The Rookie, Leadership & Culture

Most pastors believe that when they were called by the Lord to be pastors it came with the mandate to lead the church. On the other hand, most lay leaders believe that the pastor’s role is simply to provide pastoral or spiritual care for the members. Leading the church, especially with regards to organisational matters, finance, direction of the church, policies and staff issues are supposed to be under the purview of the Board or Council. In the end, the pastor has a very limited leadership role.

One way to mitigate the clash of expectations is for both pastor and church leaders to iron them out before the pastor comes on board. Candour and honesty are indispensable elements. Terms and conditions, role and expectations, and especially the leadership role of the pastor, need to be spelt out and agreed upon; and put into writing. This is not a guarantee that there won’t be problems later. Still, it is better to have this done. If all parties are people of integrity, the agreement will be honoured. If not, the parties will know where they have erred.

Clarity and agreement are vital if the pastor, the leadership and the church are to avoid confusion and second guessing about the pastor’s role. What is his leadership mandate? Who leads the leadership team? Who sets the direction for the church? Who is the staff accountable to? Who determines how the resources of the church are to be utilised? And more.

That’s a lot of ground to cover. And most churches have not even begun to consider these things, or, think it necessary to deliberate on them. But they will still function—according to the culture of their church—the set of beliefs and values they hold in common that causes them to do things in a certain way.[1]

If culture is so critical to the life of a church, the most sensible thing to do, then, is to establish a good church culture; including a culture of leadership that honours the leadership role of the pastor.

How does this work out for a rookie pastor? It is unlikely that a church would be prepared to entrust leadership to a newbie. I can understand that. So, what should he do? For starters, a rookie pastor shouldn’t join a church where he is the only pastor. Rather, he should work under a Senior Pastor who is serving in a church that has given the latter the mandate to lead.

Following his time of apprenticeship, one of two things can happen. One day, the Senior Pastor may move on or retire. The rookie pastor has blossomed and come into his own. If he is suitable he may be asked, either by the Senior Pastor or the Church Board, to take over as the new Senior Pastor, in a church that already has a culture that understands the leadership role of the pastor.

A second option for the rookie pastor is go out and plant a new church. After having served a number of years under a Senior Pastor he is no longer a rookie. He knows how to “do” church and lead the church. It is very likely that his fellow-lay church planters will give him the mandate to be the lead man. If this happens, the culture of leadership by the pastor is already set at the beginning of the church plant.

While it is not impossible to change the culture of the church, it will, however, take a lot of hard work, patience, grace, wisdom and prayer—if we don’t want to see a church-split, people leave the church or the pastor’s services prematurely terminated. Getting it right—right at the beginning—is a far better way of tackling this problem. But it calls for Senior Pastors, rookie pastors and church leaders in these “enlightened churches” to understand and work together on this.

[1] Read my blog posting dated 29 Feb 2016 on Church Culture

Know Your Philosophy of Ministry

One of the most important things I ever did was to write out my philosophy of ministry. It was an assignment for a refresher course I took at a Bible school in Penang. By then, I had been in the pastoral ministry for 14 years; doing ministry from out of convictions that were being developed during those early years in the full-time ministry. In fact, some of the convictions had already begun to form while I was studying in a Bible school in Singapore, and even going further back to the time as a new Christian that was influenced by both the Charismatic renewal in New Zealand (where I was converted) and the Navigators (that I had been a part of for a while).

Sometimes I was conscious of my philosophy of ministry. Other times it was operating at my sub-conscious level. Writing it down was immensely helpful because it made me see more fully and clearly my philosophy of ministry.

What is a Philosophy of Ministry? Simply put, it tells us why we do what we do in the way we do it.

All Christians who have been serving for some years (paid and volunteer) do it from out of their philosophy of ministry. Whether they are conscious of it or not, whether they have thought through it or not, it is there. It guides them when they make ministry decisions and it directs them on how they do ministry. Where did it come from? General speaking, it was likely passed on to them by their church and ministry leaders and/or picked up from books they read which influenced them, and eventually internalised along the way of service.

Unfortunately most Christians have not thought about their philosophy of ministry, much less worked through it. At no point did they consider whether it is Biblical or not, and whether it is the best approach to their service or not. This becomes critical for those who are in positions of influence like leaders of a ministry or a church; more so if they are the lead pastors or the key leaders of a Christian organisation.

