Stage 1: Apathy
I guess it could have been because I was young and barely able to vote… But even when I went to the UK, and all my local peers were so enthusiastic about policies and parties, many of us from conservative Asian countries did not resonate. We couldn’t understand why this was so important to our European classmates. The Christians amongst us would use a theological “excuse”: Jesus is King — why do we need to care about temporal secular authorities?
Stage 2: Self-Interest
Things hit home when the then UK government shifted its emphasis to prioritise EU citizens. This meant that suddenly the renewal of my visa was in jeopardy. It also meant the job that I was about to embark on was suddenly taken away and I was left standing out in the cold. With the doors closing fast, we decided to leave the country. This was when I understood that whoever rules, in the houses of parliament, matters. Ironically, the current UK government enforced Brexit, which of course meant that all us outsiders were in demand again… 10 years too late for me.
Stage 3: Disillusionment
Coming back home I was not happy. Who are these people who think they can control my life and force me to make decisions? I realised the power that they had and the little that I had… until the next Singaporean general elections. Oh, then I understood the thrill of democracy. Could I really change things? Of course, my voting that year represented my sentiment rather than the candidates’ prowess. I was angry and took it out on the powers that be. Plain and simple. I look back at that time with regret and thank the sovereignty of God that it didn’t do too much (any?) damage. My vote revealed my heart.
Stage 4: Examples
Perhaps the time I finally grew interested in ministers, is when I became one (a pastor that is). Having been given authority over church, I realised I needed to find role models to emulate. How do we deal with tricky situations and difficult people? Scripture was useful to point me to Jesus, but I also needed human examples to put flesh to paper. Thankfully, God provided some older pastors – but those that were gifted in administration were rare. I needed to look to secular leaders in corporations and government to fill in the blanks. How to lead was the perennial question.
Stage 5: Governance
The higher one gets, the more people there are to serve. I realised that I cannot just function as an individual. We need teams and policies; we need clarity and consistency and communication to effect change throughout the organisation. We needed good corporate governance. I think this is something churches are a little slower to grasp. Individual leadership is welcomed, but corporate governance often feels a little… well… too corporate. But here is where I needed to see how people worked in systems. Civil and public servants became mentors. Organizational development trainers were good to have on speed dial! How do we do this one body many parts thing well?
Stage 6: Power
When we go into Christian ministry, rarely do most of us think of power. Yet when we get titles and positions, we are in positions of power. Spiritual and relational power is one of the most impressive — you literally can get people to change entire lifestyles, career paths and even risk their lives based on what you say. We must acknowledge the power we wield.
Established power structures are totally different from newly formed parties or opposition candidates. Expectations change — everything you do right is status quo, everything you do wrong is catastrophic (the same rules don’t apply for the newcomer). When you make a mistake, it becomes organisational failure and betrayal — personal apologies are insufficient — and everything must be public. You also become a target for those disgruntled with previous authority figures (e.g. those who didn’t like their parents) — see Stage 3 earlier!
The longer one stays in power, the more things like transparency, authenticity, accountability are needed. Looking at the Singapore political climate made that noticeably clear. In Luke’s gospel we see the Christ who puts His whole life on display. We see the Christ who spends His whole life not in ivory towers but living amongst His people — He is God come down. He is the King who does not lift His heart above His brothers and sisters.
Being at the same level of your congregants or citizens, to empathise with listening ear and by being present in the same “mess” is the only way to prevent accusations of elitism or being atas. The more power you have, and the longer you have it, the more you must practise a reverse form of social mobility.
Stage 7: Humility
The more I stay in leadership, the more I realise I don’t belong here. CS Lewis’ quote on democracy made the most sense:
I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people…. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. … I see no men fit to be masters.
I am a sinner and the spotlight of leadership amplifies all my sins (worse still when you see your bad habits replicated in your people).
I am only here because of the grace and calling of God. No one is fit to govern, except Jesus. I realize that now, not cognitively as I did years ago, but experientially so.
Now, I take a great interest in politicians, parties and policies — I’m looking for the kingdom, what resonates and how it would look like; and what is dissonant too. But who gets in power, what they do, how long they stay — all this is clearly not something I’m responsible for, no matter how much democracy makes you think you are. There is a King of Kings.
Rev Dr Dev Menon is the pastor in charge of discipleship at Zion Bishan Bible-Presbyterian Church. He is married to one wonderful wife, Chene, and they have four children, Josiah, Jerusha, Tirzah and Jeremiah. Dev is also the author of The Plate Spinner, The Pattern, Run to the Rock, The Rest Race.