What pastors can learn from Ms Sumiko Tan

sumiko tan

Who is Sumiko?

Can a pastor learn anything from Singapore’s “most famous single woman”? Ms Sumiko Tan, 46, is a Straits Times editor. Her Sunday Times column, which began in July 1994, is famous and with it she has grown a mega fan base. Like a confession booth to which the public has access instead of a priest, she bares her soul and pours out the angst of a successful but lonely single career woman. The public always grants her absolution. The single woman identifies with her pain; the single man wants to rescue her from her emotional plight; the marrieds feel they have made the right choice in getting married and having children.

One blogger, Jeremy Yew, says this about her:

“Let’s face it folks, Sumiko Tan’s column is Singapore’s favourite and most well-known real-life soap opera. Her musings on life, and especially on love, or the lack of it, have been well-documented in the Sunday Times. We all read her columns because she’s the only one who dares to bare her soul to the nation. Very few things in life resonate better with an audience than someone telling the world that she has not been able to find true love. Sumiko wasn’t afraid to tell Singapore about her inability to find a life partner and her immense regret that she may have missed the proverbial boat”.

People want authenticity

In a way, she was a blogger ahead of her times. She shared her life as it was. No mask. No veneer. It took courage to be open and honest, for it made her vulnerable to personal attacks from online hate forums. The rewards of doing so are greater than the risks. Her fans feel a close emotional bond to her. Thousands of singles could relate and identify with her feelings and that alone was very helpful for them. With her recent plan to marry, many found joy, comfort and hope. She helps her readers because of her transparency in sharing her trials and tribulations and secret feelings. Look at this example from “Feeling Half A Woman”:

“Again, it’s not that I look on enviously at couples. I really don’t. I’m happy with my life. But once in a while, it hits me that maybe there’s something wrong with me. It doesn’t matter how I love my single life. It doesn’t matter that I have all the personal space in the world. It doesn’t matter what I’ve achieved in my career. It doesn’t matter how I know it’s better to be alone than to be alone in a marriage. It doesn’t matter that I’ve seen how marriage isn’t a binding contract or a guarantee of a happy-ever-after. It doesn’t matter how many boyfriends I’ve had or might have. It doesn’t matter if there are men who care for my well-being. The fact remains that I am not married, and I say this not in a self-pitying way but as an acknowledgment of a, to me, puzzling fact. And the fact remains that no one has been mad enough about me – and I for him – for us to embark on a journey together. The fact remains that no matter how fun singlehood is, there are nights when I lie in my nice big bed all by my lonesome self (well, actually my dog sleeps with me), and think: Is there something wrong with me? Is this all there is to life? Why aren’t I married? Am I not good enough? Am I not lovable enough? Am I not capable of loving deeply and permanently? Have I been too fussy? Do I have bad karma? Don’t I deserve more? My mother was married, my sister is married, Michelle Obama is married, the woman who cleans the office pantry is married, so many ‘normal’ women are married, why not me? Have I failed as a woman? Am I inadequate?”

A dash of transparency in the pulpit

We need a little of this kind of transparency from our pulpits. Not every Sunday please. Just occasionally. Pastors do not share such personal disclosures because they feel it is unprofessional. Or they are plain afraid to let people know who they really are. They fear they will lose the trust of the congregation and therefore their ability to disciple them. The vulnerability and risks are too much for most to accept. Or their church culture does not allow it. They do not want to be misunderstood of navel-gazing. Or they subscribe to a teaching that frowns on confessions of weakness or negativity.

Bible examples

The Bible gives a few examples when great men bared their souls without shame. It was said of Jesus at the garden of Gethsemane, “…he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”(Matt 26:37,38). Paul the apostle bared his heart, “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death” and, “we were harassed at every turn – conflicts on the outside, fears within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us…”(2 Cor 1:8,9;  7:5,6). They talked about overwhelming sorrow and pressure, the feeling of hopelessness, of fear and depression. They were secure and did not feel like they had to project success and victory all the time.

Pastors baring their souls

We pastors should bare our souls every now and then about our journey. Our congregation needs to identify with us in our struggles and weaknesses, our journey of failure and not just victory. This will build solid bonds of intimacy and trust. It will also lubricate discipleship and spiritual formation. In addition, authenticity is what modern believers are searching for and they know instinctively that the “know it all” and “have sorted it all” kind of preacher are not real but fake projections. We need to own up.

This is what pastors can learn from Sumiko Tan: allowing the church family to know us as we really are; and allowing them to accept and love us despite what is known. This is healing and wholeness for us and for the church.

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  • This is another wonderful piece. I remember my first year in theological college when in family group I’d made a comment about preachers/pastors being transparent from the pulpit. I was soundly silenced by the faculty member who was my FG father. He said that one should NOT reveal any personal weakness or struggle from the pulpit.
    Over the years, I have not let that silence me. I have met different and varying responses to being transparent. My most recent sermons included some honest confessions of being human and being far from perfect. But when held in contrast with God’s love for me despite all that…I believe it helped even the preacher herself continue to accept the fact that nothing can separate us from the love of God.

    We need to know when NOT to save face especially our own. Tis all for God’s glory and not our own.

    I appreciate you and Sumiko for honest, careful transparency that allows others to be themselves, accept themselves and then to receive God’s unconditional love for them.

  • For preachers who preach the law, it is counter-productive for them to show weakness because they teach that the law is “keepable”, and therefore they cannot be seen as not being able to keep it.

    Perhaps this is why Pastor Kong Hee did not want to admit that his copy and paste devotionals was plagiarism but preferred to call it “just a lack of citation”.

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