Why is knowing your philosophy of ministry important? For starters, knowing why is critical for clarity; not only just for yourself but also for those who are working with you. If you are clear, it will help you to be consistent in applying your philosophy of ministry in every situation. In fact, this is one of the most important keys to help you work through difficult situations; because you know why you are doing what you are doing in the way you are doing it. When you are consistent your fellow-workers will value you as a person of integrity and likely, to be happy to follow your lead. On the other hand, if your philosophy of ministry is fuzzy and you are often flip-flopping, they will be very uncertain about how you make ministry decisions and eventually you will lose their trust in you.

This does not mean that a Philosophy of Ministry is written in concrete. It can be modified or even overhauled if you are convinced that another philosophy is better (and “more” Biblical). Mine has not significantly changed since that time when I wrote it down, but it has certainly developed further.

If you are a ministry or church leader, and especially, if you are the lead pastor or a leader in a Christian organisation, you need to write down your philosophy of ministry. You may begin with something broad and general vis-à-vis your approach to ministry. Then, you may single out some specific areas of ministry to work through. If you are a pastor of a church you will want to look at the role of the pastor, leadership structure, finance, church growth and discipleship, to name a few.

Start working on it and enjoy the journey. I know for a fact that the value that you will get from doing this will far outweigh the effort you put into it.

A Critical Factor When Engaging New Staff

The usual things that church leaderships look into when getting a new pastoral staff is his (or her) character, his beliefs vis-à-vis the doctrinal distinctives of the church, and the match between his giftings with the specific role to be filled. Let’s just call them Character, Convictions and Competencies. If these are rated at a good level, the new staff is engaged and then, thrusted upon the Pastor to manage. In some cases, over time, it becomes clear that the new staff cannot work with the Pastor. This could be due to a number of reasons, such as differences in vision and philosophy of ministry, and a fourth “C” element, Chemistry.

This must be avoided. A gifted staff who cannot “flow” with the Pastor is counterproductive.

To pre-empt this, it is critical that the candidate understands and accepts the church’s direction and way of doing ministry. Which, presupposes that the church leadership have already worked out, agreed on and are clear about where the church is going and how it’s going to get there. The potential staff’s recruitment is to help the church meet those goals, not to go cross grain to them. If he does not buy into it, it is suicidal to recruit him. A staff disaster is simply waiting to happen.

Furthermore (and this is hardly ever taken into consideration in most churches), since the vision and philosophy of ministry of the church are largely shaped and communicated by the Pastor, it follows that he should have the determining say in the recruitment of a team member. Another reason is because the Pastor is the primary person who will be relating, working and managing the new staff; not the church leaders. He must feel that he is able to work with the prospective staff and vice-versa.

This does not mean that the Pastor alone has the responsibility and authority to hire and fire. The input and opinions of the other leaders are equally important, but the Pastor should never be pushed to accept a candidate whom he views negatively. To force a staff on the Pastor will inevitably lead to poor staff relationships and poor ministry performances all round; and eventually a crisis in the church when things blow up.

If you are a Pastor, don’t take on a new pastoral staff out of desperation. You have to make sure that he (or she) is a good fit with your team, and with you in particular; that he is able to flow with you. If you are a church leader, don’t compel your Pastor to take on a person whom he has reservations. Finally, if you are a candidate for a pastoral staff position be very certain that you can flow with the Pastor’s vision and philosophy of ministry. If you can’t, then don’t accept the position even if it is offered to you. It will save everyone, including yourself, a lot of headache and heartache.


Preaching the Same Sermon Again (…and again)

When I was pastoring a church I preached largely to the same people each Sunday. Obviously, it had to be a different sermon. That’s the challenge of a pastor: to bring a fresh message from the Word to the same faithfuls. The upside is that it keeps you studying and growing, besides stretching your creativity so that the faithful won’t find you boring.

Now that I am no longer a pastor of a church, I get to preach in different churches. The temptation for me is to choose my “better” sermons and recycle them. After all, as someone said, “If a sermon is not worth repeating, it is not worth preaching in the first place!” The downside is that it can make a preacher lazy; you don’t study as much anymore, so you don’t enlarge and grow. Furthermore, recycled sermons will not come out as fresh as when you first prepared and preached it to the original group.

I believe the same applies to seminars. Something that I am doing much more now than I used to when I was pastoring a church. Usually it will be a seminar from among my repertoire that you find listed in the website’s Seminar page ( But just as often I will be asked to do something that’s not in the list. My first reaction would be, “Oh boy, more work!” But, inevitably it will turn out to be better for everyone, including me.

It’s good for those at the receiving end because they get something fresh; not something that I just pull out from the files. It will be material that I have taken time to research and study, thought and worked through from almost ground zero. “Almost”, because I can only teach on areas that I am fairly well versed in; I will not teach on a subject that I have little understanding or experience.

