The first time Mihee Kim-Kort witnessed a female Korean-American pastor preach in the pulpit was in 2008. It was Grace Ji-Sun Kim. They were participating in an ecumenical gathering. Kim-Kort had graduated from seminary and been ordained three years earlier. She was serving as an associate pastor at a predominantly white, mid-size church in Easton, Pennsylvania.
Though in the last decade the presence of Korean-American clergywomen in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has increased, our stories are still relatively unknown to the wider church.
Korean-American Presbyterian Clergywoman (KAPCW) has a 26-year history in the PC(USA). It began in 1991 as a network of and for Korean-American women seeking ordination in the PC(USA). The first gathering of KAPCW occurred with seven women in ministry in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1990. This group of diverse women (in age, language skills and theology) called for the first national organizing conference to be held in Los Angeles in spring of 1991, and since then it has held annual conferences. As Unzu Lee notes in the book, “Here I Am,” these annual conferences have served multiple purposes for Korean-American women in ministry such as networking, support, mentoring and encouragement for one another.
It has been a meaningful and important group for many clergywomen who face racism in wider society and sexism within our Korean-American culture and church. Many clergywomen find KAPCW to be a sanctuary where female pastors can gather and offer and find support for one another. It also became a sisterhood and has become a place of advocacy for KAPCW and other issues related to women. Over the years, it has become a strong network for local and national groups of KAPCW who are working for the concerns of Korean-American women in theology and ministry and to further educate and enhance the leadership of Korean-American clergywomen. (To learn more see Unzu Lee’s essay, “History of Korean Presbyterian Clergywomen (KAPCW)” in the book “Here I Am.”)
Presently, there are more than 90 women in the KAPCW who are engaged in various forms of ministry. Many serve in white or multiethnic congregations. A few (less than 20 percent) serve Korean immigrant churches. Of those who serve Korean immigrant churches, a third are either doing children’s or English ministry. Many are highly educated and are teaching in seminaries. A few more are currently in doctoral programs and hoping to teach in higher education.
Ongoing conversations with ordained Korean-American clergywomen reveal the myriad experiences around calling and vocation, challenges and struggles in ministry and an expansive, strident commitment to the denomination. For some, the calling to ministry itself was profoundly formative, and was shaped not only the particularity of the vocation, but also by the complex relationship of theology, politics and identity. The call often initially came as a surprise, whether through experiences leading a youth group, an attempt at another profession or conversations with an English Ministry (EM) pastor. Sometimes there was uncertainty and anxiety from families, but eventually great support and encouragement was found. Irene Pak Lee, associate pastor of Stone Church at Willow Glen in California, writes:
“I was afraid that my church and parents would not be supportive once I told them I wanted to be a minister. (I was, after all, only 16 years old). But my parents have been my biggest cheerleaders to this day and encouraged me all along the journey. My pastor at the time heard me and gave me opportunities to lead in worship regularly, join the session and get plugged into the PC(USA) system from the get-go.”
And yet, others encountered discouraging responses from not only church, but family too. Theresa Cho, co-pastor of St. John’s Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, writes:
“I was a sophomore in college majoring in chemistry when I told my dad that I wanted to go to seminary. He ‘disowned’ me, meaning that he didn‘t talk to me for about six months. I don‘t know if he was afraid I wouldn‘t be able to support myself as a woman pastor or if he was disappointed I wasn‘t going to be a doctor, but he was vehemently against it. I gave up on the idea. About four years later, my dad felt called to go to seminary and asked me if I was still thinking about it. Long story short, we left for seminary on the same day. He went I-80 W to Golden Gate Baptist and I went I-80 E to McCormick. We graduated within a week of each other.”
Even after responding to the call to pursue ministry, these struggles didn’t retreat whether in seminary or during the search for the first ordained call. For some of us, seminary was a time to confront the conservative evangelicalism of our home churches. It was a season of acknowledging the many -isms that impact us as women of color, and then adjusting and broadening our theologies.
