Sound of the Genuine

Boyung Lee: Staying Open to God’s Call

September 10, 2021 FTE Leaders Season 1 Episode 11
Sound of the Genuine
Boyung Lee: Staying Open to God’s Call
Show Notes Transcript

Boyung Lee, a native of Korea, is Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Practical Theology at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado. She is also an ordained United Methodist Clergy who has served churches in Korea, California, Massachusetts and Connecticut. She is the first Korean American woman academic dean at the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. Prior to her current position, for 15 years she taught at Pacific School of Religion and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA where she became the first woman of color to receive tenure in 2007. She is the program chair and the incoming president of the Religious Education Association.

Instagram: @bleebkdist

Twitter: @Bleeiliff  

Music by: @siryalibeats

Vector Portrait by: Rafli

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Patrick: Hey and welcome back to the Sound of the Genuine, the Forum for Theological Exploration’s limited audio series on vocation, meaning and purpose. And I am Dr. Reyes and I'm especially excited about today because we get my mentor, my friend, my colleague, Vice President, Dean and professor of religious education at Iiff School of Theology, Dr Boyung Lee, to talk with us about her journey into academic leadership. So if you're curious about becoming a Dean, this is the place for you. Welcome to the Sound of the Genuine

Patrick: All right. Reverend Dr. Madam Dean Lee! Vice president and president of our guild Boyung Lee's here with us to talk about her journey it's so good to be with you. 

Boyung: Wonderful to be with you and thank you for the invitation. 

Patrick: As someone who's always inspired my journey, I know where you're at right now, in Iliff in Denver and what you do as Vice President and Dean of faculty and full professor of practical theology, but I'm curious about how you got there. Can you tell me a little bit about what were your dreams when you were younger? What did you want to be? Or what did your community want for you who was influential in trying to speak over your life?

Boyung: I guess it can be a very long story. So I grew up in Korea and I was born into a military family. My father was a Korean Marine officer for 34 years. So I literally grew up on Korean Marine bases. think from my birth to maybe when I started elementary school, I hadn't seen my father that much because he was deployed to Vietnam twice.

So my mother was at home in Korea with me and my older brother who was four years older than me. And then when my father finally came home my younger brother came along, who is eight years behind me. So for a while I grew up as the only daughter, as the youngest child. And so during those days, my older brother was my best friend and I always followed him. So I mainly played with the boys and I think that that gave me a sense of gender equality. Because as the only girl, I didn't take, you know, whatever they said, Oh, you are young, you are a girl, so you cannot do this. I didn't take it well, so I was very competitive. So I think I developed a sense of gender equality and also that's the sense that my parents gave us.

And they always told us that your dream is not limited. We will support you with our best ability to help you achieve your dream. Neither of them had a college degree at that point. They grew up in a family that, both of them lost their parents very early. So my dad, became very self-sustaining person. And my mother was raised by her grandmother who gave her Christianity, but not sense of a higher education, although her own mother, had a college degree. Because of those upbringing experiences and both my parents are very smart people, decided to do everything, with their ability to help their children's education. I grew up with a lot of books at home imagining all kinds of different worlds.  So I started, becoming serious about my Christian faith maybe in fourth grade when I had a really great Sunday school teacher who introduced us to the word of the Bible and the love that I started having about the Bible and curiosity about the Bible.

And so I started thinking, I want to be someone who can be helpful to others who do not have things that I have. That sense I started having since fourth grade. And then I said, maybe I should have become a social worker, but I also said no, I want to see the world.

And then, when I started junior high, I really got into my faith life very seriously. And at age 13, I sort of had first hand of God experience that completely changed my worldview. Later I called that as a sense of my call to ordained ministry, but I didn't know what that meant at the time, because I have never seen a woman pastor. And as I said earlier, I grew up in military bases so I attended military base church. I was exposed to ecumenism very early on.  When I was in high school, I completely clicked with two Methodist clergy who were military chaplains and especially our associate pastor who was a chaplain for the Naval air force unit.  And he was just incredibly smart, incredibly good preacher, incredibly pastoral.