Furthermore, as I am preparing to teach this new material I will inevitably be thinking of the people or the church, and the context of their experience. In other words, I tailor-make the content, structure and style of the seminar to them.

The bottom line for all of us preachers and teachers of the Word is that we need to keep ourselves spiritually fresh so that there is a freshness when we preach and teach, even if we might be reusing a sermon or seminar material. If a sermon or seminar doesn’t excite you anymore, even if has a proven track record, don’t preach or teach it. It won’t come-off in the same way—it won’t take off. We are short-changing the people who have come to listen to us.

If I were to repeat a sermon or seminar material I would rework it; throw out the not-so-useful stuff and add in new and better material. I would ask the Holy Spirit to tell me what I should emphasize for this particular group of people or church. I would try and tailor-make it for the people who have so graciously invited me to minister to them. Most of all I want to honour Jesus who called me to this awesome service!

Please Train Me

Preaching takes place in all churches, as part of the weekly worship service. Additionally, most churches have programmes such as Bible Classes and special seminars to teach their members the Bible, doctrines of the Christian faith and principles of Christian living. However, not as many churches have regular programmes to train their members for Christian service. From what I have observed, “training” is one of the factors that marks out a church that is doing better from a church that is not doing so well.

EmpowermentPreaching, teaching and training have different functions. Preaching is largely to inspire; teaching is to instruct; training is to equip. Preaching is directed at the heart; teaching shapes the mind; training empowers the hands. All three are important. The church cannot stop at preaching and teaching; it cannot afford to neglect to train its members for ministry if it wants to develop the church and advance the Kingdom of God.

In many cases, members are enlisted but not empowered. Someone (anyone) is conscripted simply because there is a need to be met. He is not shown what to do and how to do the job. He is, very likely, not told why he has been asked to serve in a particular ministry, which is important to motivate him. This is unfortunately true for even such basic ministries like teaching in the Sunday School and leading a Cell Group. Training for “simple” jobs like greeting and ushering are usually glossed over. Inevitably, if none or inadequate training is provided, the workers will not be able to do a good job with passion and skill.

Preaching may inspire, but without the complementary training, members may know what they ought to do but they will not be empowered to do it. This often leads to guilt. For example, in the area of personal evangelism, sermons are often filled with exhortations to evangelise the lost; with Bible quotes, statistics and stories of the eternal destiny of unsaved loved ones. However, there is no follow-up to help the average Christian overcome his fear of sharing his faith, nor to empower him with tools for witnessing. He is not paired-up with a more experienced member for on-the-job training. And even before all that, to pray for him to be filled with the Spirit (Acts 1:8).

The pastor who does not equip his members ends up doing everything by himself. Sometimes it is the fault of the church. Tradition expects the pastor to do everything; preaching, counselling, visitation, intercession, printing the bulletin, and the list goes on. Sometimes it is the fault of the pastor himself; he wants to do all the ministry himself. He may focus on his strongest ministry like preaching or prophesying or ministering to people in prayer, but he does not train others to do these ministries.

Ephesians 4:11-12 makes it clear that the primary job of the apostle, prophet, evangelist and pastor-teacher is to equip God’s people for service. Does the evangelist preach the Gospel? Yes. But his primary job is to raise up more evangelists who can in turn reach more people with the Gospel. Does the pastor-teacher provide pastoral care and teaching? Yes. But his primary job is to multiply himself via the people in his church so that more can provide spiritual nurture. When this happens the capacity of the church increases and more can be reached and discipled.

Churches need to correct this bottle-neck syndrome; and training is a critical part of the solution. When the “specially gifted man of God” and the “ordinary people of God” carry out their respective Ephesian 4-prescribed roles the church will grow.

Preaching and Teaching are Not the Same Thing

Preach the WordI believe that the failure to make a distinction between preaching and teaching is one of the key reasons for poor sermons. Sermons that are more teaching in content and style of presentation but attempt to pass off as preaching is a serious cause of disconnect between the preacher and the people in the congregation. The what and the why of preaching and teaching are different, and hence, when  a speaker employs them depends on whether he is preaching or teaching.

To understand the difference between the two we must first look at their respective purpose. The purpose of teaching is to help people understand the Bible and it’s truths; to help the listeners know about God and what He has said. Broadly speaking, teaching addresses the mind more than the heart. This does not mean that the teacher does not challenge his students to apply the Word into their lives. He does, and he must, as teaching of the Bible has to lead to life-change.

On the other hand, the purpose of preaching is to help people hear what the Word of God is saying to them now. It targets the heart; to inspire, challenge and cause the listeners to apply God’s Word in their lives—leading to life-change.

