How a man with just “one talent” found his calling in full-time ministry as a pastor and the dean of a Bible school.
At City Harvest Church, the name Bobby Chaw is synonymous with three letters: S.O.T. The dean of City Harvest’s School of Theology since 2004, Chaw is known and loved by all SOT students (including this writer, who graduated in 2012) for his impassioned preaching and teaching of the Word, never failing to infuse textbook lessons and Biblical principles with his personal anecdotes, from happy ones to sad, scary and funny ones. Here he talks to City News about his most humble of beginnings in full-time ministry and the lessons he learned along the way. He also tells us where to get the best char kway teow in Singapore.
How did you first come to know Pastor Kong, and by extension, City Harvest Church?
Ahh … it was the year 1988. I was 16 years old, and I was attending Marine Parade Christian Centre with a friend, but that friend attended a cell group which met on Thursdays, so I did not join because I was afraid my parents would find out. My friend gave me the meeting time for another cell group called Ekklesia, which met on Saturday afternoons. It was led by a man named Brother Kong. I joined that cell group and it was there that I said the sinner’s prayer of salvation.
What made you stay on in church?
I remember joining without knowing what to expect, because I had no friends there yet. But I was quite impacted by the presence of God in the cell group during the worship and the preaching of the Word. My first cell leader was Pastor Kenneth (Sim)—he really took care of me, buying me my first Bible. I was really touched, because during that time, I was financially not well-to-do, and a Bible was something I could not afford.
What was your religious background prior to that?
Before this, I was quite a religious person. I had 10 years of religious studies in another faith, and I went to the temple very often. But when I encountered Christianity, what I felt was the greatest difference was that while other religions are good in the sense that they teach people to do good, I really felt the presence of God when I received Christ at age 16. It was not just a set of teachings, but I really felt God, and I had a very strong inner conviction of knowing that God is alive, He’s real and He cares for me. That was the big difference for me.
Tell us how you came to work full-time at CHC.
After I graduated from the National University of Singapore with a Bachelor’s degree in Material Science in 1997, I enrolled into SOT. It was then that I was employed part-time as a data entry clerk in the Systems Department, keying in members’ particulars.
About coming on board full-time, I didn’t really have a spectacular or dramatic calling, like somebody prophesying over me, or getting a vision, or someone telling me I was great at pastoring—I didn’t have these “assurances”. For me it was quite simple—where there’s a need, I’m happy to help out.
Subsequently, Pastor Kenneth, who was the Dean of SOT at the time, needed a “runner” to do various things, then Pastor Tan needed a secretary, so I said, “Okay, I can try that.” I didn’t have any title or role, I just served where help was needed. But I didn’t do so well as a secretary, so I went back to pastoral work which I had already been doing—I had a few cell groups under me. But then Pastor Kong needed a secretary so I went to help him but again I didn’t do so well and returned to pastoring.
In 2002, the Bible school needed someone to help run it. At that time, I was not a very senior staff, so I took up the role under the supervision of the then-acting dean Chia Ting Ting.
It was a big switch for me, because you see, each time I said “yes” to a department, I had to let go of everything I knew before, and leave my comfort zone. How would my future pan out? Was this what I wanted? At the time, I had a simple goal—to be a preacher and pastor, to preach the Word and teach people the Bible. But each step I took seemed to bring me further away from my goal. At that time, the dean’s responsibilities were mostly administrative, very different from the pastoral, preaching and teaching role I hold now. But in the end, I told God that I would be happy to do anything for Him.
Then in 2008, Pastor Tan called me and said that the rest of the senior leadership was thinking of licensing me as a pastor. I was shocked, and I told him I didn’t need it—after all running a Bible school was an administrative function. But he pointed out that every year I was pastoring hundreds of students. And so I got licensed.
When the case broke four years ago, I came back in to help oversee the church’s accounts, the finance aspects—I’m not trained in those areas, but because there was a need, I was happy to learn from scratch. That’s my modus operandi. So, if you ask me what my calling is, I would say that it’s wherever there’s a need. I think that’s what it means to be a servant of the Lord—you just do what is required. That’s my take on ministry.
Having served in various roles which require such different skill sets, what would you say is the biggest lesson you’ve learned?
There are many, but one big one is learning to get up again when you’ve made a mistake, having the willingness to not give up but continue serving. I’m not like a “five talents” guy—I’m just a “one talent” guy (ref Matthew 25). Due to my (limited) exposure, my education, I don’t have many experiences to help me prepare for each new responsibility I take up, and because of this, I have made my fair share of mistakes. The first reaction when this happens, is that you tend to give up. So for me, it’s been learning not to give up.
