory frameworks are yeah. Some of the influences within that, but I’m qualified and registered as a clinical psychologist. So core sense of self. I think the answer to that is probably, it’s developed through my psychology study. I mean, I’ve been working in clin psych now for over 30 years and the combination of, well, the people you meet and the contrast, Jay, between the healthy people and the unhealthy people stands out to me pretty strongly that the healthy people, I think, have an acceptance and even an enjoyment of being who they are. Whereas the unhealthy, if we’re talking emotionally unhealthy, if we’re looking at those anxieties and depressions and raft other things often, there’s an unease with myself or a disliking of myself or an embarrassment or even shame, some of that negative stuff towards myself. So I just find that some helpful phrasing that you’ve got off my website there. And it certainly does guide how I work and how I think.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
I love that idea that the core sense of self and understanding one’s self, it might be difficult for a lot of people to really dive into, okay, what is my core beliefs, my core sense of self, how can I really attach to that properly? Would you be able to help someone because this audience is mainly a younger audience. For a young person that doesn’t know their core sense of self, what it actually is, why it’s important in the first place, would you be able to explain and help a young person?

Sue Bartho
Look, sure, Jay, I think when I’m helping people in that process, I think it’s really the sum total of how I think about myself. Okay? So, it’s going to be, it shaped by, and sometimes I’ll get a person to get a bit of paper and write me a whole page of sort of, I am self statements. You know, I am Sue, I am female. I am Australian, with English and Australian heritage. With me? And you start with those fairly basic descriptors, but then it starts to get deeper. About my convictions, my religion, my political persuasions, my thoughts and fears, my hopes and dreams. Now I think the sum total of all that is going to help me get more in touch with who is this unique person Sue is for me. So it’s fairly abstract, but I think that’s a practical idea of just writing a long list of I am’s.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
For you, Sue, you mentioned that you are a clinical psychologist, which I think is honestly incredible. For you, why did you choose to study in that field in the first place?

Sue Bartho
Well, I guess I can talk about God’s guidance. I actually did first year medicine out of school and I failed a subject. I failed anatomy, much to my children’s hilarity, but during that year, I think I was exposed to issues psychological for the first time. And I think I came up with a phrase that guided me in that I was interested in something more intrinsic about a person than their body. And so I had a choice there at the end of 1981, whether I would repeat the whole year of medicine or transfer into a psychology degree. And I took that latter option. And look, I had never met a psychologist. I had hardly had a clue what I was doing, but I finished that. The rest is history, of course, finished that BSC, a science degree in psychology with honours. Went off to England and worked in Christian ministry and then came back and did a master’s in clin psych, which qualified me as a psychologist and eventually a clin psych.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
You spent five years in London, is that correct?

Sue Bartho
Yeah. In England, the UK.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
Studying, what was that like? What was that experience like? Can you share some of the stories?

Sue Bartho
Oh well. How long have we got, Jay? Okay. It began with five fabulous months travelling Asia and Europe with three boys from the youth group. So that helped again, loads of fabulous stories and how enriching. We visited a series of missionaries on that journey. We went to L’Abri in Switzerland. I don’t know if you’ve heard of L’Abri and because I have a British passport, the plan was that I’d get off after five months and stay with friends of the family and found a church and found a job. So it sounds wonderful. In truth, it was a pretty tough time. A basic psychology degree actually doesn’t equip you for very much. So I literally did some, I did data processing and very basic jobs and then got a job as a residential social worker in an adolescent unit. And that’s what I wanted. I wanted some experience with real people. I was about 23, young and naive. So worked, lived in Bedford, worked in Milton Keynes in this adolescent unit for 18 months. And then I applied and was accepted to work in Christian ministry, in the British student movement with the equivalent of our AFES.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
Yeah.

Sue Bartho
Sorry, all the acronyms. So I worked for UCCF, Universities and Colleges, Christian Fellowship. I moved up to Leads and I was the Northeast staff worker covering seven universities for those three years from ‘88 to ‘91.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
Wow.

Sue Bartho
And then came home in ‘91 and started my masters in clin psych at Macquarie Uni, working as a tutor there and on the staff of that church there. Yeah. And again, that’s got me qualified as a psychologist.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
And when you finished your actual degree from Macquarie University, did you go start your own practice or did you go work for someone?

