Today, I’m happy and thankful to announce that I will be coming on staff as a ministry resident with Christ Church East Bay. It’s been a long journey toward this first step into vocational ministry. The process of discerning my calling has certainly met formidable obstacles, and challenging questions have arisen along the way. After all, pursuing vocational ministry as a Chinese American with Reformed convictions is in many ways a peculiar phenomenon.
In what follows, I want to detail the psychology permeating my pursuit of pastoral ministry as a Reformed Chinese American.
Sensing a Calling
I first sensed a call to pastoral ministry in high school while attending my home church, Bay Area Chinese Bible Church. At least, I thought it was a sense of calling. What do you call it when a kid thinks his youth pastor has a really cool job?
Up to this point, my whole Christian experience was wrapped up in this Chinese American evangelical context. When I dreamed of being a pastor, I dreamed of pastoring my home church. I dreamed of preaching to my parents, my “uncles” and “aunties” (what Chinese Americans grow up calling all the adults at church), my friends from birth, shepherding the community that I always considered to be my extended family.
Our church sought to distinguish itself as “A Church for the Whole Family” with “A Passion for God and a Compassion for the Chinese,” and I loved that. I envisioned myself carrying on the mantle as a member of the church’s next generation. Bay Area Chinese Bible Church will always be my home church in the fullest sense.
So that was my dream. To serve at my home and to pastor my humongous family. But, of course, I had to grow up, go to college, and complete seminary.
Following the narrative of so many NorCal Chinese Americans before me, I moved to SoCal for college, and became a member at Berean Community Church. It was at this Asian American church that I was positively reintroduced to the doctrines of grace, and I became a Calvinist.
I loved this church. Forget about my degree in psychology and social behavior. I was all-in and literally sat at the feet of Berean’s Calvinist pastors who readily taught me the Bible and theology. I was soaking in all these riches like a sponge, anxious to be squeezed out in the context of my home church so that my church family might enjoy these riches with me.
But this didn’t turn out so well. I’m sure it didn’t help that I came home each summer as an angry Calvinist, but at the root of things, Bay Area Chinese Bible Church was neither very familiar with Reformed theology, nor very sympathetic to it. I still remember the sinking feeling in my stomach when the senior pastor told me he would not hire someone who affirmed limited atonement because it contradicted the church’s articles of faith.
Just like that, my dream was crushed.
But though my dream was crushed, my sense of calling continued to grow. I didn’t know where God would call me to serve him or who he would call me to serve, but I pressed on. Besides, I still had to get through seminary before even considering where I would end up doing ministry.
The more convinced I became of confessional Reformed theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, the more theologically anomalous I became from the church networks that had significantly formed me. Becoming convinced of confessional Reformed theology was not only a Calvinistic step away from Bay Area Chinese Bible Church, but a paedobaptist step away from Berean Community Church.
I don’t feign absolute neutrality or objectivity in my personal understanding of Scripture, but the irony of my theological development is not lost on me. I was a product of Bay Area Bible Church, groomed to submit completely to the authority of Scripture. I was a product of Berean Community Church, trained to examine the Scriptures daily to see if what I was being taught was true. And yet, the conclusions I reached led me outside the theological boundaries of the two most formative churches in my life.
Developing a Like-Minded Network
Perhaps, it was naive of me, but I always thought I’d find a ministry opportunity more organically. Interviewing and applying for a position at a church where I had no previous relationships seemed odd to me. But God has had other plans.
Contrary to my Asian proclivities, and without hope of serving at the churches that had formed me, I began to put myself out there and network. I came under care in the Northern California Presbytery, cold emailed all the PCA guys close to home, and sat down over several lunches, sharing my story and getting my name out.
It was very awkward. I cringed as I presumptuously and cynically imagined how these PCA ministers might interpret the subtexts of these lunches.
Me: “I want a job.”
Them: “This guy is desperate for a job.”
Me: “I want to get to know like-minded ministers in the area.”
Them: “This kid is wasting my time.”
