Dr. Kah-Jin Jeffrey Kuan is President and Professor of Hebrew Bible at Claremont School of Theology. Dr. Kuan has served on the faculties of the Pacific School of Religion and the Graduate Theological Union as well as Dean and Professor of Hebrew Bible of the Theological School at Drew University. Dr. Kuan’s research and teaching interests include ancient Israelite and Near Eastern history, Asian and Asian American hermeneutics, the Book of Job, as well as approaches to biblical instruction for the churches. He is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and holds a B.Th. from Trinity Theological College in Singapore, an M.T.S from the Perkins School of Theology at SMU, and a Ph.D. from Emory University.
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Patrick: Welcome to the Sound of the Genuine. This is the Forum for Theological Explorations limited audio series on vocation, meaning and purpose. And I am Dr. Reyes the senior director for learning design. If you're asking yourself, what is my purpose in the world or in this case, do I want to be an institutional president, then you are in the right place.
Because today we got Dr. Jeffrey Kuan, who's the president of Claremont School of Theology. And as you'll hear, he's had a lot of challenges in his leadership and has always relied on community. So I'm grateful that we got Dr. Kuan here. Welcome to the Sound of the Genuine.
How are you doing?
Jeffrey Kuan: I'm doing well Dr. Reyes and at Claremont School of Theology, we are very proud of alums like yourself who are doing amazing work. So this is a pleasure and a delight to be in conversation with you.
Patrick: I know where you are right now as president of Claremont School of Theology but I'm curious about how you got there. So if you can tell us a little about where you grew up.
Jeffrey Kuan: It's a long story. I was born and raised in Malaysia. At the time when I was growing up, it was a small town of about 30,000 people. Went to Catholic schools and I'm always grateful for the Lasallian education that I got from elementary through to high school. But I also grew up in a Protestant Methodist church.
I came from a mixed religious background. My father came from a Chinese religion, Buddhist background, but my mother grew up as a Christian, went to a Methodist church in her hometown. Her parents were converted by a very well-known Chinese evangelist, John Song, who happens to be from the same ancestral area that my grandparents had grown up so that there is a kind of affinity with your own people.
So my mother married my father, but my father was very open to let my mother raise us as Christians, to the extent that my father indirectly knew the value of being raised religious. And in fact, would encourage us from young to go to Sunday school every Sunday, no excuses. So that was the kind of background I grew up in and I was very active in church through high school.
It was in my final year in high school, after all my involvement in youth group - Bible study, I felt a very strong call to ordained ministry. Again, in a lot of parts of Asia, undergraduate education is the route to prepare for ordained ministry. But growing up in a Chinese family in Malaysia, my father had a lot of other expectations of me. Even though by then when I was in high school and thinking about going to ministry, my father had already embraced Christianity and began to be active in the church too.
But when I told my father that I was going into ministry, it was a deep, deep disappointment for him. He had more expectations of me. He wanted to send me to England for my college education. I could have become an accountant, a doctor or something else but not a pastor. So my father was very disappointed and never spoke to me for six months.
Complete silence. But I was very firm in my deep sense of calling. And eventually my father knew how firm I am and I did not want to go to England for my education, I wanted to go to seminary. My father eventually let me go to seminary in Singapore. I was the youngest student in seminary at that time I was 17 years old. I may still hold the record for being the youngest student at the seminary, Trinity Theological College in Singapore.
Patrick: I'm just curious about what is seminary as a 17 year old, cause that's not, for a lot of people who will listen to this, that's not the similar context is it? What's the degree program? What'd you study? What is that system set up to do?
Jeffrey Kuan: At that time the Dean of the of the seminary had just instituted an additional year of the program. What he refers to as a preparatory year. And being that young, I was put into that five-year program. It was a very traditional undergraduate education with all the classes in any seminary, but it was all a study of theology.
It was not a liberal arts education at all. Right from the get-go we were dealing with all the entire seminary curriculum and with a lot of practical training as well, preaching classes, counseling classes, religious education classes. Where we had to do four or five years of internships. So every year we will be assigned to a few education site, local church. It's all very focused on local church ministry.
Patrick: And when you're done with that five-year are you then ordained and do you take your first call? What's your kind of next step out of your education?
Jeffrey Kuan: Being a United Methodist it was an appointment system. I graduated when I was 22 and I was assigned to one of the largest churches as an associate pastor.
And this was a Chinese speaking church and the Chinese speaking churches at the time were in the process of thinking about starting English ministry for the children of the Chinese speaking members. And so I was tasked with starting an English speaking congregation for the church. At the same time, the Bishop also appointed me to be a staff in the conference office, doing whatever that needs to be done.
