It's all about Jesus

Lawrence Tong, International Director of OM, aims to reshape missions by thinking beyond traditional structures. He envisions a global organisation where diverse followers of Jesus collaborate as equals.

Agitate. Innovate. Orchestrate.

Lawrence Tong defines his leadership style with these three dynamic words. He is the third International Director of OM; the first Asian to ever oversee 5,000 workers in 120 fields across the world.

Having succeeded the late Peter Maiden in 2013, the first task Lawrence set himself was to overhaul OM’s mission statements displayed on the websites of 46 OM fields. Each field had their own statement and none of them were aligned.

“Ours used to be a paragraph long!” Lawrence exclaims. “So I said, no good, we’ve got to do something.”

But Lawrence wanted to hear directly from OM workers themselves. He explains, “They are the people giving their lives to this movement; I want to know their concerns, their frustrations and aspirations.”

It took 172 two-hour face-to-face interviews with OM leaders and an internal survey with over 1,400 responses in more than eight languages.

Just 1.5 years later, Lawrence and his team officially announced the unanimously-accepted 13-word purpose statement: “We want to see vibrant communities of Jesus followers among the least reached.”

Time on the seas

To say that Lawrence’s journey in OM did not start as smoothly would be a huge understatement.

As a new believer, Lawrence’s first time on board OM's first ship, Logos, was at the old Tanjong Pagar Wharf in 1974. “I saw these people whose lives were totally sold for the Lord Jesus Christ,” he recalls. Their passion was contagious.

Upon completing his National Service in 1978, Lawrence chose to serve on board OM’s second ship, Doulos, instead of going to university. After his first six months on the ship, however, he applied to and received rejections from the leaders of two of the most easy-going departments on board.

“I was devastated,” said Lawrence. “The chief steward told me that he didn’t want me in his department!” And the other leader advised him that he was not ready for the field — Lawrence was the only applicant in the entire intake who was turned down. He was eventually assigned to the book exhibition. This prompted a deep, personal soul-searching.

“I have a pretty strong personality. I speak my mind,” Lawrence confesses. “When I saw something that was not right, I always offered my unsolicited opinion. People really didn’t like it.”

One afternoon, Lawrence was praying as he worked in the solitary confines of the bookhold. There, he sensed the Lord speaking to him, “As long as you are in Christian service, never again ask for any promotion or assignment.”

“That has been my guiding principle until this day,” says Lawrence. He eventually spent 10 years as a young adult with OM Ships, five years with Doulos and five with Logos, which he describes as “the best hands-on leadership development anyone could ask for, in terms of exposure, skills and total dependence on God for the impossible.”

In due time, Lawrence’s organisational and leadership skills were noticed and he was invited to join the Line-up or advanced preparation team, in charge of gathering permissions, organising programmes and ministry opportunities, and generating publicity at a place before the ship entered a new port.

On the first Line-up team that Lawrence was assigned to lead, however, his chutzpah surfaced in yet another way. Doulos was scheduled to dock in Puerto Cabello in the north of Venezuela. The assignment was straightforward: Prepare a short programme for the small port of only 13 churches and about 100,000 people.

Lawrence was given six weeks. But by the end of the second week, he had done his rounds. With more than half the allocated time left, he wanted to extend the preparations to include Valencia, a city of about a million people an hour’s drive away.

Communications in the 1980s were still done through telex messages. It sometimes took days to have a full conversation, so Lawrence made a judgment call. He sent an update to the leaders and left for Valencia, knowing full well that it was a break from protocol.

“I couldn’t wait for their blessings, so I just went ahead because I felt that it was within my purview as team leader to set up and do something,” Lawrence recounts.

When the ship’s leaders were told of Lawrence’s decisions, they were not pleased — but it was too late, he was already in Valencia, actively promoting the ship’s visit. It turned out to be one of Doulos’ most successful visits to Latin America.

Reshaping missions

After his decade-long stint on OM Ships, Lawrence’s life of service led him first into the marketplace as a businessman for over 10 years whilst serving on the Board of OM in Singapore for a few years and running fund-raising for OM.

Then, by invitation of OM’s leaders, Lawrence returned to full-time service as the first Asian ship director on Logos II. Soon after, he was re-assigned to pioneer OM’s work in East Asia. In all of those decisions, he continued to faithfully follow the Lord’s leading in submission to OM’s leadership.

There was one assignment, however, that took Lawrence a much longer time to accept. When OM was looking for its next International Director in 2012, the search committee wanted him to throw his name in the hat. He declined, but six months later, they called again.

The chairman of the committee asked him to at least talk to them. “I said OK, but I never took them seriously,” Lawrence recalls.

When asked what it was that would make him reconsider his decision, Lawrence challenged the leadership. “I don’t want to just manage OM. Let me lead. Ask me leadership questions — my dreams and what is the change I want to see.”

“To their credit, they did!”

Lawrence took over the role of International Director in 2013 and was re-elected for a second term in 2017.

As Lawrence’s sending field, OM in Singapore, celebrated 40 years against the backdrop of an unprecedented global pandemic, organisations of all kinds have had to pivot and adapt to a world with a different playbook.

This astute leader has just one goal, “I sense that God wants me to invite OM to reshape missions. Can we, in OM, think outside the field structure? To think people, not geography, No logo, no ego.”

Lawrence sets the context of the challenge, “Modern mission history started 200 years ago, and we still abide by those rules which were set then. Why should this be?”

The world has changed drastically in the last five decades. Expatriates numbered just over two million in the 1960s. But today, there are over 300 million people working outside their home countries — not including refugees, who would push numbers higher.

There is a need to reframe the perspective of mission. Lawrence explains, “You don’t have to come with OM… It is not about joining OM, but I want you to join the cause of Christ. It’s all about Jesus.”

“I don’t want OM to be an organisation that only caters to the majority. If we do, we should just go back to doing what we did 20 years ago.”

His dream is, when the time comes to hand over his role of International Director, it will be of a “truly global organisation”, where Jesus followers from all walks and cultures can “meet as peers to plan and work together as equal partners.”

“I wake up every morning thinking of how I can mobilise the 5,000 OMers that God has given to me to impact half a million people who can then impact millions and millions of others?”

Lawrence has one word to describe OM: Catalytic.

“We always start things that are different,” he explains. “When OM Co-Founder George Verwer started the ship ministry, the whole Church wrote us off. They thought we’d gone crazy.

“But look at it: we’re celebrating 51 years of the ship ministry today.”

And his three leadership tenets of agitation, innovation and orchestration? They arise out of his ingrained characteristics to challenge the status quo.

“I’m just a small chess piece,” Lawrence says. “That is the beauty of the life of every Christian: All the experiences you’ve had in the past? God can call them into His service.”

He admits, “I do like to stir the pot. But hopefully, we’ll end up with good stew.”

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