Me: “I have to make a good impression for the sake of job prospects.”
Them: “Let’s size this guy up. Show us what you got.”
Me: “I hope I represent Asian Americans well.”
Them: “Oooh, perhaps a token Asian to diversify our staff?”
Being my Asian-self, though, I tried to be transparent. I made clear that I wanted what was best for these PCA churches, and didn’t want to impose myself upon them or beg for a job. I genuinely wanted to build relationships, and see what could possibly develop organically.
Thankfully, things did develop organically. I made friends. I received internships, and I’m still in conversation with the PCA’s Bay Area ministers today. But unfortunately, the PCA in the Bay Area is relatively small and without the deep pockets and vast relational networks of the South.
As far as I could tell, there was not going to be a ministry position for me as I neared the end of my PhD (shooting to submit my thesis before the end of 2018 and to graduate in 2019). Maybe I needed to look outside the PCA.
Hopes and Dreams Renewed?
Eight years had passed since the day my dream of serving at my Chinese home was crushed. But Bay Area Chinese Bible Church was undergoing some significant changes. I witnessed the senior pastor hire a continuationist from Multnomah, a non-dispensationalist egalitarian from Gordon-Conwell, and a non-dispensationalist Five Point Calvinist from Southern Baptist.
This renewed openness excited me. Maybe my dream could be resurrected, and my sense of calling more specifically reaffirmed. Certainly room could be made for a paedobaptist now, right? I reached out, asking if it would be worth applying to the church’s secondary campus, which had been without an English pastor for too long.
After being told that my theological differences with the church’s articles of faith were non-essential and being encouraged to apply, I was hopeful and confident.
But after several interviews and worshiping together at the secondary campus a handful of times, I was informed that I would not be taken on by the church. Our theological differences were too significant after all.
It was disappointing news for sure. Today, I still feel called to minister to conservative Asian American evangelicals. I’m convinced that the Asian American church can and must do better in a variety of ways, and that Reformed theology can be of great service.
At the same time, I know I could be wrong or that this sense of calling could be a future reality. So I began a new pursuit of ministry opportunities in the Bay Area.
The Psychology of Discerning Ministry Opportunities
At this point, with the PhD coming toward a close, a mortgage, and a child on the way, I knew I should probably be more open to other opportunities. So in a frenzy, I reconnected with my networks, and even sent out cold applications to churches that I had no previous relationships with.
Praise God, I began conversations with four churches. Two were suburban, broadly evangelical and mostly Japanese with a handful of other Asians, another was Presbyterian, suburban and more Korean with a handful of others, and the fourth was also Presbyterian and largely white with a sprinkling of other people of color, mostly Asian.
Though I would eventually find out that not all the churches would be logistically or financially capable of taking me on, I prayed about and weighed all four churches equally.
It was a tough decision.
In terms of comfort, the majority white church was a daunting option. When we moved from the Bay Area to Edinburgh for my PhD, one of the biggest challenges for us was feeling at home in a church community. Though we had a great church in Edinburgh, we really missed our Asian American churches in California, especially my wife.
In terms of familiarity, the Asian churches sang songs we know and were filled with people whose life narratives we could intimately relate to. We loved the family vibe, and how we would gain a whole new community of ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties.’
The majority white church, on the other hand, was an urban church in the hipster city of Berkeley. Seeking to reach skeptics and urban elites, such as grad students and faculty members at Cal, it strongly takes after its grandmother church, Redeemer Presbyterian Church. It’s a much more professionalized ministry and intentionally operates with a ‘wide backdoor’ allowing seekers and inquiriers to come in and out with some anonymity and the freedom to explore the Christian faith at their own pace and on their own terms without pressure to make spiritual or relational commitments.
In terms of the churches’ needs, the majority white church is a well-oiled machine with more than ten people on staff across three sites in the East Bay Area. They have five ordained ministers, and a handful of highly skilled and proficient administrators. Though open to taking on a ministry resident, they definitely did not seem to be in a hurry for just anyone.
