7 Questions with Chee Seng Fah
Name: Chee Seng Fah
Current title: Senior Pastor
Current organisation: Clayton Church of Christ Fellowship
I am turning 40 years old! I have 2 boys aged from 4yrs old to 7yrs old. I was previously a dentist and diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at 24. God healed me and called me into church ministry as a pastor. I have attended the same church for 32 years and been on staff leadership for about 14 years. I took on the senior role in 2007. I was married for 14 years, until my late wife (Wei Lyn) passed away in June 2018 through a sudden brain haemorrhage. I took 2 months off and continued serving in the same role and church. It’s been 2 years since, and God is changing our season. I am passionate about seeing a whole of life disciple-making movement in our nation.
1. What have you found most challenging as a church leader?
Pace. Determining what is the right pace and season for the team and the church. I’ve only been four years into the senior role, but I’m assuming that with more time and experience I would learn how to read this better. I’ve come to realise the role as the leader is to manage the tension between vision and reality, and to bring the team and the church along on that journey. This requires the art of reading the right pace that doesn’t just achieve the outcome but fosters a spirit of joy and celebration in the process. Things generally take longer than I realise and expect, and I’m learning to be at rest without it ‘feeling’ like things aren’t moving forward.
2. How did you become a church leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?
I graduated from Melbourne Uni with a Bachelor of Dental Science. I worked for a few years as a dentist. At 24 (2004), 6 months into my marriage I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. I’m the longest cancer survivor with my kind of cancer in Australia. During 2006 I was working part time at our church to assist the young adult pastor. Over time I felt a growing discontentment in dentistry and felt the call of God into full time church ministry in 2008 when I took on an associate pastor role. Since then I’ve fulfilled a series of roles and in 2017 I took on the lead pastor role at my church (Clayton Church of Christ Fellowship).
3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?
I’m pretty flexible in my work days. My approach to time management is generally based on energy management. I schedule my time, type of work and places of work according to what brings the best out of me. I have colour coded my calendar so that at a glance I can see if I have the right balance between the type of ‘work’ I’ve done in the week and adjust where needed the following week. My ‘type of work’ generally falls into four categories: people, organisational leadership, work admin, sermon prep time. I generally schedule my thought work in the morning when I’m at my best and the rest in the other parts of the day.
I also schedule your typical time with God, family and exercise. I usually have my sabbath on Wednesday where I schedule an extended half a day with God walking, journaling, praying and reading the Word. It’s my lifeline.
I remember a leader was once asked, ‘how many nights a week should I spend at home with my family as a church leader?’. I was expecting him to say 3-4 nights a week, but his answer was deeply profound. He said, ‘it depends what your family needs’. I’ve learnt that ‘work/life’ balance is a tension that is meant to be managed, not resolved. As a result, the art of adapting is more important than the discipline of being structured.
4. What one book had the most profound impact on your church leadership? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
“Strengthening the Soul of Leadership” by Ruth Haley Barton. It was given to me by the lead pastor of a methodist church in Malaysia. It had a profound impact on my church leadership by first having an impact on my own self leadership. This helped set up a foundation for soul care in my leadership that has enabled me to prevent burnout in my life and position my soul for longevity in ministry.
It was a timely book that spoke into the dynamics I was experiencing in church leadership and its impact on my soul. I had enough self awareness and leadership experience to see how church leaders like myself can so easily lose their soul. Phrases like:
‘I was drawn to care for hurt things, I had ended up with compassion fatigue’
‘Drawn to a life of servanthood, I had ended up a service provider’
Drawn to marry the Divine Presence, I had ended up estranged’
Are leaders of the future truly men and women of God, people with an ardent desire to dwell in God’s presence, to listen to God’s voice, to look at God’s beauty, to touch God’s incarnate Word and to taste fully God’s infinite goodness?
This equipped me to learn the art of paying attention to the inner realities and longings in my soul that instead of straying me away from God, positioned me to bring it before God and become my true self in God. I learnt the practice of silence and solitude as the place where I could give up control, and allow God to be God in my life. I learnt how the gospel freed me from image management, and vulnerability and authenticity became a natural thing, not just a difficult thing, in the life of discipleship. This equipped me to see the importance of leading the church from a healthy soul, and to recognise and reposition myself for soul care, when I became aware of the inner dysfunctions that could impede my church leadership.
5. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
Pastor Tom Nelson once confessed to a gathering of pastors, ‘I have committed pastoral malpractice. I had spent the majority of my time, equipping my people for the minority of their life.’ With that confession, he articulated a gap I could see in the leadership culture of the church that I didn’t know how to articulate. I realised that while we say our mission is to build disciples, our practice in reality works towards building the Sunday disciple, vs the whole of life disciple. Through that I’ve learnt the importance of whole of life discipleship, our church’s role in doing so.
On a personal front I’ve been through parental divorce and remarriage, cancer, difficulty having children, changing of career, family dealing with disability, death of spouse, single again issues etc. I’ve learnt that life is what God uses to shape us to become like Jesus, and it is the platform God uses to help us reveal God to others. I’ve spent the last 4 years trying to align our practice as a church to fulfill that vision of building disciples who can represent Jesus to their everyone, their everywhere with their everything rather than trying to ‘grow’ the attendance of our church bigger.
6. How do you develop a healthy leadership pipeline in a church?
I’ve realised in the past we have built leaders who can ‘run ministries’ and ‘small groups’, but not necessarily build leaders as people who know how to build disciples who build other disciples. We’ve spent time thinking and began implementing some things of how to align our leadership development to that purpose. We have leadership gatherings, we have lifegroup leaders and leaders who provide oversight over them. I feel this is an area we could grow in and do alot better. This is definitely a key focus over the next 3 years.
7. If you had to pick just one story, what would be the most meaningful story from your time as a church leader so far?
The key story is the power of God’s community that supported me during the passing of my wife two years ago. I was initially frustrated at having to consider the church community while having to navigate through my own personal grief while my wife was in ICU. I remembered the same frustration when I had to walk through my cancer at 24. People were projecting their own fears, their own concerns, and I felt I had to deal with other people’s issues let alone my one.
I remember a moment of change for me. My wife was on the life support system, and I was in ICU lying in bed with her complaining to God about it and reading the book of Job. I realised in that Job had to wrestle through his suffering in community for 38 chapters. I was convicted that you cannot do it without the complexity of community, but instead to embrace it and bring the community along.
That became the turning point where I made a decision to be an open book with my grief to the community. Instead of being private, I embraced vulnerability before the community. I told them how to help me through my grief, I accepted help, I shared my struggles, and how God walked with me through it. Their grief, became my grief. My grief became theirs. There were some painful, inappropriate statements, but yet it was overshadowed by the beauty, love, grace, and support of the community around me. I realised if this is what the community of faith could do for me, how I as a leader could lead our community of faith to do it for others.