And he stimulated a lot of my intellectual curiosity. So as a high schooler, I started attending his Bible study class. He is also one who helped me recognize my God experience as a sense of a call to ordained ministry. So combination of my intellectual curiosity, my faith seriousness, and then my sense of call to ordained ministry led me to Yonsei University and studying theology that had some of the best theological faculty members in Korea and some of my professors were leaders in Korean democritization movement.

For me going to college was a bigger culture shock than coming to the United States because I started college in the early 1980s, which was a very, very, very hopeless time in terms of our dream for democracy. We were dictated by military president even before my birth and during that time.

And I was recruited by underground student circle and exposed to critical thinking and I started reading liberation theologies and minjung theologies and all those books were banned by Korean government. The students who are ahead of us in our grade, they would take me to minjung contexts that were actual people's suffering is really shown, but they're doing the democratization moment together.

So, you know, it's a huge culture shock. From that moment on my faith and my life philosophy of ideology, I think became a commitment to social justice. Even though I didn't know what exactly that meant, but the social justice is the framework that is aligned with my faith and that is call to ministry.

From early on, people said I'm smart and I should be a professor. And I had a lot of intellectual curiosity, but that decision was not made until later in my life in my twenties. I was involved in a student demonstration movement, but because my father was in the military, I couldn't actively participate in that either because my pictures would be taken. And they were sent by secret police officer to my father's boss. So I was always behind the scene and that generated a lot of guilt in me because I was not explicitly participating in it.

That led me to be in one of the local churches in Seoul, which is one of the poorest towns in entire Korea. In 1988, Korea hosted the Olympics.  And some of those people didn't even have running water, even have heat at home and majority of our congregation had less than elementary school education.

I became their associate pastor without being ordained, as a college student and also later in graduate school. I was in charge of preschool and the young adult group. And most of my young adults were factory workers with a high school education and my preschool kids, majority of their parents even had to work on Sunday.

So Sunday, we had to bring them to church to wash their face, comb, their hair and even feeding breakfast. So when I went to bring those kids to church and I saw their living conditions, that some of them didn't have running water and in January in Seoul is like Chicago, but some of them didn't even have heat. So I went there to give back out of my guilt. But having been in that church context, later I realized that they completely transformed my life because these who are not claiming as Minjung theologians, but they are the minjung. They were just the living words of God to me.  Because most of their homes were built on government land illegally as urban poor and Korean military government decided to evacuate them and build a high rise apartment complex right before the Olympics.

So it was like a matter of life and death for them. And then they invited me to join them in their fight to keep their home. So for me, even though I was aware of, exposed, and committed to Minjung theology, when they asked me to join them, it was a pastoral call, not my political call.

So I joined them. And then I started being labeled as an un-christian woman who is against the government by some of the church elders and leaders. So those experiences and particularly those women charged me, pleaded [with] me to be ordained and to have power and to speak for people like them as a person with authority. So their charges, that community charges combined with my original call to sense of ordained ministry led me to leave home because at that time in Korea as a Methodist woman I could be ordained but until 1991, Korean Methodist church had a rule that unlike men, ordained women had to be single for the rest of their life, which I didn't want to support. So to say yes to God and to say yes to my community's call, I had to leave home. And that led me to Claremont School of Theology in 1991. So it's a long story. 

Patrick: Before we move on to what happens at Claremont, you said you got this call at 13. And then you get this call from the call from these women to pastor to them. And you've mentioned that your faith is intimately tied to social justice. It's about the democratization of what's going on, where you live. It's complicated because your dad's in the military. Can you tell me about those two calls? What role does family play in that?  What's the voices, collective voices telling you? 

Boyung: My parents, I think from the beginning of my God experience, they knew what that meant. But they didn't want to affirm the call. My mom kept saying to me that, you know, how difficult pastors life is? I think you should be a very dedicated lay person rather than being a pastor. My dad wanted me to be either a medical doctor or, uh, politics. I was a very good student in every subject, especially math and physics, but I was almost flunking in biology.

