I had the privilege of interviewing Mervyn Sek, a former Head of Department (HOD) in a junior college (JC), who went through a difficult transition in his teaching career. The experience taught him to trust God and follow His leading through meditating on the Scriptures. This discernment process is something every one of us goes through when we want to discover God’s calling for us in this season. It may look easy on paper, but for the person going through the process, the uncertainties and apprehension are very real. Thankfully, the God who calls us is also a God who proactively guides us through His Spirit and His Word.
Join me as we listen to Mervyn’s testimony. This time, I’m presenting our interview in a first-person narrative.
Mervyn’s story in his own words
This is my testimony of how God demonstrated His love for me, and how I am humbled by His omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts.”Isaiah 55:9
1. The Painful Exit
My experience at XJC was not smooth sailing. Overworked and underappreciated, and not walking as closely with God then, my health was badly affected, and my family repeatedly bore the brunt of my frustration.
Eventually, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. By God’s grace, my wife recovered and has since dedicated her life to His ministry work. But that period of waiting was certainly trying for us all.
Looking back, I was internally experiencing burnout without knowing it. Because I was an XJC alumnus, I would often go the extra mile for the school, taking on tasks that were beyond my ability to cope. The experience taught me the importance of resting in the Lord and having clear priorities and boundaries.
It was under these circumstances that I considered a posting to another school. This was also the time when some JCs were being merged. It signalled the need for fewer teachers at the JC level, and for more teachers to move upstream for a cross-level deployment to a secondary or primary school. God knew I was not ready for it then, and opened a door for me to leave XJC at the end of 2019 for my current HQ stint.
2. The Respite
My current posting to MOE HQ is Godsend. By extracting me from school before the COVID-19 pandemic, God saved me from the stressful conditions of home-based learning and safe management measures in schools. I am also blessed to be part of the pioneering team in MOE’s Uplift Programme Office and contribute towards strengthening the upstream support for disadvantaged students. It is a role that I relish and cherish due to my passion for uplifting the underprivileged in the community.
During these three years, I had the blessed privilege to work from home, watch my daughters grow up and experience the fullness of family life. Looking back, it was the gracious hand of God that led me through a period of spiritual restoration and care.
3. The Uncertainties
However, I knew that my 3-year stint at HQ would come to an end in 2022. I worried that I will lose all of the favourable conditions, especially if I am posted back to school.
I am apprehensive about cross-level deployment because I really never saw myself teaching other levels. My teaching subjects are Economics and English. While I taught Economics for 3 years before becoming a Project Work specialist, I never taught English ever since graduating from the National Institute of Education (NIE) in 2007.
However, as a former Head of Department (HOD), I am expected to continue serving as a HOD. Since there are not many secondary schools offering Economics, I would be required to teach English. I cannot imagine teaching a subject that I have never taught before while leading a department in a portfolio which I am inexperienced in. I wonder how much I can possibly contribute under these circumstances. While it is not impossible, I do not want to be a liability to my students, colleagues, and school leaders.
4. The Discernment Process Begins
Closed Doors, Opened Doors
In April 2022, I was grateful to receive MOE HR’s email, advising me to apply for a JC posting after my HQ posting, due to a shortfall of Economics teachers. God heard my prayers and closed the door to cross-level deployment for me.
For staff whose HQ posting is ending by year-end, MOE HR has an Enhanced Posting Support (EPS) Exercise to give priority to these HQ officers in applying for management positions in schools with higher needs. While usually limited to primary and secondary schools, there was unusually an opening for a Project Work HOD in a JC. This clearly was a sign from God.
While I was initially excited, my wife reminded me of the scars of my previous posting at XJC. I was unsure if my tendency to overwork myself may return to haunt me. Having gone through the painful burnout experience and the impact it has had on my health and my family, I definitely do not want to go through it again. Therefore, I hesitated in participating in the EPS Exercise and prayed for God to open other doors if I do not return to school.
Exploring the Options
When the mid-year Open Posting Exercise (OPE) came around, I considered pursuing a secondment to an external organisation for a new experience. Some HQ colleagues had previously done so last year, and encouraged me to do likewise. However, I was dismayed to learn that MOE HR had changed their policy this year. HQ officers were encouraged to return to school instead of pursuing a secondment. In response to repeated HR notifications to participate in OPE, I decided to apply for some JC positions without much serious thought. As my applications were consistently rejected or ignored, this seemed to confirm my belief that God was preparing a future for me elsewhere.