Sue Bartho
No, that’s right. Initially I worked in the rehab sector. Yep. Doing workers comp rehab for a while. And some work here with the Mount Wilga Rehab Hospital here in Hornsby. And through those years I got married and had three babies. So I was just working one day a week, but moved into private practice. Well, look, it’s at least 25 years ago now. So I’m going to say I had maybe 10 years of working in rehab. And getting our family moving. And also during that time, Jay, I was a contact person for the Anglican Professional Standards Unit. So that’s pretty interesting, really dealing with the issues of sexual misconduct- in the Anglican church. So that was just a sort of part-time job through those years, which brought me eventually into private practice. And of course, private practice gives you, actually, I feel more freedom to be actively Christian, a whole nother conversation there, but people seek me out as a Christian clinical psych. And so I’m able to be sympathetic, I guess, to their worldview, if that’s where they’re coming from.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
Let me get back to the Christian side of things, being in a practice because I do find that very interesting. But I wanted to ask you about being in a rehabilitation centre for quite a long period of time. You would’ve had to learn quite a lot, some important lessons have you found, oh. My first question is what were some of the lessons that you did learn? I’m racking your brain here today, Sue, going back into the past. What were some of the lessons that you learned back then and have they helped you in private practice today?

Sue Bartho
Oh Jay, as you say it feels like archaeology, digging back. Look, a few topics come to mind. Certainly one is chronic pain and it’s helpful to have had a bit of background in that tricky topic, and certainly the principles that you come out of that are things like focusing what you can impact and what you can change in your life rather than on what you can’t. Oh, goodness. Rehab. I mean so much of it is undergirded by, how you are thinking and whether you are trying to, being aware of the patterns of what I would say, are conscious self talk as well as the deeper, I would call them emotional beliefs we have about ourselves. So I mean, they’re just big, pretty much cognitive behavioural principles, those principles, ground a guard, every field of psychology in terms of how we think and what we believe about ourselves. So yes, in rehab, you’re meeting lots of people whose lives have been suddenly changed by accidents, maybe catastrophically. Sometimes it’s paraplegia or quadriplegia that has smashed someone’s world. So again, to my mind, it’s core, it’s almost counselling the core psychology skills of empathising and probably validating the emotional craziness they would be going through in those circumstances, but then helping them slowly begin to make sense of it in terms of the choices that lie before them and the meaning this has for them.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
Were you allowed to bring in that spiritual side of therapy?

Sue Bartho
Well, really the strict rule, the ethical guidelines within which we operate are, no, I can’t be introducing that. I certainly can’t be proselytising. I can be helping them reflect on and explore their own spiritual resources with me. So the big rule, the Cardinal rule, is working within their framework. But as I said, if they’ve come to me as a Christian and they want my help in engaging with their faith on that journey, let’s go.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
I’m all ears then.

Sue Bartho
I’m in.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom:

What do you love the most about being a psychologist and a therapist, Sue?

Sue Bartho:

I think it’s the privilege of walking beside people, Jay. Seriously, quite intimate territory, really just those workings of a head and heart that, well, sometimes even a spouse is not party to, help trying to create a safe place for people to get perspective. And I think some of the core ideas I would bring to my worker, I’m really wanting to show people how to strengthen and empower themselves to regain confidence, to face life. It’s very easy for the opposite to happen.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
Yeah. Me personally, more recently, I’ve kind of thought about going into or studying therapy or, something. Because a lot of the conversations I’ve had with therapists, it’s kind of opened my eyes to things that I haven’t really thought about before, which is just fascinated me like the whole human psychology and belief and core ideas and traumas and you name it. It’s a whole nother world for me to learn and absorb and how we can actually help, not just older people, but young people, too, in that field. So I think what you’re doing is an admirable line of work and therapists have helped me in the past, too, to get over depression, anxiety, that sort of thing. So thank you for your work. But I wanted to ask you, Sue because you are a Christian and you did mention just a moment ago that Christians come and seek you out and you do speak with them and help them. But how does spirituality, more specifically the belief in God, how does that intersect with human psychology?