So no way that I could be a good medical doctor, that I couldn't even understand what's going on in my biology class as one of the top 1% student. Which was a puzzle for my teachers. But I think, they were ready to support any dream I was pursuing. So when I started college and then started telling them that I need to be in either ordained ministry or later in the theological journey and being pastor, they became the biggest supporter of my journey and they did, and they still do. So even when I was a local church pastor in Connecticut, my parents would take a three months break from their life in Korea, come to United States to support my ministry. That's how they dedicated to support me and my education. Yeah. 

Patrick: That's amazing. And I'm thinking about this move to both Claremont and the States. I mean, you're talking about ministry in Connecticut, how'd you end up in Claremont, especially if I'm hearing the genesis, right, it's these women who are on the brink, who are struggling to make ends meet, have called you to be their pastor or a pastor, and you ended up in Claremont. How did you find Claremont School of Theology and what'd you do when you got there? 

Boyung: Claremont School of Theology was very much in my picture because being at Yonsei as a master's student and then being a TA of some of the professors, who went to Claremont also who had friends at Claremont. And then, in 1991 in May, the academic dean of Claremont School of Theology, Dean Alan Moore and then his beloved spouse Dr. Mary Elizabeth Moore, both were religious educators, both of their books I read and I was very impressed with, especially Mary Elizabeth Moore's approach to religious education. When they came to Korea to visit different schools, I had an opportunity to meet with them for about 40 minutes.  So that was May and then they brought my applications with them and I got admissions in late June.

That year I was not ready for any of these moves, but that happened. So at that time, I was serving different church, which was another very unique church, uh, from that minjung church.

And I was recruited by one of my professors who was expelled from Yonsei University because he protected students demanding democratization movement.  So as a minjung theologian, when he was jobless he started doing bible study and then he realized that the grassroots movement needs to be happening, which he has been a part of. But he also realized that the leadership transformation needs to happened in government or uh, Korean societies leaders movement.

So he started having Bible study with some of the well-known people in Korea who are very concerned about Korea's situation at the time. And although they couldn't explicitly express their concerns against the military government. So I was recruited as their education pastor. Now suddenly I am with the most intellectual, highly educated Korean leaders. So they were in my congregation. So that church also made it happen for me to come to United States with the financial support. I think they saw my gift as a academic leader along with my pastoral leadership. So they charged me to go and fulfill, dream or call. Yeah. That particular pastor had a lot of connection with Claremont. 

Patrick: And you came here to do an M.Div. I'm assuming that was your first degree. When did you start getting the itch for the Academy? Because it sounds like you're steeped in the church. You're ready to be a pastor, with a strong social justice kind of background here. What were your hopes as you were going through those years, working with Mary Elizabeth and Alan at Claremont? 

Boyung: Claremont was a great place because my theological approach was wonderfully recognized and celebrated by the school's commitment to social justice. And also Claremont was the first school that I was exposed to women professors that I never had in my theological training in Korea. And also exposed to LGBTQIA justice issues and the racial justice commitment and also feminist movement. I barely spoke English as a first year MDiv. Student but two of the faculty recruited me as a student co-chair over women's concerns task force. And also at the end of my first year, I was invited to be one of the three students, with the faculty and staff to go down to Brazil for earth summit. Which was a huge beneficial exposure for me to the life of people in South America and liberation theology movement, and also ecological justice movement.

I just was enjoying what I was learning so much. And then also seeing myself as a Global citizen, because as a Korean, the racism was never been a part of my consciousness. But suddenly being the Asian woman in the United States and experiencing racism and then Claremont offering for me to go deeper with my own embedded racism also doing anti-racism and then thinking about that in a larger context. That greatly shaped my theological trajectory. And it was great a place to be trained as a pastor. I became United Methodist and I had great pastoral mentors in Southern California, too. 

Patrick: Following your MDiv., did you go straight into pastoring or what was your next step out of Claremont?

Boyung: So out of Claremont, I went to Boston College for my PhD. I wanted to stay in Claremont, but being an international student and not having enough financial, support. My parents are very supportive, but they didn't have enough money to support my education in foreign country fully. I realize how exhausting that is being, a self supporting international student, even though school provided me good scholarship. I was thinking okay, which school has a very similar social justice commitment in religious education/practical theology that also provides good financial support for me?

