When you think about the challenges facing a woman working in a male-dominated field, imagine what it’s like for the Rev. Elaine Cho, pastor of the Santa Clarita United Methodist Church.
Six months ago, she succeeded the Rev. Melissa Roux Mackinnon, so being led by a woman is nothing new to the congregation. However, Cho brings another aspect that has the potential to be met with resistance: She’s an Asian American.
“I give a round of applause to my church congregation,” she said. “They’re very mature to not just receive me, but accept me with two arms, wide open.”
The issue has made its way into her messages from the pulpit.
“During one sermon I preached that just to have me here as the lead pastor, we’re making a statement,” she said. “That we look beyond our colors, we look beyond our genders. We’re shoulder to shoulder and we’re standing in equality. Not all Christian churches can say that.”
With a good deal of candor, Cho and I discussed the idea that this issue is tied to statistics showing the number of young people leaving the church. The Barna Group, a highly respected Christian research company, has found that Gen Z-ers have an inclusive nature and an aversion to offending others and passing judgment. They’re turned off by the tendency of the old guard to engage in church politics and exclude people because of personal biases.
“This nation is most divided on Sunday morning,” Cho told her congregation, noting that each ethnic group tends to have its own church, surrounded by people of its own culture. “You, having me stand here being your lead pastor. We are going against the flow and the culture.”
Her response from local church members has been extremely positive.
“These people are fantastic,” she said. “Wherever we go, women clergy, and especially an ethnic person, will always have somebody who stands against everything we do. This church is the first church where they haven’t done that.”
The bishop and the cabinet who placed Cho in that position took a calculated risk sending an Asian female to the top spot in a Santa Clarita church. They’re cautious about who they appoint here, said Cho, who came from successfully bringing a dying church in another community back to life.
As a young leader, she was confronted by Christians who believed “women belong in the kitchen” and who vocalized their beliefs that she “shouldn’t be in leadership because it’s wrong.”
“I’m very familiar with this challenge,” she said, citing Galatians 3:28, a Bible verse that says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
When Cho graduated from Fuller Seminary in 1994, just 15 percent of United Methodist clergy members were female. That trend has at least doubled, leaving some denominations way behind the Methodists. Even its founder, John Wesley, licensed Sarah Crosby to preach back in 1761.
Though preaching is a strong point for Cho, she can attest to the fact that where the spiritual rubber meets the road is in the lives of congregants reaching out to the community. Her church actively participates in the work of Family Promise SCV, housing and feeding homeless families. The congregation also provides Christmas presents to needy Hart District families.
They offer creative avenues of outreach such as “Messy Church,” where families who don’t find traditional church engaging can participate in a hands-on experience and share in a meal. Church members are also reaching out to needy individuals by carrying bags filled with water, goodies and necessities to give to individuals on the street when they encounter them.
“It’s small, not something major, but we’re constantly trying to help people out there,” Cho said. “This is not a church where we are walled in.”
Born in Korea and attending high school and college in Hawaii, Cho did not seem destined for life as a clergy member.
“It was a strong call, something that I knew so strongly in my heart that I couldn’t resist it,” said the pastor, a self-proclaimed negotiator who adds with a laugh, “My lesson was you can negotiate all you want, but God always wins.”
Caring for people seems to be a core principle for Cho and her church. It’s where 12-step meetings are held, and this week, a “Blue Christmas” service for people who are experiencing sadness during the Advent season – those who lost loved ones or lost their jobs or are grieving broken relationships.
“So many people are hurting, and in America they don’t look obvious,” Cho said. “I think churches are called to do good works in the name of God. We’re trying to bring that help into their lives and walk alongside them so their pain and suffering is a little bit lighter.”
Cho has settled comfortably into her role – and her office space, which is symbolically situated below the sanctuary, supporting the structure above it. Her faith dictates that the yoke is easy … and hopefully, the mantle remains light for this lady leader.
She will be conducting Christmas Eve services next Monday at 5 p.m., 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. and visitors are welcome. (scumc.org)
Martha Michael is a contributing writer for The Signal.