With my passion for Public Service, one possibility was to switch from the Education Service to the Management Executive Scheme. Albeit a pay cut, this would allow me to continue working in MOE HQ indefinitely. I can also participate in job rotations within MOE HQ as well as to other ministries and statutory boards to develop a wider experience across the Public Service.
Another of my passion is in uplifting the disadvantaged. As such, I also explored social service career opportunities to put this passion to good use. I seriously considered a transition to the National Council in Social Service (NCSS). My director agreed that it would be a good match for my abilities too, and helped to connect me with a director in NCSS. I also met up with my friends who were in the NCSS Sun Ray leadership development scheme, one of whom was previously a teacher. Likewise, they agreed that I could transition very naturally to social services, and encouraged me to apply for the NCSS Sun Ray scheme.
Seeking the Lord Earnestly
With these available options at my fingertips, I still felt inadequate. I longed to know which door was truly the one that God would be opening for me, so that I can have greater confidence and less regret when I walk through it.
I knew that I needed to make a sacrifice and spend quality time with God. I started fasting one meal a day in July. On days when I am working in the office at MOE HQ, I would spend my lunchtime at one-north Park, reading the Bible, speaking to God and inching to hear His still silent voice.
At one such session, while I praying, the verse suddenly appeared in my mind, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) I believed that God was opening the door for me to a new workplace in NCSS because “all things have become new”.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”2 Corinthians 5:17
The next day, I submitted my application for the NCSS Sun Ray scheme. Things could have ended there, but in His special way, God also prompted me to take a final look at the OPE openings, and there was a new opening for the HOD for Integrated Curriculum and Project Work at ZJC, a likely consequential opening due to staff movement during the OPE. Without much thought, I submitted my application for this position, thinking that it would similarly be rejected.
That same evening, I received a phone call from ZJCs Vice-Principal (VP), inviting me for a virtual interview at short notice. Although I was going to participate in an online theology course and was only available after 9.30 pm, he did not seem to mind waiting for me.
The interview panel comprised the Principal and two VPs. They asked many questions but I responded eloquently, due to my familiarity with Project Work and staff management. A few minutes after the interview ended at 10.45 pm, I received a text message offering me the position. When I told my wife about this, my wife was worried that history would repeat itself after I return to school. Nevertheless, she advised me to pray for God to provide clarity on whether this is His plan for me.
The next day, I prayed earnestly for God to provide a clear sign to me. I then opened the Bible in my One Year app to read the assigned Bible text for the day. It was the book of Jonah, the prophet who tried to run away from the duty that God asked him to do. Eventually, when he was thrown overboard from a ship during a storm, God sent a whale to swallow Jonah and send him back on course to fulfil His work!
I then realised that God had blessed me with the gift of teaching, particularly Project Work. Despite what I had experienced in XJC and what I thought about leaving the Education Service and moving to social services, God knows better and He was sending me back on course to fulfil His work. He is the God of second chances.
5. The Future in God’s Hands
So will history repeat itself when I am in ZJC? I am confident that, having grown closer to God over these three years, God has made me wiser. God and my family are my priority. I have faith that I can better manage my time and work, especially since I will not go the extra mile this time around, unlike how my additional role as an XJC alumnus led me to do more than I should. This is where I realised that God had corrected my understanding of 2 Corinthians 5:17. As a new creation in Christ, my career pathway may not be new, but my career experience will be new, with God in sovereign control.
“As a new creation in Christ, my career pathway may not be new, but my career experience will be new, with God in sovereign control.”Mervyn Sek
After I accepted ZJC’s offer for the position, the Principal called me. She shared that the school leaders were all stirred during my interview, and felt that God had answered her prayers to send an experienced Project Work HOD to ZJC. She cemented my assurance that God knows me so well, how I can continue to use the gifts that He blessed me with, and how He loves me so much to give me what I need when I least thought that He would.
“A man’s heart plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps.”Proverbs 16:9
I was very moved as I read Mervyn’s testimony. My experiences paralleled with his in several ways, and I could certainly identify with him as he wrestles with overwork, burnout, transition, and all the uncertainties and fears as we enter a new place of work.
His discernment process was very insightful too. There was a deep sense of self-awareness, particularly in acknowledging where our limitations and ‘blind spots’ are. While actively exploring different options, applying for interviews, and conversing with people in the fields he was interested in, Mervyn maintained his consistent disciplines of prayer and fasting and meditating on the Word of God. It was in this willingness to obey God wherever He takes him that Mervyn saw clearly the calling God has for him.
As I said in the beginning, everyone’s discernment process is different. How is it like for you as you seek the Lord’s calling in your life? Are you stuck at any point? Feel free to share your experience in a comment below!