"Looking back now, my journey from secular work to full-time ministry was more than just a career change. It was a sifting of my faith," says Prison Fellowship Singapore executive director Andrew Tay. Photo by Gracia Lee.

In 2016, after a series of faith-sifting events, Andrew Tay, now 54, left the shipping industry to serve God full-time as the executive director of Prison Fellowship Singapore (PFS).

This is his story as told to Salt&Light.

Are you talking to me, God?

Before coming to PFS, I was a businessman in the shipping industry. By all measures, I was doing quite well. I lived in a private property, drove a Mercedes and had quite a substantial amount in my bank account.

“Andrew, God wants me to tell you this: You will be a full-time priest for Him.”

I was also actively serving in church as a lay leader. Since I accepted Christ at the age of 17, I had been serving in various ministries — as a youth leader, worship leader, cell group leader — trying to be as “good” a Christian as I could.

At the end of 2014, at a retreat with lay leaders and clergy from other Anglican churches, a pastor whom I didn’t know came up to me and said: “Andrew, God wants me to tell you this: You will be a full-time priest for Him.”

I was shocked. I had briefly considered full-time ministry before, but I thought: “Maybe not lah, I’m a businessman. How will I maintain my lifestyle?” Besides, I didn’t think that God had called me to be a pastor. I was 48 years old then. Wasn’t I a bit too old?

Nevertheless, I saw it as a prophecy and was excited to be able to do something for God. So I thanked the pastor and told him I would pray about it.

I did for a week after that and subsequently left it at the back of my mind because frankly, I could not see myself as a pastor.

Free falling

Then, things started to get interesting.

In 2015, my business went downhill. For more than a year, I had almost no revenue from my business.

As a businessman, there are ups and downs. I knew that. Whenever business was bad, I would pray and God would always be faithful to send business deals my way.

Once, after renovating my condominium, I was left with just $10,000. I prayed, and the next week I got a big business deal that replenished my bank account.

Up till then, God had always pulled me through tough times. But this time was very different. For more than a year, no matter how hard I worked, no matter how much energy I expended, I had nothing to show for it. 

I couldn’t sleep at night. There were so many things going through my mind. My mortgage alone was almost $5,000 a month. My children were still going to school. We were eating so much into our savings that in six to eight months, all of it would be gone.

If things didn’t improve, what would happen to us?

Tay (second from left) and his wife, Ing Chi, with their sons Philip (in black), 17 and Daniel, 21. Photo courtesy of Andrew Tay.

Andrew (second from left) and his wife, Ing Chi, with their sons Philip (in black), 17, and Daniel, 21. Photo courtesy of Andrew Tay.

Eventually, my wife, who was a stay-home mum, and I decided that we had to downgrade our house. After agreeing to do that, I thought I felt lighter. But I would soon find out that my heart was still struggling to let go.

Even though I had been a Christian for so long and held many leadership roles in church, all my worldly possessions — my private properties, my Mercedes, the balance in my bank account — were undoubtedly important to me.

One day, at my church’s prayer meeting, my pastor waved ‘hi’ and casually asked how I was doing.

“What if God wants you to let go? Nobody knows how far you will fall after you let go.”

It was an innocent question. But for some strange reason, when he asked me how I was, I could only think of how bad I was doing. The floodgates opened and my tears started flowing.

I was shocked at myself, and probably so was he. He brought me into his office, where I related to him all I was going through.

After listening, he told me: “Andrew, I sense that you have fallen off a cliff and are only hanging on by a branch.”

It was exactly how I felt, and based on my prior experiences, I was hoping that God would pull me up or send somebody to do so.

But my pastor asked me: “What if God wants you to let go?”

“Nobody knows how far you will fall after you let go. Maybe the ground is right there, or maybe it’s far away. But will you trust God with your life?”

It was so, so difficult for me to process that thought of letting go and trusting God.

“Maybe God was challenging me to step out in faith, to let go, before He rescued me.”

Philippians 1:21 came to me: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Maybe God was challenging me to step out in faith, to let go, before He rescued me.

It was terribly difficult. But that night, after an agonising period of wrestling with Him, I rededicated my life to God. I told Him: “I release everything to You. Whatever You want to do with me, I will follow.”

That was the moment I rediscovered my first Love. Every time I am stressed or doubtful now, I always go back to that moment. 

A faithful God

In 2016, on the third day of Chinese New Year, I put my condominium at Bukit Timah up for sale. The market was bad and my agent told me not to expect to sell the house that year. Even if we managed to sell it, the price would not be good.

The ensuing months saw people coming and going. Nobody gave an offer.

“How can we say that there’s no God? How can we say that our God is not faithful?”

One Sunday night, my wife and I were praying. We asked God to bring the right buyer within the week, and that the house would be sold at a price that would allow us to pay off our mortgage, purchase a flat and renovate it.

The very next day, the Lord answered our prayer!

