Photo: Nathasha Schmale
Feature

The Computing Pastor

Wycliffe Canada’s information technology staff is led by a pastor with a mind for bits and bytes.

From a kid in Hong Kong who liked electronics, to directing
the virtual environments department at Wycliffe Canada,
Eric Lai’s journey has meandered like the circuitry on a
computer chip.

His life has seen God-driven twists and turns that moved Eric out of his comfort zone and prepared him to give oversight to one of Wycliffe’s most challenging and important operations based out of its Calgary office: information technology.

That Eric serves in Wycliffe while also working as a pastor is impressive given his background, personal traits and the challenges he faced along the way.

Eric was raised in Hong Kong but finished high school after arriving in Canada with his family.

“You see, Hong Kong is such a small place and has so many people, competition is amazing,” says Eric. “I wouldn’t have had a chance to get into any post-secondary school. So, coming here I truly believe was God’s provision.”

After first settling in Vancouver, Eric came to Alberta to study avionics/electronics at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) in Calgary. He realized his real interest was in computer programming, so he eventually transferred to the University of Calgary to get a computer science degree.

“With software, if you have a problem, it’s called a bug. A bug can be fixed just like that, without going out and getting a component. I love that aspect of fixing problems.”

Striking Out on His Own

It was also in Calgary that God became more real to Eric. “I was a practising Catholic. I faithfully attended mass, but I had this fear about not making it to heaven. I always feared that what if I sinned and then died before I made it to the confession booth?”

Car-less and hindered by the cold weather, he eventually gave up attending a Catholic church. Yearning for a social life, Eric accepted the invitation from a friend to visit a Chinese Alliance church.

“Then I came to realize the biblical truth of salvation. I realized that my salvation is by God’s grace,” Eric explains.

Eric worked for a software/hardware firm initially but then decided to strike out on his own as a private consultant. He loved working with clients because the entire process ended with delivering helpful computer applications that put smiles on their faces.

As his faith grew, Eric began serving in his Alliance congregation, driving buses on Sunday and developing some tithing software for the church. The introvert decided he would just continue to serve in the background.

In 1996, while attending another Chinese Alliance church, Eric was challenged by an interning pastor during a discussion in which Eric said he felt that God would use his gift of computing in ministry, but never call him to be a pastor.

The intern, though only a friend of a friend of Eric’s, spoke boldly.

“He said, ‘Eric, what do you rely on when it comes to serving God—your talents or God’s enablement?’ I broke down in tears,” recalls Eric. “Eventually, I realized God used him to speak to me: ‘You’re going to serve Me, but not with what you think is your best. I want you to serve Me, using what you feel uncomfortable with.’

“At that moment, I came to God and said, “Whatever—I’m yours . . . . You tell me what to do.”

Eric felt the Lord was pointing him to seminary. By this time married to his wife Elaine and a father of two children, Eric began studying at Prairie Bible College’s graduate school in Calgary, while continuing his private business.

One Big Headache

But there was a problem. A downward spiral of tension headaches, which started in the 1990s when Eric would often work energetically from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., had plunged to its lowest point.

“By 1996, my tension headaches were full-fledged. At 6 p.m., my mind shut down,” recalls Eric. “I couldn’t really watch TV, or read a newspaper. I stopped reading the Bible for some time. As soon as I barely managed to finish my supper, I would have to go to bed. That’s how severe it was.”

Neurologists and herbalists couldn’t help Eric. This was the situation Eric faced when he considered going to seminary.

“I said, ‘God, you must be joking—I’m going to study? But it’s okay, because if I flunk my first course, I’ll know this is not your will.’ ”

But amazingly, Eric’s headaches actually subsided through his studies. “That is totally illogical. But again, we are talking about God, right?” he says. “So I was practically headache-free by 2002 when I was ready to look into ministry.”

Eric went on to pastor at two churches, most recently in the increasingly inter-cultural Foothills Alliance Church, one of Calgary’s biggest congregations. He is pastor of discipleship.

Joining Wycliffe

Two times since 2009, Eric was approached by Joe Chan, with Wycliffe Canada’s Chinese outreach ministries, about serving at Wycliffe. The second time, Eric decided to join the IT team.

“I totally believe in Wycliffe, the work, the contribution of Bible translation ministry worldwide. So I said yes,” explains the 57-year-old.

"I just thought that I might be able to help, as an overseer."
Eric Lai

“I had training, I had [software] development experience, and I had experience with clients. I just thought that I might be able to help, as an overseer.”

In 2011, the volunteer brought his computer science background and the human touch of a consultant to the staff.

“I value people as my top priority. Work is next, of course, but their well-being is my priority,” says Lai, who continues working part time at Foothills Alliance. “I think this is what I have learned from my pastoral ministry: people come first. They are more important than technology.”

Still, that ever-changing technology is crucial in today’s modern world, and Wycliffe Canada is no exception. Whether it be finances, email, video production, management, databases for recruiting and human resources, or smartphones—everything in Wycliffe Canada’s day-to-day operations is dependent on computers and information technology.

“This is the world that we are living in,” says Eric.

A Bridge, A Channel

When it comes to giving leadership to the information technology department in Wycliffe Canada (called virtual environments because IT is often focused on Wycliffe staff working remotely and connecting over vast distances), Eric realizes that his own computer know-how is somewhat dated and limited.

However, “the basic principles will always stay more or less the same. You need someone who knows enough of the overall requirement, but not too much into the technical detail, who is able to tie it together, to look at the big picture, to make decisions which affect not only the department, but the whole organization,” he says. “I am attempting to fulfil that mandate.”

Eric oversees a staff that maintains Wycliffe Canada’s computer hardware and infrastructure, keeps tabs on what’s emerging so the equipment and technology doesn’t become obsolete, and develops or evaluates needed computer applications. These days, personnel are busy with significant upgrades to Wycliffe Canada’s finance system and website.

Manpower is the biggest challenge faced by Eric’s department. Ideally, it should have 10 staffers, but currently has about seven, including several working only part time. Other staff are needed to do programming and manage computer applications.

Eric hopes he can help bring them in. With one foot in a mission organization and the other in the local Church, he envisions being a kind of broker, who can encourage Christians to consider serving with Wycliffe.

“I am a bridge, a channel, for God to make it happen.”
                                                                    •••••

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