How many Asian American pastors can you name that are nationally-recognized in the Christian community?
Maybe one — Francis Chan.
Even though Asian Americans are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in America (18 million) with over 7,000 churches, there are only a few Asian American pastors who are well known and being invited to large Christian conferences.
Why is that?
Being limited into a certain type of leadership mold fostered by the Asian culture may have something to do with it. In a Forbes Magazine article called “Why Aren’t There More Asian American Leaders,” Wesley Yang, a talented writer, explained:
“children who grow up in traditional Asian homes do not learn the cultural lessons they need, in order to play a dominant role in most workplaces. The most important Asian values include filial piety, deference to authority, humility, hard work, harmony and sacrificing for the future. Though there may be a place for leaders to display deference, in order to get promoted into a top job, workers have to be their own boosters and show they can be independent and driven.”
There is great beauty in the Asian culture and heritage that emphasizes communal harmony, a sense of social awareness, and deference.
However, only embracing the cultural strengths of family, sacrifice and respect for elders and authority can potentially limit the ability of Asian American leaders to have a greater voice and presence in the Western context.
Based on my own personal experiences as an Asian American pastor and observations of other Asian American leaders, below are three ways Asian American leaders can stretch themselves to make a deeper impact in their communities in America.
My goal isn’t to encourage Asian Americans to be Francis Chan or to be more “popular” or recognized on a larger scale. And there is, of course, so much diversity even within the Asian community that some particular points in this article may not even apply.
But no matter what our background is, my desire is for Asian American pastors to self-examine and be aware of how their cultural upbringing has shaped their leadership styles, and how God might be calling them to go outside their comfort zones.
The world needs great leaders to lead the next generation, and my hope is that Asian American pastors will continually develop holistically to have more of a voice for not only the Asian American community but also the larger Christian community in America and the world.
Many Asian American pastors find themselves more comfortable in the background. Me too. I am happy to do the hard work behind the scenes rather than be in the spotlight with the microphone up front. And I have found this to be often true of student leaders in youth ministry. If you have led a multi-ethnic group of students, you may have found that Asian American students wait to be invited to help or speak up, rather than volunteering or self-promoting even though they are eager and hungry to help.
This is a beautiful leadership trait that looks to the needs of the community first and highlights a diligent work ethnic and willingness to support the community in any areas of need.
I believe, however, that Asian American pastors should challenge themselves to transition from being background leaders to being forefront leaders.
I’m not just talking about having the microphone in your hand more. I’m talking about having more ownership and voice on all relevant issues that affect the church. There are so many hot button issues (sexuality, immigration and racial issues) that the church needs to address especially from an Asian American perspective. It’s easy for us to shy away from these controversial issues and to focus on our own communities.
But in order to be relevant in our rapidly changing world, we need to engage more with the greater community, join in on the conversations, and share these thoughts with our congregations. The Church needs to hear from the Asian American perspective and it will only happen when we engage and share.
One way you can do this is by writing a blog about anything you’re passionate about and post it. Let people give you feedback and grow in your ability to communicate and share.
Traditional Asian cultural tends to embrace thinkers rather than feelers. This F-word was never brought up in my home. I was never asked about my emotions and there was an unspoken expectation to hide the “bad” feelings for the betterment of the community. This handicapped my ability to articulate my own emotions later on and affected how I handled situations where I felt frustrated or insecure in my ministry. “Feelings” was something I considered to be secondary to many other things when it came to my spiritual life. Often, I viewed it as a distraction or weakness that interfered with the commitment required to serve God through all challenges.
My lack of emotional introspection and awareness almost even caused my fianceé and I to break off our engagement.
What saved our marriage and helped me turn a corner was a conference for pastors held at the church my wife attended in New York City called New Life Fellowship. The pastor, Pete Scazzero, who wrote the book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, pointed out that while many leaders could be so well-versed in scriptural knowledge, they were often like immature infants when it came to handling emotions. Christ’s transforming power was not just for our mental knowledge — but something that should touch all areas of our lives, including our feelings.
This conference and book propelled me on a journey towards emotional health where I have been challenged to be vulnerable and grow in the way I express, communicate, and handle conflict. It has not been easy but it has helped me renew my strength throughout the various stresses in life and ministry.
I see too many pastors and their families burnout because of a lack of emotional health (i.e. limits and setting boundaries). I recommend reading Pete’s book and taking the steps to really embrace emotional health through counseling, mentors or seminars. This will help you last longer in ministry or show you when you need a break from ministry.
Asian Americans tend to play it safe in life. That’s why our parents push us towards financially secure jobs such as doctors and lawyers.
For me, there was nothing wrong with this until I noticed that I was playing it safe in my ministry. I didn’t dream big or lead with a big vision. I didn’t take leaps of faith when we planned our programs and events. I took just enough risk to see some fruit to make me content while making sure things were never out of my control. I was too fearful of failure and too afraid of criticism and complaints to step out of my comfort zone.
But I’ve come to realize that I need to lead fearlessly and swing big. We need Asian Americans to take more God-sized risks and trust in God’s ability to do God-sized things. We need to allow God to move in ways that go beyond our own capacity and limited dreams.
I believe that Asian American pastors can’t play it safe anymore. We need to muster our courage to take more ground for God’s kingdom in whatever ministry capacity He calls us to take.
I believe that God is calling Asian American pastors to take charge for our generation and the next. Our time is now to lead our communities in fresh new ways. To this end, I hope we can continue to examine the influence of our heritage and challenge ourselves to grow holistically as a leader.
Sam Yoon is currently the Adult Pastor at Saddleback Church Newport Mesa in Costa Mesa, CA. Sam blogs at samuelyoon.com and hosts the Leadership Unplugged Podcast—sharing the stories of leaders to inspire the growth of leaders.
Sam is married to wife Grace and they have two daughters together. Sam has a Masters in Divinity from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary and a Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy from California State University, Long Beach. Sam’s current obsessions include Spikeball, golf, tea and Disneyland.