God’s Spirit Has Been and Is Still at Work in Your Life

Rev. Catherine Chang

Name: Rev. Catherine Chang
Pronouns: She/Her/Hers
Ethnic Identity: Korean-American
Denomination: Presbyterian Church (USA)
Ministry Role: Mission Co-worker
Ministry Context: Presbyterian World Mission
Seminary Attended: Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, NJ

Dear Friends in Christ,

Whether you are considering seminary, or are already in the thick of it, God’s Spirit has already been at work.  Challenges and opportunities might call into question who you are and what you dream about becoming within the c/Church and society.   Those challenges and opportunities will come directly from your flesh-and-blood, family, friends, strangers, professors, and supervisors.

Unlike the other letters that appear on this blog, I will share more of my experiences before seminary.  Why?  Because I brought all of that with me to seminary – and I know that each of you is bringing a lot to the seminary experience.  I also yearned to break free and push myself.  Those moments came as surprises, and others were planned and intentional.  As a Korean-American woman writing this letter, maybe you will resonate with some parts – and others not so much.  Above all, I want you to know that you are not alone.

My maternal grandmother prayed that someone from the family would enter the ministry – but my parents didn’t believe that I was the answer to those prayers.  They believed that my happiest life would happen as an active lay leader, possibly marrying a pastor, not becoming the pastor.  Plus I was seriously dating and preparing for a future with a non-Korean man.  Although we joked that he could become the pastor’s wife, my parents didn’t think that it was funny.  Those were tough and tender talks before seminary, because until then, I hadn’t really discussed anything serious about the future with them.  My parents didn’t seem fully convinced, but I was convinced enough to send back my confirmation and deposit.  A blessing came in the form an uncle, the Rev. Dr. Syngman Rhee who mediated these conversations between my parents and me.  Although he stood as the first Asian-American moderator of the PC(USA) General Assembly, he also moderated our family life and introduced me to the PC(USA).
I was ready for seminary, or at least this next chapter of my life.  Weeks before summer Greek, I sequestered myself in a library carrel to re-introduce myself to studying with a Greek textbook.  Already seven years had passed since I had lived and studied on any campus.  Already five years of undergraduate and graduate school, I had studied public policy but enjoyed more of the campus ministry that I served.  Surprisingly, those years shaped me for ministry, although I don’t think that my Korean-American peers understood that I was trying to find my way as a woman in ministry.  Some peers complemented me that one day I would become a pastor’s wife.  Still those same peers had voted for me as Vice President and assumed that I would assume leadership as President of the campus ministry, when the original one didn’t return to school because of academic probation.

After finishing college and graduate school, I worked four years and later downsized as a management consultant.  It seemed that I also graduated from the Korean immigrant church and campus ministry experience.  I joined a multi-cultural Pentecostal church.  Later I crawled back to the Korean-American church that I attended as a junior high and high school student.  This time my pressing questions, became, “Is he the one?” when I met an Asian-American cute seminarian or pastor, and “What else could I do?” when I grew increasingly dissatisfied with my job – because something was still missing.  After I was downsized from my corporate job, I volunteered in New York with different organizations.  My introduction to a church-related position was as a PC(USA) Young Adult Volunteer in Egypt, when I served alongside other young adults, missionaries, Egyptian young adults, and sub-Saharan refugees.  When I applied for this position, I sought a letter of recommendation from the pastor of the Korean church that I was attending.  He agreed to write it but emphatically stated, “I support you, but I don’t support the church that you will serve.” I wasn’t looking for any theological debates, I didn’t fully understand what he was talking about at the time – but I still pushed forward.  During the discernment process for that mission year and especially over that year in Egypt, this church-related profession seemed more in line with who I was becoming. I decided to apply to seminary after returning to the US.  To start the ordination process, for the first time I joined a PC(USA) church.