But I was also asked to begin to be a translator for the Bishop. Whenever he goes to preach or to speak, very often he would bring me along to be his personal translator, translating into English. That was my beginning in ministry. And I began the ordination process at that time with the Methodist Church in Malaysia.
In my three and a half years in the local church, besides being the founding pastor for the English ministry, I did a lot of the young adult and youth work. In fact, I did a lot of Bible study with the high schoolers. And this was an incredible group of high schoolers that just loved learning. And I could throw anything at them. And they were just like sponges, just soak up everything. It gave me the opportunity to find my passion in teaching. There was a period of time I decided to teach them even Greek. I decided to do an entire series on the Apostle's Creed. As I think back about the beginning of my ministry, that was a very significant formative years of my ministry.
And this group of teenagers and I grew very, very close together. So it fueled my passion, my calling in ministry, but it also helped me to see beyond what I was doing and look into the future of my ministry. And that was a reason why after three years, I began to think seriously about doing graduate theological education. My first theological degree was a bachelor of theology.
I decided that if I needed to be more effective in ministry, I need further education. And so that was what led me to come out to the United States and enroll at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas, and pursue my master of theological studies.
Patrick: I'm curious about what you felt you needed? I'm listening to your story and I hear a multivocational pastor who's operating in multilingual contexts, translating Chinese, launching an English church, teaching Greek to teenagers. What else did you need? I mean these already sound really way more accomplished at 22 than any person I've known over the course of their life.
Jeffrey Kuan: When I was in seminary, I also did a CPE and that was very significant for me and began to stir interest in the importance of pastoral care and counseling. When I went to Perkins, my first impetus was to do as much pastoral care and counseling courses as I could. I took a lot of those classes and one of my favorite professors at Perkins was David Switzer, who was a student of Clinebell.
And so I did a lot of classes with him and I did that with the intention of better preparing myself to be a better pastor when I returned to Malaysia to continue my ministry. And so that was what I was hoping to do in the context.
Patrick: And how'd you land on SMU? Cause of the Methodist connection? How'd you end up in Texas?
Jeffrey Kuan: Because of Methodist connection and also when I began to look into graduate theological education, did some research and discovered that Perkins School of Theology has very good financial aid for international students. But the Methodist connection is clearly there. I had no idea what place I'm going to: Dallas. Dallas of all places, in the deep South.
Patrick: That's funny. But you get the CPE, the pastoral care itch scratched. You're getting trained in all of this at SMU. What emerges for you while you're there?
Jeffrey Kuan: At that point in time when I was at Perkins, I also began to retake Greek at the graduate level and took Hebrew. I loved the languages. I began to take a good number of a Bible classes, but it was one particular faculty who is a United Methodist faculty at Perkins, Phyllis Byrd.
She became a mentor for me and I studied Hebrew with her. Did very well. I took a couple of classes with her and did very well in her classes. One day, she pulled me aside, asked me to go meet with her. And she began to ask me a question that had never ever occurred in my mind. She asked me to think about pursuing a PhD.
A young kid from Malaysia, from a small town, I never could imagine that I have what it takes to pursue a PhD degree. My father never had college education. My mother only had grade school education. They were products of the second world war. So there had never been people around me when I was growing up that had significant higher education.
Very few people had gone to college. How would it ever occur to me to pursue a PhD? She talked to me very seriously and affirmed what I had done and impressed on me that I had what it takes to be able to pursue a PhD degree. So she worked with me, provided me with a list of schools that she wanted me to apply. And to this day, I still believe that it was her recommendation that single handedly got me into almost every single school that I applied to. And enabled me to not only get into those schools, but also to secure the kind of financial aid that is necessary to get me through my PhD program.
So it was about mentoring. It was about someone who took an interest and took the initiative to mentor me, to be willing to take the step to pull me aside and say, you can do this. And that has become so, so important in my own professional career, that when I see someone who has that kind of ability, I would step up and say let's have a conversation, think about this. You can do it.
Patrick: What did you imagine at this point you would study? And what was that PhD for? Was it to go back to that love of teaching to go deeper into pastoral ministry? What was your hopes at that point?
Jeffrey Kuan: I could begin to make the connection with going into the PhD and going into teaching and connecting it back to my love of teaching the group of teenagers. That they were able to desire learning because I was teaching them. And any one of us going into teaching, we often times start our teaching career with fear and trembling. With a lot of trepidation, but it is always important to dig deep at what had fueled our passion to commit to doing that kind of work.
Patrick: And so what did you want to teach? What'd you end up doing for your PhD?
