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Korean American faith leaders discuss church future (UM News)

August 22, 2023

The status and future of the Korean American United Methodist Church and the upcoming special gathering of the Association of Korean American United Methodists were the main topics at an Aug. 15 Zoom meeting of Korean American faith leaders.

The meeting was convened by Wisconsin Conference Bishop Hee-soo Jung, the only active Korean American bishop in The United Methodist Church. The group was made up of 20 Korean American district superintendents, 10 clergy serving on denominational boards and agencies, three mission superintendents and coordinators, and three conference staff members. It was the first gathering for the group.

In a sermon based on Ephesians 3:17-19, Jung said that Wesley’s faith is the practice of love without boundaries, that love is the best gift of Christians and the church, and that love is the foundation of the Methodist confession of faith.

He noted that differences in theological and biblical understanding have led to heated debates, and have ended in the painful reality of denominational disaffiliation and division. He said he was heartbroken to see the conflict between Korean American churches and annual conferences after the 2019 General Conference.  

“As a leader of the denomination, I cannot express how painful and sorrowful I am to each other and the Lord, and I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility for this,” Jung said.

Nevertheless, he said, the time has come to “recognize our differences and lay down our wounds and burdens at the foot of the cross,” encouraging forgiveness and patience with one another.

District superintendents at the gathering shared the realities of their respective conferences.

The Rev. Timothy Ahn, mission superintendent of Northeastern Jurisdiction Korean American Mission, said that while there are Korean churches in Greater New Jersey that have left the denomination, he still found hope, noting that 70-80 members of Cherry Hill First Methodist Church chose to stay in the denomination and started a new church, Unity in Christ Church, and another in the south New Jersey area.

The Rev. Chang Min Lee, senior pastor of Los Angeles United Methodist Church and one of the Western Jurisdiction’s Korean Mission coordinators, said Korean churches in the West are struggling with the aftermath of disaffiliation.

“In the Western Jurisdiction, no churches have left the denomination except the Korean American Church in Colorado Springs, but in the California-Pacific Conference, seven churches have voted to leave the denomination, but it is unknown how many of them can actually leave,” he said.

He suggested fully utilizing the strength of connectionalism of The United Methodist Church to create a strong network.

The participants expressed their thoughts and interests in the upcoming special gathering of the Association of Korean American United Methodists in October, its first meeting in four years.

The Rev. Hoon-Kyung Lee, mission superintendent of the North Central Jurisdiction Korean Mission, predicted that more pastors serving cross-racial/cultural settings would participate in the gathering. “Let it be an opportunity for Korean American pastors to unite,” he said.

Ahn described the Korean American church as being categorized into three groups: Those who actively support the direction of the denomination, those who want to leave but are not able to do so, and a group that is waiting to see what the next General Conference decides.

He said that even though only about 10% of Korean American United Methodist churches have left the denomination, it is not a time to be optimistic.

“We need to take into account the level of faith of Korean churches and lay people and try to understand their perspectives and explain why we should be one and stay together,” he said.

The Rev. Wehyun Chang, director of the Connectional Ministry for the New England Conference, expressed concerns of the Korean churches toward the association while many maintain their traditional biblical understanding. He suggested addressing those concerns by balancing the reality of immigrant churches of the association with the pastors serving different contexts of connectional ministries.

“I hope that we can talk to each group of the association in advance and coordinate and adjust our goals so that we can discuss them well at the October gathering,” he said.

Jung said that while the most urgent need is to revitalize the association, this must be a time for healing and reflection on “why we ended up in this situation.”

The Rev. Hyo Lee hoped to refocus the church’s message of Christ’s forgiveness and reconciliation.

“We have focused too much energy and attention on one issue,” Lee said. “I hope this will be where we can say, ‘This is who we are’ as a United Methodist Church.”

Suggestions were made to organize and regularize this kind of gathering for district superintendents and connectional ministers serving the boards and agencies of The United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Woo Jae Lim, a district superintendent of the Minnesota Conference, proposed an organization of connectional ministers and district superintendents that meets regularly and would issue a statement prior to next year’s General Conference to express their views on any issues because there were only statements from the Korean American United Methodist Church.

Accepting Lim’s suggestion, the Rev. Paul H Chang, executive director of the Korean Ministry Plan, said he would provide the necessary support to facilitate such meetings.

Chang’s report on the current status of Korean American churches and Korean American pastors identified 280 congregations, including 244 Korean-language congregations and 36 English-language congregations, including those that have not yet officially chartered. There are 270 clergy serving Korean congregations, more than 550 clergy serving American congregations and a total of 870 active United Methodist clergy, including one bishop, 20 district superintendents and 30 connectional ministers.

Chang expects the number of churches that leave the denomination to increase.

“About 40 congregations are expected to leave, representing 15-17% out of 280 Korean congregations, and about 60 pastors are expected to leave,” he said.

However, this data reflects and includes the churches that have voted to leave the denomination but have not completed the process or have not been able to finish the process.

Concluding the meeting, Jung expressed his hope for a new look for The United Methodist Church: “Our denomination needs to experience a spiritual awakening and share the message of salvation that the church is the hope of the world. We need a movement to restore spiritual vitality.”