Know Your Leaders: Elder Lim Song Huat
Freshly Brewed: Lim Song Huat chats with Li Shiwei on his role as the newest elder of GBC.
10.30 am, Sunday morning, level 3 of Grace Baptist Church. The large fellowship hall, filled with members fresh out of regular worship service, bubbles with chatter and activity. By contrast the pantry, a bright little space at the corner of the building, seems an oasis of calm. Here church helpers operate with a quiet efficiency, preparing snacks and beverages which will supplement many a post-service conversation.
One of the helpers is Lim Song Huat. As an elder of the church he oversees functions that fall under the ‘Welcome and Hospitality’ ministries – essentially, broad-ranging roles which support the day’s programmes. And his position from behind the counter makes for an ideal vantage point from which to observe proceedings. But whereas his wife, Eng Khin, who helps out by greeting members and visitors at the reception booth, genuinely enjoys mingling with friends old and new, Song Huat seems content enough working behind the scenes. Often you will find him with a cup or two in hand: when he isn’t cleaning them he is sipping coffee from them, happy to oblige in small talk with anyone who drops by.
If you don’t know Song Huat, it'd be easy to assume his tasks begin and end on Sunday. This is not entirely surprising: in public, the tall, middle-aged man tends to cut a reserved, if gentle, figure. Yet privately he can be thoughtful and engaging company – as I experienced for myself when he met me over dinner recently to open up about life as an elder following his election last year. As he is keen to point out, his responsibilities extend beyond the confines of the church kitchen.
Twice a month, he tells me, the elders and the church pastoral staff meet to update one another about their respective ministries, as well as to discuss issues at a church-wide level. These range from identifying and encouraging members to serve, to thinking of ways to make newcomers feel welcome. In addition, “We also devote time to read and discuss materials that pertain to shepherding,” he says. “Right now, we are going through a very helpful book – How People Change.”
More recently, following the sabbatical of Pastor Oliver, Song Huat has assumed teaching duties amongst the care group leaders: he now works under the guidance of Pastor Eugene to introduce a new Bible study approach, termed COMA (for context, observation, meaning and application). And with the church having recently completed its move back to the current Mattar Road premises, their focus will soon shift towards finding ways to utilise the building in the future. Song Huat explains, “We don’t want to leave it idle. By leasing some of our space out, we hope to defray the costs of maintaining this new building. But the most important issue is, it must be missional: is it in line with spreading the gospel, and helping others to know and grow in Christ? These are the sort of criteria you implement.”
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These days Song Huat works in a secondary school. As an allied educator he looks after students with learning difficulties, from autism to dyslexia to ADHD, and teaches them phonics and social and organisational skills, among other things. When school finishes, typically around 4 pm every day, he takes two buses to get home. It is a world away from his earlier career as a stockbroker, which spanned 17 years. As he recalls, “Financially I was doing well, I tell you… my life was very, very materialistic. Then, in my early-40s, I had a mid-life crisis. Do you know what that feels like?” I shake my head. “You see, in the earlier half of your life you think about material success,” he explains. “But in the later half you shift to thinking about significance. You move from career advancement to thinking about what is life all about… It can be a bit unsettling.”
It was a situation which went so far as to precipitate Song Huat’s decision to migrate to Australia. “The time away has been good,” he says quietly. “I think God put us through times like that, to help us evaluate what is important to us.”
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The depth of Song Huat’s commitment to God contrasts his upbringing in a non-Christian household. Visits to the temple with his mother were a routine part of his childhood. In university he was a member of the Buddhist Society. “I was actually quite hostile to the Christian faith,” he remembers. A turning point came during one of the meetings when a guest speaker raised the idea that there is no ‘god’ in Buddhism. “Although I heard of this previously, the statement began to unsettle me.” Thereafter a series of events would open the young undergraduate’s mind towards the Christian faith. “A university mate also began sharing the gospel. I started attending the lunchtime talks organised by the Varsity Christian Fellowship. Gradually I became a bit more open.”
I wonder if, looking back, he would say that his own conversion journey had been relatively smooth compared with that of others? “Each one of us has a different faith journey. On our own we will never be able to know God. It is all about God’s Spirit working in people’s hearts. Sometimes it’s the circumstances in our lives, or just the sharing of the gospel from friends,” he says.