Luckily I was admitted to Boston College as a one of the three doctoral students in my program that year with full scholarship and living expenses. And also Thomas Groome’s approach to religious education was very compatible with Mary Elizabeth Moore's so I thought I could go deeper in different contexts. At first I struggled because Boston College was very different from Claremont and for the first time I had culture shock by being in Boston, and being in a Catholic university. Also I happened to be the first Asian or Asian American person admitted to my particular doctoral program. And also I was not a Catholic. So it was very a difficult first semester, but that also happened to be the second year of Dr. Kwok Pui Lan being at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge. So I reached out to her. I took courses with her and Pui Lan became really my mentor. And then later she served on my comprehensive exam committee and my dissertation committee.

She has written all kinds of recommendation letters for me and my first published article was the final paper that I wrote in her class that she invited me to revise and publish. That gave me such full confidence, being an academician, as a doctoral student, that having that formation from one of the best scholars that I know of.

Patrick: And I'm assuming that you caught the academic bug at that point. Were you seeing a trajectory in teaching in the Academy and writing and scholarship? 

Boyung: You know, at that time, my plan was going back to Korea. And so I was not paying attention to the academic life in United States. But what I knew was that I had just a deep, deep sense of a pastoral heart, and I was still working as a part-time student pastor at a local Korean United Methodist congregation. I was in charge of children's education and we had amazing teachers and growing children's program. We developed such strong sense of community. 

But also I had such love for serious doctoral work. I just read and read and read. At some point I said, oh my God, something’s wrong with me. I am in my late twenties, early thirties and I don't want to do anything but this deep reading. So I shared that with my advisor Thomas Groome. I said, I love it but I think somethings wrong with my life and then he was smiling at me and saying, Boyung what you are noticing, you are called to be a teacher and to be in intellectual academic life.

Patrick: So you got this call to do deep research, to write. What was your first appointment or what did you look at after you finished your PhD? 

Boyung: So the week before I got ordained by the New England Annual Conference of the United Methodist, I had my dissertation proposal approved. And then a week later I was ordained and I was sent to white congregation in Connecticut, which I had no idea where that was, as a first pastor of a color in their history. It worked out well financially because four full years of living expenses that Boston College offered me was ending.

Now I have a full-time pastoral appointment that that was sustaining me financially. But, as you have noticed that I had heart for both academic life and pastoral life. Now I have been a student and a part-time pastor. Now it's a chance for me to experience a solo pastor, a position that I have never had. So this is really time for me to have to test what is my call. So I tried to write my dissertation, but as a brand new pastor, a solo pastor of a small white congregation, it was almost like impossible.

Church was growing and growing and growing. We are building again, great reputation of having the best education program in town. So that reputation led adults, you know, children's parents to come to our church. I thought, okay, my first or second year I may not be able to write much, but maybe then it'll give me some time to write my dissertation.

At some point I said, I am really enjoying being full time pastor, why do I need to have a PhD? And then my advisor Tom Groome, who had a weekend home in Connecticut would meet me between his house and my church, and have a meal with me. He started being concerned about my progress but also, he is telling me once, Boyung you know your writing now, it's becoming like a church newsletter, not dissertation. So I didn't know what to do with that because my mind was that much in pastoral context. And then that's the time then I met my future spouse who was a full academic, had the life of a full academic also human rights lawyer, but his heart was in pastoral ministry.

So he gave up on his academic life and came back to the local church. And he happens to be a pastor of a church only five miles from my church, but his church was a very big church. We started dating and he is the one who pushed me to finish my dissertation and provided all kinds of support so that I could write. So thanks to my husband, I finished my dissertation, but finishing my dissertation was later because being married to him, in the same month, suddenly I was invited by Pacific School of Religion to apply for their position in religious education.

They failed the search two years in a row. And then Mary Elizabeth Moore she was talking with them for something else. And they asked her, Do you have any recommendation?

And she asked whether I have been interviewed? I never applied so they invited me to apply and then I went through all interview process and I got an offer. So that's how I was brought into academic life when I didn't think it's my time.

Because as I said earlier, I was going to go back to Korea. But I happened to meet my life partner in Connecticut. And also I was, invited to be a full time faculty, and then, my husband being full-time pastor that gave me enough of a platform to live my call to pastoral life at the same time.

