“God directed me from the beginning”: Singaporean Lawrence Tong on leading Operation Mobilisation
by Tan Huey Ying // March 3, 2019, 12:00 pm
Operation Mobilisation's third International Director Lawrence Tong. All photos courtesy of OM International.
He is a Singaporean who leads one of the largest mission agencies in the world.
And Lawrence Tong, International Director of Operation Mobilisation (OM), leads with three tenets: Agitate. Innovate. Orchestrate.
Tong’s visionary leadership and constant reach for excellence are well known. But what stands out most are not the leadership qualities you might expect.
Dreamers, visionaries and pioneers
When Tong took the reins in 2013, the first task he set himself was to change the mission statement.
“The mission statement used to be a paragraph long!” Tong exclaimed. “On the websites of all 46 OM fields, each one had its own statement. None of them aligned.
“So I said, no good, we’ve got to do something.”
“What gets me excited every day is the thought that 4,000 OM-ers can mobilise a million people into the mission field!”
That something was 172 two-hour, face-to-face interviews with OM leaders across the globe and an internal survey where they collected 1,400 detailed responses in more than eight languages.
Undaunted, Tong wanted to hear directly from OM-ers: “They are the people giving their life to this movement; I want to know their concerns, their frustrations and aspirations.”
It took 18 months, busting the widely-touted “100-day grace period” that leaders are said to have for initiating change.
What emerged was a 13-word purpose statement embodied OM-ers’ values. It was quickly and unanimously adopted .
OM itself is not unfamiliar with change.
In fact, it is an organisation founded by dreamers, visionaries and pioneers who started by smuggling Bibles into Eastern Europe, then buying a ship – and eventually three more over the next 40 years – that went around the world bringing knowledge, help and hope.
The floating bookshop
Tong’s history with OM started in 1974 when the young Christian stepped onboard the MV Logos, the very first ship owned by OM Ships International.
Docked in Singapore at the old World Trade Centre, the Logos was in a constant flurry of activity. Crew members from around the world were hard at work – some were running the book exhibition onboard, others were busy with regular maintenance duties and still others were engaging Singaporean visitors.
Many were young men and women who had left their homes and set aside two years of their lives to serve onboard the floating bookshop.
“What attracted me to the ship? I saw these people whose lives were totally sold for the Lord Jesus Christ,” Tong recalled. To the 17-year-old who had only accepted Christ a year ago, that passion was contagious.
After National Service in 1978, Tong signed up for a two-year commitment to serve on the MV Doulos, OM’s second ship with a crew of 350 people from over 50 countries.
Tong was a hard-worker – from young, he had helped out in his father’s small stationery business with his siblings.
But he confesses to having rough edges. “I have a pretty strong personality. I speak my mind.”
He says of his younger self: “When I saw something that was not right, I always offered my unsolicited opinion. People didn’t really like it.”
The Lord spoke to him: “As long as you are in Christian service, never again ask for any promotion or assignment.”
After applying to – and receiving rejections from – the leaders of two of the most easy-going departments onboard, Tong was devastated.
“The chief steward told me that he didn’t want me in his department!” And the other advised him that he was not ready for the field – Tong was the only applicant in the entire intake who was rejected.
Tong was eventually assigned to the book exhibition department.
It prompted a deep search. One afternoon, Tong was praying as he worked in the solitary confines of the bookhold, located far below deck near the hull.
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,” said Tong.
God of the impossible
Soon, Tong was invited to work in the programme office where he discovered his organisational skills. He was subsequently asked to join the line-up team.
At 23, Tong was tasked to lead his first line-up team to Puerto Cabello, a small port of about 100,000 people and only 13 churches. His instructions were clear: Prepare for a short programme for the Doulos visit.
He had six weeks to do so, but by the end of the second, Tong had spoken to and visited all 13 churches and their pastors. With a month left, Tong decided to extend his preparations to Valencia, a city of about a million people that was an hour’s drive away.
Communications in the 1970s were still through telex messages which took days, so Tong made a judgement call: He sent an update to the leaders and left.
“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 step up and do something.”