Sue Bartho
Oh, lovely. Delicious question, Jay. I think it intersects all over the place. Several answers come to mind. I think the starters, faith gives you a framework for life. Doesn’t it? That secular humanism doesn’t really give you the big questions of who am I and why am I here? So certainly in terms of purpose and meaning, a Christian framework or a faith framework gives you some really helpful foundations. I think again, in Christian faith, there’re resources for knowing I’m loved which is extraordinary really, and I don’t think actually any other faith offers quite that as well as resources for forgiveness that those are beautiful ideas about knowing God as father and having confidence before God about where I stand because of Jesus. I mean, they’re unique, Jay, I guess you might know that by now. And do you know some of the stuff that I particularly love is what I call the emotional safety in the throne room so that I should unpack that. But that idea of, because of Jesus, we can have this extraordinarily safe relationship with the father where he knows me better than I know myself. And he loves me. I seriously have heard a Buddhist psychologist in a public lecture say, “Just imagine for a moment, there’s a place where you are fully known and you’re fully loved.” And I’m sitting coming, “Hello. I think I know where that place is.” So with me? That excites me, Jay, it really excites me. It’s in that territory, I think. Well, I’ve mentioned a few there where Christian faith gives you unique resources to comfort our fragile souls.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
Yeah. I’m definitely with you there, Sue, but I want to sort of push back a little bit and ask you, have you ever been challenged by this idea in terms of, with your study, with your peers even, maybe it’s not a good idea to bring in spirituality? Like, “Let’s just stick to the basics here of what we know.”

Sue Bartho
Okay. Look, I’m hearing you ask maybe two things. One is God is not the answer necessarily to every emotional problem. In how I work, often it’s going to be helping people look at how they’re thinking actually about themselves and their beliefs about themselves are as powerful as their beliefs about God. So you with me? So yeah. And certainly I do work with non-Christians and spirituality may not come into it.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
Yeah.

Sue Bartho
So there’s a whole range of those, you’d call them cognitive, how we’re thinking, and the behavioural is what I’m doing. So sometimes it’s very practical skills, Jay, around problem solving, decision, making, social skills, time planning, assertiveness, some of those skills for life that are very functional. So that is that, so no, it’s not as simplistic as God is the answer. There’s a lot of skills. I’m often teaching people and yes, I guess there’s pushback sometimes if that’s what you’re asking, in terms of those existential questions of is Jesus true? I mean, it frustrates me sometimes that the emotional health of Christians is actually not so different to the emotional health of non-Christians. And I can’t quite figure that out. I don’t think that’s maybe a 100% true. The research is pretty interesting, if you’re comparing churchgoers with non churchgoers. And in some dimensions, it is looking healthier. But you’d want it to be a bit more radical, wouldn’t you?

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
If someone was depressed and if someone was anxious at the moment and they are a Christian, how would you help them overcome? I know they probably need to come and see you and it needs to be a longer conversation, but how do we help them initially start the process towards healing?

Sue Bartho
Yeah. Look, from where my approach is to help them get in touch with these patterns in their thinking, and their beliefs about themselves. So here we go. I mean, I often, and when I’m doing public talks on anxiety, which I did a lot before COVID, not so much recently, I sometimes illustrate that if fear was a red ball off to my right here, then it’s very easy. It’s an example of parents, it’s my own personality. Its circumstances of that can really tune me into listen in to fear. And I would define anxiety as listening to fear, three words, listening to fear. So I’m trying to help people appreciate that I’m an active agent in what I feed my mind, in what I let myself listen to. And that by definition, when there are habits and patterns of anxiety, there are patterns of, you with me? Listening to fear all the what if, what if they don’t like me? What if I embarrass myself? What if I get? You with me? And I want to help people be aware of that choice actually. I mean, I realise it’s not that straightforward. There’s lots of other factors, but I’ve got habits here of feeding this anxiety, which cripples me. It does me no good at all. And what I suggest is imagining a red stop sign and turning 180 degrees and trying to give myself a different focus. I talk about trust, relax, and joy. In the first instance, a different empowering myself. I do not need to weaken myself really with all this overwhelming, terrifying possibilities. I need to be able to learn how to strengthen myself. That pretty much applies. That’s the anxiety stuff. And I kind of go for a similar definition of depression I would say, is listening to powerlessness and negativity. So again, I can get myself into that black hole. Can’t I just believe in that I’m hopeless and helpless and powerless and lost? My role as a therapist is to help people just see what they’re doing to themselves. Of course see the circumstances that might be contributing, and walk alongside them in trying to teaching them, I guess, showing them how to challenge the unhelpful thinking, cultivate some more. With me? Respectful, healthy thinking that’s, again like able to solve problems, able to set some goals, able to have a sense of, or direction, but also control over my life.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
I love all that. And how would you bring God into the equation? Would you just weave him in there?

