If you look at the old black and white photo in a newspaper article hanging on the wall of Bainfield Park Residential Care in Waikiwi (New Zealand), you may notice a familiar face. Yes, he’s a little thinner. His sideburns were a lot thicker back then. And I suppose it’s fair to say Owen Saunders is a bit younger in the photo. He should be. The photo was taken 34 years ago when Invercargill Adventist Church began a long adventure in residential care—an adventure with unexpected outcomes.
It all began when a property came up for sale in town. “The place was shocking. It hadn’t been used for two years,” Owen remembers. Three people applied to buy it. One wanted to turn it into a backpackers’ hostel. Another wanted it to become racing stables. Each of the proposals was backed by what was big money in 1980. “I went in on behalf of our local church and I had to level with them that we didn’t have any money to put in at the outset. But I promised that if they awarded us the facility, we would do our best to use it to do something for the community and we’d make regular payments once we got it off the ground. I walked out thinking there was no way they’d choose my promises over the hard cash offers. I was wrong.
We've had our dramas over the years . . . but God has blessed. We've grown, put on new wings, expanded the facility, and thanks to God, we've been able to generate a reasonable excess each year.
“We started as an aged care facility. A lot of people volunteered their labour in the early days. Just as well, as we had to invest a fortune to comply with all the regulations,” Owen says. It was, in many ways, a rough start. There were financial problems. There were personnel challenges. There was even embezzlement. Maybe it wasn’t God’s plan for a local church to operate such a complicated institution?
“We’ve had our dramas over the years,” Owen chuckles. “If you think it’s easy to run a complex entity, try it! A number of years ago, we hit the wall financially. So I put up my farm as collateral. And I took direct control over the operations. I wasn’t always loved for doing it but God has blessed. We’ve grown, put on new wings, expanded the facility and, thanks to God, we’ve been able to generate a reasonable excess each year.”
Owen back in the day.
Walking around Bainfield Park with Owen, it’s obvious that everyone respects him. His brand of leadership is very hands on. He knows the details and he cares about the little things. Because when you get all the little things right, big things happen. We sit down in the beautiful recreation room with its vaulted ceilings and magnificent glass wall looking out over a restful little meadow. “Today 10 of our residents are elderly; the other 46 have a variety of long-term conditions that require care. Some have been in debilitating accidents, others have degenerative neurological diseases and there are a variety of other conditions,” Owen says.
Bainfield Park has invested its excess for charitable endeavours—it helps support Invercargill Adventist School, pays the salary of an associate pastor for the church, contributed to the development of the Encounter Bible curriculum that is currently used in Australia, New Zealand and is growing in popularity in the US, and has sponsored a number of students through Avondale College.
Where did Owen learn the skills to lead a complex entity? He runs a 157 hectare farm and is the largest supplier of chaff—horse feed—in NZ. “I couldn’t do what I do without my son Brendon and Margaret, my wife,” Owen freely acknowledges. “They are my backbone!”
Owen also manages the South New Zealand Conference campground—Pascoe Park—even though he lives 600km from it. “We used to lose about $NZ50,000 a year on the campground—that’s about $NZ25 for every single Adventist in South NZ. Today we’re making a healthy surplus.” What’s Owen’s secret? “It’s a little word that starts with ‘w’ and ends in ‘k’, do you know it?” he laughs.
But it’s not just hard work, it’s also smarts mixed with compassion. After the Christchurch earthquake, Owen organised a bus to bring residents who were without power and/or water to the campground to wash their clothes, shower and use the bathroom. The buses brought many distressed residents in every day. Seeing the need for a place to stay, Owen decided to expand the number of long-term residents in campers on the campground. Today there are 150 people who call the campground home, and the rent from those residents covers the cost of operating the ground and then some.
It isn’t that everyone loves Owen or his style. “I get plenty of criticism. And I’ve ruffled plenty of feathers over the years. Sometimes in the church we are so busy tiptoeing around issues and keeping everyone happy that we fail to make the necessary decisions to keep our entities healthy. I suppose it’s the farmer in me. On the farm we either run an efficient operation or we close. I think we should be at least as efficient in our Church. I’d rather get the job done right and face complaints than make decisions that I know will hurt the viability of our entities in the long run.”
It’s not all criticism, however. Invercargill Adventist Church senior pastor Romina Masih recognises how fortunate the church is to have Owen and Margaret’s dedication. “They are actively involved in growing our Sabbath School and they not only work hard but bring their creativity to the programs,” she says. Invercargill Adventist School principal Ryan Baronian agrees. “Owen’s support has been critical to the expansion of our school,” he says. “He is 100 per cent dedicated to our success and we are very thankful for his efforts.”
The difference between work and holidays for Owen is the location. He has travelled to Cambodia to help an orphanage run by International Children’s Care Australia, he has helped build a church in Mozambique and he has volunteered in Vanuatu. Wherever he goes, Owen brings his robust work ethic, business acumen and love for Jesus Christ.
James Standish is editor of Adventist Record and communication director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the South Pacific Division.