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A Journey to South Korea Changes the Lives of Five Pastors

May 31, 2017

Diversity is an integral part of what makes us better Christians and a better church. Gaining an understanding of people and cultures that are different from ourselves, and creating inclusive environments for learning, fellowship and worship are a part of building diverse communities of Christ. The Clergy Lifelong Learning Office at the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM), in collaboration with the General Board of Global Ministries, recently gathered a group of United Methodist pastors in South Korea to expand the diversity work of the agency.

During the seven-day trip, Dr. HiRho Park, executive director of the Clergy Lifelong Learning Office at GBHEM, traveled with four African-American pastors and an Asian-American pastor who serve in large United Methodist churches that have a predominantly white membership. They made this journey to share best practices and experiences in diversity and inclusion with students and faculty of YeonSei Theological School and the Global Institute of Theology.

The trip also served as an opportunity for exposure to African-Americans and their perspectives beyond the typical images seen on television and movies in South Korea. “The Koreans and others we encountered had an opportunity to see us as leaders in service to the church, and gain other perspectives from the traditional white male perspective,” William Meekins, Jr., assistant to the bishop in the Western Pennsylvania Conference, said. Albert Shuler, lead pastor of New Creation United Methodist Church in Durham, North Carolina, added, “We changed perspectives of African-Americans, providing greater clarity and showing how we are truly more alike than different.”

“The trip was extremely positive for all of us. It provided mutual benefits for the U.S. pastors to learn about the culture, history and people of South Korea, while the students and Korean Methodist churches we interacted with gained insights on diversity and cross-racial and cross-cultural leadership,” Park explained. “I was proud to see it all come together after more than two years of planning and much coordinating within the U.S. and South Korea.”

As cross-racial and cross-cultural leaders in the church, the pastors had great wisdom and experience to share with the students who are preparing to become ministers and leaders in the racially 

changing landscape of South Korea. The growing number of international marriages, immigrants entering the country and interracial/interethnic births has created a need for increased awareness and understanding of diversity and inclusion practices, as well as a focus on intercultural and interracial justice ministry.

At YeonSei University in Seoul, South Korea, pastors Meekins and Shuler gave presentations on Christianity in a multicultural world. Meekins’ presentation focused on the four foundational pillars that uphold Methodism from a diversity perspective, as well as his personal experiences with diversity as a pastor and district superintendent within the denomination.

“There is so much we can learn from other countries and people. When we are open to travel and connecting with people who are different from ourselves, we have the opportunity to gain different perspectives – not right or wrong perspectives, but different,” said Meekins. “Many times we find ourselves judging others, however, if we can get to a place where we recognize and celebrate other’s differences, then we can truly move forward.”

Shuler ’s presentation explored what it means to live in a multicultural world for the students and faculty at the Global Institute of Theology. He advised the attendees that respect is always first and foremost in embracing multiculturalism. Healthy relationships based on honesty are the heart of obtaining real multiculturalism.

“In relationships, we may not always agree, but you can be honest, share and love each other beyond our differences,” Shuler said. “Issues of superiority are what hold us back. We all have similarities and differences, embracing the differences gives us power and makes us a united people.”

More than 25 students from various countries in Asia and Africa attended the presentations at YeonSei. Students come from around the world to attend the Global Institute of Theology. With the large range of cultures represented, English was the primary language for the event. The event was covered by the local Korean Christian broadcasting company.

“The GIT [Global Institute of Theology] was truly a global experience. In the U.S., we do not always experience truly global settings like this with more than 12 countries represented,” Meekins said. “When we connect with people we have an opportunity to learn their stories, who they truly are, which can enrich our life and our story.”

A group photo with members of the church in Korea
A group photo with members of the church in Korea

During their time at YeonSei, the group met with the dean and associate dean of the theology school to discuss diversity in theological education. The university serves as the regional hub for GBHEM’s global education initiatives in Asia.