I always tell my (SOT) students, it’s okay to make mistakes, but don’t make the same mistake twice—that would be foolishness. So if I make a mistake every day of the year, by the end of the year, I will be 365 mistakes wiser. Even if the mistake destroys my reputation or makes me look bad in front of men, it’s okay, because I am accountable to God.
You preach with such great, bold faith. Share with us an episode in your life where your faith led you to a significant breakthrough.
There have been many. Each challenge requires you to believe God all over again. I often share this one with my students: the breakthrough I waited the longest for was in the area of my family’s finances. It took us several years before I saw any glimmer of hope. My family was declared bankrupt. It was quite severe. I was still a school going kid, and I remember believing during those times that I would be struggling for the rest of my life.
During those years, we had to shift every few months, because every time the landlord raised the rent, we had to move out. It came to a point where I just kept all my clothes and belongings in cardboard boxes beside my bed in the living room. I cut down on a lot of things—for years, I didn’t eat at McDonald’s or KFC because those were considered luxury items. So I ate very simply, just rice and vegetables, I tried not to eat meat but substituted it with beancurd for protein. I lived a very simple life for many years. Even when I started courting Cindy—and she later shared with me that she had to take into consideration my family’s financial background—we both agreed that even if we lived at that level for the rest of our lives, just within our means, it would be okay.
It was a long period of time before breakthrough came, but I held on to one Scripture verse. One night as I was praying, the Lord spoke to me, saying, “Speak to the mountain, command it to be cast into the sea, do not doubt in your heart and it shall be done for you.” (Mark 11:23) So that night, I prayed that Scripture, commanding the mountain of debt to be removed and be cast into the sea. From that day onwards, that was my prayer and confession, and I believed that God would prosper us even when I didn’t see it coming.
So for the next seven years, I applied all the principles Pastor (Kong) taught us—sowing, tithing, offering, even when I did not have much, I would not eat my tithe. These are principles from the Bible, and when I put them into practice, it’s almost like I was telling God, if You’re real, this is it, You have to come through for us. I kept doing it until it became a lifestyle where I no longer thought about it.
That was when the breakthrough came. Suddenly my dad began to prosper in his business and our family came out of bankruptcy. There were a few miraculous events, and as a result, in a very short time, within just one year, we went from nothing to being able to live a comfortable life.
What’s a typical day for you like?
Because of Bible school for seven months of the year, my week runs from Monday to Sunday—I teach at SOT (at Jurong West) in the mornings, so I don’t really have a full day off. These past few years, I have been teaching quite a bit because Pastor Kong and Pastor Tan are not able to teach as much. In the afternoons, I would come back to the church office at Suntec City to meet various departments for discussion, deliberation, approval, for HOD (heads of department) meetings and staff meetings. On Thursday nights, I lead a personal cell group. Sometimes I do home visits and I attend board meetings once a month. On weekends, I am at church service, and once a month I preach at our Chinese Church. Other times I will be traveling—last year I traveled 50 to 60 days. I’ve cut down quite a bit because of our ongoing case, but whenever possible I will visit our SOT graduates who’re planting churches, mainly in China and Indonesia.
How do you feel seeing all your former students planting churches?
I feel that God is not fair (laughs)! Many of them are doing well … they take the teachings and apply it back at their local churches, and it has tremendous impact and results. With the same kind of teaching we receive here in Singapore—which we sometimes take for granted—they grow churches, they win the lost, bring healing to people … it literally changes lives. I’m very proud of them. They are really doing greater works.
Back to your schedule: it sounds like you don’t get much free time!
Oh, I do have recreational time, which is on Monday, after Bible school ends at about noon or 1pm. So I still have half a day—Monday is precious for me because I can spend time alone with Cindy (who also works at SOT as an administration manager). We used to go catch a movie, but nowadays we just hang out at home (chuckles) because we want to wait for our son Ryan to come home from school because he has tuition after that. But we do like to go for a good meal, not necessarily an expensive one, but it has to be good—like really good char kway teow or bak kut teh.
So where’s the best char kway teow?
The Penang kuay teow at Frankel Avenue, it’s called A Different Taste. It’s been there for a long time.
Last question—as one of the pastors of CHC, when faced with criticism about the church, what’s your biggest defense?
My take is this: firstly, the church is my family, and no family is perfect. The question is, when things happen, how do you respond? My philosophy is quite simple. It’s like the Bible says, the church is a family, just like our natural families. When my family is in financial trouble, I don’t leave my mom and dad and join a family that’s richer. And if for the rest of my life, as a family, we have to carry this debt, this burden, then let’s do it. So it’s the same attitude I have toward the church—when we succeed, we celebrate together. But when we have a burden to carry, we just carry it, even if we have to do it until the day we die, because this is the family God has given to me. Just be a good family member lah … love God, love one another, and live out the purpose God has called us to as a family, as a church.