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When culture is a roadblock

Korean clergywomen find ways to serve

By Gail Strange | Presbyterians Today

The Rev. Evelyn Chang is the pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church in the Bronx, N.Y. The Korean immigrant church opened its doors in 1997 and became a PC(USA)-affiliated church in the early 2000s. Courtesy of Presbyterian Mission Agency

It’s 2020, and women in the pulpit are not an unusual sight in many churches across the country. A 2018 study conducted by Eileen Campbell-Reed titled “State of Clergywomen in the U.S.: A Statistical Update” revealed some interesting facts about clergywomen in the U.S.; among them was that in most mainline denominations, the percentage of clergywomen has doubled or tripled since 1994. Still, while more women have the title “Rev.” in front of their names, obstacles while on the road to ordination, and even when serving in church, remain. Among those obstacles is the still pervasive problem of gender discrimination.

In 2016, the “Gender and Leadership in the PC(USA)” report, conducted in partnership with Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Study on the Status of Women Team, found that eight out of 10 female teaching elders have experienced discrimination, harassment, and/or prejudicial comments due to their gender, and four out of 10 felt that they have experienced gender bias in hiring, promotion or selection for an official position within the denomination. Among the members of the church at large, 59% of women and 52% of men agree with the statement that “gender inequality is still a problem in the PC(USA).”

When survey participants were asked what type of leadership role they held, more men than women said they held an official leadership role as opposed to an unofficial role. This difference remains even after excluding the responses of teaching elders. Another question asked, “To what extent are women accepted as leaders in the PC(USA)?” Findings showed that most Presbyterians feel that men still have a better chance than women of being called to the position of head pastor. For Korean women, especially, this couldn’t be more accurate, as many are discovering that Korean immigrant churches continue to be less inclined to have female pastors.

A 2008 study in the “Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion” reported that “women are severely underrepresented in leadership roles and positions in Korean immigrant churches in the United States.” Researchers have pointed to the often-conservative theological position of Korean churches as one of the factors in the underrepresentation of Korean women in ministry roles.

Culture and tradition reign

But the Rev. Byeongho Choi, moderator of the National Caucus of Korean Presbyterian Churches, says that the problem is more of a generational issue than a gender issue. “To serve as a senior pastor for a Korean church, there are three key criteria. An individual must know the Korean and English languages as well as Korean culture and tradition,” he said.

Choi continued, saying Korean pastors have to adopt to two cultures, especially second-generation Koreans. “At home they must behave in traditional Korean culture but every day at school they must behave as Americans. This is confusing to young students. They must adapt slowly, or they will not survive,” he said, stressing again that the problem of few women pastors is not a discrimination or a sexism issue.

The majority of Protestant Korean Americans are Presbyterian, and in the PC(USA) ordination system, it is required that a candidate receive a confirmation of a calling to ministry from a church. For most female seminarians, that’s not a barrier. After all, 2020 marks the 64th year of women being approved for ordination as ministers in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). But for Korean American women who would like to work in a Korean church, getting this confirmation of a calling is more difficult.

Today the PC(USA) is a denomination of 400 Korean congregations with 50,000 active members. These congregations are geographically spread over 15 synods and 120 presbyteries.

“Korean churches face two emerging challenges,” said the Rev. Moongil Cho, associate for the Korean intercultural congregational support ministry of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. “First is the congregational aging with some of the first-generation congregations. And second is the decrease of the immigration directly from Korea, but the increase of the permanent Korean American residents.”

Cho says the short-term solutions are leadership recruitment, congregational renewal, mission coordination and outreach promotion. He says that long term, the church has to help Korean churches connect with the rich legacy of the PC(USA)’s mission endeavor in Korea from the previous century. “We also have to develop a national strategic plan to ensure the continuation of the vitality of Korean congregations,” said Cho.

Serving where God leads them

Given these factors, and with the doors to serving Korean congregations hard to open, what role are ordained Korean females playing in serving and guiding churches?

The Rev. Evelyn Chang is the pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church in the Bronx, New York. The Korean immigrant church opened its doors in 1997 and became a PC(USA)-affiliated church in the early 2000s. The church has remained in the community, but today very few of the members of the congregation are Korean.

Her ministry mainly serves Hispanics after most Koreans who initially attended the church moved to the suburbs. “More and more Hispanic high school students began coming to the church in the mid-2000s,” said Chang. “We started feeding and evangelizing the students.”