The Asian churches however, either did not have even a lead pastor, or were in need of assistant pastors. Two of them were aging, in need of some more solid teaching, and also looking for some young new life to revitalize the church. In short, the needs at these Asian churches appeared far more dire.
Would my decision to serve elsewhere be a decision to turn my back on my people?
In a small survey, Ezra Sohn observed that the primary reasons Asian Americans left their ethnic churches for non-ethnic-specific or multi-ethnic congregations were: better Standards of Excellence (preaching, music, programs), Multiculturalism (more cultural and ethnic diversity), and Legalism (legalism and getting burned in their Asian churches).
Did I really want to be another statistic? Another Asian American leaving the ethnic church for supposedly greener pastures?
Added to this process of discernment was what I personally felt I had to offer. I knew exactly how I would serve and seek to meet the needs in the suburban Asian churches. These were people that I get. On the other hand, while the urban church offered me a very new unique experience I knew I had a lot to glean from, I was (and still am) quite unsure of what I can bring to this well-oiled machine filled with people whose life narratives, worldviews, and dispositions are so different from mine.
In terms of being career savvy, the majority white urban church was a no-brainer.
Berkeley is in many ways an ideal context to develop as a minister. Tim Keller is my hero, and this church was planted with some of Redeemer’s DNA! The lead pastor is even on the board of City to City, and well connected in the PCA and EPC.
When this church planted, they raised a million dollars (which almost seemed ungodly to the ears of my Asian American Christian friends)! Some of these pastors also have personal relationships with evangelicals of great influence, such as Tim Keller, Mark Labberton (the president of Fuller), and even Andy Stanley.
And then there’s the whole Asian American psychology of being tempted to think that non-Asian churches are more respectable, prestigious, selective, and influential than Asian churches, or at least the forethought of not wanting to get pigeonholed into being an Asian American church pastor because of the experience list on my resume.
Considering the prospect of serving at a non-Asian Church, I am haunted by the unfortunate stigma of Korean students (and hence all other Asian students by association) not being as sharp or as diligent as the rest of the students in Reformed seminaries.
I’m haunted by stories of seminary professors chatting in backrooms about how “Oh, so and so-Kim was actually quite engaged and participatory for a Korean student.”
I’m haunted by the honest reality that there are tons of white people and non-white people who are far more capable and deserving of this position.
There’s also the desire to want to get a foot in the door and represent Asian Americans well in majority-culture spaces, and to normalize people of color in leadership in such places. But at the same time, what if I fail or disappoint? Am I the best person to be doing this, or should I stay in my lane? After all, what’s wrong with just being faithful with what you know on the margins?
An added layer to this is the fact that the Berkeley church is in the EPC, which is actually more white than even the PCA. Though the PCA is pretty white, I had found comfortable pockets of belonging with some Korean and Chinese brothers who get me and share my cultural, ecclesial, and theological background. Pursuing ministry in the EPC would mean having to make new friends again in a new denomination with an even smaller pool of people of color.
Furthermore, as an Asian American, how would my predominantly conservative evangelical Asian American brothers and sisters associate with me if I chose to serve in a denomination that ordains women and does not dogmatically require its teaching elders to affirm a historical Adam? How would this affect my vision of ministering to Asian American evangelicals?
All these thoughts swirled in my head during this discernment process. And I’ve learned that there is no objectively right answer.
In the end, I walked through the door that was opened the widest. I decided to accept the invitation to come on staff with the majority white, urban church in Berkeley for at least a year. With much fear and trembling, Chels and I chose to pursue diversity and new experiences.
If you’ve lasted this long, thanks for hearing my story out. I hope I did not come across like I was playing the victim in this post. But at the same time, I really wanted to open up a window into the experience of a Presbyterian Chinese American guy pursuing ministry, and all the thoughts and challenges that come with it. I’d love to hear your stories and experiences too in the comments below.
Shameless Plug: To all those looking for a church close to Berkeley, such as new college students looking to get plugged in while they study at Cal, I’d love to meet you at Christ Church East Bay!