Sue Bartho
Again, I said on the left hand side of my thinking, I’ve got trust and relax and enjoy. So for most Christians, they know what trust is. I mean, actually, Jay, fascinating topic. I mean, the scriptures are full, aren’t they? Hundreds of instructions. Don’t be afraid. Trust me. Well, the only thing to be afraid of is God himself, but this theme, Old Testament are new. Don’t be afraid. So I find that fascinating. Yeah. So, well, look, it’s a big conversation, Jay, a big conversation. Isn’t it about helping myself really develop some new habits? Now again, any habit takes a long time to change. And initially it feels very awkward, but I’m wanting to coach myself, away from the what if, what if, what if, what if, what if, to, okay, this is what I can be doing to help myself now. That’s just sensible stuff. If I’m putting God in the equation, well, I would be wanting to remind myself, he’s a 100% good. He wants me to be able to relax, I think, and rest in his safe character. Are you with me? In his good plans and promises and obviously what he’s done in history. That probably leads along to some self talk that says, “I don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring. What I need to do is focus on today, use today well, because when, it’s not if, it’s when, difficult things come, then I will have to walk with him through those valleys with as much faith and grace as I can find.” But rather than, what if I get cancer? What if my mother dies? That’s such wasted energy, such wasted resources. I want to coach myself to, oh, I think it’s about enjoying being the person he’s made me to be, enjoying the roles he’s given me using my gifts in service in the church, using my vocation. With me? I love that word. Enjoy, trust, relax, enjoy, Jay. I think they’re beautiful big concepts.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
I think they are, too. And, and the verse that kept coming to my mind, as you were talking about that was trust in the Lord with all their heart and lean not on their own understanding. I think it was in-

Sue Bartho
Always.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
Yeah. And he shall direct your path or something along those lines. So that kept coming to my brain as you were talking about that. So I’m going to, I need to put it up on my wall actually.

Sue Bartho
Oh, and Jay, but I mean, Isaiah 43, another classic, isn’t it? Do not fear. I’ve redeemed you. I’ve called you by name. You are mine. I mean this intimate calling, this intimate, please set your eyes on me because of course there’s a zillion fearful possibilities on this planet and it really draws this into quite significant spiritual battle, doesn’t it? As well as emotional battle. So again, I don’t want to be simplistic and I’m very aware, oh, here we go, Jay, I’m very aware a lot of Christians compound their distress because they feel their failures as a Christian. And we’ve got to take that one off and just sort of be in reality that, I mean, I think I would normally say there’s three or four factors that contribute to my mental health. One is going to be my parents, both their mental health and the example they set me as well as the style of parenting they used. One would be my past, what I’ve experienced, trauma and bullying and engender fear. My innate personality. I mean, as some of us I think are naturally more sensitive and more sort of over-thinkers.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
Yeah.

Sue Bartho
And then probably my present is probably the fourth P and that little list of factors that make me different to the girl next door. So there’s no point comparing, even though we do all the time. I’ve just got to give myself permission to be on my journey. And of course, Jay, I mean, to my mind, this is just synonymous, isn’t it with the sort of sanctification stuff we see in the scriptures are growing up and are growing to, away from some of those unhealthy patterns towards being a healthier human being.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
Finishing off this conversation. I’ve got a few more questions for you if you don’t mind, but how did you become a believer? How did you get saved?

Sue Bartho
Not a complicated story. My parents sent me to Sunday School and then youth group at our Anglican church here in Sydney. And I do remember probably about age 12, kind of being intrigued by Jesus and probably a penny dropping kind of process of wow if he really is the son of God, this matters. And so when I was confirmed at age 13, that was quite meaningful for me. But interestingly, as I took my faith seriously through my 10 years, my parents thought I’d joined the Moonies. With me? So look, they have their own journey. They were certainly church-goers, but look, I probably was enthusiastic teenager, but things like beach mission. And maybe then when I was water-baptised at age 22, when I was going to a Baptist church in England. Again, that was a little bit outside their comfort zone. Yeah. That’s okay. So there we are.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
I Like that story. Yeah. Cool. So for someone that is looking for a therapist at the moment, or anything like that, how would you go about recommending them? Or where would you steer them to that sort of thing?

Sue Bartho
Well, look, you can actually Google Christian psychologist and that’ll bring up some stuff. Number one, number two would be through the Australian Psychological Society. There’s an interest group for Christianity and psychology. So there’s a find a psychologist service through the APS that you could use. I mean, really most people start with asking their GP or their minister, of course.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
Yeah.

Sue Bartho
Who are the people they know and like? So there we go.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
And they can come see you, too, if you’re on that list.

Sue Bartho
Well, Jay, it’s not to, I mean, cause now with Zoom, I mean, I currently have patients in Broken Hill and Dubbo, and during lockdown I was doing seminars for a church in Skipton and the OM Ship in the Bahamas. So technology opens up our world, Jay, crazy stuff.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
It’s absolutely amazing. Honestly, who inspires you currently, Sue? This is my second final question for who inspires you to continue doing what you do.