Following the presentations at the Global Institute of Theology, the group traveled to three large-congregation churches in DaeJun City, South Korea: DaeJun Central Methodist Church, MokWon University and Heaven’s Garden Methodist Church. Kevin James, Sr., lead pastor at Palm Coast United Methodist Church (UMC); Jon E. McCoy, lead pastor at Hinsdale UMC; and Donald Lee, lead pastor of First UMC of Denton preached during the visits to the churches. Lee preached at Heaven’s Garden Methodist Church where Bishop SeungHo Choi serves as a lead pastor.

“I was moved by the passion, zeal and love for Jesus that we saw at the worship services,” said Shuler. “The Korean people considered it a privilege to worship God. They volunteer to serve and staff the churches. They give of not only of their time but money as well. We were told tithing averages around 30 percent. The churches were exploding with people – one service had more than 1,500 people and another 150 in the choir. It was a sight and an example for us in the U.S.”

Shuler continued, “During one of the worship services, the daughter of the lead pastor sang ‘How Great Thou Art’ in Korean. This was a moving moment. Although she sang in a different language, we could all still connect with the song and praise.”

The group was also invited to visit with the president of Huree University in Mongolia for dinner and fellowship. Because of GBHEM’s and Discipleship Ministries’ e-Reader Project, the university was gifted e-readers for their faculty in 2016. As a thank you, Dr. Soon Hoon Chung, the president of the university hosted Park and the visiting pastors for dinner in a traditional palace environment.

After traveling by train between Seoul and Daejun City, the group spent time with leaders of the Korean Methodist Church (KMC) at the headquarters in Seoul, including general secretary of the KMC Board of Higher Education, Rev. Dr. NackHwan Kim. The pastors also attended the South KMC Annual Conference, providing greetings and participating in the worship services.

“Our travels pushed us to look more deeply at how we can connect people globally—connect us and our work closer to the Korean Methodist Church,” said Meekins. “Our meetings and worship services reaffirmed that God is everywhere in the world. God is beyond nationalism. God created us all in God’s image. The sooner we realize this, the better off we will be.”

A large golden buddha statue
A large golden buddha statue

During the trip, the pastors made an informal visit to Korean Methodist University for a tour and conversation with students and faculty on the campus. At this visit and others, the pastors had an opportunity to gain more insight into Korean culture and experience the people and the customs. The group visited South Korea a few days before Buddha’s birthday and had an opportunity to see the ornate decorations around the country commemorating the holiday. The pastors also visited a Buddhist temple at Sokree Mountain while in the country.

“It was a three-fold trip,” said James. “It was an academic, cultural and spiritual encounter. They taught us their culture and shared their concerns and we did the same.”

“My understanding of the foundations of the Methodist church in Korea is much clearer as a result of preaching in one of the largest Korean Methodist churches and conversations with bishops, university presidents, a general secretary, administrators, pastors, laity, and students. The schedule that Dr. Park developed allowed us to participate in conversations in various contexts which fostered sincere explorations of common experiences and considerations of future collaborative efforts,” reflected McCoy.

Park formed a network of racial-ethnic lead pastors serving large predominantly white churches in 2012. There are only 19 racial-ethnic clergy who serve in this capacity in the U.S. and they have been gathering annually since then to develop leadership, support each other and to nurture the younger generation of clergy. All five participants of this trip serve as mentors and coaches for younger racial-ethnic pastors who have been recommended by bishops to potentially to serve in these churches.

Both Lee and Meekins described the camaraderie that developed between the pastors on the trip. “The size of the group was perfect. It was intimate and allowed us to connect in our shared experiences,” said Meekins. “We all grew from the experience. The trip allowed us to build a real connection to one another. I don’t believe any of us will be the same after our time in Korea.” Lee added, “I am still celebrating the wonderful week of learning, sharing and growth.”

For more information about the Clergy Lifelong Learning Office at GBHEM, visit

About GBHEM: As the leadership development agency of The United Methodist Church, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry’s mission is to lead and connect the educational and ministerial life of the church. Every elder, deacon and licensed local pastor benefits from our training and candidacy programs. Many young adults find help in clarifying their vocation and God’s call on their lives through our leadership and discernment programs. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook: @GBHEM.

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