Looking back at my journey as a Chinese woman in ministry, I can summarize it in one word: challenging. So, I entitle this presentation “Against Overwhelming Odds: Chinese Women in Ministry.” I will be speaking primarily from my own personal experience, but I hope my experience will serve as a mirror reflecting other Chinese and Asian American women’s experience in ministry.
Let me start by sharing my social location and the struggles that I face as a Chinese woman, both in academia and at church. I am an ethnic Chinese. But since my grandmother is half Vietnamese and half Chinese and my parents were both born and raised in Vietnam, I have some Vietnamese heritage, although I’ve never been to Vietnam nor speak the language. I lived in both China and Hong Kong before I came to the U.S. and I am fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese. So, the term “Chinese” itself encompasses a diverse background.
Because of this diversity, I struggle with my cultural identity. I am no longer a first generation immigrant because I have embraced the American way of life, but I am not quite an American because the Americans always see me as a “Chinese girl.” Within the Chinese context, I am closer to the second generation culture yet not totally belonging to that culture. I am always in the state of “in-between-ness” wherever I go, but I am not a 1.5. I think the acculturation process depends on many factors and not just the age we come to the U.S.
It’s been a struggle to teach at a first generation setting during the week and minister to the second generation at church on weekends. On Sundays, I worship God with contemporary music and on Monday mornings, I sing traditional hymns at our prayer meeting at the seminary. I am shifting cultural gear every week, going back and forth, not feeling like I totally belong to either the first or the second generation culture. Although I can read and write in Chinese and English, neither of them is perfect. This state of “in-between-ness” has been disconcerting.
I received the call to ministry during my sophomore year in college, so, I went straight to seminary right after college to pursue an M.Div. In several classes, I was the only Chinese woman. However, when I was single, there seemed to be plenty ministry opportunities. I could serve at a local Chinese church as a woman minister (of course that depended on many factors), or work in a para-church ministry on campus, or as a missionary overseas. But then after I got married to another seminarian, things became different. I was no longer perceived as a minister in my own right, but as a spouse of a seminarian and later as a pastor’s wife. I remember when my husband and I were at Dallas Theological Seminary, whenever we visited different churches, people always paid attention to him, asking him, “what year are you in seminary?” “Have you worked with the youth?” And they simply ignored my presence.
The idea of pursuing a Ph.D. arose not only because of my interest in theological education, but also because of the dilemma I was facing: If I wanted to retain my own ministry identity, then I needed to have a different ministry than my husband’s. If I wanted to stay with my husband at one church, then I would become a buy-one-get-one-free pastor’s wife, since it is very rare for a Chinese church to be willing to have both husband and wife on staff, paying two salaries. Pursuing a Ph.D. seemed like the best possible option to have my own ministry and to stay at the same church with my husband. Another drawback of marrying someone who is also in ministry is that the wife tends to follow the geographical location of her husband’s ministry and not the other way around whereas a single woman can go anywhere she wants.
Not all Chinese women who are called to ministry are interested in pursuing a Ph.D., considering the time it takes, the cost it involves and the turmoil it brings. Some of my married Chinese woman students who graduated with an M.Div. who felt called to their own ministries, ended up serving alongside their husbands as spouses only and taking care of kids at home. Some still cannot find a ministry position at Chinese churches after years of graduation. Some are doing clerical work at Christian organizations. The ministry paths for Chinese women are very limited.
In general, Chinese churches prefer hiring male pastors. Many denominations such as Southern Baptist and Chinese Missionary Alliance still hold conservative views about the roles of women in ministry. Even though my own denomination (EFC) supports women in ministry and approves of women’s ordination (we even have a few women who function as senior pastors), the reservation for women as pastors still persists among pastors and church members. The lack of positions at church open to Chinese women is disempowering.
The lack of support for women as pastors can come not only from the church but also from parents. My parents never approve of my seminary education or my ministry at church. In fact, it wasn’t until I started teaching as a professor that my dad told me “finally, you are more ‘normal.’”
Ministry and theological education are largely male-dominated. When I was at American seminaries, both my race and my gender stood out because there weren’t many Chinese women around. Naturally, finding role models was difficult as well, which often resulted in loneliness. At the American seminaries (excluding DTS), race is more of an issue then gender. People always asked me where I came from. Some minority students were treated differently from the white students. At the Chinese seminary, gender seems more of an issue than race.
In regard to gender, most of my male colleagues keep a friendly distance from me – reminding me of my “potential danger” to men as a woman. In terms of temperament, as a Chinese woman, if I were tough and outspoken, I would be perceived as a roaring, defensive “lioness.” If I remained silent and gentle, I would be considered a “cute little lamb” but would have less credibility to influence. I am yet to find a Chinese woman in ministry who has the toughness of a lioness and the softness of a lamb.
Age is another issue. Grey hair is still a symbol of wisdom in the Chinese culture. When an older Chinese pastor or professor speaks, he seems to gain instant respect. But for a younger female, I have to make extra effort to earn my respect. In Chinese culture as in most Asian cultures, it seems “safer” to be an older woman in ministry. One of the Chinese pastors once told me, “If I want to hire a woman on staff, I will hire an older woman so no one would say anything.” It is also “safer” for Chinese women to serve as a children’s director or a Christian Education director as opposed to senior pastor. But then not all women have the calling or gifts to work with children or youth. Again, the ministry path for Chinese women is very limited.
Balancing between Ministry and Family
Another struggle that I face as a Chinese woman in ministry is the juggling between multiple roles, particularly between family and ministry. I think this is true for most working women. When Tim Tseng asked me to be on the panel tonight, the first thought that came to mind was “I need to find child care for my son. I need to check with my husband’s schedule and with my in-law’s schedule.” Only then could I consider the possibility of accepting this engagement. And there is always a guilty feeling whenever I leave my child to another care-taker. Men can have both family and ministry at the same time, but it is often difficult for most women in ministry.
For single women in ministry, many of my Chinese women students are in their 40s and still single. What are the chances for them to be married? Very few Chinese men would want to marry women in ministry, especially when these women are over 40.
Physical limitation is another issue. Pregnancy, taking care of young children, menopause and decreasing energy level affect our effectiveness during certain seasons of our ministry experience.
To conclude, as Chinese women in ministry, the odds are against us – from outside factors and from within.
Regarding outside factors, Paul’s statements that women should not preach or women should not have authority over men are still etched deeply into the minds of Chinese Christians. The predominant preference for male pastors, the judgmental attitude from those who hold conservative view against women in ministry, the lack of ministry opportunities for Chinese women at church, the lack of role models, the lack of parental support, all contribute to the odds from outside.
From within, our own struggles with cultural and ministry identities, with multiple roles, with balancing between family and ministry, between being a “lioness” and a “lamb,” our physical limitations and the sense of loneliness that we are on our own all add to the challenge as Chinese women in ministry.
I can’t help but ask God, “Why are you calling us, the marginalized of the marginalized, into ministry?” I think God is doing something unconventional by calling Chinese women into ministry against the cultural norms and traditional expectations. Perhaps God is challenging all of us to break our own stereotypes for Chinese women in ministry and to seek for a better alternative to welcome and to support them for the common good.
Professor Chloe Sun teaches Old Testament at Logos Evangelical Seminary in Southern California. She was a panelist during ISAAC's Summer Immersion Program 2007 visit to the contemporary Chinese Christian context.