The entire PC(USA) organization is behind me
Korean-American pastor finds joy and support in his first call
January 31, 2011
Born in Korea to a nominally Buddhist mother and a father with no specific religious identity, Jason Ku says he has always been a “seeker.”
“In Korea, I was always asking the questions, ‘Where does the universe come from,’ and ‘What is the meaning of life,’” Ku said.
Just as he was preparing to make a study of such fundamental questions, Ku’s father died unexpectedly, leaving his mother unable to pay for his college education. With no choice but to complete his obligatory army service, Ku decided to leave Korea at the age of 25 to seek better opportunities in the United States. Invited by his sister to live with her in Carmichael, Calif., a suburb of Sacramento, Ku hoped to find a “way out” of his uncertain future.
Ku said that his faith journey began at the University of California, Davis, where he majored in economics and became involved in the Korean Campus Crusade for Christ, regularly attending their worship services and Bible studies.
“It was during my college days that I was introduced to Christianity and came to know Jesus Christ,” Ku recalled. “Upon knowing Christ and reading scripture, I saw the truths of my two essential questions. I saw the origin of the universe in Genesis 1, and our life and the meaning of it in the resurrection of Christ.”
Because he was already familiar with the Presbyterian Church – the strongest denomination in Korea – Ku began attending and eventually joined the Capital Korean Presbyterian Church in Sacramento, which has since relocated to El Dorado Hills, Calif. In the intervening years, he returned to Korea where he not only met and married his wife, Dongsook “Deborah” Ku, but also witnessed to his mother about his newfound faith. She later converted to Christianity.
After working in Sacramento for nearly 20 years as a small business administrator and loan officer, Ku says that he had a personal encounter with God at the age of 40 which he found difficult to describe. “It was a sense that I was being called, that didn’t fade or go away,” he said.
During the ensuing decade, Ku at first responded to God’s call by becoming a deacon and later an elder in the church. He joined the choir and immersed himself in a study of Romans. Ku took advantage of every opportunity to hone his church leadership skills while continuing to work full time as a federal employee.
“At the age of 50, I couldn’t resist God’s call any more, so my wife said to go ahead,” Ku shared, “So I dropped everything and entered San Francisco Theological Seminary.”
Ku said that becoming a seminary student couldn’t have come at a worse time for his family. His daughter was just entering college when he left his full time job. He had also made a significant pledge to his church’s building campaign. Little did he know that greater challenges would follow after his 2007 seminary graduation.
"One of the challenges I started seeing in seeking my first call was that most churches were seeking ministers with a number of years of experience," Ku said. "I knew, too, that my background as an immigrant and speaking English as a second language would make it hard for me to get into an English-speaking congregation.”
Two years after he had graduated, Ku learned about For Such a Time as This, an innovative Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastoral residency program designed to serve small, under-served congregations and develop missional pastors.
Named for a reference from the Book of Esther, For Such a Time as This deliberately invokes Esther’s unexpected rise to leadership in her day. Similarly, the PC(USA) is calling forth leaders to serve in a rapidly changing and challenging 21st century context, in which half of the denomination’s more than 10,000 congregations have 100 or fewer members. One of the program’s unique and essential features is that each pastoral resident receives the support and guidance of a network of pastor/mentors, and presbytery, seminary and national church leaders.
“Had I known of this program before I graduated from seminary, I wouldn’t have wasted any time,” said Ku. “Through this kind of program, we get wonderful support so that we can launch our first step forward with less anxiety.”
As one of six pastoral residents in the program’s inaugural class of 2010, Ku was called in October to serve as designated pastor of the 26-member First Presbyterian Church of Holden, Mo.
The Rev. Charles Spencer, executive presbyter of Heartland Presbytery – of which First Church is a member – said that the congregation made its decision very quickly to extend the call to Ku, embracing his Korean heritage together with his many gifts. Prior to Ku’s arrival, the 26-member church had been over a decade without a full-time resident pastor.
“I am so grateful because if I can do my first ministry successfully, my Korean-American associates and the younger generations will be able to see the vision and the hope that can widen their opportunities to serve in the future,” Ku said.
Two of Ku's four sisters who still live in Korea – along with his 83-year old mother – flew to the U.S. for his ordination by his home presbytery, the Presbytery of Sacramento, on Sunday, October 10, where they were joined by a host of other relatives and friends.
“The most important thing is that I’m not alone,” Ku said. “The entire PC(USA) organization is behind me, which gives me tremendous comfort.
My ordination, my first Sunday, and my installation services were done very joyfully and I am so glad that I have started my new ministry here in Holden. My wife cooked Korean barbecue and egg rolls for the reception and people enjoyed it a lot.”
Since Ku’s arrival, Sunday worship attendance at First Church has nearly doubled to an average of 35-40, a development that excites both Ku and the members of the congregation. “I have also started to see 10 to 12 children each Sunday,” Ku added. “When I first started, there was only one girl. I am also in the process of building up the Sunday school.”
In December, the Sunday school children presented a Christmas play for the first time.
“Because of For Such a Time as This, small churches in rural or urban areas can be served by new ministers with great enthusiasm,” said Ku. “It can be mutually beneficial because new ministers can get great experience by serving small churches in remote areas while both the minister and the congregation grow together.”
Ku’s example has already inspired other congregations in Heartland Presbytery to consider the program. “With more time for interpretation and their opportunity to observe Jason Ku at Holden, these congregations are firm in their commitment and availability to the program,” Spencer said.
“I hope that the PC(USA) pays attention to this particular program and makes it work to continue in the future,” said Ku. “That’s my personal hope and my prayer.”
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For Such a Time as This is currently seeking pastoral resident applicants for the Class of 2011. Recent seminary graduates who are interested in answering God's call to serve where there is need in the PC(USA), specifically in small membership congregations, are encouraged to visit the website for further information.