Sue Bartho
First thought, my first thought are some of my colleagues, so I have the privilege of meeting every month. Sorry. It’s part of our requirements for our professional registration that we do, professional development. So I meet with two other fabulous Christian clin psychs who I really enjoy. Yeah. Look, as I hope you can hear in what I’m saying. I think I’ve got a uniquely exciting little kind of angle. And Jay, I mean the mental health issues in our community now just everywhere. So maybe I’m reminding myself to get out from under my bush a bit more and share maybe a bit more because I think there’s great need. Look. The people who inspire me. I’m a bit of a Tim Keller fan. I don’t know if you know his name. I mean, I think he’s one of the best psychologists I know. Ironically, I mean, he’s of course never trained in psychology. He’s just such a well read- fellow. And the number of times, his material is helpful. Even in, I think it’s the topic of repentance and confession, he just has this lobby clarity. He says it’s not that, and it’s not this, but this is what it is. So I think on that topic, he says, “It’s not self pity and it’s not sadness or, or shame that I’ve been found out. It’s a very different path down the middle of taking responsibility for my behaviour and owning that I was out of line and there are consequences of that and I will bear those consequences, and while our relationship is restored.”

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
I agree with you on Tim Keller’s work. Love his stuff. It’s very helpful, but to finish off, so what are some of the things that you would love to leave this audience with, some parting words for them?

Sue Bartho
Look, I understand this audience, that right, Christian young people. Look, I want us to engage deeply with God’s word and maybe explore all those ideas I’ve mentioned about, I call it the throne room. That really it’s some ideas about prayer, isn’t it, Jay? That there is a space here for us believers to be refreshed by and to rest in, there’s no performing, no impressing. I just think that’s such delicious territory. So look, it comes that those two comments, which are Bible reading and prayer are nothing new, are they Jay? They’re the old things that we’ve all been trained in, but they’re just so foundational, aren’t they? And I think it’s there in the throne room. That again, I let my heart, not just by mind, but my heart be well softened maybe by the father and my little idolatries be exposed. So you can do a lot of fabulous self therapy, I think there in the throne room. Of course, sometimes it’s helpful to have a professional to walk beside you, but I do want Christian young people to learn how to look after themselves emotionally. And I think a lot of that actually is self talk as well as assertiveness, Jay, I’ll throw that one in. I mean a lot of Christians who are just too nice, and they mistake passivity for godliness. They think, “If I just…” A bit distorted. So I spend a lot of my time helping well, Christian women a lot kind of stand up for themselves and not apologise for respecting themselves.

Jarred (Jay) Fantom
And also their little voice in our head that tells us that something that is so foundational and so simple, that little voice in our head can complicate it a lot, which contributes to so many problems in young people today. And even in adults as well because there’s still some adults that allow the negative to take over their life and draw them away from Jesus and his word. And because he says, if we read the Bible every single day, if we pray, if we do all those things, we’re going to feel a lot better than if we don’t. So yes, it’s simple, but the process for a lot of people, including myself here, can be quite difficult at times if we allow the little voice in our head to tell us otherwise. But Sue, thank you so much for your work, your time and your wisdom as well. And for joining me today on The Inspiration Project podcast,

Sue Bartho
My pleasure, Jay, lots of fun.

Sue Bartho

About Sue Bartho

It was during first year medicine in 1981, that Sue realised that she was "more interested in something more intrinsic to a person than their bodies!” She transferred to the Bachelor of Science in Psychology degree at UNSW, completing this with Honours 2:1 in 1985. Sue then travelled and worked in the United Kingdom for 5 years with adolescent and university students. Returning to Sydney in 1992, she completed a Masters in Clinical Psychology at Macquarie University, with a postgraduate scholarship while working as a tutor at Robert Menzies College and as a staff-worker for Trinity Chapel Macquarie. Sue worked in the rehabilitation sector, in private rehabilitation practices and at Mt Wilga Private Hospital, for 10 years before venturing out into private practice. She spent 20 years working as a contractor for the Anglican Professional Standards Unit, dealing with sexual misconduct. She has now been running her own private practice in Hornsby for over 20 years, and enjoys offering seminars and talks to community and church groups. She is married and has 3 adult children. She has been Director of the Brunswick Heads Beach Mission team (Scripture Union) since 2019, and has been teaching Scripture at Cheltenham Girls High School since 2016.