The sermon at a worship service is where preaching ought to take place. However, in many churches (across all denominations, but especially among conservative evangelical churches) teaching makes up the bulk of the sermon. Explanation is given by the preacher about how he had arrived at his interpretation. He may go into the original language, provide the historical context of the Bible text, take the listeners on a tour of the geography, give the different possible interpretations as he quotes this and that scholar, and refers to other Bible references to underscore his interpretation, but he never gets to the address the question, So what?

What? is what teaching focuses on. So what? is what preaching should focus on. It is the message of the passage; the big point of the sermon. It cannot be left to the last five minutes of the sermon; the preacher would have lost his listeners to the message because he had lost them with his elaborate explanation of the text. The message may be hinted at early in the sermon;  certainly it must be developed as the sermon is preached, with plenty of time for amplification and application after the thrust has been stated. For a sermon to have been effective, the listeners must go away knowing clearly what the message was about and be impacted by it.

Is teaching not important in a sermon? It certainly is—very important, because the message is based on the Bible. In other words, teaching must be the basis of the preaching; teaching must inform the preaching. However, in a sermon the teaching content cannot take a disproportionate amount of time. The preacher does not do his exegesis at the pulpit; he does that in his study. At the pulpit he preaches the message that he has distilled from his study, having sought the Lord in prayer, and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

The pulpit at the weekly worship service is not the place to do teaching (I should qualify that with the word “elaborate”). Bible classes and special seminars are the places where more in-depth Bible teaching happens. And that, we must have in our churches. Christians must be know the Word of God; they must be taught the Bible. But not through the sermon at the weekly worship service (don’t take this sentence out of context!). The purpose of preaching is to bring a message from the Lord based on the Word of God to the listeners that they need to hear now.

Leadership Succession From Within

This blog posting is a follow-up to the previous one I wrote, and I am calling it: Leadership Succession from Within. I wrote this article some 10 years ago for Georgetown Baptist Church’s 50th Anniversary magazine (2006). I have made some minor edits to make it more appropriate for the blog. I believe it is worth a read and  careful thought.

Succession Planning

Many churches start well, but when the pioneers or the pastors move on—the church starts to falter. This may last for years, until it is able to engage another capable pastor. The momentum, however, that had been built up during the previous pastor’s tenure is all but lost, and the new pastor has to practically start from ground zero.

To their credit, the leaders of Georgetown Baptist Church did well to keep the church going when the previous pastor left for Petaling Jaya: ably organizing themselves to provide pastoral care for the whole church and then still had the time, energy and vision to plant a new church in another part of the city.

It was not until December 1993, almost four years later, that I became GBC’s next pastor. Imagine how much more the church would have developed if there had not been such a gap—if there had been another pastor who immediately took over. Not just any pastor, but a pastor who had been groomed from within the church. Engaging someone from outside would mean time for the new pastor and the church to get to know and trust each other. Inevitably, I had to start almost from the ground. As a result the church hardly saw any numerical growth in the first four years of my tenure.

Before I left I was determined that this would not happen again; that there would be a pastor groomed up from within GBC and waiting in the wings to take over…. In such a situation there might still be hiccups, but certainly much less. This is because the succeeding pastor already understands the philosophy of ministry and vision of the church, he has worked with the church leadership, the members know him and have “taken to him”. Not that he will simply carry on doing everything that the previous pastor has done. Any good pastor will definitely introduce change, but he will have the advantage of building on the blocks—blocks that he has helped to develop in the first place.

Leaders must never fear raising up other leaders; even if it means that some of them will outshine us! That was what I aimed for. My goal was to pass the church into the hands of better men and women.

Paul was a great apostle—some say, the greatest. But in my mind Barnabas was the greater man. He recruited Paul because he saw Paul’s potential. He mentored Paul and wasn’t afraid that Paul might overtake him. Eventually when Paul did, he wasn’t concerned for his own face. My hope is to be a Barnabas to some Pauls.

Success is not about growing a great church. “Success” is about having a “successor” to take the church even further.

Leadership Succession

In recent weeks I attended two very significant events. The first was the celebration of the life and ministry of Pr. Dr. Daniel Ho, who at the age of 65 stepped down as the Senior Pastor of Damansara Utama Methodist Church. The second was the celebration of Georgetown Baptist Church’s  60th Anniversary and dedication of their new building with a seating capacity for 1,200 people.

Close-up on the Hand of a Male Athlete Passing a Relay Baton to Another Athlete, With a Dramatic Sky in the Background

Daniel Ho’s readiness to step down as the SP of DUMC, a church he co-founded and led for more than 30 years, and which has grown into a mega church, is a testimony to his humility and leadership philosophy. Too many pastors (including lay leaders/elders) don’t know how to let go. And that is one of the reasons for the stagnation or even decline among some churches.