Jeffrey Kuan: I eventually settled in on old Testament again because of professor Phyllis Byrd. She was my Old Testament professor and I began to realize how much I loved the Old Testament. Got into a number of schools and decided to go to Emory University to do my PhD in Old Testament studies.
Patrick: And what was doing a Ph.D. down here in Atlanta, like?
Jeffrey Kuan: When I started my PhD, I think I was 26 years old, no, 28 years old, 1986. And being a foreigner, I was not as sensitized to all the race relation issues in the United States and had not begun to engage racial discrimination, racism, the racist history of the United States.
My whole desire was still to study, get my PhD and go back and do ministry. So that the lack of sensitivity in some sense, prevented me, surrounded me and helped me to focus just on, on what I need to do. In retrospect, when I begin to look back at that period the five years in Atlanta I can begin to see that if only I had opened my eyes at that time, then I would have seen what is going on in Atlanta as well.
I left Emory in 1991. The Emory of 1991 and the Emory of 2021 is a far cry. The diversity was quite limited. You have a big black population there, but other than that, there were few Asians. But Atlanta today has changed significantly. And today we are now being sensitized to the history of the United States and all these racial issues.
I have gone back to Atlanta on a number of occasions, and every time I landed at Hartsfield airport I have a physical, visceral reaction that I'm into a very different place. Being in California, the kind of diversity has shaped me in different ways so that the deep sensitivity would bring me to react in very different ways than I was in those five years when I was studying at Emory university.
Patrick: And in what ways is that?
Jeffrey Kuan: I begin to recognize more and more the white supremacist context. In Atlanta, the racial issues is still very much a black and white issue. I could see that it is still operating from very much a black and white paradigm. Whereas having been in California for what, 30 years now, except for two and a half years when I was away in New Jersey, the complexity of race relations here and California is so different from what is to primarily is still happening in other parts of the country, in the Midwest, in the deep South.
Patrick: Before we get out of your studies here, both in your master's program and your PhD program. I'm just curious, were there faculty or administrators that had shared background or how'd you build community in Texas and Georgia of all places?
Jeffrey Kuan: In Texas I remember because I came from a primarily multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious context in Malaysia I came with better preparation in terms of adaptability. So that was what enabled me to be able to do well in that kind of context. When I started teaching and now even in the administration, I love working with our international students because of my own experience. Over and over again, I would advise them, encourage them that they need to find a way to move beyond their own ethnic background to learn as much as they can from interaction with people of other ethnicities. In Atlanta I got to form a lot of friendships in my own program. That year Emory only took in only two PhD students. We became very good friends and studied together. When we were doing our qualifying exams, we were working together sharing notes. That was how I was able to get through the program in quite a timely fashion. Even though the dissertation ultimately took longer to complete, but five years after the program, I got a teaching position and started teaching.
Patrick: And where were you teaching? Yeah, what was that first call?
Jeffrey Kuan: The first call was at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. I could not have found a better place to begin my teaching career. Where else can you find a more beautiful place than the San Francisco Bay area? So when I got there, my family was very happy and the goal was to hang onto the position for the rest of my teaching career and retire there. Very few faculty that had gone to Pacific School of Religion will leave for another place. It was such a beautiful context and liberating contexts that allow for a lot of creative work. I saw very few colleagues that would leave and go and take another position.
Patrick: And how long did you teach at PSR for?
Jeffrey Kuan: I taught at PSR for 19 and a half years, almost 20 years. And as I said, I loved my teaching there, enjoyed my teaching there. Got very involved with my own church community, with my own United Methodist conference. I was doing all that, that I loved doing. So there was really no reason ever to leave the place.
Patrick: So what happened? Cause I know you left it.
Jeffrey Kuan: There was one year when the academic Dean went on sabbatical and I was asked to step in to be the acting Dean for the semester.
So got into the administrative part of it. But also as faculty, I never turned away from administration. Somehow I loved that the part of work. Committee work, working with staff. So the one semester after being the acting Dean, I still never thought that I would leave teaching and go into administration.
Drew Theological School was looking for a Dean. The former Dean had been there for 10 years and retired. So I was encouraged by friends and friends had submitted my name to the school. I got calls from from the search committee to explore this. And decided to throw my name into the hat and see where the process goes.
I was successful in being a finalist, went for the interviews and eventually got a call from the provost offering me the deanship. So I left after 19 and half years at PSR and crossed the country again, went from Berkeley to Madison, New Jersey to be the Dean of the theological school.
Patrick: Wow. I'm just going to have to push a little on that. Cause I'm a West coaster and I know the Bay area is where I would like to live. What was that discernment process? What was the decision besides just getting the job, but moving out of teaching, which is what you got this whole thing started to say yes to this administrative job?
