Ministry for Two

It happened by accident, but looking back, the symbolism conveyed a rich message.

Tan Seow How (“How”) and Cecilia (“Lia”) Chan married and started a church the same year. They had each sensed a call to pastoral ministry, and their dream was to lead the church together.

Among the many practical issues to figure out, they both needed somewhere to use as an office. The “accident” was that only one space was available—in front of the cargo lift of the facility they rented. So they shared it. To this day, more than 20 years later, they still share one office.

In fact, now—even as the church currently draws 5,000 people each weekend—they share one executive assistant, one chief of staff and one staff team.

“While it is two callings, it is not two ministries or two heads in one house, but one vision in one house,” explains Chan.

“I know it’s unconventional, but it works really well for us,” says How. “More than just co-pastors, we are co-founders and co-pioneers who have been at the front lines of building a church together since Day One.”

Leading Kids to Grow the Church

Heart of God Church started as many churches do, with an emphasis on children and youth. Most congregations age over time into young adults as the dominant group, and then into middle-aged adults and beyond.

Not so at Heart of God Church. “Every few years, we start a new youth group as the preceding generation grows up,” Chan says. “We keep reaching down for another generation, another generation, and another generation—making sure there are always many 13–16-year-olds in the house.”

The current emphasis is in starting a seventh “new generation” youth group. “With each new generation, there are hundreds of leaders and volunteers, serving together and growing up together,” Chan says. 

In Singapore, at most 20% of the population claims the name of Jesus. The younger the generation, the more unchurched it is likely to be. The strategy of continuously starting new youth groups has kept the average age within the congregation at 22. The pastors explain this emphasis in their book, GenerationS: How to Grow Your Church Younger and Stronger, which chronicles the church’s first 20 years.

Discovering Gifts

The church’s emphasis on youth is one of the many factors that spurs the couple to model co-pastoring. “Our co-leadership is intentional because we want to model for our young people that a mom and dad could equally work together in spiritual ministry,” How says.

From the church’s beginning years, both How and Chan were all-in. “When we first started, we had to do everything. We both preached. But Lia was also the first accountant. I was the first sound guy. Along the way, we explored where we were best gifted,” How says.

The church first met in a home owned by one of Chan’s brothers. How led an adult small group, while Chan taught the kids. As the embryonic church grew, they rented meeting space in an office building owned by How’s father. How ran the adult service and Chan ran a children’s service concurrently.

Over time, they each found their areas of strength and grew in them. “How’s ministry strengths are more conceptual and ministry systems, and mine are more in discipleship and building a deep bench of operations teams,” Chan explains. “I’m called to raise generations, while How is called to build strong churches. Together, our callings birthed a strong [multigenerational] church.”

“We may have domains, but we don’t have territories,” How explains. “Both of us are leading and building one whole church together.”

“You and your spouse can be a complementing team without eroding each other’s gift or eclipsing each other’s personality,” Chan adds. “Our voices may be distinct, but our hearts beat in unison. Coming together with complementary strengths is good for the church.”

Balancing Family Life

How and Chan have one child, and they’ve worked hard to make sure she knows that she doesn’t have to compete with the church. “We’ve been deliberate that whenever our daughter needs us, we’re there for her,” Chan says.

“When Lia became a mother, I had to figure out how not to lose her at church,” How says. So they created a nursery next to their office. That system has continued to this day, serving other young mothers in the church’s employ. 

“As a result, we retain many great women,” Chan says.

As a full-time staff member told me during the video interview I conducted for this article, “I get to bring my infant to work every day. I don’t have to sacrifice my destiny to be a mother. I get to do both.”

Dealing with Conflict

When people ask How and Chan where conflict comes up, they often use meetings as an example. 

“We are in 70% of meetings together, both of us inputting into the decision-making process. We update each other on the other 30%, making sure we’re always on the same page,” Chan says.

In meetings, they have very different styles. “I’m task-oriented,” How says. “When Lia sits in meetings, she makes jokes and asks people, ‘How are you?’ That contrast initially led to friction. Then I began to notice that people endure my meetings, but they come out happy from hers.”

“Sometimes we had to work out our differences in style,” Chan says. “The key is communication and respect. How needed to be less agenda-driven, I needed to pull back. I think our meetings are both enjoyable and efficient now.”

How agrees, affirming that many couples with differing styles will simply hold separate meetings. “I respect Lia’s spiritual radar, and her wisdom is just amazing. When we’re in the same meetings, we make better decisions.”

Only the Beginning

How and Chan’s ministry partnership may help explain why Heart of God Church has always been balanced at around 50% men and 50% women serving together, working to reach the next generation—and then to empower them to lead the church.

Warren Bird, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, is the vice president of research at ECFA, former research director for Leadership Network and author of more than 30 books for church leaders.

Warren Bird
Warren Bird

Warren Bird, an Outreach magazine contributing editor, is the vice president of research at ECFA, former research director for Leadership Network and author of more than 30 books for church leaders.