Q&A with President Joel E. Kim
On May 9, 2017, the Board of Trustees announced the appointment of Rev. Joel Eunil Kim as the fourth President of Westminster Seminary California. Rev. Kim began serving in this capacity on August 1st. Born in South Korea, Rev. Kim’s family moved to Southern California when he was a child. As the son of a Christian Reformed Church (CRC) minister, he was catechized with the Three Forms of Unity from childhood. After completing his undergraduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), Rev. Kim obtained the M.Div. degree at WSC. He later received a Th.M. at Calvin Theological Seminary, studying under noted scholar Dr. Richard A. Muller. Rev. Kim has served WSC as Assistant Professor of New Testament since 2005. He has served the global church through agencies such as Southeast Asia Partnership and the Candidates and Credentials Committee of the Korean Southwest Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Rev. Kim has also served Reformed and Presbyterian congregations for over two decades, including several years at New Life Fullerton (PCA) in Orange County, California. UPDATE sat down with Rev. Kim in order to learn more about his life, career, and vision for WSC.
UPDATE: Tell us about your childhood.
I was born in Incheon, South Korea, a port city around 17 miles west of the capital city of Seoul. We lived there until I was nine when my family – my parents and five children – moved to the United States and began a new life. It is hard for me to believe but we’ve now lived in the States for 35 years. Those years were filled with tears, and at time pains, adjusting to a new culture and language, but they are highlighted by God’s grace in sustaining and providing for my family.
In addition to immigrating to the States, being a pastor’s kid really shaped me as a person. My father was a Presbyterian minister in Korea, and he chose the CRC as our ecclesiastical home when we moved here. Although we did not have many “things” growing up, my home was filled with love and faith, and I am grateful to my parents for modeling faithful life right before my eyes. Their prayers remain my source of constant encouragement.
UPDATE: How did you come to study at Westminster Seminary California?
Although I had a number of options when choosing a seminary, WSC became my obvious choice for two reasons. First was its location. Having grown up in a Korean-American immigrant church, I had hoped to serve and learn in that church context. The large number of Korean-American churches in the area gave me opportunities to learn and grow while remaining close to home. Second was Bob Godfrey. When I was a senior at UCLA, he visited the campus and spoke to a Christian group where a large number had gathered to hear him speak on the topic of infant baptism. His insights and enthusiasm made the decision to come to WSC quite easy. While attending WSC, I was a member of his prayer group, gathering every Wednesday to pray not only for our own personal needs but also for the churches, especially the CRC where both Bob and I belonged at the time.
UPDATE: You have been a professor at WSC for 12 years. Describe your experience at the seminary.
It has been a blessing. I have the opportunity to work with incredibly gifted men and women who love the institution and the church. Most people know that our faculty members are gifted teachers and learned scholars. But many people may not know that these men are faithful pastors who serve the local churches, passionate preachers who regularly speak at churches, and faithful Christians who are examples to the students. It is an honor and privilege to work with them.
As much as I enjoy my colleagues, my favorite part of seminary life is the students. We have students here from all over the country and the world. In many ways, the world is coming to us, and we are sending them out into the world. I enjoy teaching them, eating with them, and just meeting up with them to talk and pray about life and ministry. The students make WSC special, and I look forward to seeing graduates at various events to hear about their families and ministries.
UPDATE: Dr. W. Robert Godfrey just completed a long tenure as president of WSC. What did you learn as a professor observing his presidency and leadership? Describe your relationship with Dr. Godfrey.
I stand on the shoulders of giants. Robert Strimple, Robert den Dulk, and W. Robert Godfrey—our first three presidents—have served WSC faithfully for a combined 37 years of its existence. They have laid down a firm foundation, and I am grateful for their tireless labors and sacrifices on behalf of the seminary.
In particular, Bob Godfrey has been a dear friend and mentor. I am still amazed by the sharpness of his wit, the depth and breadth of his intellect, and the clarity of his teaching. But I am most grateful for the way he loves his local congregation (where he has taught a Sunday School class for over three decades), the way he placed the seminary above and beyond himself, and the way he stood up for biblical truth even when it required much sacrifice.