Jeffrey Kuan: Ultimately, it was for me a sense of calling and I would not have been able to leave the comfort of the classroom, the teaching, to take on this kind of administrative work if I had not felt that this is what God has called me into. It was a major decision. My younger daughter was in the middle of her high school years, 10th grade. And there was no way that I would have moved her to a new place with two and a half years left in her high school education, preparing for college.
So the decision was to leave my family back in Berkeley and go there by myself to do this work. If it had not been from a deep sense of calling, I would not have been willing to do that, to be apart from my family to take on this responsibility. And as I've said, I love teaching. I was really quite effective in my teaching.
And to give that up to do this was a significant decision. And also to give up on the summer months sabbaticals being an administrator, there are other the perks, but to give up all this very significant perks of a tenured faculty was a very significant decision [and] discernment process that I had to go through to arrive at making the move all the way from Berkeley, California, to Madison, New Jersey.
Patrick: And when you got into the Deanship, was the job everything you thought it would be and pretty straightforward administrative work? Did it meet your expectations? What was that like?
Jeffrey Kuan: There is always what I expect to be, but there's always more and there are always surprises along the way. I went to a place with a very strong faculty and a place where the faculty are open to rethinking. And in my years as faculty, I've began to move more and more to needing to address issues of race, to think more seriously about diversity in terms of theological education that we do. That we can no longer afford just to read white man's thinking, and we need to be able to move to complexify the kind of theological ideas, the kind of curriculum that is important for the world that we live in.
So I was able to convince the faculty that they really need to take a new look at their curriculum. And what does it mean to move away from a Eurocentric curriculum to a multicentric curriculum? So [I] put together an MDiv curriculum revision committee and begin to meet with them. Unfortunately, I was never able to see them through that work before I got another call to come back to the West. I had a very good time working with the faculty at Drew. And it is not an easy decision to move away from that kind of work, the good work that the faculty and I have been able to come together to do.
Patrick: That's almost moving professions, not just from the faculty to the Dean. And now you get the call to be the president of Claremont School of Theology, which is a whole nother level of skills engagement time. Yeah. Can you tell us a little bit about that discernment and what the job is like?
Jeffrey Kuan: Dr. Reyes, I’ve often told my students that for those of us who are committed to religious life, we need to continue to take our calling very seriously to remind ourselves that call is not just a once in a lifetime thing. You answer a call and you did that, that’s it. One needs to continue to be open and sensitive to God’s continued calling. Frederick Buechner’s description of what a call is, is something that has stuck with me for so much of my life. When Buechner says the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
And that has stuck with me all these years. Every time that I had to begin to discern a call, these words of Buechner is at the center of how I need to go through my discernment. I felt a deep sense that I'm being called to come to this new place, Claremont School of Theology. When I was discerning that call at that time, to stop what I'm in the process of doing and take on this job, take on more responsibility, have to learn a new set of skills to undertake this work.
Why do I need to do that? In May, when I was supposed to come to Claremont School of Theology for an interview, the lectionary text for the Sunday is the Macedonian Call. On the weekend that I was supposed to fly out to LA for my interview with the school, one of my drew Alums, an Episcopalian Bishop had invited me to go to Rochester, New York, where he was a Bishop.
And I was going to have a conversation with him. That Sunday he was doing the early morning service. So invited me to go with him for the service. I opened up the bulletin and saw the Macedonian call. The text was there and the text hit me like it had never hit me before. The Sunday I went to church with him and drove back to Newark to fly out.
Monday morning when I went to meet with the search committee, the first words that came out of the chair of the board, who was chairing the search committee was the Macedonian Call. As if that was not enough, when I came in May, a few weeks later, I came out to look at homes and all that. You remember Marjorie Suchocki, who was the former Dean and professor of process theology here?
I’ve known her for a long time, invited my wife and me to her home one evening for dinner. And when she opened the door, she talked about the Macedonian Call. So calling then is at the very heart. And my sense of calling is so deeply rooted in discerning where God wants me to be and where my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger and where the school of theology’s needs can come together.
And as an alum, this work at Claremont School of Theology from [the] get-go has never been easy. The school is going through a transition in order to ensure the future survivability of the institution. Administrative work is very, very hard. And those of us who eventually decided to leave other things that we are doing, teaching or other areas of ministry that we are doing to take on this kind of administrative work. I've seen colleagues that have gone into administration for a couple of years, and very quickly decided that this is not a calling for them.
And so for people who have asked me when they begin to think about whether or not this is something that is for them, my encouragement to them always is that you need to discern whether or not this is something you are called into. There are a lot of things one can do as an administrator, but one has to decide whether or not one is seriously call to do this work.
