The Frog in His Pond Sneers at the Ocean
By James Kim
Challenging ministry leaders to see the world in a way that is much broader than our own ethnic circles.
“Wow!” This was the response from the Communications Professor after my first sermon in front of the class. Naturally, I came off the stage and sat down in my seat with a little bit of pride. But what came out next from the Professor deflated me.
“I never heard an Oriental speak English so well!”
The year was 1997, and I was studying in the Southern United States. Incidentally, the Professor had helpful points about my sermon, that encouraged me to not give up preaching — which I was considering even before I got started. Before me, most of the Asian students that he encountered were international students, so, I’m not holding any grudges. However, it did awaken me to the perceptions and assumptions that others would have of me.
Even in my role at the missions agency that I had joined that same year to recruit missionaries, I felt the distinction of being an Asian-American in a predominantly Anglo-American organization. When I first joined, the database had over a thousand names, and we were not sure where each person was in the process of joining our organization — the names had been gathered over years of visits to churches, conferences, and Bible Colleges, to name a few. I wrote a letter to each one to introduce myself and to ask them to call me if they were still interested in missions and joining our organization
When the phone calls started to come in, one of the inevitabilities was that at the end of the conversation, people would ask, “So … Kim … that’s an Asian last name?” When I told them that it was, they would say, “Wow! You have virtually no accent!” If they knew that it was a Korean last name, or once I told them I was born in Korea, they would begin to tell me about how much they like or know about kimchi. These conversations over the phone and in person surfaced the reality that even in ministry, my last name, my appearance, and my slight accent (a blend of Baltimore, New York, Southern, and a hint of Korean) would be distinguishing identifiers that pointed out that I was not part of the majority.
In hindsight, I know that each person was trying to connect with me in what they thought would be a “connection point” for us. However, being one of the first non-white persons to come in to a “white” organization, and trying to fit in, those comments were small daggers that left me bleeding from multiple wounds, wondering if someone more like them would be more effective in this role. I had thought, naively, that those who were wanting to become missionaries and the staff of an international missions agency, would not point out the fact that I am a visible minority. I also thought that superior attitudes, prejudice and bigotry would be absent in this sphere of ministry. After all, these were people who took the gospel to other cultures and contextualized the message to those cultures. I was disappointed then, and in many ways, I am today more weary and skeptical than I would like to be in this regard.
So, why didn’t I quit? Because the benefits far outweighed the difficulties. Let me just share three among many.
Overcoming the Inferiority Complex
In January of 2003, the leadership of our organization came to me and asked me if I would consider becoming the Mobilization Director. Although I felt that I had the skills to do it, I found many reasons why I could not say yes. I had too many fears: that I didn’t have enough experience, that I might fail, that I would not be accepted because I was not white, etc. However, I also did not want to say no to a golden opportunity. And, in my gut I knew that the Lord was asking me to do it. So, I found a compromise. I asked if I could serve as an Interim Mobilization Director, and that we should look for the best possible candidate. I secretly hoped that I was that person, but my inferiority complex just would not let me accept it without a “safety net.” I ended up taking the role six months later.
That same year, I was on a trip to the Middle-East with the Founders of our organization, as well as some of the key leaders of our agency. We entered Iraq a few days after the bombing of the Canal Hotel where the United Nation’s Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello was killed. It was a strategic window, preceding the chaos of what happened in that part of the world afterwards. We, the leaders of Pioneers, went to assess how we might be able to place workers in that country that had been closed for so long.
During that trip, we met with a key Iraqi pastor who had been exiled to Jordan and returned to Iraq not too long before our arrival in his homeland. God had used him in Jordan to plant multiple Arabic churches, and was using him to plant churches in Iraq in that short time between March (end of Desert Storm) and August (when we visited), 2003. In our meeting, every time I asked him a question, he would turn to a white person to answer. It was as if I didn’t exist for him, or that I was not a leader in this organization. Sadly, my white brothers didn’t even notice.
I understand that for many, a non-white American was hard to grasp at the time, let alone a non-white leader, but those incidents continued to fuel my inferiority complex.
There are many things that God used to put me on the road to recovery from my inferiority complex. One of the ways was to provide white mentors like Web and Sharon Lippert. They have been my spiritual parents ever since our trip together to Haiti, where they led the short-term team that God put me on to bring me to Himself. Dr. Jack Frizen (Uncle Jack) who, as a resident consultant to our agency on loan from the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association, not only mentored me, but became part of our family (our kids miss him dearly!). Also, there were the leaders of our organization who may not have fully understood my insecurities, but treated me as an equal.
Our organization’s leaders were not perfect, by any means, as they missed cues like the ones I mentioned above in Iraq. However, most of them did not seem to act out of their sense of superiority. They were passionate about their calling, humble enough to share their own insecurities, and led me to the Throne of God as often as they could.
