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Asian American Religious Leadership today: A Preliminary Inquiry

By Timothy Tseng, et al

Conclusions and Recommendations

Because of the vast Asian American diversity, it is dangerous to generalize the current status of Asian American ministerial leadership. It can be said, however, that over the last 20 years, Asian Americans have gained greater visibility within American Protestant and Catholic institutions. In general, Asian American congregations are thriving. Many Asian Americans have provided a renewing presence in Roman Catholic parishes. Asian American church leaders and scholars have produced numerous important theological reflections about the Asian American experience.

Yet the perennial question remains: In the face of the history and contemporary expressions of Orientalism in America, how can Asian Americans be integrated into American Christianity while retaining their cultural integrity? In other words, can Asian Americans avoid being treated as foreigners without being forced to give up what makes them distinctive? The response of American Christians to this question has implications for how they will relate to the emerging world Christianity.

In the meantime, Asian American church leaders play the difficult, but critical, role of mediating between their marginalized ethnic communities and the mainstream Church and society (in a few rare case, Asian American church leaders are called upon to exercise their gifts in the mainstream). Many leaders, particularly those who minister in more affluent Asian American contexts, can also choose to focus their resources and energies on guiding Asian American Christians independently. Whether they are immigrants themselves or are part of an emerging second generation, the trend among Protestant Asian Americans is towards denominational autonomy and evangelical identification. In contrast, Asian Americans appear to be better integrated into the Roman Catholic Church even though they continue to remain marginalized.

Viewed from within Asian American Christian communities, this study reveals that Asian American ministerial leadership is quite gifted and has reached a high level of achievement. Indigenous support structures and networks have been formed for both the immigrant and second generations. Innovative ministries are being started and led by Asian Americans (second generation leaders, in particular). Largely on their own initiative, Asian American leaders have engaged their denominations and have attended mainstream seminaries in numbers greater than the proportion of Asian Americans in the general population.

Nevertheless, from the mainstream perspective, Asian American ministerial leaders remain marginal and isolated. This is particularly true for many Asian American women pastors who experience further isolation from the male-oriented leadership of most Asian American congregations. While some seminaries and denominations provide Asian American specific programs, these institutions still don’t provide adequate training for ministry in Asian American contexts or ministerial support for Asian American leaders. For instance, leadership is particularly needed in cultivating fresh approaches to worship in Asian America settings. But a distinctly Asian American “voice” in worship has yet to emerge. The genres of music, approaches to prayer and spirituality, sensibilities about gathering, distinct rituals, approaches to mission, or themes from Scripture that Asian American churches can call their own are few to none. Complicating this situation is the diversity of Asian American groups, which makes worship leadership development (as well as leadership programs of any other kind) an extraordinary challenge.

As this study attests, the challenge of calling out, equipping, supporting, and integrating Asian American ministerial leaders into the mainstream American church is rooted largely in inattention and ignorance. A comprehensive and empirically based research project is needed into the current state of Asian American Christians and their leadership. Such a project could provide an in-depth study of Asian Pacific Ministerial Leadership within an ecumenical and inter-religious framework. Such a project would be an exciting next step to build upon this preliminary study of the Asian and Pacific Islander Pulpit and Pew Project.

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Pastor Speaking to Ladies

African - American Male Speaker