It can be very challenging, but it also can be very gratifying. If one can find a way to lead an institution to greater health, to continue to carry out its mission, to train its students, to create a better world, then there is significant value for people who can do it and do it well to go into administration.
Patrick: And as you think about that presidential call, what I love about how you're talking about call, just because this is what you do, or this is what you know to do at this moment, to be president of Claremont School of Theology, it doesn't mean the road is paved smooth. You have done more than I think the expectation of the role is which is fundraising, giving public speeches and inspiring people. You've had to manage mergers, dissolutions of partnerships, moving a physical plant from California to Oregon. So you have been leading with such courage and veracity. As you think about being president and what that role might look like coming after you, what do you think it is? What advice would you give to someone who has discerned okay, I feel the call, but I don't actually know what that means.
Jeffrey Kuan: One needs to be ready to learn in the process. I had to learn as a president who is the chief executive to know when I can make decisions and know when I need to consult. Presidents can make decisions that come back to haunt the institution.
I had to learn how to work with my board of trustees. The board of trustees is the one who hired me. And the board of trustees is the only body that can fire me. I had to not only work with the board, but to lead the board, to carry out their fiduciary responsibility for the institution. Very few of us that have gone into academic leadership were trained to do that. Very, very few.
It needs to take some sense of intuition, but also be quick learners to learn all the different aspects of one's position. Another very important thing for people who are considering going into this is to learn how to trust people and delegate the work that needs to be delegated. I know I cannot do everything.
And one of the things I knew very quickly to do is to trust my Academic Dean, Dr. Sheryl Kujawa Holbrook. Even though I came out of the academic world, I know what it involves, but I need to be able to let go and trust that she can do it much better than I can with all my other responsibilities.
Delegation and trusting people who work with you are very, very critical things to remember, to learn and implement in this kind of work.
Patrick: I'm just thinking about how many deans and presidents we work with through the IDN which Claremont School of Theology is one of those schools and how the line about very few of us have been trained to do that work. That just needs to be repeated over and over again so that way people - it's not a shame - it's actually exactly as you said, be quick learners. To learn the job that you've taken on. This is really powerful. President Kwan, I got one more question for you. This is really about this sense of call. Thinking about your story here about growing up in a town of 30,000 people, being called as a pastor to lead, teaching multilingual multicultural church, coming to Texas and Atlanta, finding yourself in California, and now leading an institution, how much of your sense of call throughout this arc has been guided by your community and how much has been guided by your own sense of vocation or perhaps, maybe it's a conversation with God in that sense of call?
Jeffrey Kuan: That's a great question Dr. Reyes. Over the years I’ve come to recognize that discernment is not just a personal individual process. Over the years I have come to trust a group of friends and colleagues, to trust my family to help me in the process. And as a United Methodist pastor, ordained clergy, I have a sense of accountability to my Bishop and my own colleagues in the conference. So part of my discernment process has always been to seek out those close friends and family and finally to have a conversation with my Bishop.
The affirmation then becomes important that this is something that can be affirmed by my church to do this ministry. And wherever I have been to do my ministry, I do it with a strong sense that I’m not doing this for myself. I teach in a seminary for the sake of the church. I went to Drew to be the Dean for the sake of the church. I’m here serving as the President of Claremont School of Theology for the sake of the church, because God has called me to do this. The church has affirmed me to do this on behalf of the church. So that for me is very important. It has never been just an individual decision that I think I can do this. I think I can be good in doing this. I'm just going to do it. That has never been what has led me into doing this work that I'm doing.
Patrick: President Kuan, I'm so grateful that you've shared your story. I'm also just grateful that you've listened to the church in all of these calls. I know I've been the beneficiary of your leadership in these times, not just at the institution, but in the world. And your leadership, it's inspiring for so many of us so thank you. And thank you for sharing.
Jeffrey Kuan: The world will continue to need institutions like Claremont School of Theology to prepare leaders like yourself who can continue to make a difference to transform the world. And we need leaders that can read the signs of the times, but continue to have the courage to do what it takes to change the world that we are in today.
Patrick: Absolutely. Absolutely right. Thank you so much.
Jeffrey Kuan: You’re welcome!
Patrick: I hope your as inspired as I am after listening to Dr. Kuan's vocational journey. We know that you can expand your vocational imagination in a lot of places and we're glad you chose the Sound of the Genuine. Special thanks to Heather Wallace and Elsie Barnhart ,FTE's design managers and @siryalibeats for his music.
And we know you have an inspiring story, drop us a line, shoot us an email. We would love to hear it. Thank you again for listening and see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.