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Cliff Tam, previously a missionary pastor in Africa and assistant pastor in Canada, made adjustments to his ministry work when his children, Esther-Praise and Sarah-Faith, came along. All photos courtesy of the Tam family.

I will never forget the look in my husband’s eyes that day.

“I felt so ashamed of myself.”

“Oh sweetheart,” I replied. I knew it cut deep.

“There I was trying to win the approval of people on staff when my own daughter needed me.”

“There I was on a Sunday morning trying to set up chairs for church service on a cold winter morning. We didn’t have enough volunteers. I was responsible for the set-up. And so, Sarah-Faith, barely two, sat on the floor, bawling after she failed, time and again, to get my attention.”

“I am her Dad. I won’t forget the look in the eyes. There I was trying to win the approval of people on staff when my own daughter needed me.”

His eyes watered.

The truth is – he is not alone.

Scores of young parents face this unspoken pressure of “performing” in ministry in the same way they did pre-kids.

But that’s not the problem – the problem is how many of us expect people to serve with the same depth, intensity and modality, even after a significant life change such as the birth of a child.

Unconsciously, we say things like, “Wow, you’re so committed”, with a heart to encourage the newly-minted parent, without realising that there could be a strained marriage, a baby who needs more time with his/her parent, possibly a wife at home struggling with the loneliness of early motherhood or post-partum depression.

How many of us expect people to serve with the same depth, intensity and modality, even after a significant life change?

For a small number of couples, spinning the plates of family and ministry might come naturally. These are couples who may have parents ace-ing their grandparenting duties, who have the option of hiring domestic help, who may have babies with an easy-going personality, and whose family-of-origin issues may be resolved instead of played up during this new addition.

These are the couples whose social media feeds are filled with photos of chubby arms and cute cheeks, whose babies lay snug in a sling while their parents lead worship or whose toddlers miraculously sit within the confines of their magic blanket while their parents preach.

“Ya, we really prayed for an easy baby and we got one!”

“Yeah, serving is one of our family values.”

These are the couples we tend to applaud.

An awkward pause

Years ago, we were one of those couples. Totally rocking it.

Unknowingly, we contributed to the “high-performance” ministry culture that we so applaud, without realising the collateral damage done along the way.

Then, our second child came.

Major life crises timed themselves perfectly to the birth of our new addition: We made a major cross-continental move. A toxic ministry experience overseas emptied my husband’s emotional tank. I struggled to bounce back from severe antepartum depression, which spilled into equally severe postpartum depression.

Unable to swing back to the beat of normal life, the full weight of self-imposed and self-perceived ministry expectations bore down upon us.

Tam Wai Jia

“Any act of love and service – no matter how large or small, public or hidden – becomes sacred when done with a pure heart for God,” says Dr Tam Wai Jia.

One Sunday, while standing in the middle of a crowd filled with smiling ushers, jovial Sunday School teachers, and welcoming deacons – all serving faithfully in ministry the way we used to – I suddenly felt lost, out of place.

I concluded: I am a lousy mother, an incompetent Christian.

Millions of believers have babies. If God had called us all to be priests, ministers and disciples, why can’t I get it together to serve?

“What ministry are you serving in?” would often be met with a long, awkward pause.

Maybe I didn’t pray hard enough for an easy baby. Maybe I am a “soft” Christian. If other couples can do it, why can’t I?

When my husband felt God’s call to be a stay-at-home-dad, it did not get easier.

“What ministry are you serving in?” would often be met with a long, awkward pause.

Through a long course of inner healing, counselling, and discovering the true meaning of Ministry, we, like driftwood, found our way back to shore.

Today, my husband, previously a missionary pastor in Africa and assistant pastor in Canada, does not have a traditional ministry title at our church in Singapore. Today, I speak regularly at various churches but do not attend a traditional cell group weekly.

Yet, we no longer carry the guilt that many new parents have of “not serving like we used to”.

3 Questions for young couples with children

In early parenthood, the stripping away of our prominence in service in the public sphere to attend to the needs of our families can be more painful to some than others. For some, doing so is travesty, akin to betraying our role as loyal servants to our Lord’s work.

Many young couples we mentor come to us sheepish and ashamed to share their secret – that deep down, they cannot cope with ministry demands. Off-stage from the ministry platform, their marriages are suffering from strained communication, poor sleep rhythms and hectic ministry schedules.

“Demands from whom?”

“It’s unspoken.”

Deep down, many young couples cannot cope with ministry demands.

“But who’s imposing these on you?”

“If I don’t serve the way I used to, doesn’t it mean I am unfaithful?”

“What makes you think that?”

“Isn’t it true?”

For an overwhelming number of new couples, welcoming a new birth can be a tumultuous experience. A couple can be surprised in any number of ways: One’s parents, however enthusiastic, might be unable to care for a new baby; the couple may not be able, or desire, to hire live-in domestic help; late-night ministry sessions have become excruciatingly exhausting while trying to sleep-train a high-need, colicky baby.

This, on top of a high-performance church culture that we’ve all played a part in creating, makes for a dangerous transition for a young couple in church.

I’d like to offer young couples three questions to consider as they navigate their paths forward:

1. Do you have a healthy understanding of “ministry”?

Serving at church through a programme or holding a particular position clearly falls under “ministry”. Yet, how many of us would consider listening to our spouses’ grievances, changing diapers, taking the night-shift milk feed as “ministry” too?

Ministry is not a programme, but a posture of the heart.

