When Rev. Kyunglim Shin Lee was appointed in 1988, it angered her in-laws for violating long-held Korean cultural values by subordinating women’s roles in society. Even her husband, a pastor, told her that he understood intellectually “but his heart could not accept it.”
Those reactions broke Lee’s heart—and solidified her resolve. Today he is Vice President for International Relations at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC; Has traveled to 60 countries as Madrasa Ambassador; and once served as interim head pastor in the Korean American Church for 11 months. During the journey, he saw himself as a speeding train.
“People have to either go in for the ride, or get out of the way,” she said. “Once I was convinced that God could use me, no one or nothing could stop me.”
Lee’s success story is rare in the realm of Korean American churches, where women are rarely seen on stage. At a time when women make up about 20% of Protestant clergy in the United States, Korean American female clergy still struggle to find acceptance in their home churches and often assume leadership roles elsewhere.
Women like Lee, who have broken down barriers in these spaces, remain pessimistic about the pace of change and are concerned about the resilience of patriarchal attitudes even among second- and third-generation Korean Americans. They say there is a need to promote equality in church boards and pulpits and to provide role models for young women considering ministry, but bringing about such cultural change has proved a major challenge.
Young Lee Hurtig, executive director of Innovative Space for Asian American Christianity, gender equality in Korean American churches lags far behind congregations in South Korea, which supports Asian American women in ministry. South Korea has more female head clergy, she said, “because culture changes rapidly when it is mainstream.”
“Korean American churches are the most patriarchal among Asian American churches. … Things should have changed by now, but they haven’t changed,” Hurtig said.
Male dominance in traditional Korean society has its roots in Confucianism dating back centuries, when women were subject to the authority of their husbands and fathers and were in many ways barred from participating in public life. Many immigrants to Korea still hold such a belief, and churches have been particularly slow to adopt equality, said Grace Ji-sun Kim, a professor of theology at the Earlham School of Religion in Indiana.
“It is difficult for Korean women to become ministers because they are expected to be obedient to men,” she said. “It is difficult for (Korean) men to listen to a woman preaching because this idea of superiority is embedded in their psyche.”
Rev. Janet OK, an associate professor specializing in the New Testament at Fuller Seminary and pastor at Ekko Church, a non-denominational congregation in Fullerton, Calif., agreed that “representation matters.”
Growing up in Detroit in the 1980s, he saw a Korean woman leading the church’s English-language service every Sunday—but didn’t understand at the time how extraordinary that was.
“I saw him giving rites, blessings. I still have this image of him in a rustic robe and stole it,” said OK. “Without his example, I would never have thought I could be a pastor.”
That lady was Rev Mary Pack. Now retired and living in Hawaii, Pike said she was only hired as a last resort because the male applicants’ English was not good enough. She got “a lot of weird looks” as an unmarried, 30-year-old female pastor.
The male church elders were patronizing and treating her like a daughter, while some young men molested her or refused to accept her. His presence seemed unimaginable to many older women.
“But some of the young women stood a little stern because I was there,” Pike said. “They felt good about it.”
He has seen some progress. When the Presbyterian Church (USA) started a group for Korean American female pastors in 1991, there were only 18. Today there are 150.
“When I started it, I was alone,” Pike said. “Now there are more women who talk to each other, share their struggles with each other. As long as we do it together, it is 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 of them in the ministry now, most Koreans are serving in mainline or multiracial congregations rather than in American churches.
“It’s like I love my home church and I don’t want to leave my home community,” she said. “But they don’t confirm me as a leader. It’s heartbreaking.”
OK’s own church is largely Asian American, but not exclusively Korean. Several years ago he served as interim chief 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 have to build pathways and pipelines.”
Suji Alvarez is in a similar situation. Having grown up in an Orthodox Korean immigrant church in Vancouver, British Columbia that had no female pastors, she is today the head pastor of The Avenue Church, a multiracial Free Baptist congregation in Riverside, California.
Moving away from her home church was not intentional, but happened systematically, she said, and she embraces her pastoral status as a role model.
“For me (as a woman of Korean descent) leading a circle is a big deal,” she said. “I hope I can help pave the way for others so they know it’s possible. Ministry should be like any other career – your ethnicity or gender shouldn’t affect your chances.”
As for the male counterparts of pastors in Korean American churches, Kim, for one, expressed anger that so many people remain silent on the issue: “He feels that fighting social justice issues should not be the church’s business. But For me it is God’s work. This is important, necessary work.”
But Lee, whose ordination was objectionable to her family, said she was glad to see some male pastors welcome women onto the stage – as did her husband.
The Rev. John Parks, who leads Numa Church in Buena Park, California, is a male pastor who embraces this kind of ally. He called upon men to consciously work to empower women, citing Scripture in the words of the apostle Paul: “Neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, male nor female, for you May all be one in Christ Jesus.”
“The Bible is clear on the issue of equality,” Park said. “But it is an internal battle in our community. We are fighting our past.”
The Associated Press religion coverage is supported by the Associated Press’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. Associated Press is solely responsible for this content.