Patrick: Boyung, how did you do that? So if you accept this call to PSR, your husband's a pastor out in Connecticut, did you commute? 

Boyung: Yeah, he moved with me. He gave up on his big church appointment. And even though we Methodists are connectional, when you move across conference lines, that doesn't start. And as someone who has been academic dean and full-time faculty and big church pastor he became the husband of a new assistant professor and starting his life all over. So he moved the 3000 miles to support my work, yeah. 

Patrick: Wow. So after this move 3000 miles to Pacific School of Religion. I mean, you're teaching, you were there for quite a while, right? 

Boyung: 15 years. 

Patrick: And how many years were you one of the only women or women of color on faculty? Do you remember? 

Boyung: You know, PSR had women faculty and they had women of color before me but no one stayed until they had tenure. I don't know what's the story, but they were not on tenure track or they left before tenure. So in 2007 I got tenure. That made me the first woman of color to be tenured in Pacific School of Religion's history, and also entire Graduate Theological Union. Between the combined school's history, school is over 150 years old.  

Patrick: As you do that and hit those major milestones as a faculty member, when did you start thinking maybe faculty, teaching, writing, guild service, mentoring new round of doctoral students that you might want to go into academic administration?  

Boyung: Never. Never. I never saw me as an academic administrator. You know if you notice my life, being a pastor was not a possibility, but it happened. And then being an academician also happened without me planning it. But the only thing I was doing very faithfully was being open to God’s call. I took my faith practice very seriously, even as a doctoral student. 

And even as a white congregation pastor. Prayer life was very important to me and my white congregants noticed that too. And so, not only I was praying for them, but I was also praying for our world, but also for myself and my prayer always has been, even now that I want to be the tool for God's justice ministry on earth. And so help me be ready, when you need to use me. And that was my prayer. That still is my prayer. And I also know that your call is not ending with your first initial call to ordained ministry, but your call is renewed as context changes. So I tried to be very sensitive to discern what's my call from God at this point of my life.  And also, you know, I have people who have support me with their prayers, even more than myself, uh, praying for me. So they also helped me discern my call. And so this academic administration life I think it was noticed by my community first. And then it took a very long time for me to recognize that as my call. 

Patrick: What do you think it was that the community sees in you that says you would be a great administrator? 

Boyung: Strangely the year that, I think maybe the day even, that my tenure was announced, people started telling me that you should be Dean. I said, excuse me, I got tenure today! What are you talking about? So my mentors, faculty mentors, like Fumitaka Matsuoka, who was Dean at Pacific School of Religion. And then my dear brother friend, Jeffrey Kuan, who is now president of a Claremont School of Theology and Judith Berling, who was amazing Dean of Graduate Theological Union and also, Arthur Holder, who was at that time Graduate Theological Union's academic dean.

They're all telling me around that time that, you know, you should be an academic dean, you'll be great. I said, excuse me, but why do you say that I can be a good academic administrator? And so these are some of what the things they named that, as a good quality of academic dean, that they see that I also have some quality. One is very community building orientation.

And so I bring people with me. Number two is transparent and fair in my approach to life and teaching. Number three, I understand curriculum and pedagogy very well as a trained religious educator. And number four, I also clearly understand what shared governance means, which is very important quality for academic dean. Number five, I have a commitment to social justice as a post-colonial Asian American feminist theologian. And also all of them said I'm extremely well organized, which is a very important quality for an administrator. So they say that they see me being a really good dean. 

Patrick: How did this role get on your radar? 

Boyung: I have been teaching spiritual foundations for social justice as a first year required courses at PSR. In 2011, I became a widow losing my husband to sudden death. No one is ready for anything like that. So my life became very different and I was also discerning, you know, where is my life's context? So witnessing someone's life going that way in a blink of a moment, I couldn't plan anything about me or for life. The only thing was praying and discerning and also teaching that class. 2016, I decided to go through a spiritual directors training program.

