Ordained Korean American women struggle to become pastors in their home churches

Marion Park, at Grace First Presbyterian Church in Long Beach, where she is a pastor.
Marion Park, at Grace First Presbyterian Church in Long Beach, where she is a pastor.
Erin Rode/KPCC

After moving to the United States at age 9, Marion Park pretty much grew up in her Presbyterian Korean immigrant church in Jersey City, New Jersey.  Her father served as a pastor there, following in the footsteps of his father, who pastored a Presbyterian church in Korea. Park’s brother also was ordained. Her parents encouraged her to attend seminary too - but it wasn’t her ordination they were thinking about.

“My mom pushed me to go to seminary, because her prayer for me has always been that my sister and I might be pastor's wives. For her, that was the only way as a woman that you were going to do ministry,” Park said.

Park duly graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary. But she soon realized she didn’t want to be a minister’s wife. She wanted to be a minister herself. When she told her family this, it didn’t go well.

“Over my dead body,” said her mother.

At a time when the number of female pastors in the U.S. is on the rise – one in 11 Protestant pastors is a woman – Korean immigrant churches remain reluctant to have female pastors.

It’s a source of frustration and sadness for Korean American women like Park, who feel called to the ministry, but face barriers to working as ordained ministers in the churches they grew up in.

Ironically, this is less of a problem in Korea, where the percentage of female head pastors is higher in Seoul than in New York.  Researchers give a variety of possible reasons for why Korean American churches prefer male leads, ranging from the patriarchal traditions of Korean Confucianism to their conservative views.

Korean immigrants who founded these churches have largely held onto the societal values from when they moved to the U.S. in the late 1960s and 1970s, causing Korean American churches to seem more conservative than both other churches in the United States and in Korea.

One practical hurdle is the ordination process itself. The majority of Protestant Korean Americans are Presbyterian - and the Presbyterian church in the United States of America (PCUSA) requires a candidate to receive an “endorsement of employment” from a church. 

For most female seminary students, that’s not a major barrier - the organization approved women’s ordination in 1965, and today nearly 30 percent of pastors in PCUSA churches are women.

But for Korean American women who would like to work in a Korean church, finding an endorsement of employment is more difficult to find.

Yena Hwang says serving in a predominantly white church in Fairfax, Virginia, gives her more opportunities.
Yena Hwang says serving in a predominantly white church in Fairfax, Virginia, gives her more opportunities.
Michael Ergelyi

For Yena Hwang, who moved from Seoul to Baltimore at age 11, that requirement kept her from being ordained for nearly 10 years. Hwang grew up in a Korean American church in Maryland, so she wanted to be ordained in one, but she could not find one that would endorse her.

 

“I really felt this sense of call, that God was calling me to ministry.”

Hwang hoped to use her upbringing as a Korean woman to serve Korean congregations.

“I wanted to serve a Korean American church, but a lot just did not want to ordain a female clergy,” she said. “A lot of Korean churches are still hung up over women's ordination.” 

Hwang was intimidated by the resistance she felt during the employment endorsement process, and said that she didn’t seek out as many opportunities as she could have.

Finally, after 10 years, she received an offer of employment from her home church, which she describes as relatively open and progressive.

“The fact that I did get ordained in my home church, and had a home church that was supportive, that is unusual [among Korean American women].”

But after four years, Hwang became frustrated again. She had hoped to move into a role with additional responsibilities, but felt it was unlikely, because of her gender.

Hwang found support through the Korean American Presbyterian Clergywomen organization, which she joined shortly after graduating seminary.

“It was so affirming because these women knew where I was coming from in terms of my Korean upbringing, cultural and theological backgrounds - we have a lot in common. And they understood my hesitance in the whole ordination process, and they helped me work through a lot of that,” she said.

KAPCW also provided an example of an alternative path - Korean clergywomen serving outside of Korean churches, in predominantly white churches.

It’s a move that several Korean American women have made. Hwang now serves on the board of KAPCW. It’s a pretty small group, but out of the approximately 20 active members of KAPCW, none currently serve a Korean church. Instead, they’ve opted for predominantly white or multiethnic churches, which offer more leadership opportunities.

Hwang decided to move to Fairfax, Virginia, where she got a job at a predominately white church. She says serving a non-Korean church has provided her with more opportunities to serve in leadership roles, such as addressing the congregation.

“I chose to seek another position and serve a predominately white church. I try to stay involved with Korean churches when they want my help, but I find that it is so much better for me to work outside of a Korean church context, there are more opportunities for me to grow as a result of being in a non-Korean church context,” Hwang said.

According to Hwang, the number of Korean American Presbyterian clergywomen in non-Korean churches is increasing. But this has not translated into greater acceptance of female clergy in Korean churches.

“It helps that there are more Korean women visibly serving the church, in the non-Korean church context. But just because the number is growing and time passes does not mean these issues [in the Korean church] are getting addressed and solved,” Hwang said.

Marion Park, whose mother forbid her to become a pastor, is now another of those women working at a non-Korean church. After completing seminary, she moved west to work in children’s education at a Korean church in Torrance.

But her desire to be ordained became overwhelming. Finally, after six years, Park knew she had to act. She flew home to make her case to her mother.

“I told my mom, ‘Kids I’ve been mentoring are now getting ordained before me. I need to move in one direction or another.’”

Park’s passion swayed her mother. Realizing her daughter’s seriousness, Park’s mother gave her blessing.

She found an ordained position at Grace First Presbyterian Church in Long Beach - a non-Korean church. However, her status still caused tensions with family members. On the day of her ordination, her brother called - not to congratulate her but to try to talk her out of her decision.

She still missed her Korean roots, and says she spent two years looking for a position at a Korean church - but to no avail.

“I really wanted to go back to serve with the Korean American church, because I felt like that is where my calling is from, and that's what my heart is for. But after about two years of searching, I finally came to the realization that I have no place,” she said.

“I have no place to go back to.”