When Reverend Kyunglim Shin Lee was ordained in 1988, it angered his in-laws for violating long-held Korean cultural values that subordinated women’s roles in society. Even her husband, a pastor, told her he understood intellectually “but his heart couldn’t accept it.”
These reactions broke Lee’s heart — and strengthened his resolve. Today, she is vice president for international relations at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC; has traveled to 60 countries as a seminary ambassador; and once served as the acting senior pastor at a Korean American church for 11 months. Throughout the trip, she visualized herself as a high-speed train.
“People should either get on for the ride or step aside,” she said. “Once I was convinced that God can use me, nothing and no one could stop me.”
Lee’s success story is rare in the realm of Korean American churches, where women are rarely seen in the pulpits. At a time when women make up about 20 percent of Protestant pastors in the United States, Korean-American pastors still struggle to gain acceptance in their home churches and often end up taking on leadership roles elsewhere.
Women like Lee who have broken down barriers in these spaces remain pessimistic about the pace of change and worry about the resilience of patriarchal attitudes, even among second- and third-generation Korean Americans. Greater representation on church elders’ councils and in the pulpit is needed to promote equality and provide role models for young women considering ministry, they say, but bringing about such cultural change has proven a challenge tremendous.
Gender equality in Korean American churches lags far behind congregations in South Korea, according to Reverend Young Lee Hertig, executive director of Innovative Space for Asian American Christianity, which supports Asian American women in ministry . There are more female senior pastors in South Korea, she said, “because the culture changes faster when it’s dominant.”
“Korean American churches are the most patriarchal among Asian American churches. …Things should have changed now, but they haven’t,” Hertig said.
Male dominance in traditional Korean society has its roots in Confucianism from centuries ago, when women were subject to the authority of their husbands and fathers and in many ways prevented from participating in public life. . Many immigrants from Korea still hold such notions, and churches in particular have been slow to embrace equality, said Grace Ji-Sun Kim, professor of theology at the Earlham School of Religion in Indiana.
“It is difficult for Korean women to be ministers because they are expected to obey men,” she said. “It’s hard for (Korean) men to listen to a woman preaching because this idea of superiority is embedded in their psyche.”
Rev. Janette Ok, an associate professor specializing in the New Testament at Fuller Seminary and pastor at Ekko Church, a nondenominational congregation in Fullerton, Calif., agreed that “representation matters.”
She was blessed with a role model growing up in 1980s Detroit, where she saw a Korean woman leading her church’s English-language service every Sunday – but at the time she couldn’t understand how. point it was exceptional.
“I saw her giving the sacraments, giving the blessing. I still have this image of her in a pastoral dress and stole,” Ok said. “Without her example, I would never have imagined that I could become a pastor.”
This woman was the Reverend Mary Paik. Now retired and living in Hawaii, Paik said she was only hired as a last resort because the male applicants’ English wasn’t good enough. She received “a lot of weird looks” as a 30-year-old single pastor.
The male elders in the church were condescending and treated her like a girl, while some of the younger men either flirted with her or refused to acknowledge her. Many older women seemed to find his presence inconceivable.
“But some younger women stood a little straighter because I was there,” Paik said. “They felt good there.”
She has seen progress. When the Presbyterian Church (USA) started a group in 1991 for Korean American female clergy in the denomination, there were only 18. Today there are 150.
“When I started I was on my own,” Paik said. “Now there are other women talking to each other, sharing their struggles with each other. As long as we do it together, it’s bearable. And we don’t do it because it’s easy or hard, but because it’s a calling.
But Ok said that while there are more in ministry now, most end up serving in mainstream or multi-ethnic congregations rather than Korean American churches.
“There’s this feeling that I love my home church and I don’t want to give up on my home community,” she said. “But they don’t affirm me as a leader. It’s heartbreaking.
Ok’s own church is largely Asian American, though not specifically Korean. Several years ago, she served as acting senior pastor for nine months.
“I was afraid people would leave because I’m a woman, but they didn’t,” she said. “It was very encouraging. Change doesn’t happen overnight. You need to create lanes and pipelines.
Soo Ji Alvarez is in a similar situation. After growing up in a conservative Korean immigrant church in Vancouver, British Columbia, which had no female pastors, she is now senior pastor of The Avenue Church, a multi-ethnic Free Baptist congregation in Riverside, California. .
Leaving her home church was unintentional but happened organically, she said, and she embraces her pastoral position as a role model.
“It’s very important to me (as a Korean woman) to lead a congregation,” she said. “I hope I can help pave the way for others to know it’s possible. Ministry should be like any other career – your ethnicity or gender should not affect your chances.
As for the male counterparts of pastors in Korean American churches, Kim, for his part, expressed anger that so many people remain silent on the issue: “They think tackling social justice issues shouldn’t be the church business. But for me, it is the work of God. This is important and necessary work.
But Lee, whose ordination was wrong for her family, said she was pleased to see some male pastors welcome women to the pulpit – as her husband eventually did.
Reverend John Park, who leads Numa Church in Buena Park, California, is one male pastor who embraces such an ally. He called on men to work consciously to empower women, citing scripture in the words of the Apostle Paul: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, bond nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ.
“The Bible is clear on the issue of equality,” Park said. “But it’s an internal battle in our community. We struggle with our own past.
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