Asian American churches face leadership gap
Asian American churches are going through a “crisis of leadership” because seminaries are not preparing a new generation of pastors to work in multi-generational and multicultural settings, Asian American Christian leaders say.
The problem, the leaders say, affects churches throughout the country but is particularly pronounced in California.
At a time when Christian immigrants from Asia and Asian converts in the United States are fueling what a study calls “the most dynamic changes in American Christianity,” few U.S. seminaries offer courses designed to prepare pastoral leaders for the linguistic and cultural needs of Asian American congregations. That was the view expressed by experts who gathered last month at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena for a national summit of directors of seminary-based Asian American Christian centers.
One result is decreasing enrollment of Asian Americans in seminaries.
Recruiting Asian American seminarians is “a major challenge,” said Fumitaka Matsuoka, former dean of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. “We have generous financial aid, but even with that, it’s hard.”
Matsuoka said only three or four Asian American students are enrolled at his seminary, a stone’s throw from UC Berkeley, where 43% of students are Asian American. “The discrepancy is incredible,” he said.
At Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, Asian American students number about 50 -- down from more than 100 in the 1990s, according to the Rev. Sang Hyun Lee, a professor of systematic theology and director of the seminary’s Asian American program.
Pastors, seminary professors and lay leaders said at the session and in later interviews that generational schisms in Asian American churches are causing clergy attrition and turnover among pastors born or reared in the United States. Some young pastors experience so much frustration that they start their own English-speaking, pan-Asian churches. Others become so disillusioned that they leave the ministry, experts said.
A 2005 Duke Divinity School study, “Asian American Religious Leadership Today,” said the “most acute tensions” in Asian American churches revolved around two issues:
* Continual clashes between the generations over cultural differences in the styles and philosophies of church leadership and control.
* Young pastors’ view that immigrant churches are “dysfunctional and hypocritical religious institutions” that demonstrate a “negative expression” of Christian spirituality for the second generation.
For example, some American-born or -reared pastors consider the hierarchal structure of heavily immigrant churches and their emphasis on prosperity difficult to handle.
The situation is complex because many immigrants start on the lower rungs of the social ladder in America, and the church is one of the few social outlets where they can display trappings of success -- whether it’s their children’s achievements or luxury cars.
Also, second-generation pastors, who often handle English-language ministries within Asian churches, say they have no influence on church policymaking because most English-language ministries are not financially self-sufficient and the big donors are often first-generation parishioners.
The problems are so pervasive that Jonathan H. Kim, an associate professor of Christian education at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, is doing a study on clergy attrition, conflict and burnout among U.S.-born Asian pastors.
The Duke Divinity School report also said that pastors trained in Asian seminaries or Bible schools appear better equipped to serve churches in Asia than Asian American congregations in North America.
Even those who are trained in the United States may be better able to lead churches in Asia or predominantly white congregations in North America, because their training fails to impart an understanding of Asian American issues, the study said. The Roman Catholic Church has the most extensive program among American Christian groups for preparing Asian priests for ministerial leadership in U.S. churches and society, the study said.
Seminaries affiliated with mainline denominations are experiencing the biggest loss in Asian American enrollment.
Princeton’s Lee said that only 15% of Asian American seminarians attend seminaries affiliated with mainline denominations. The overwhelming majority -- 80% -- choose evangelical institutions.
Serving the complex Asian American Christian communities today requires “crossing boundaries between East and West, immigrant and native-born, and between various ethnic communities,” said the Rev. Tim Tseng, president of the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity.
“Like Hiroshima, the fusion jazz band that blends Asian and Western instrumental and musical sensibilities, the formation of the next generation of Asian Pacific North America church leaders requires improvisation and a willingness to redefine what it means to be an Asian Christian in North America and the world,” Tseng said.
For example, a young American-born pastor might have to balance his inclination to speak his mind with the assumptions of elders who expect deference from the young.
Tseng, who was born in Taiwan and reared in New York, and the Rev. Young Lee Hertig, a Korean American Presbyterian minister and lecturer at Azusa Pacific University, are co-founders of the institute.
Its goals include training culturally sensitive and biblically grounded professionals and lay leaders to serve Asian American churches.
The institute also aims to educate colleges and universities, religious institutions and the public about Asian American Christian history and to encourage research that brings in-depth understanding of Asian American Christianity.
Joo Hong Kim, a lay leader who teaches college students Sunday school at Youngnak Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles, a Korean mega-church with a $15-million annual budget, said Korean churches have difficulty finding qualified Korean American pastors to teach the younger generation, and he doesn’t know why. He asked experts at the conference to help.
Some seminaries use creative approaches to encourage Asian American students to enter the ministry.
With a grant from the Lilly Foundation, McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago embarked on a $1.9-million, four-year program to encourage, support and challenge new generations of Asian American young adults to consider and possibly pursue a Christian vocation.
Called AADVENT -- Asian American Discipleship for Vocational Empowerment, Nurture and Transformationthe program includes a summer conference and “taste of seminary” leadership seminars to encourage students to consider the vocation.
McCormick has eight Asian American students, according to the Rev. Virstan Choy, interim director of the Center for Asian American Ministries at McCormick and a visiting professor of ministry.
“You have to start with junior high to raise the question early on about vocation,” he said.