However, Daniel Ho had worked hard on the development of the leadership for the next and even later generations. He had been grooming his young lieutenants for a long time, and over the last couple of years he had taken deliberate steps to transit the leadership of DUMC to the designated successor, Chris Kam.

It’s the stories of Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, Paul and Timothy played out in our contemporary church scene.

I cannot claim to have been as intentional as the Biblical examples or Daniel Ho, but I did my bit at GBC. After 13 years as the SP I felt I was no longer the right person to take the church to the next level. GBC needed someone fresh, more able and with greater energy. I believed that Ng Kok Aun was God’s man. In fact it was by my encouragement that he had stepped into the full-time ministry eight years earlier. And during that time as we served together he had proven himself faithful and able.

At the point of transition, Kok Aun may not have been fully ready to assume the role of GBC’s SP (my fault due to lack of foresight), but 10 years later it is evident that he is God’s man for this season. The church has grown; it is healthy, strong and united. And one of the evidences for this is the new church building.

I strongly believe that there is a huge need for intentional leadership succession in the church today. Pastors and church leaders need to identify and intentionally raise up their successors. Secondly, a pastor or church leader must not overstay his time, especially if he is the main leader of the church. When he is no longer the man to lead the church he should be ready to admit it and step out. If a pastor is not prepared to do the latter he will not do the former. This calls for humility and honesty, as a pastor listens for the leading of the Lord during the different seasons of his life and ministry. It may be time to go and for his successor to take over.

We must think long term, we must think into the next and later generations; for without succession there can no long term success into the future generations.

Read next about “Leadership Succession from Within”.

Pastors and Elders

Recently I was asked to share my thoughts on the role of the pastor in the church. Among other things, I explained that in the New Testament the local church had only two kinds of leaders: Elders and Deacons. And pastors fall into the category of elders.

PastorThe New Testament is very clear that “Pastor”, “Elder” and “Overseer” refer to the same person, occupying the same position and playing the same role. These terms are translated from three different Greek words, used interchangeably. For example, 1 Peter 5:1-2 reads, “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder…. Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers….” In Acts 20:17 Luke writes,  “From Miletus, Paul sent to Ephesus for the elders of the church.” Then, in v28 Paul exhorts these elders to, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God….” (italics mine). I don’t think it can be any plainer than that.

Why three different words? Simply because each term tells us something more about this very important office in the church. “Elder” underscores the maturity of the person. “Overseer” explains the person’s leadership role. “Pastor” identifies the person’s pastoral function.

Obviously, this conclusion has serious implications on church polity as it is practiced today, and including our understanding of the role of the Pastor. If the Bible teaches that Pastors and Elders are one and the same, we can’t, therefore, have Pastors in a separate category from the Elders of the church. The Pastor in a single-staff church, or the Lead Pastor in a multi-staff church, must have equal standing, authority and leadership with the other Elders. It clearly contradicts the New Testament when a person who is designated as a Pastor, carrying out the pastoral function, but does not have the leadership authority of an Elder.

If there is no intention for such a person to be part of the Eldership then it is best that he is not called “Pastor” (or “Lead/Senior/Main Pastor”). It will only lead to a  lot of misunderstanding and great frustration. It is best to designate such a person as a “Ministry Staff”, or by his job title such as the “Cell Group Director”.

Furthermore, in some multi-staff churches an attempt is made to differentiate between Pastors who have the same standing with the Elders and those who do not. The former is given the designation “Pastor-Elder”. To say the least, that is an oxymoron. Something that we have conjured up to solve a problem we had created in the first place.

To add to the confusion, some churches have “lay pastors”. They are “lay” in the sense that they are not paid staff. They are given the designation “Pastor” in that they carry out pastoral ministry. However, they are not Elders of the church. The point is not that no one other than Pastors or Elders may carry out pastoral ministry. Certainly, every believer and especially the more mature ones should provide pastoral care for other members of the Body. But it does not mean that they are to be designated as Pastors. If a person is to be designated as a Pastor, then he is also an Elder.

It is gravely unfortunate that the term “Pastor” in use in many evangelical churches today is primarily about the person’s pastoral function rather than his designation. This anomaly, however, has never been the intended teaching of the New Testament.

All these problems have arisen simply because of the unbiblical differentiation we have made between “Pastor” and “Elder”. It is time that we get it right. It is time that we return to the New Testament teaching about who we call “Pastors” and their role, and also about the leadership structure of the church.