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Back in Australia, something happened which would prove pivotal in Song Huat’s life. One day he was working out in the gym when he suddenly collapsed: he had a heart attack. As he recounts details of the experience, he still evidently struggles to make sense of just how he managed to pull through. “I blacked out in a secluded corner of the gym where no one could easily spot me – so I missed out on medical assistance during those crucial early ‘golden minutes’. And at the hospital the doctors told my wife to be prepared that I might never wake up.” But wake up he did, one week later. “When you go through this, you think about what God is trying to prompt you to do… maybe he has some other plans for you?”
Part of the answer came later on, when his mother was diagnosed with an early stage of dementia. It was just as his father had become more frail too. After some consideration, Song Huat made up his mind: he would move back to Singapore. “I was their only child,” he rationalises.
By that time his mother was already a believer (these days she worships at the Grace Assembly of God) but his father was not. “I was able to share Christ with him. So did many GBC friends, who visited him and did likewise... plus my brother-in-law, too.”
Song Huat's father died in early 2016. He recalls of his last days: "He literally received the Lord into his life just before he passed away.”
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Later that year Song Huat received an approach from the church leadership to consider putting himself up as an elder candidate. “Strangely enough, God was already challenging me to be more actively involved in church… and then the call came.” His response when I ask what they saw in him – “I wouldn't know why they chose me!” – is not entirely surprising, but he was more open with his explanation of what the role entails; in an indirect way it probably reveals far more about who he is.
“If you look at the Bible…” I take out my old copy, where he flips to 1 Timothy and then Titus, to point out the qualities of an elder. Did he look up the Bible only after he was approached? “The church has always been very biblical, they know what they should be looking out for,” he says. Does he feel he needed to have strong Bible knowledge in order to serve the church? “You need to have a close walk with God, that’s more important. I think the main way for that to happen is through His word, right?”
I wonder, from the passages he’d chosen, if he sees his role as an elder not so much as a leadership position, but in terms of moral conduct and a willingness to serve and take care of the people in GBC. “Exactly, yes. I think God values godliness and character more than natural abilities,” he says. “You see, how you become an effective elder is when you are able to walk with God and to obey Him. Were you able to model Christlike character? We’re not perfect, but these qualities are more important.” What have been some of the challenges since his election? A long pause. “I think… wisdom? Making decisions that serve the people well and glorify God. These are not so clear cut, right? And time management too. If you're so busy that people are left out, that means you're not doing your job well. An elder is overseer of the welfare of the people.”
Song Huat is keen on creating a more welcoming environment in the ministries under his charge, building up what he describes as ‘intergenerational participation’. It is a potential he feels the whole church still has some way to go towards fulfilling: as he admits, even in his care group he is surrounded by people his own age. “I think we should be prepared to change that mindset. We always think: young and young, old and old, because our needs are different. But to be in these mixed groups, there’s so much young people can learn from the older folks in terms of life experiences, and our older members will appreciate the energy that the young bring. There’s fresh ideas and new ways of thinking.”
In the larger scheme of growing the church, Song Huat believes that the community among members correlates to creating a viable environment that enables new seekers to grow in the faith. “Are we united by our faith in Christ, by the purposes of God?” he asks. “How do we strengthen ourselves so we can do more outreach in the community? Bringing visitors to the table, that’s the simple thing. It sounds obvious, but unless we have that culture then someone may come and next week they won’t come anymore. There are so many churches they can go.
“When you think about it, church should really be like a family – God’s family. So how do you look after other people, care for them and speak the truth to them in love, even though it may hurt? How do you take your own step of loving somebody?” I ask, given his outlook, if he sees his role as an elder as really beyond a fixed portfolio. “Absolutely,” he says. “Our role is to model Christlikeness and be more conscious about looking after people, making sure they grow in Christ. I keep reminding myself that my ministry is about people, but that is the role of every Christian too.”
It’s two hours since we met, which seems long enough to cover a lifetime’s journey. But there is another more pertinent reminder of time – and indeed, our lives – passing us by: Song Huat’s right eye has started turning a reddish tint. He insists it’s not tiredness. “You know, it’s just my age,” the father of three grown daughters says, rubbing his eyes gently.
My questions done, I pack my notebook and recorder and thank him for the dinner. Soon we’ll shake hands and make our separate ways. But it turns out there was still something left on his mind.
“There are so many things I have to juggle with right now, but I have a wife who’s a great support for me,” he says. “She’s a great encourager, but she’s not afraid to tell things as they are.
“Now our children are married she’s moved back to Singapore, and I’m just really happy. She is my best friend.”
(Anti-clockwise from top right): Song Huat with his wife Eng Khin, eldest daughter Andrea and son-in-law Sidney, youngest daughter Tessa and son-in-law Matt, and second daughter Olivia and son-in-law Scott.