Anybody in the pastoral ministry will be able to testify how challenging it can be, and how equally exciting it can be because you have a front seat to the theatre of God’s activity in the church and in your life and ministry. With so many challenges, how then have I been sustained in forty years of pastoral ministry.
The Support of Loved Ones
Family support was crucial. To have a supportive family, especially a supportive spouse was without doubt an absolute necessity for long term sustainability in my experience. To go into pastoral ministry without my wife Jenny’s support would be foolhardy and risky. Thankfully, my wife knew I was called into the pastoral ministry and supported me to the hilt. In the early years, this included finances for she earned much more than me as a system analyst. Later, when led of the Lord, she gave up her job to be a full-time mum, and she united with me heart and soul to trust God for financial provision, God never failed us, not once.
To have a partner in faith, hope and love was a great strength. She was there to encourage and pray with and for me. She could tolerate my nights away from home, my long hours of sermon preparation, when I would be lost in thought and not fully present for her. She could tell when I feel down and encouraged me. Her presence meant a lot too. As much as she could, she used her gifts of encouragement and evangelism. I could work fully for the church and in peace because she devoted herself to the needs (physical, emotional, spiritual and academic) of the children. I also appreciate my children’s quiet understanding and strength. I once thought they might have suffered much from being pastor’s kids, but they said that they saw it as more of a blessing, than a burden.
Encouraging and Complementary Co-workers
I was blessed to grow up in a church culture that practiced body-ministry. Whether in full-time vocational Christian work or not, every believer has been assigned gifts and roles to fulfill different functions needed in the body of Christ. Therefore, I had wonderfully complementary gifted “lay-leaders” that served as my co-workers in the Lord’s work: in the board (eg Abraham Sim, Paul Chan, Francis Shin), children’s church, cell groups, worship teams and many other areas. I do not have all the gifts. In fact, I have but “five loaves and two fish”. The Lord knew I needed people with gifts I lack (especially strategy and administration), and indeed they were always around and I found that their participation helped me to serve over the long haul. The pastoral staff I worked with were also supportive, co-operative, and superb team players, and I always had a Barnabas (“son of encouragement”) among them. For example at the beginning, Pastor Johney, my predecessor was a mentor and encourager. At the tail end, I had Ps Thomas. Lord, thank you.
Outside Comfort and Prayer
I needed pastor friends outside the church to serve faithfully over the long haul. My seminary classmate Raphael Samuel (now a bishop) was one. After he left for Bolivia, I joined an ecumenical group of pastors and priests led by Rev Dr Lorna Khoo who met monthly for faith-sharing and prayer accountability. Then followed a period where I was bereft of such faith sharing groups. I prayed the Lord would give me some. He did. There was Rev Dr Norman Wong, Rev Vincent Hoon (who was my random roommate in a Love Singapore Pastor’s Prayer Summit), Rev Kenny Fam, Rev Cheng Eng Hwa with whom I studied with for Masters program. Near the tail end of my pastoral ministry I had the input and wisdom of Ps Koh Seng Chor (who retired ahead of me) and Rev Dr Jimmy Wong, a Trinity Theological College lecturer. These were my peer mentors, friends and accountability groups. I needed them, and I still need such small faith communities. Since retirement, I have joined a pastors’ group in the Ministers’ Fellowship International, Singapore, and a Catholic community of friends with a passion for facilitating silent retreat and caminos.
These groups were vital for me because I needed a place where it was safe to share my hopes and joys, and my burdens and frustrations, and not be judged but get input and prayer. We met once a month, over one or two hours and sometimes more. These were the small groups that strengthened my faith, hope and love. They were reliable sources of comfort, strength and wisdom. Without them it would have been so much tougher.
The Lord is the one who lives within me and sustains me. People were his instruments. Spiritual disciplines were the means that helped me connect with God and experience his grace, strength and insights. For many years, the bread and butter for me had been the practice of slow meditation on God’s word and prayer. In the second half of my pastoral ministry, journaling, reflective prayer (examen), weekly sabbaths, annual retreats, have been a great help, especially in those latter years of dryness, church conflicts and hitting the wall. I needed more time, and different prayer practices, and the guidance of a spiritual director to help me pray over and process the many emotional upheavals and regrets that surfaced and required attention and healing. These practices taught me to pay attention to my inner life, to soul-care and to spiritual discernment. They taught me to trust God more and be freed from the “besetting sin” and burdens that weighed me down(without my knowledge) as I ran this marathon of a race.
I suppose there are many other helps that have not come to mind and given time, I could add more. I am sure other pastors reading this may have other ideas of what contributes to sustainable pastoral ministry over the long haul. Perhaps a wise philosophy of ministry…a rule of life….a way of managing your work. Please share in the comment box above.