At the end of seminary, the process to seek out that first call was often disheartening, especially if seeking out a Korean-American or Asian-American context. “After my residency, I looked for a call in the Asian-American context, but could not get past the first round of interviews. I was eventually called to big, tall-steeple, predominantly-white congregations,” remembers Joann Lee, associate pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco. Many felt a pull to serve a Korean-American context, but faced questions about authority and legitimacy within those communities. But, this wasn’t limited to just Korean-American churches, as Irene Pak Lee shares:
“It took me one year to find my first call. I made it to the final candidate list six times and didn‘t get called each time. During interviews, comments were made to me like, ‘I just thought Asian people were white with slanty eyes’ or ‘Do you speak Korean? Do you also speak Chinese and Japanese?’ or ‘So where are you from?’ (My parents are from Korea.) ‘Oh, those people are always so particular about where they‘re from. You know, Chinese people are from China, and Japanese people are from Japan.’”
Those -isms persist well after the interviews and into ministry as Korean-American clergywomen regularly deal with both sexism and racism. For many, it’s a constant negotiation of role – navigating, code-switching and adjusting one’s voice whether in a Korean setting or at a presbytery meeting. Some of the ways we confront these obstacles include using one’s position and agency, as Theresa Cho writes:
“Some has to do with recognizing moments when you have lots of power or no power. If I have lots of power, I tend to be very careful what battles I engage in. If it has to do with standing up for those who have no voice, I‘ll do it. But if it has to do with (always male) Korean pastors in the midst of a presbytery setting where I used to be the former moderator, I will be careful and gentle, knowing that I hold more influence than they do. However, if the situation is switched and I am at a Korean pastor gathering, I may be more apt to be vocal without reservation.”
For many, another strategy for survival is learning to choose our battles, and recognizing that not every conflict is worth the energy. Finally, the reliance on a network of other Asian-American pastors has consistently proved necessary for this work. It’s the community that keeps us rooted not only in this calling, but specifically in the denomination. For Irene Pak Lee, the PC(USA) is a space to faithfully enact this ministry. “Because I love God, love God‘s people and want to be a part of helping to bring that love, grace and justice to anyone seeking to know and be a part of that life and journey,” she says. Likewise, for Theresa Cho, the PC(USA), and in her local church in particular, remains the most open space for this vocation and livelihood. She says: “There is enough space or room where I feel challenged, yet affirmed. My church and colleagues are a huge reason. They keep my feet to the ground and clarify my purpose as a PC(USA) pastor.”
For Joann Lee, the PC(USA) is an agency of healing. She explains: “I believe the church has the capacity and the ability, through God, to bring healing and wholeness and humanity to all. I saw it happen with my parents when we first moved to the United States. I also believe the church has the capacity to cut down, harm, and tear apart God’s beloved children. I have witnessed this, too, both personally and institutionally.” The resilient legacy of Korean-American clergywomen in the PC(USA) is bright and hopeful. The struggle and hope of each one persisting despite incessant tokenism, daily microaggressions, and blatant racism and sexism – all of this is an expression of God’s presence and work. Yena Hwang, associate pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, reflects:
“Where else, but in the community of faith, would we experience this kind of holiness? Reconciliation that calls for justice; justice that calls for equality; equality that calls for an abundant life together, where would we experience this kind of holiness? Within the community of faith that strives to recognize the image of God in each other. That is why I am a PC(USA) pastor.”
Grace Ji-Sun Kim is an associate professor of theology at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, Indiana. She is the author or editor of 12 books most recently, “Intercultural Ministry: Hope for a Changing World.” Mihee Kim-Kort is a Presbyterian minister for UKIRK in Bloomington, Indiana.
Editor’s note: While the PC(USA) and the Outlook has moved away from use of the word “ clergy,“ we have retained its use in this article because it is the chosen self-identifying term for the authors and the Korean American Presbyterian Clergywomen organization.