Korean Women’s Narratives of Being Pastor and Pastor’s Wife

By AHyun Lee

Last month, I shared my personal story of being a Samo (a pastor’s wife) and Moksa (a pastor) as an invitation to explore the meaning of women’s leadership in Korean immigrant churches. This month, we look at the five common and unique struggles of Korean women’s narratives of being a pastor and a pastor’s wife, based on interviews I conducted for my research.

I.     They dont want to call me the only pastor

All my interviewees shared similar experiences with their titles, being called a Moksa and a Samo. They know it is just a title, and at the same time, recognize that people’s difficulties in granting them that title discloses the reality of sexism. Also, one of my interviewees said some Korean church members always wanted to put the title of Samo along with Moksa like MoksaSamo.

II.     I am so tired

One of the unique experiences of Korean clergywomen is the painful experiences with transitioning to appointments, especially with the people and communities involved. When the private experiences of the interviewees being appointed to cross-cultural and cross-racial ministries became public knowledge for the congregations, the women all faced resistance and rejection from the Korean congregations, which continuously impacted their ministries, becoming an emotional and spiritual burden for them.

Also, they all decided to take on both roles of being a pastor and being a pastor’s wife. After leading an English-language service in their cross-cultural and cross-racial appointments, they then went to their husband’s churches and put on the expected role of a Samo, for the Korean immigrant congregation. They expressed their tiredness and weariness with overwhelming expectations from performing double the ministerial responsibilities in both places.

III.     Am I inappropriate?

Being Moksa Samo means taking on the different stereotypical expectations within different communities. For example, the stereotypical image of an Asian (Korean) woman as sweet and indirect is problematic in a ministerial setting because they are seen as ‘not-assertive,’ ‘vulnerable’ or ‘not-independent.’ Although there are strong cultural expectations for a pastor’s wife in a Korean immigrant church that are hard to ignore, she is easily regarded as ‘not independent enough’ as a person from others in leadership, such as the cabinet members or district superintendent, when she still wants to be a pastor’s wife in a Korean immigrant church. She is seen as ‘not enough’ or ‘inappropriate’ in a cross-cultural and cross-racial appointment.

On the other hand, a Samo is often expected to be a ‘traditional mother figure’ or ‘a tradition keeper’ in the Korean immigrant church. However, a Korean clergywoman is often regarded as being “too” liberal and a westernized feminist against traditional values of Korean-ness. They are again regarded as being “not enough” or “inappropriate” for their husbands or their Korean congregations and Korean churches. Experiencing these contradictory and different narratives, they face their sense of inadequacy and inferiority in their relationships with others and in the daily functions and roles they serve. The narrative of being a Moksa Samo illustrates the difficulties Korean clergywomen face to a fully integrated sense of self. The church needs to be aware of their struggles and provide the support.

IV.     Do I belong, here?

Although they are Korean immigrants, they serve in cross-cultural and cross-racial ministry settings. While they are pastors in cross-cultural and cross-racial appointments, they are also a pastor’s wife in a Korean immigrant church. It is hard to define where they come from or where they belong in daily life. They had unavoidably experienced rejection and the feeling of being a stranger through their ministerial experiences with both communities (Korean churches and cross-cultural and cross-racial churches). Each of the women experienced feeling rejected and blamed for abandoning and breaking from their own community for their own betterment. Finding where they belong between the Korean immigrant church and their cross-cultural and cross-racial appointments causes them to feel a sense of loss both emotionally and relationally.

Unfortunately, there is not a safe space to lament and grieve about this rejection, loss and isolation from the community.

V.     Am I really called by God?

The last unique narrative of being a Moksa Samo is the question, “Am I really called by God?” Korean clergywomen tell of church members asking them, ‘How could God call you as an ordained pastor when you are already called as a pastor’s wife?’ Critical congregations see the woman’s pursuit of ordination as a way of fulfilling her own selfish ambition to make money for her own financial benefit.

In addition, along with the relational conflicts with Korean congregations and the physical and emotional weariness of these women, there were also feelings of deep fear and guilt regarding the failure and abandonment of her husband’s ministry and guilt and shame of not fully being present for her family.

Although racial and ethnic minority clergywomen encounter lots of challenges in their ministerial roles, there is a lack of institutional and structural support for her ministerial functions and little spiritual and emotional support for self-care.

Where and what is the hope in their stories? In the next and final blog in the series, I’d like to invite you to share your hope in learning from their narratives toward the transformation of our community.

Rev. AHyun Lee is an ordained Elder serving the Mayville United Methodist Church in the Wisconsin Conference of The United Methodist Church. She is a graduate of Garrett Evangelical-Theological Seminary (Ph.D.) and Wesley Theological Seminary (M.Div.). Her research focuses on transnational and multicultural pastoral counseling in global and postcolonial contexts. AHyun is the Coordinator of the Asian and Asian American Ministry Center at Garrett-Evangelical. She is also a clinical fellow as the pastoral psychotherapist at the Center for Religion and Psychotherapy of Chicago. She has a strong passion for empowering women’s leadership and sharing women’s narratives for serving psychological and spiritual care for women in the church, conference, community and the world.

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