Even as I’m thinking about this, I am so touched by the faithfulness of our God. These specific requests, answered in one day! How can we say that there’s no God? How can we say that our God is not faithful?

We managed to repay our loans, purchase a flat, renovate it and still have some cash to spare.

In that moment I realised that God had answered my prayer so I could serve Him freely without any financial burden. I thought: “Wow, I can do anything for God now because I don’t need to pay for my mortgage!”

Catching vulnerability

Throughout all this turmoil, nobody in church knew what I was going through. My cell group didn’t know. My closest friend didn’t know.

“It was really not easy, as a businessman and church leader, to be vulnerable.”

People saw me as a leader and a successful businessman. Even my own father saw me that way. I kept up this façade because I wouldn’t know where to put my face if people knew what was happening. 

A few months after we sold our place, it was my turn to preach and my wife encouraged me to share my testimony.

I said: “No way, man! How to share this kind of thing? People will say, lao kwee (Hokkien for ‘lose face’)! I’m a leader, the vicar’s warden!”

But God gave me Luke 22:31-32: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

That verse convinced me, so I shared.

After Tay mustered up the courage to share his testimony at the pulpit, he realised that many others, too, were struggling with the same issues. Photo courtesy of Andrew Tay.

After Andrew mustered up the courage to share his testimony at the pulpit, he realised that many others, too, were struggling with the same issues. Photo courtesy of Andrew Tay.

Little did I know, many men were going through similar issues — retrenchment, family problems and so on. After I shared my testimony that day, many in the congregation stepped forward for prayer.

There was like a mini revival in our men’s ministry. While we were usually reluctant to talk about these things and often swept them under the carpet, everybody was now being authentic and real to one another.

That was how I saw the hand of God. It began with my willingness to let go. But it was really not easy, as a businessman and church leader, to be vulnerable.

A broker for the church

My inner struggle was resolved, but business still hadn’t picked up.

One afternoon, I was having lunch with a good friend from church who was working in PFS. He mentioned that the organisation’s executive director had just resigned.

“Now I really sense that I am living within where God wants me to live.”

When he said that, something went ding! in my head. Maybe I can fill that gap, I thought.

After linking up with the right people, I got hold of the job description. As I placed it side by side with my CV, I realised that it matched what they were looking for!

That was a confirmation for me. After passing the interview, I began my role that same year.

God’s prophecy had come to pass — I am serving Him as a full-time priest in a Christian ministry! Serving God in His body has never been more fulfilling. Now I really sense that I am living within where God wants me to live.

Tay (left, in brown) and his team at a PFS staff retreat last October. Even though he didn't have much experience in prison ministry before, God eased him into the role quickly."My staff are a very good team of people who helped me along the way," he said.

Andrew (extreme left) and his team at a PFS staff retreat last October. Even though he didn’t have much experience in prison ministry before, God eased him into the role quickly. “The board has been very supportive and my staff are a very good team of people who helped me along the way,” he said. Photo from Prison Fellowship Singapore’s Facebook page.

In God’s economy, nothing is wasted. In His way, he used my shipping experience to help move PFS into its current role and vision.

Some years back, before I joined PFS, the board re-envisioned that the ministry should serve as the bridge between the church and the beneficiaries.

If we just use our staff, we can’t reach many people without burning out.

A more effective way would be for PFS to mobilise churches, who have greater manpower and finances, to minister to prisoners, ex-offenders and their families.

As a former ship broker, I was the bridge between cargo and ship owners for more than 20 years, so I understood this concept very clearly and was able to help execute this new vision.

A sifting of faith

Looking back now, my journey from secular work to full-time ministry was more than just a career change. It was a sifting of my faith.

“God expects us to open the door ourselves not just with fear and trembling, but also with faith that He will lead us through it.”

God doesn’t always lead us by opening doors for us. He wants us to exercise our faith. When we are more mature, I think God expects us to open the door ourselves not just with fear and trembling, but also with faith that He will lead us through it.

God is still unfolding my story, and I probably have another 10 to 20 years of active ministry life left. I don’t want to go back to doing business. I feel that God has called me to chiong (Hokkien for “rush” or “charge”) for Him in this last lap, serving in full-time ministry no matter the cost.

I know now that my security is not in my possessions. It’s okay if I drive a smaller car, it’s okay if I live in an HDB flat. It’s no big deal.

To be honest, I don’t lack anything. Perhaps I can’t go for expensive holidays every year like I used to, but I don’t see that as a sacrifice. God, in His mercy and grace, has allowed me to get used to that very quickly.

I have a lot of freedom, which I wouldn’t exchange for anything. God provides all that I need. What is there to worry?

Lending a hand to ex-offenders and their families

I lost my family, my home, my money and my health. But then my faith came alive.

About the author

Gracia Lee

Gracia is a journalism graduate who thoroughly enjoys people and words. Thankfully, she gets a satisfying dose of both as a writer at Salt&Light. When she's not working, you will probably find her admiring nature or playing Monopoly Deal with her little brother.