As I said before, I was more than ready for seminary.  The seminary experience was about both on-campus courses and off-campus learnings.  101 church history courses introduced the theological importance of Rome and Athens.  During my first year, I visited Rome and Athens and met other young people from World Council of Churches.  CPE at a hospital initiated me about how to become the pastoral presence in the toughest moments.  Deep in my gut, I felt the weight of this presence, hours later after I reviewed how the husband leafed through the scrapbook about his wife and asked me to call him after his wife’s last breaths. Cultural hermeneutics was a liberating course, which I more fully appreciated with other young women of color from PC(USA) called Racial Ethnic Young Women Together. Together we asserted ourselves and our gifts for the c/Church that we were hoping to serve.  

Still, to be honest, not all coursework met my expectations.  Before seminary, when I served in Egypt as a Young Adult Volunteer, I worshipped with and listened to the stories of siblings from Egypt and several sub-Saharan African countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan.   I was curious if I would ever learn more about their Christianity.  Thanks to an independent study grant from what was then called the Fund for Theological Education, I interviewed church and mission historians about an emerging field called “world Christianity.”  Over lunch in a noisy seminary cafeteria, I remember sitting with the soft-spoken seminary president Dr. Iain Torrance and trying to share initial findings from these interviews.  Although he might not remember me, I still remember when Dr. Justo Gonzalez said something to the effect of “None of the books that I learned from, helped me to teach the way that I do today.” I also remember the lack of Asian or Asian-American representation in my pool of interviews.  A curriculum review at this seminary was already under way, so this was my modest informal contribution.

Learning about the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy was an a-ha! moment. There I was trying to reconcile my experiences of studying at Princeton, in contrast with those of some Korean-American male pastors trained at Westminster.   More than a historical event, this controversy became a metaphor of what I had been feeling – but I didn’t want to be anyone’s controversy.  At the same time, I also noticed the lives of many of my friends, those Korean-American lay leaders in churches were getting married, having children, and buying homes:  they had their marriages, motherhood and mortgages, and I was in seminary.  

Field education experiences in churches in New York City and suburban Philadelphia, opened me up for more than my Korean church upbringing.  With a small group of Black people and white musicians, I fumbled my way as a worship leader.  I also learned that people sharing worship space don’t always get along.  This small group where I served as seminary intern, met in the morning, while Korean and Korean-American young adults worshipped in the afternoon.  Sometimes we gathered for multi-lingual worship.  To be honest, I preferred the deviled eggs and talk-backs right after my seminary-required sermons that nourished me with sacramental fellowship.  In suburban Philadelphia, I also learned the importance of prioritizing peoples’ schedules before sharing mine.  Although a church musician taught me this lesson, I also learned it from my supervising pastor when she released me weeks before the end of the internship.  This pastor is a family member.  I struggled to understand these actions, since she and another elder also discussed that I should seriously reconsider my call to ministry of word and sacrament.  Trying to process those words during my last semester before graduation, put me in a tailspin.  Still, I pushed forward.

What kept me going?  My fiancé Juan, as well as friendship and food.  Juan and I met during that mission year in Egypt, and he was the first person who said that I should consider seminary.  Although he lived in France, we talked or sent “instant messages” almost every day – and he talked me down many times from my self-doubt.  During my first year, friends decorated my dorm door with wrapping paper and balloons for my “Jesus year,” aka 30th birthday.  The next year, I invited many of them back to my apartment for 31 flavors of different ice cream.  One of my first friends from summer Greek hosted off-campus BBQs at all times of the year. Both group and individual spiritual direction helped me to connect differently with friends and with God.  With fellow seminarians over lunch in the cafeteria, we enjoyed laughter and heart-to-heart talks.  I can still hear a Myanmar pastor’s words, “When you pray, “Give us our daily bread,” it’s easier for you, because you can get food easily.”

Thank you for listening to me reflect about seminary, especially since it’s already been 14 years since graduation.  Above all, I pray that you hear this loud and clear:  God’s Spirit has been and is still at work in your life.  Your seminary experience is still unfolding.  The ways that you perceive all these challenges and opportunities, will also change over the years.  Whether you’re considering seminary, or in the thick of it, I pray this letter finds you and your spirit well.     

Rev. Catherine Chang


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