To truly understand what constitutes ministry, we must look into what it really means.

The most popular Greek word for “minister” is diakonos, which means “servant.” In the Hebrew and Greek languages, “ministry” refers to acts of service.

When God calls us into a “holy priesthood”, He essentially is commissioning each of us to be priests and ministers whose role it is to “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ”. (1 Peter 2:5) Not all of us may be called to the spiritual offices of pastor or deacon, but we each are called to minister.

Matthew 10:42 (MSG) gives an example of an act of service – that of giving someone a cup of water – stating that “the smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice” of Jesus Christ.

Ministry is not a programme, but a posture of the heart.

Nursing a newborn is just as holy as preaching – as long as it’s done in obedience to Him.

As such, any act of love and service – no matter how large or small, public or hidden, embedded within a structured church programme or practised organically as part of daily life – becomes sacred when done with a pure heart for God.

My time spent nursing a newborn is just as holy as my time spent preaching in the limelight – as long as it’s done in obedience to Him.

In contrast, our offering of a spiritual sacrifice can no longer be acceptable to God when done with self-striving, pride or envy for man’s approval.

It was Cliff who shared with me: “No one can replace me as your husband or my kids’ father, especially not when you need me. Yet, as much as I hate to think it, others can easily replace me in ministry to teach and preach.

“I wish more people would come to see that the ministry of being a spouse or parent is just as sacred as a ministry in the public sphere.”

2. Is your identity anchored in ministry or in Christ?

Perhaps our discomfort stems from the reality that, for many of us who love God, we’ve tied deep parts of our identity to our functions in ministry. 

Above that, many of us equate being busy for God with being holy – the more we show up for ministry programmes, the more committed to Christ we must be.

Many of us equate being busy for God with being holy.

When the transition to early parenthood requires us to slow down, to stop, to engage in the mundane ordinariness of wiping poop and spit, to forgo ministry activities to attend to the needs of a baby with colic or a spouse, it can be unnerving to many, to say the least.

Could it be possible that our level of obedience is not measured by the hours pulled in at traditional “Christian activities” but by the unseen moment-to-moment acts of love, integrity and patience behind the walls of our home? Is there any ministry more trying than meeting the everyday demands of service to one’s baby and spouse in the early years of child raising?

What if we embrace the multi-facetedness of service to others, beyond the one-sized-fit-all mould of ticking off the checkboxes of typical ministry programmes?

3. Can you embrace your new season?

What if we accept that not serving the way we used to doesn’t mean we are weak or soft? 

My husband, Cliff, often offers a cliffhanger in such conversations: “If how you’re serving in ministry looks exactly the same after marriage and after having a baby, something is wrong.”

Our service and love to our community around us should look different when our relationships and responsibilities change. After all, relationships require investment. Just because it’s not falling apart, doesn’t mean it doesn’t require one’s attention.

While service as a single could look like being out every evening to serve, service to each other as a married couple could look like carving out time for dates regularly. Service as parents to young children could look like being home most evenings of the week for dinner. It means being willing to at times give up the applause of man for “shining in public ministry” to tend to the needs of one’s home.

Service looks different in different seasons.

Ultimately, being holy requires loving the people God has given us to steward. Owing our loved ones a debt of love means serving their needs where they are, even if it means saying “no” to ministry opportunities to spend more time at home in a season.

Service looks different in different seasons.

While overseas, when I suffered from severe antepartum depression, both Cliff and I chose for him to hold onto his demanding full-time ministry position with the thought “to be faithful in service.”

Looking back, we’re now both convinced that if put in the same circumstances, God would be pleased for him to turn down those ministry opportunities to first attend to the needs of our marriage.

When we returned to Singapore, exhausted from our multiple moves, we asked ourselves why we couldn’t find the energy to serve like before.

It was a beloved pastor’s words who freed us from our self-condemnation: “What you need is rest. Don’t let anyone guilt-trip you into attending anything!”

The truth is: When our marriages and homes are tended to in the necessary seasons, we may be surprised at the incredible launchpads they become to propel us into ministry again at a later season of life.

Go slow to go far together

It came as no surprise to me that it was Cliff, my Ironman triathlete husband, who pointed out an apt racing analogy: “We often say the Christian walk is a marathon, not a sprint. Then why should we be afraid of slowing down in the early years of our marriage and parenting? We go slow to go far, together.”

Since then, Cliff underwent a transformative journey. Today, he is a stay-at-home dad while I work part-time. We both co-homeschool our kids.

Since then, I’ve stopped being hurt by people commenting that I’m lukewarm because I don’t usually attend Christian events at night due to my kids needing me to put them to bed. I’ve stopped comparing myself to those who have domestic helpers and hands-on grandparents.

Since then, we’ve stopped beating ourselves up for not charging headlong into every available ministry opportunity.

To young couples at church with young children and who love God dearly, our prayer for you is that you may free yourself from your own and others’ expectations, to live a life of delight and glory to Him, by first being a minister of faithful service to your spouse, children and home.

The author would like to thank her husband, Cliff, for helping her formulate her thoughts for this piece.


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About the author

Dr Tam Wai Jia

Wai Jia is a Singaporean humanitarian doctor, author, international speaker and the founder of Kitesong Global (www.kitesong.com). She is married to her best friend and life coach, Cliff. Together with their two little ones aged 5 and 3, they lead a life of faith and adventure around the world. Follow her on Instagram @tamwaijia and at www.blog.kitedreams.org.