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Quiet Leadership


One of the most unsung ‘heroes’ in Malaysian church is perhaps the quiet, gentle and unassuming leader Dr. David Gunaratnam. Throughout his life, he never sought for position or fame. He has been an elder of Emmanuel Evangelical Free Church since 1978. For almost 30 years he served quietly in a relatively small church of less than 300 people. But his influence and impact is far reaching. He has mentored a generation of godly and competent leaders.

David G is not someone who wants to be called a mentor. Title and status is the last thing he seeks. He is a man after God’s heart. It is God’s approval he constantly sought. David is a quiet man but when he speaks, every word is measured and weighed in gold. I have looked up to this man all my life.

My friendship with him began 28 years ago when I was a young man. Often in conversations, David would literally grab my hand as if I was so important to him that he would not let me slip by. He has been guiding me along in life and ministry. His hand is like the hand of a father that exudes warmth, love and firmness. It is a hand that never lets you go until he sees Christ formed in you.

When I first came to Emmanuel EFC in 1979, I was a young Christian just graduated from Dundee University. He took a personal interest in me and was instrumental in my spiritual formation. I ‘caught’ the spirit of the urgency and importance of mission from his words and actions. He loves the missionaries and constantly prays for them. His home has a permanent guest room for the missionaries.

David probably does not know how much he has influenced me in both the theology and praxis of mission. He would periodically take one week off to speak at mission camps. I came to know years later that he also would close his clinic to travel to Cameron Highland to give free dental treatment to missionary kids at Chee Foo School. A week’s closure of his clinic would probably cost him few thousand dollars in profit, but he was unperturbed. After all, this is a man of God who has imbibed Hudson Taylor’s philosophy of ministry. He knew God would provide for all his needs more abundantly than one can imagine. David has been OMF Home Council Chairman for 25 years. He has since stepped down to make way for younger leaders to take over.

From 1984 to 1990, 10 young people from Emmanuel EFC had responded to God’s call to enter into ‘church/Para church ministry.’ We all have been impacted by David. I went to Singapore Bible College in 1984. Kang San studied in Region Bible College in 1990. Heong Mong serves in OMF since 1990. Poh Wan joined Malaysia Care in 1990 and has been instrumental in helping churches setting up early intervention centers throughout Malaysia. Our lives and destiny were altered in most significant ways. David spoke into our lives and counseled us with godly wisdom.

What is so unique about David’s leadership is that it is a quiet leadership. His personal, family and professional life is one and the same. The most outstanding characteristic of this man is his consistent walk with God. He cared for his son Mark, who was born with autism. Never have we found any occasion of David blaming God. He just goes about serving Mark, training him to take care of himself. What is so remarkable is that Mark remembers our names and prays constantly for us. This is possible only because David himself is a prayerful man. David does not draw attention to himself because of the condition which Mark is in. David handles difficult situation with quiet confident in the sufficiency of God’s grace. He stays the course no matter how insurmountable the situation may be.

This is also reflected in church life. He faced conflicts and tough situations without being ruffled. He just seemed to know how to make right decisions most of the time. David is a man of integrity, consistent in his words and actions. He is a tower of strength that people lean on when the going gets tough. David’s family life is above reproach and his character is impeccable. In an age where many Christian leaders faltered morally, David stands tall. David’s love for his wife, Christina, is a quiet and mature love. Thought not romantic outwardly, one could sense the deep respect, affection they have for each other.

Professionally, he is at his best as an orthodontist. So skillful was he that the previous Trengganu Sultan, father of the present king would fly him to his palace for dental treatment. He was conferred ‘Datukship’, yet he chose to be mum and no one actually addresses him as Datuk David.

One word sums up about his life: Integrity. He does not shout about his achievement or abilities. He lives his life in great balance. It is a life of quiet solitude and active engagement.

David’s leadership isn’t grand or heroic. He has not led a mega church. He is far from being a high-profile leader. He served patiently, carefully, prudently and incrementally. He does what is right - for his church, for the people around him and for himself inconspicuously and unassumingly. He works and serves away from the limelight. The little things, small and obscure kind deeds add up like a forceful stream of water which cuts deep into the hearts of those he touches. He changes and altered the direction of our lives without us knowing how much we have been transformed.

Who would imagine a young man became the Moderator of a denomination and a national leader who contributes to world mission? Who could predict that another young kampong boy would become a theologian and missiologist? Who could tell that a young woman would one day become a social worker who shapes and influences the social ministry of churches in Malaysia?

These are lives that have passed through the gentle hands of Dr David G. These are but a few examples and samples of the ‘products’ of David’s molding and shaping processes in a small setting. If one were to ask David what he had done, he would be the last person to claim any credit for himself. He is just too quiet to make any noise. Nevertheless the ripple effects of his leadership go on into eternity. It is possible to live and to lead quietly.

Rev. Wong Fong Yang