When the ship’s leaders were told of Tong’s decisions, they were not pleased – but it was too late, Tong was already in Valencia, actively promoting the ship.
It turned out to be one of the Doulos’ most successful visits to Latin America.
Tong eventually spent 10 years doing line-up with the Doulos, 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 1990, a year after Tong married Susan, whom he had met on the ship, the pair left OM. Tong wanted to start a business.
“I thought that running a small business would give me the flexibility of time to serve in whatever capacity the Lord led me,” he said.
“I remembered that formational experience in the bookhold where I would go wherever my leaders asked me to.”
It did – during his 10 years in business, Tong helped OM Ships start their fund-raising efforts in Asia and served on the board of OM Singapore.
In 2000, Tong and Susan rejoined OM full-time when Tong was invited to lead the MV Logos II as the first Asian ship director.
Tong said: “It seems to me that God somehow kept me with a foothold in OM, so that I was never really out of the picture.”
He was not just in the picture, but placed in roles with increasing responsibilities.
While onboard the Logos II, Tong received another assignment: OM wanted to start a work in China and the leaders were convinced that he was the right person for it; would he take it on?
Tong was disappointed. “It felt like they wanted me elsewhere. I told Susan, ‘I think I just got fired.’”
But again, as Tong prayed about it, he knew it was where the Lord wanted him to be. “I remembered that formational experience in the bookhold where I would go wherever my leaders asked me to.”
And so he went to China.
Lord, let me lead
There was one assignment, however, that took Tong a much longer time to accept.
OM International was looking for its next International Director in 2012 and the search committee wanted Tong 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 okay, but I never took them seriously,” Tong laughed.
During the interview, as Tong was pressed on why he would not consider the job, he shared that all the questions he was being asked were management questions, and he didn’t want to manage OM.
So what do you want, they asked. “Let me lead. Ask me leadership questions – my dreams and what change I want to see,” Tong challenged.
“To their credit, they did. And I began to respond, interact and debate … I told them everything!
“I thought, let them decide what they think about it. After all, there’s no risk to me, I’m not going to be the international director, this is just my contribution.”
Little did he know that, at the end of the search process, he was the only candidate left. Lawrence Tong took over the role of International Director in 2013 and was re-elected for a second term in 2017.
A key question that drives him to reject the status quo is: “Is this all we can do?”
Under Tong’s watch, OM’s mission statement was not the only thing that was overhauled.
Tong inherited a team of 22 seasoned OM leaders in the global leadership team. They were great people, godly and faithful, but Tong was not satisfied.
“This would not take us into the future,” Tong said, referring to the logistical and practical problems of the leadership structure. So he came up with a proposal for a revamp – one that called for a drastic change of the global leadership team.
“Amongst the 22 leaders, I was the third youngest. Today, I’m the oldest amongst eight highly-motivated, fast-paced Generation X-ers,” declared the 62-year-old Tong. “I must prepare a new generation of leaders to take over.”
When the previous leaders resigned, they gave him their blessings: “Do what you need to do to take this organisation forward for God.”
“That really humbled me,” Tong recounted. “It was a reflection of God’s goodness to me.”
Another key change that Tong instituted was to install an international board of directors above himself.
He recognised that, in current conditions of charity law and strict governance, the lack of a board was unhealthy for any organisation. Oversight and accountability needed to be established.
Now, Tong says: “I lead from the middle, not from the top.”
A million for the mission field
“I don’t get excited growing OM. What gets me excited every day is the thought that 4,000 OM-ers can mobilise a million people into the mission field!” said Tong.
“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.
A key question that drives him to reject the status quo is: “Is this all we can do?”
He declared: “I believe in a God who is not bound by human limitations. And I also believe in a God who wants us to do better.”
From volunteering “unsolicited opinions” to being sought out for each leadership role that holds a greater responsibility than the last, Lawrence Tong is a leader moulded from the inside out.
Today, one life that has been changed by God is now spearheading change in and through one of the largest missions organisation in the world.
“God has directed me from the very beginning, I’m just a small chess piece,” Tong noted. “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.