UPDATE: There are many seminaries in the United States, not to mention around the world. How is WSC distinct?
Let me mention four distinctives. First, its gateway location. When WSC was first established, the original faculty and administration understood the mission of the school to be intimately related to its location. In fact, “serving the West and reaching the world” was one of the earliest expressions of WSC’s vision, and that vision is alive and strong today. We have Mexico and Latin America as our neighbors to the south, and we face the Pacific as it connects us to Asia and beyond. We hope to support and resource the churches not only locally but also globally.
Second, its community of learning. As an educational institution, we shape and nourish the minds of the students. As a seminary that exists for the church, we also model and nurture the whole life of a pastor. We believe that face-to-face education is still the best way to prepare men and women for the church because so much learning takes place outside of the classrooms. For this reason, we are committed to maintaining a low faculty-student ratio—fewer than 10 students for each faculty member—in order that students have access to faculty members who are not only their professors but also their mentors.
Third, its integrated curriculum. We exist for the church, and we believe that the church in this tumultuous and challenging culture requires more—not less —theological education and training. We are unapologetically committed to a classical form of theological education that produces “specialists in the Bible” by focusing on the original languages, engaging the confessions, and grounded on the inerrant Word of God.
“When WSC was first established, the original faculty and administration understood the mission of the school to be intimately related to its location. In fact, “serving the West and reaching the world” was one of the earliest expressions of WSC’s vision."
Finally, its theological diversity. Southern California is known for its diversity. This is a place where you regularly live next to and meet people of different ethnicities, politics, and religions. Given the changing demographics and religious commitments (or non-commitments) of many, it is difficult to imagine a better place than Southern California to experience and learn how to minister in the changing world. We are grateful for the many local churches with whom we are partnering to produce ministers and leaders who will faithfully proclaim Christ and his gospel without compromise.
UPDATE: WSC is in the process of its most ambitious endeavor in its history in the on-campus student housing project. This is an exceptional move in an age of online theological education. How will large-scale student housing serve the mission of the seminary and its distinctives?
We are committed to face-to-face education, believing that pastors and ministers are best trained when they learn together and live together. This is why we are excited about the 64 graduate apartments being built on site! With this residential village, we hope to bless the students by offering affordable housing, especially for those students who are coming to us from different states or from a different country.
Moreover, we hope that this residential village will bless the students by enhancing the community of learning. This community of learning is important for seminarians who learn as much outside the classroom as inside. But just as important is this community for the spouses and children of seminarians who often do not benefit from seminary life. Our sincere hope and prayer is that this residential village will be a place of growth, both spiritually and communally.
We covet your prayers and support as we complete this important project.
UPDATE: Throughout your life and career you have had intimate connections to the Korean-American churches, the Dutch Reformed community, and the PCA. What are some unique opportunities and challenges facing the Korean-American church?
This is an important question with no easy answers, especially given that the readers of UPDATE have different levels of experience and understanding of Korean-American churches. In brief, let me mention two challenges facing the Korean-American churches. First is the challenge of future leadership. Many estimate that there are over 4,300 Korean-speaking churches in the US. Even if most of the churches are small, a significant number of churches have larger membership and are facing a possible transition in leadership in the next decade or so. Where and how these churches will replace their current pastors is a major challenge facing the Korean-American churches.
Second is a question over their identity. In a pattern similar to Dutch churches a century ago, Korean-American churches are now filled with second- and third-generation Korean-Americans who cannot speak Korean. There remains a necessity to meet the needs of the Korean-speaking immigrant generation of believers. Yet, how long Korean-American churches should be maintained and whether such churches should be maintained remains a constant homework for Korean-American ministers and leaders.
JOEL E. KIM is President and Assistant Professor of New Testament at Westminster Seminary California. He lives in Escondido with his wife, Sharon, and two children.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of UPDATE Magazine
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