The pandemic dealt a blow to the finances of a pastor serving a Korean American congregation in Atlanta
by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — A special town calls for a special pastor.
And the Rev. Sunjae Jung — initially worlds away from the storied college town of Athens, Georgia, home to the Athens Korean Presbyterian Church — heard God’s call loud and clear.
Although maybe not so clearly at first.
“When I heard about a Korean American Presbyterian church in the Atlanta area, my first answer was, ‘I don’t think it’s my calling,’ because there are over 200 of those churches and a lot of Korean pastors already in Georgia,” said Jung. “Since I was living in Korea at the time, my first answer was no. Then, when they contacted me again and told me the church was in a university city and that it has a special mission for the younger generation, I remembered being an international student myself in America when I was young and how much the church there helped me.”
And still Jung’s decision wasn’t an easy one.
To move to the U.S. for one salaried position with his three school-age children and wife, Mikyung — a former kindergarten teacher, who would not be permitted to work right away — would be no small undertaking.
“During the years that I was serving as a minister in Korea, I remember praying that if I ever had a chance to help international students the way the church helped me when I was at Iowa State University, I would take it,” he said. “So, I talked with my wife and our senior pastor in Korea, who said they thought this was a good calling for me. After praying some more, we decided to come serve this church.”
Established in 1983, the Athens Korean Presbyterian Church is unique in its mission to welcome and serve the larger university community, especially Korean immigrants, Korean students, visiting scholars and short-term visitors from Korea, and Korean Americans.
Jung further explained that the congregation originated 38 years ago in a Bible study for international students. And even though the church regularly bustles with activity — worship includes about 100 on Sundays — because the congregation is largely young and transitory, raising the funds needed to carry out the church’s ministry can be a challenge.
“It looks like a big budget congregation but it’s not true,” he said. “There are only a few of our members who are living here, like 10–20 families who have jobs at the University of Georgia or in the area. They support the church.”
And although Jung was aware of the church’s history and knew from his experience as a “preacher’s kid” that money could sometimes be tight, when they moved to Athens in December 2019, he couldn’t have anticipated the severe impact that Covid would have on both his congregation’s and his family’s finances.
With the arrival of the pandemic in March 2020, not only did the church cease all its in-person activities and move Sunday worship to a streaming platform, but the whole town practically shut down.
“The university stopped nearly everything,” Jung said. “All of the undergraduate students returned to Korea and the visiting scholars stopped coming. We didn’t expect it. The pandemic situation hit us hard.”
Further complicating matters was the fact that because Jung serves the congregation on a religious visa, he is not permitted to earn income beyond that of his ministry. As a result, by late 2021 the family found itself incurring debt and struggling to make ends meet, which is when the Assistance Program of the PC(USA)’s Board of Pensions entered the picture.
When Jung first sought emergency assistance in December 2021, he received an Emergency Grant from the Board of Pensions that was split evenly with Northeast Georgia Presbytery, where he is a member.
“When Sunjae shared with me about his financial struggles, mostly due to starting a new call at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I immediately thought of the Assistance Program,” said the Rev. Hilary Shuford, general presbyter of Northeast Georgia Presbytery. “And I am so glad that our presbytery was able to partner in that grant to help one of its dear pastors.”
Not only did the Emergency Grant help to eliminate the family’s monthly deficits, but it also opened the door for Jung to seek additional help through the Board’s new Assistance Program, Minister Debt Relief, through which he was awarded a significant grant to be applied to the existing debt he had incurred over the pandemic.
The generous financial assistance that Jung received was made possible, in part, by the PC(USA)’s annual Christmas Joy Offering, a cherished Presbyterian tradition since the 1930s which distributes gifts equally to the Assistance Program and to Presbyterian-related schools and colleges equipping communities of color. The Assistance Program provides need-based grants to help active and retired plan members and their families.
“For Rev. Jung, not having been raised in America, I can only imagine the courage of moving your family with hopes of a new life, only to be met immediately with hardships beyond one’s control,” said Lucas McCool, Assistance Program operations manager for the Board of Pensions. “I truly believe these programs have met Rev. Jung at a time of real need, and I’m hopeful good momentum is on his horizon so he can continue to lend his gifts towards ministry.”
One of the unique aspects of the Assistance Program, according to its director, Ruth Adams, is that it strives to be holistic in its approach to wholeness.
“Rev. Jung’s is not the first case where we saw an immediate need and offered additional assistance through another program,” she said. “Everyone who applies to the Assistance Program at the Board of Pensions should know that their materials are individually considered as we try to come up with the best possible solution for their particular case. I’m proud to be part of an organization and a denomination that supports church workers in need.”
As Jung now looks toward the future with renewed hope, he and Mikyung are grateful that their three children never seemed especially worried about the family’s financial situation, and that they could always count on a listening ear and the support of the connectional church in their time of need.
“I really thank the denomination for the big help from the Christmas Joy Offering,” Jung said. “I can say that after going through such a difficult time last winter, the big burden on me and my family was lifted. Sometimes we just need help. And sometimes God uses somebody to help us.”
With a new day — and a New Year — on the horizon, Jung said he’s just so happy that he can now devote his full attention to his call, a ministry that Shuford said is lifting the entire presbytery.
“Sunjae is a wonderful person, pastor and colleague in ministry,” she said. “When I first met him, my heart was filled with joy. As we have met several times over the past few years and prayed together, I have experienced the joy of the gospel at new depths.”
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