PATRIARCHY PUSHBACK. The Rev. Kyung-lim Shin Lee, vice president for
international relations at the Wesley Theological Seminary, poses for a
portrait on March 10, 2022 in the chapel of the seminary in Washington.
When Lee was ordained in 1988, it angered her in-laws for contravening
long-held Korean cultural values subordinating womenís roles in society.
Even her husband, a pastor, told her he understood intellectually "but
his heart couldnít accept it." (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)
From The Asian Reporter, V32, #5 (May 2, 2022), page 7.
Korean-American female pastors push back against
By Deepa Bharath
The Associated Press
When the Rev. Kyunglim Shin Lee was ordained in 1988, it angered her
in-laws for contravening long-held Korean cultural values subordinating
womenís roles in society. Even her husband, a pastor, told her he
understood intellectually "but his heart couldnít accept it."
Those reactions broke Leeís heart ó and steeled her resolve. Today
she is vice president for international relations at Wesley Theological
Seminary in Washington, D.C.; has travelled to 60 countries as the
seminaryís ambassador; and once served as interim lead pastor at a
Korean-American church for 11 months. Along the journey, she visualized
herself as a speeding train.
"People would either have to get in for the ride, or step out of the
way," she said. "Once I became convinced that god can use me, no one or
nothing could stop me."
Leeís success story is rare in the realm of Korean-American churches,
where women are seldom seen in the pulpits. In a time when women make up
about 20% of Protestant pastors in the United States, Korean-American
female pastors still struggle to gain acceptance in their home churches
and often end up assuming leadership roles elsewhere.
Women like Lee who have broken barriers in these spaces remain
pessimistic about the pace of change and are concerned by the resilience
of patriarchal attitudes even among second- and third-generation Korean
Americans. More representation on church elder boards and in the pulpit
is needed to promote equality and provide role models for younger women
considering ministry, they say, but bringing about such a cultural shift
has proved a formidable challenge.
Gender equality in Korean-American churches lags well behind
congregations in South Korea, according to the Rev. Young Lee Hertig,
executive director of Innovative Space for Asian-American Christianity,
which supports Asian-American women in ministry. There are more female
lead pastors in South Korea, she said, "because culture changes faster
when it is mainstream."
"Korean-American churches are the most patriarchal among
Asian-American churches. ... Things should have changed by now, but they
havenít," Hertig said.
Male dominance in traditional Korean society has roots in
Confucianism from centuries ago, when women were subject to the
authority of their husbands and fathers and in many ways barred from
participating in public life. Many immigrants from Korea still hold such
notions, and churches especially have been slow to embrace equality,
said Grace Ji-Sun Kim, a theology professor at the Earlham School of
Religion in Indiana.
"Itís hard for Korean women to be ministers because they are expected
to be obedient to men," she said. "Itís difficult for (Korean) men to
listen to a woman who is preaching because this idea of superiority is
embedded in their psyche."
The Rev. Janette Ok, an associate professor specializing in the New
Testament at Fuller Seminary and pastor at Ekko Church, a
nondenominational congregation in Fullerton, California, agreed that
She was fortunate to have a role model while growing up in the 1980s
in Detroit, where she saw a Korean woman leading her churchís
English-language service every Sunday ó but at the time didnít grasp how
exceptional that was.
"I watched her give sacraments, give the benediction. I still have
this image of her in a pastoral robe and stole," Ok said. "Without her
example, I wouldíve never imagined I could become a pastor."
That woman was the Rev. Mary Paik. Now retired and living in HawaiĎi,
Paik said she was only hired as a last resort because the male
applicantsí English wasnít good enough. She received a "lot of strange
looks" as an unmarried, 30-year-old female pastor.
Male church elders were patronizing and treated her like a daughter,
while some of the younger men flirted with her or refused to acknowledge
her. Many of the older women seemed to find her presence inconceivable.
"But some younger women were standing up a little straighter because
I was there," Paik said. "They felt good about it."
She has seen some progress. When the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
started a group in 1991 for female Korean-American clergy in the
denomination, there were just 18. Today there are 150.
"When I started this, I was alone," Paik said. "Now there are other
women who talk to each other, share their struggles with one another. As
long as we do it together, itís bearable. And we do it not because itís
easy or hard, but because itís a calling."
But Ok said that while there are more of them in ministry now, most
end up serving in mainline or multiethnic congregations rather than
"There is this sense that I love my home church and I donít want to
abandon my home community," she said. "But they donít affirm me as a
leader. Itís heartbreaking."
Okís own church is largely Asian American, but not specifically
Korean. Several years ago she served as interim lead pastor for nine
"I was afraid people would leave because Iím a woman, but they
didnít," she said. "That was very encouraging. Change doesnít happen
overnight. You have to create pathways and pipelines."
Soo Ji Alvarez is in a similar situation. After growing up in a
conservative Korean immigrant church in Vancouver, British Columbia,
that had no female pastors, today she is lead pastor of The Avenue
Church, a multiethnic Free Baptist congregation in Riverside,
The move away from her home church was not intentional but happened
organically, she said, and she embraces her pastoral position as a role
"Itís a big deal for me (as a woman of Korean descent) to lead a
congregation," she said. "I hope I can help pave the way for others so
they know itís possible. Ministry should be like any other career ó your
ethnicity or gender should not affect your chances."
As for the pastorsí male counterparts in Korean-American churches,
Kim, for one, expressed anger that so many stay silent on the issue:
"They feel like fighting social justice issues shouldnít be the churchís
business. But to me it is godís work. Itís important, necessary work."
But Lee, whose ordination was objectionable to her family, said it
pleases her to see some male pastors welcome women to the pulpit ó as
her husband eventually did.
The Rev. John Park, who leads Numa Church in Buena Park, California,
is one male pastor who embraces such allyship. He called on men to
consciously work to empower women, citing scripture in the words of the
Apostle Paul: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male
nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
"The Bible is clear on the issue of equality," Park said. "But this
is an internal battle in our community. Weíre fighting our own past."
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through The APís
collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly
Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
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