I was going through that training with the Jesuits at the GTU. One of the requirements of the training was having a spiritual director and going through that process very vigorously. The person who was in charge of that training, who was very much aligned theologically with me, he knew my story. And so he found the spiritual director, an Irish Catholic who finished his academic administrators position over 20 years in Berkeley. 

He matched us as director and directee. Father Maloney, who is now the president of Jesuit society in Ireland.  After the first direction, he said Boyung, it becomes very clear that God is calling you to something else. So be open to that and be open to what your communities are saying.

Then he said maybe, you know, being an academic dean is something in your life. And he himself having been there, he asked me to pray for him so that he's not elected to be the president of the Jesuit Society. And he said, I will pray for you. And so, even though we met as a director and directee, we made a profound connection. So after full direction time with him, I said to God, next time when academic administration opportunity comes my way I will not push that away. I will take it seriously. And the same week, an invitation from Iliff School of Theology to apply for their Dean position came. So I just couldn't ignore it.

Patrick: And you've been Dean for how long now? 

Boyung: Three and a half years. 

Patrick: Wow. And what's the job been like? Was it everything as you're going through that spiritual direction, and thinking about what your gifts were - you know, transparent and ready for shared governance, community building, bringing the community along. Is all that what the job actually ended up being?

Boyung: I try to be very transparent with my communications. Iliff is doing a lot of new very exciting, innovative work, but we faculty, are not trained to do, you know, beyond our typical academic work. So I think my approach based on shared governance work.

So I'm not the boss of my faculty. I'm just a leader that the word Dean literally means. Building relationships with each of my faculty and then using that relationship to leverage their relationship. And also to communicate and then to help them recognize their gifts to do this new work that the theological faculty is now called to do in changing higher education theological education scene.

Being Dean, one thing I learned is that this can be a central place of all kinds of fire and conflicts from students and from faculty, from community. So having a very strong spiritual practice and also supporting community is important. Otherwise can take everything personally and that doesn't create a good community we are building.  I'm more mindful about spiritual practice, so that I can discern criticisms that I need to take criticisms that I shouldn't take personally.

Patrick: From other folks I've talked about who've been academic deans, you're operating on so many different levels the maintaining a sense of balance is really, it's a gift. I think you definitely have that. Boyung, I've only got one last question for you. As you've been living into this vocation as an academic administrator, but also pastor, I'm just going to say, you know, pastor social justice minded person who is working for gender equality, it sounds like from the very beginning to now, how much of your sense of vocation and call is formulated by the community that surrounds you. And how much of your sense of call kind of emanates from this sense of leadership, sense of self, sense of justice that you've been naming throughout your story?

Boyung: You know, I don't know whether I could be where I am, I could do what I do without my communities noticing my call at the first place and also their continuing support. So I think staying in touch with your community is extremely important, and for me, I have four other friends and we have our own chat room. We check in with each other every day, throughout the day sometimes if someone needs support. I think having that support system, with friends with such a loving heart is very important.

Patrick: Thank you Boyung. Let me just say, as someone who is, as you described, you're following Pui Lan around, I mean I feel the same way about you. You know I feel like I could follow you anywhere. You've been inspiring, not just in our shared Guild work, or your writing, cause I knew you in your writing before I ever knew you personally. But I just want to say that knowing your story and knowing who you are and the things that you stand up for - social justice, transparent, the sense of shared governance, bringing community along, you model it better than anyone else in our field. So I'm just so grateful that you spent time with us to share your journey. And I'm grateful for you personally. You've leveled up my leadership for sure in modeling a different way.

Boyung: Thank you Patrick. I still vividly remember the first moment I met you when you were a student at Boston University School of Theology in your classroom. And also now I read your books and I'm just awed and inspired by you and I'm watching your leadership to learn and to better my own leadership and so thank you for being the leader who you are.

Patrick: Grateful grateful. Thank you so much. 

I want to thank you for listening to. Dr. Boyung Lee’s story. We are glad you joined us here on the Sound of the Genuine. If you liked this episode, please share it with a friend. You can find this and all of our other resources at 

Special thanks to Heather Wallace, Elsie Barnhart - my storytellers, my colleagues at FTE. And of course at @siryalibeats as always for his music. 

Thank you again for listening. And see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.