Reflections on Leadership
Posted on 3 Jun 2020 by Penny Lai
It’s been 3 years since I started my apprenticeship in CERC. The task of an apprentice is to write a thorough self-assessment after the completion of 2-3 years of apprenticeship. This period of movement constriction order has opened up a huge opportunity for me to lock myself down to this task. I have completed my self-assessment two weeks ago and am waiting for a full deliberation once the MCO is lifted.
I thought it would be good to share some of the reflections I’ve had in these three years of apprenticeship. As some of you would already know, Church Ministers’ Apprenticeship (CMA), in CERC exposes you to a broad range of ministry context from children to women to campus to adults ministry, enabling you to not just contribute good work into the ministry but also train you in every way as a leader to steward, shepherd, and lead that particular ministry for a period of time. The experience includes teaching, preaching, training, strategizing, planning for the gospel growth through the ministry that you are placed in.
If I could just describe my experience in CMA in a metaphor, I would say it’s a little bit like this:
Yeap, a pressure cooker is the first thing that came into my mind. If I can just describe the experience of what it’s like to be a pressure cooker, here is how I would describe it, to give you a taste of my 3 years of ministry experience:
1. It’s slow and painful.
2. The pressure is contained, it’s within your own system and it’s only as good as the pressure you choose to put yourself into.
3. It’s dark inside – all the while you don’t quite know what or where things are or whether you are doing the right thing or not.
4. But you know that the self-contained system affects the ministry you do (the cooked content) because it smells different even though you can’t see it.
5. So you do step 2-4 again. And again. And again.
6. You always feel like you’re about to die and explode from the pressure.
7. But the pressure gets let out somewhere so you never quite explode.
8. Yet the pressure does not relent.
9. At the end of the cooking process, you’ll feel like there’s some progress to the cooked content but it’s not done, and it always feels like it never. Really. Gets. Done. But there is progress. And it’s really up to you on how you would like to cook it.
I hope this has been amusing for you to imagine what it’s been like for me. And even as I’m trying to describe it all, I’m surprised at how interesting my mind has played around with this metaphor to capture my experience.
But don’t get me wrong, this entire experience has taught me more than I’ve learnt in 20 years of life. I’m glad I did CMA and I don’t regret a thing from this, because of all the important lessons that I know I couldn’t have otherwise attained without this pressure cooker experience, even though I do come out on the other end feeling more inadequate and insecure than before (haha, I bet you thought it was otherwise). But I take that to be a good thing because it means that I finally understand what it takes to do ministry now. I would like to share with you three of my most profound and insightful reflections about what it really takes to be a ministry worker:
1. If you are serious about effecting change, reformation and growth to the ministry, you can never, ever, avoid conflict and hardship. Without it, whatever changes you thought you had made probably are not true changes.
I came into apprenticeship as a naïve person thinking that I could be faithful and yet always choose the conflict-free path to doing ministry. But 3 years of ministry has opened my eyes to the profoundly deceptive nature of sin in people’s lives, plaguing even among those whom I call my brothers and sisters in church and myself. I have never learnt to see the world through this God-given lens but God has taught me to see so many biblical truths in reality itself. And one can’t help but break down in despair at the conscious thought of it all, like the psalmist in Scripture. Undoubtedly, these years have also been some of my most sorrowful years as God Himself wanted me to see what He sees in the hearts of men every day.
So from where have I found the strength to do what needs to be done? Especially when you consider how conflict averse I am in my bones. It is pathetic when you try to get me to voice out my disagreement or rebuke because it has always been the case for me to shed the first tear before I even try to raise my disagreements.
In my earlier years I have attempted to change ministries by tinkering with systems, operations, programs and activities, everything except for doing the hard and painful task of having to consistently confront the brutal facts in ministry – including the sinful attitudes of the people I work with. As I began to give more thought into what constitutes as “success” in ministry, I realised that it’s not just about the numbers or the efficiency of operation, but it is the people that I’ve chosen to take the time to teach, correct, rebuke, love, train and encourage in the Lord. And of all the ministries that I’ve worked on, I realised that true reformation has happened in places where the word of God has wrestled the most with the sinful hearts of men.
2. To do the right thing as a leader, you need to embrace the fact that you will never be 100% right or sure in your actions, so you have to be willing to be proven wrong or to fail in your leadership.
This is probably the hardest conviction that I have had to come to terms with. I have lived a “clean” life. I do not take risks that will put my reputation or dignity on the line. I have always chosen battles that I know I would win, or that I would be proven right by the majority. In that sense, I’m quite an expert at preserving my dignity and credibility.
As a result, I thought it would be easy to put the blame on leaders whenever something goes wrong. But little did I know that it can be so tricky to be the guy who calls the shots. There are always multiple factors to take into account. If I can just illustrate this in the form of a diagram:
The kind of situation that I face for 1 project that I have to lead.
The kind of situation I face for more than 1 project that I have to lead… and this does not even take into account my own personal struggles and incompetencies and regular deadlines and commitment.
If you are inexperienced, unwise or incompetent like me, you’ll be more likely to screw up most of the time. This was such a hard task for me that I questioned why would anyone be a leader at all, why would anyone choose to bear the burden of responsibility for anything that goes wrong. It’s so much easier to be the person being told what to do, so much easier to be silently washing dishes or cleaning the toilet than to be the one who has to answer to God in the ministry.
But being a leader was not a choice for me in this job. I knew I had to step up whether I was ready or not.
And trust me, I’m never ready.
And yet, I go whenever I’m called to go. I call the shots. I lead the troops. I get criticised. I keep going.
Ministry is not “clean”, it always feels like you’re jumping into a pile of mud, it’s dirty, icky and yucky. And sometimes you’ll never be able to recover from that. As I mature, I began to learn what it truly means to be a servant the way Jesus has taught:
“…But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:43-45
3. Failures are a pain, mistakes are costly, but a leader must keep going on with and without fear at the same time.
Giving up can come in many forms – it doesn’t always have to be dropping your responsibilities and running away. Giving up can also be seen when you’re just doing what you’re supposed to do, getting used to failure without any thought of how much it costs ministry, and no longer wanting to make the best out of it. The temptation to give up is inevitable and understandable too, for ministry is not an easy task. The pain of failures and subsequent fear of it can cause a person to curl up to preserve any pride that is left in him. But one who has understood the sinfulness of our own hearts and God’s unending mercy and grace can find the meaning of their identity in Him and find strength in living in this tension of “Simul justus et peccator” – the “already but not yet” reality of Jesus being Lord of this universe. So, live fearfully enough so as to not demean His grace and yet bold enough so as to not waste the life God has given you to live fearlessly for him.
So the questions at the end of my apprenticeship is:
Can I not be a leader?
Can a human being have the choice to avoid lessons like this?
Can a human being have the choice to NOT be a leader?
I don’t think so.
Because to be a leader is to truly embrace what it means to be a servant who loves not himself but the Lord and His people.