Asian American pastors minister across culture gap

Times Staff Writer

Pastoring is a tough assignment by any measure, but for many English-speaking ministers in some of the nation’s 7,000 Asian congregations, the work is made harder by cultural differences inside their own churches.

Consider the situation of a second-generation Chinese or Korean American who works as an associate pastor for a largely immigrant congregation. Such a U.S.-born pastor would be accustomed to expressing personal views, so it can be trying to show marked deference to senior first-generation pastors who, steeped in hierarchal Confucian tradition, are used to assistants who don’t express contrary opinions.

“American culture is much more open about sharing differences,” said the Rev. Louis Lee, a second-generation Chinese American pastor who founded Ministries to English-Speaking Asians. U.S.-born pastors “don’t care about titles or doctorates,” he said, but not using an appropriate title to address a superior can convey disrespect to a first-generation person. And expressing disagreement could be construed as a personal attack, said Lee, who is known as a “pastor” to Asian American pastors.


For younger Asian Americans, this milieu can be a minefield of tender sensibilities and unintended insults. How to navigate it unscathed was one of the topics this week at a meeting of about 150 Asian American pastors and religious workers in the San Gabriel Valley.

The English-speaking pastors and workers, from various denominations throughout California -- a few with babies in strollers -- came together at Evergreen Baptist Church of Los Angeles in Rosemead for a day of prayer, affirmation and sharing, including their struggles.

Called the Gathering, the event has been held about every four years since the 1980s. Attendees also heard a presentation on revitalizing Asian American churches for the new generation, and for lunch shared a bowl of chicken teriyaki over rice, compliments of the Evangelical Christian Credit Union.

“Pastors need encouragement and nurturing too,” said the Rev. Tom Steers, an organizer of the event and the national co-director of the Navigators, an international Christian ministry. “We’re providing a place where people can belong -- and the side of them that is Asian American can be ministered to,” said Steers, who is white. A former missionary to the Philippines, he has worked in Asian American ministry in Los Angeles since 1976 and is considered a mentor by many Asian American pastors.

A 2005 Duke Divinity School study, “Asian American Religious Leadership Today,” said the most acute tensions in Asian American churches revolved around clashes between the generations over cultural differences in the styles and philosophies of church leadership and control. Young pastors, the study found, tended to view immigrant churches as “dysfunctional and hypocritical religious institutions” that demonstrate a “negative expression” of Christian spirituality.

Last March, Asian American Christian leaders, meeting at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said Asian American churches were going through a “crisis of leadership” because seminaries were not preparing a new generation of pastors to work in multigenerational and multicultural settings.


Tommy Dyo, national director of Epic Movement, an Asian American ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, said the get-together offered Christian workers like him “a safe haven” to share their struggles and victories in ministry.

“It’s soothing for my soul,” said Steve Hong, a pastor who came from Northern California with his wife and son. It’s so important to learn “what God is doing among other Asian pastors . . . and hear what’s on their heart,” said Hong, a former English ministry pastor at Evangelical Free Church in Walnut and a graduate of Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada.

During a question-and-answer session, the Rev. DJ Chuang, executive director of the L2 Foundation, a Christian organization that aims to develop Asian American leadership, shared his long-standing struggles with depression.

“I am a graduate of Virginia Tech,” he said. “I struggled with the same issues as the shooter.”

But by the “grace of God, churches and mentors,” he said, he went to seminary, then into full-time ministry. He still struggles with the condition, however. “Just last week I had another bout with depression,” he said.

The Rev. Ken Fong, senior pastor of Evergreen Baptist Church-LA, says pastors in general, not just Asian American pastors, feel they cannot talk about their difficulties with their congregation or staff. The reason is simple: “You’re supposed to be a man of God,” he said.


Fong’s church began as a Japanese immigrant church in 1925 and today has one of the most diverse congregations in the Los Angeles area. He said the pressures on Asian ministers are more pronounced in immigrant churches because first-generation church members tend to put clergy on a pedestal.

“You’re a sensei,” said Fong, using the Japanese term for teacher, a term that connotes great respect. “Even the idea of why you get to be our pastor is because you’re a sensei. . . . You’ve conquered all struggles, sin and addictions in your life.” That, at least, is the perception, said Fong, a third-generation Chinese American whose wife is Japanese American.

Dyo said the Asian culture expects ministers to excel in everything -- Bible teaching, presiding over prayer meetings, church administration. They are also expected to “have a perfect marriage, perfect pulpit presentation, perfect kids,” he said.

At the same time, they don’t get much affirmation in the home because ministry jobs generally don’t pay well.

“Certainly that happens in other cultures as well, but because most Asian Americans are immigrants, the second-generation leaders usually are expected to be financial providers for their family,” Dyo said.

The Rev. Vince Arnaldo, senior pastor of the Filipino-American Church of Irvine, said generational rifts and communication barriers are challenges facing his church too.


“You are basically blending Eastern and Western world views,” said Arnaldo, an immigrant from the Philippines. Unlike most immigrants from Asia, Filipinos usually speak and read English. But speaking the same language does not resolve generational issues, he said.

That’s why at his church a second-generation associate pastor handles second-generation ministries, and he mostly works with the first generation. “That is our way of trying to bridge the gap,” he said.

In his survey of Asian American churches nationwide, Chuang found just 150 financially independent and autonomous English-speaking congregations out of about 7,000 predominantly Asian churches.

But he is hopeful about the future.

In the last decade, more than 100 English-speaking, Asian-led churches have started across the country, he said.

“The next generation of Asian Americans has the potential to take the best of both worlds -- from the American culture that they are raised in and Asian heritage that they bring from their family,” he said. “If we can invest in them, we can do a lot of good for the world.”