I can’t say that I am completely cured from my inferiority complex, but God has used the past twenty-one years to bring me closer to being like Jesus through the people and experiences that He guided me through.
Freedom to Become All That God Intended Me to Be
Back in the late ’90s, it was still very hard for a young Korean-American to be a Christian leader. Although many of the Korean-American churches were thriving, much of the leadership came from the Korean speakers (or the first generation). The English speakers (1.5 or second generation) either had to contend with leading in smaller English ministries or break out into an independent church situation. And with so few mentors who understood the nuances of immigrant ministries, it was hard to become all that God intended us to be.
Many of the would-be leaders of the Korean-American churches became successful in their professional careers, but in the Korean-American church, were relegated to being “second class” leaders. Many were left out of consideration for roles such as deacon and elder.
When I joined our agency, one of the freedoms that I felt was the empowerment that I was given from the leadership of the organization. They gave me a role and trusted me to figure out how best to get the job done. When I failed, they stood with me and helped me to stand back up. Therefore, I have learned to give the same kind of freedom to those whom I am leading.
One of the key roles of a leader is to develop those whom they are entrusted to lead into what God intended them to be — our organization gave me that opportunity. That is why when a new person joins a team I am leading, in my first conversation with them I say, “You are on this team. We have vetted you, and we felt that you are the right person to join our team. So, you don’t have to impress us — you already did. Now, go and fail. And when you do, I will stand with you.” Most of the time, the new team member loves the freedom to risk, and proceeds to exceed our expectations of that person. It is because when someone is empowered to become what God intended them to be, they thrive. I came to this knowledge for no other reason than it was the way that I was treated by the leadership of our organization at every level.
The Opportunity to Swim in The Ocean Rather Than in a Pond
The Japanese have a proverb that says, “The frog in his pond sneers at the ocean.” I remember some of the “leaders” that had authority over me in the Korean-American church that I was attending with this type of attitude toward my desire to serve with a predominantly white organization. They warned me about the “discrimination” that I will feel, and the missed opportunities that I will have if I left for the “other side.” Some even thought that I was “selling out.” And in some ways, that may have been true, but the truth is that I was simply obeying God’s will in my life and following where He led.
Obeying God’s will for me to become a pioneer in joining an Anglo-American organization allowed me to see the world in a way that I could not have imagined. Both the negative and the positive experiences have helped me to see the world in a way that is much broader than if I would have stayed within my own ethnic circle. It would be easy to condemn my white colleagues for not noticing the slights that I felt in situations like the one described in Iraq. However, when one considers that is just normal for a white leader, it falls on people like me to help them to see it, so that they can better respond the next time. In this way we begin to move the “waters” in the white pond so that a growing stream will begin to flow to the ocean.
The mixing of the waters of these various ponds is happening around the globe whether we like it or not. According to the United Nations Report on Migration from 2015, 244 million people were living outside of the country of their birth. That was 3% of the world’s population, and the refugees only accounted for 40 million people. Ethnically mixed marriages are on the rise, and cultures are in flux. We are now living in a world that Andrew Walls calls Reverse European Migration, where the effects of the past 500 years, where the Europeans went out to conquer the world, is reversing. The waters of the oceans are mixing.
In the past twenty plus years, I have been challenging many Asian Christians interested in ministry to go outside of their ponds. On the one hand, I spoke of the benefits that they can receive, both personally and for their own ethnic groups. And on the other hand, I asked them to consider the benefits to the other culture as he/she is injected into that culture. Because God gave the same message to others, the Church in North America is beginning to be led by people from different ethnic backgrounds.
This is good news. But much work still needs to be done. That is why it is important for us to recognize that those who are in positions of leadership, no matter what their ethnic background, must make sure that the people whom they are leading are given the opportunity to: overcome their inferiority complex (or insecurities), have the freedom to become all that God intended them to be, and given the opportunity to swim in the ocean that is rapidly changing. The Church in North America, and around the globe, will need Christians who are biblically grounded, culturally agile, and growing in character and intimacy with Jesus Christ to lead those who are seeking clarity in an era of confusion, to Him.
I am thankful to God, the mentors that He brought into my life, and the colleagues that He surrounded me with to sanctify me.
 Clare Menozzi, “International Migration Report 2015,” United Nations: Economic & Social Affairs(September 2016), http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/population/migration/publications/migrationreport/docs/MigrationReport2015.pdf.
 Hansi Lo Wang, “Steep Rise In Interracial Marriages Among Newlyweds 50 Years After They Became Legal,” Code Switch (May 2017), https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/05/18/528939766/five-fold-increase-in-interracial-marriages-50-years-after-they-became-legal.
 Andrew F Walls, Mission in the Twenty-First Century: Exploring the Five Marks of Global Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2008), 193–203. “Great European Migration” is what Walls calls those from Europe and the colonies that have been established into countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.