“But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Cor 12:24b–26)
The Structural Review Task Force (SRTF) was convened in 2017 to review the structure of The Methodist Church in Singapore (MCS) so that there can be less duplication, more effectiveness and greater efficiency. As discussions followed, it became clear that one of the reasons for the current difficulties in our structure arose out of the fact that we are four Conferences—a General Conference and three Annual Conferences (ACs), each run by a President and team, quite independently of each other. These layers of authorisation ensure that the Church is well-governed, stays connected with the work on the ground and remains true to her calling and vision. The flip side is that this has sometimes turned out to be more of a encumbrance than assistance.
As Richard Jeremiah from Tamil Methodist Church (Short Street) explained: “We understand the historical reasons why we have three Conferences organised along language lines in MCS today. That was a great strategy when missionaries started work in Singapore focusing on the different people groups.” But he also noted that, after 55 years of independence, our children are growing up in much different circumstances. We engage with, communicate with and understand each other in our common language, English, and it is the medium in which we serve as one.
That is why many lay leaders feel that the differences between the ACs have eroded with time. Notwithstanding the rich history and splendid diversity that are precious parts of everything Methodist in Singapore, Richard represents the view of many who feel strongly that “we are now ready to come together as One MCS, reflecting our unity in Christ. We have made a great start on this journey by collaborating on a number of ministry initiatives, and are looking forward to expand on such involvement in the years ahead, cumulating in when we will also be organisationally one.”
Richard was referring to the workgroups that were started in the course of this review, so that pastors and lay members from the three ACs could be brought together to discuss how certain initiatives and areas of ministry could be better developed and delivered if they were jointly planned and organised. Kwok Wan Yee from Charis Methodist Church (MC) said that the leaders found that many were working the same grounds. There was great diversity in strengths, gifts and resources of the different ACs, and all sought to glorify God and make His name known. The question was how we could all work more closely together and complement each other.
Some felt that having the support from higher levels of leadership would help secure consistent funding and participation, while others were of the opinion that more structure may eventually prove cumbersome. The key was to find a platform for those who are open to having others join in and contribute their time and resources. The idea of movements emerged—where like-minded people set on a particular cause or mission can come together and serve—as long as the cause remained relevant. If necessary, this can grow into some form of organisational structure in the future.
One such example is a group of Methodist fathers who saw the importance of paternal leadership to the spiritual growth and health of their families, and who came together to move other fathers in MCS in the same direction. Comprising fathers from different churches across MCS, they are organising an online gathering for fathers on 17 Oct 2020, and have invited speakers Tan Gee Paw, Peter Tan and John Wu, along with Jason Wong (Focus on the Family).
During workgroup discussions with the lay, the mood was usually that of excitement and an eagerness to work together, because they saw many common concerns such as family and marriage, children’s ministry, social concerns, outreach, and discipleship and nurture. On the other hand, when ministers came together for discussions, the mood tended to be more sombre and cautious. Bishop Dr Chong explained that it was only to be expected as the ministers had to grapple with complex issues such as selection standards for pastors, remuneration scales, church property and even differences in pastoral practices and shepherding. Recognising that these differences are not easily resolved, he asked for understanding and patience, as it will take time—maybe years—for the ministers to work through them. So while the laity could focus on common causes, the clergy had to work on differences. Chan Fook Kay from Grace MC said, “There will be a need for a parallel movement for the lay and the clergy. Whilst it is important to start from grassroots on the ministries across ACs and local conferences, the clergy must take steps to address their differences.”
In conclusion, the SRTF is recommending that the good work started must continue for the next quadrennium, for coalitions to form and movements to grow, and for pastors to work out as many areas as necessary for One MCS. Henry Tan from Wesley MC is spearheading the development of platforms for sharing among local churches so that we do not need to work alone, but together find strength and comfort from one another. He said, “I am so glad that small progress has been made, and churches and leaders across conferences are talking with one another more. Because of COVID-19, businesses have come to realise how powerful collaboration is. It is my prayer that churches collaborate more in their efforts to spread the Gospel.”
By the Structural Review Task Force