Chang recalled her journey to ordination. “My professor at the Alliance Theological Seminary challenged me to go to China, where there were many female ministers,” she said. “Many of the women in China are pastors of house churches. After returning from China, I went to Ramah Naioth Retreat Center in upstate New York to discern my ordination.” At that time, Chang said she had neither known nor seen any female pastors around her.

She said, “One evening when I went to the cafeteria for dinner, there was no one except one Baptist minister who happened to be there for prayer. I didn’t say anything, but he talked about his thoughts against the ordination of women out of the blue. Every single Bible quotation he referred to was not a biblical understanding about the ordination of women.”

Two decades later, Chang still finds it humorous that God used a male pastor to convince her even more of her call to be ordained. She found her way to the Bronx church because no one wanted to serve in the “so-called ghetto city.”

“I ended up becoming a lead pastor in 2006, after serving as an assistant pastor for nine years,” said Chang. And while not serving a Korean church, Chang has found her work rewarding, seeing so many young people being baptized in the faith and prepared to begin their lives with the Word of God.

“We’ve helped many of them with the necessary steps to enter college, and some of the students became couples and have been married,” she said, adding that while it is hard for one church to have two different cultural backgrounds, “we do our best to be united.” Chang has high hopes for the church’s future as well. “Our church is small in numbers, but I still have hope for our church to baptize more people and make disciples in the years to come.”

While Chang is serving as a pastor in a traditional church, Esther Jung chose a nontraditional course to answer God’s call on her life to serve in a pastoral role.

Jung, who was born in South Korea, is the second daughter in a family of two boys and four girls. She describes her family as a typical Buddhist family of several generations. “For 37 years, I did not believe in God, Jesus Christ as my Savior,” said Jung. “I only responded to God’s call for me when I was 43 years old. After that call, I let go of everything in my life, and I came to America to study for a Master of Divinity degree on July 9, 2009.”

Eleven years have passed since Jung came to America. She graduated with a Master of Divinity degree from New York Theological Seminary in 2013 and a Master of Arts degree in Pastoral Care and Counseling from New Brunswick Theological Seminary in 2018. She has also completed four units of Clinical Pastoral Education at Saint Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx.

Jung says she has been in school for a long time and has gathered pastoral experiences in both big and small churches for 12 years. “I have completed the pastoral ordination process of the Presbyterian Church, including an ordination examination in January 2015,” she said. Five years later, though, she has still not been ordained, but that hasn’t stopped her from doing ministry.

Jung says that in September 2015, God led her to Rutgers University. She started a college campus ministry there. As a result of starting that ministry, she received a 1001 New Worshiping Community seed grant in 2017 and a grant from the Synod of the Northeast in 2019 to pursue new expressions of church with young people, using technology to reach what she calls “the internet generation.” Called the Moving Church, the ministry Jung envisions is one that “teaches that each of us is the holy dwelling place and temple of God,” and we are “to do small acts within our lives” to seek out others and show our love.

“What I felt as I created our campus ministry is that we need a church that is established by the young adults themselves as they experience God. I envision a church community within the campus in which every congregation member takes on the responsibility of supporting each other in establishing the church, as well as each other’s struggles and prayers. Each member becomes a brick to form the church,” she said.

Jung often hosts Bible studies during a semester. She also preaches on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings. Prayer, though, is what she emphasizes the most in Moving Church, posting Scripture verses to the students’ smartphones each morning for a time of reflection. Admittedly, it’s a call she is finding fulfilling, saying that while she agrees that Korean women face difficulties being called as senior pastors of Korean congregations, she doesn’t view this as “a problem.”

Rather, she sees a beauty of different perspectives and ideas that will lead everyone forward to where and how to serve God. And that moving forward will need to include the nurturing of mutually understanding one another — as males and females called to ministry.

“Looking back at my 10-year [journey into ministry], indeed my ministry in the Korean community was not easy. I believe that this was because there was a lack of mutual understanding and an abundance of expectation,” said Jung, adding that she was blessed to have had the support of a male Korean pastor.

“Pastor Eunju Kim Suh was the first person to suggest that I study theology and recommended me to a seminary in South Korea,” she said. “He allowed me to minister to the young adults at his church and helped me get settled in America.”

When asked about the next step in her journey with the PC(USA), Jung said she prays that she can become an ordained pastor specializing in a new model for campus ministry.

Traditional ministry roles in Korean churches might still be elusive to Korean clergywomen, but God’s plan for serving is ever present for those like Jung, Chang and so many more.

Gail Strange is the director of church and mid council communications for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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