Majority-Korean churches looking for a way out of the United Methodist Church (UMC) fear they’re at risk of losing not only their land but also their leadership; a handful of Korean pastors say they were removed from their conservative congregations after the churches began the process to disaffiliate.
Of the 244 Korean-language UMC churches, more than 100 have begun the disaffiliation process, according to Keihwan Kevin Ryoo, former executive director of the Association of Korean Churches in the United Methodist Church.
That’s more than double the number of churches the denomination expected to leave. At a meeting of Korean American leaders earlier this month, Paul Chang, executive director of the Korean Ministry Plan, had said he expected 40 congregations and 60 pastors to leave. The departures would represent 15–17 percent of all Korean American UMC churches.
Already, 40 churches have successfully left the UMC and joined the new conservative offshoot, the Global Methodist Church (GMC). Ryoo said more are waiting for their annual conferences to approve their disaffiliation vote or are still moving through the process.
Others gave up when they realized their congregation could not afford to pay the property value requested by the annual conference as terms to leave. Multiple congregations say they’ve had their pastors removed by annual conference leadership during the disaffiliation process.
In the Chicago area, pastor Hogun Kim and members of South Suburban Korean United Methodist Church (SSKUMC) were concerned that the leaders of their annual conference—the regional UMC body—had disregarded the denomination’s Book of Discipline by appointing gay clergy in the area.
Northern Illinois Annual Conference leaders assured them that a gay pastor would not be appointed to SSKUMC, but that didn’t ease the church’s concerns. For Kim, it came down to trust. He trusted Scripture to be the guide, he said, but he did not trust UMC leadership to honor its word.
Bishop Daniel Schwerin kept saying the conference “wouldn’t appoint a gay pastor to our church,” Kim said. “Even if he meant it, he didn’t keep the current Book of Discipline. How can our current congregation trust him?”
Last March, the congregation voted 162–25 in favor of disaffiliating from the UMC. Five days later, Kim’s district superintendent notified him that the annual conference was not renewing his appointment as pastor of SSKUMC and would not appoint him to any other UMC churches.
Kim said he was forced to resign.
The Northern Illinois Conference disputes that Kim was forced to resign. In a statement to Christianity Today, Arlene Christopherson, assistant to Bishop Schwerin, said:
In April 2023, Rev. Kim submitted a letter of withdrawal and left the United Methodist Church to unite with another denomination. He was not removed from his position by the [Northern Illinois Conference] Cabinet nor did his church complete a process to disaffiliate.
The conference required SSKUMC to pay $2.2 million if it wanted to disaffiliate and keep its property, which sits on nearly 10 acres. The congregation had raised more than $3 million to build its building, but the 150 members could not afford the millions it would cost to keep the building.
Members of SSKUMC left their building and denomination behind to start the Center Church of Truth, led by Kim. The new congregation is currently independent but exploring affiliating with the GMC.
“In the book of Revelation, when we read the seven letters to the seven churches, it seems that Jesus really emphasizes the importance of truth,” Kim said. “We should love each other, but we cannot abandon truth.”
A similar dispute to Kim’s unfolded in New Jersey. In 2021 James Lee, pastor of Bethel Korean UMC, was removed from his 1,000-member congregation, the largest in the Greater New Jersey Conference.
He claims his removal was over his church’s move to affiliate with the theologically conservative Wesleyan Covenant Association, but annual conference leaders say it was over problems going back several years.
Korean Methodist churches tend to be conservative and evangelical, according to Ryoo. Their views align with the Book of Discipline, which officially bars gay clergy and same-sex marriage, but puts them at odds with conference leadership as the denomination moves toward LGBT inclusion.
Hundreds of leaders with the National Association of the Korean American United Methodists discussed the need for revitalization among their body during a gathering in early October. The president of the UMC Council of Bishops, Thomas J. Bickerton, offered a keynote and thanked Korean American leaders for “being faithful in the midst of the struggle.”
According to United Methodist News Service, Bickerton also told them the UMC “embraces diverse perspectives, including traditionalist beliefs, and tries to embrace both conservative and progressive sides.”
Earlier this month, the Northern Illinois Conference filed a lawsuit against a fellow suburban Chicago church—Naperville Korean UMC—after the congregation voted to disaffiliate.
The annual conference alleges that “the Naperville Korean congregation abandoned the disaffiliation process, blocked conference authorities from entering the property, and a breakaway faction took possession of the parsonage, church building, and church financial accounts.”
According to UMC policy, church property and assets are held in trust by the denomination.
Korean and ethnic churches represent a minority of UMC congregations—about one percent of UMC members in the US are Asian—and Ryoo believes the structure, culture, and language barrier can make Korean pastors hesitant to speak up at large denominational gatherings.
“They are not comfortable speaking their view in front of the annual conference when they know their voice might not be honored or respected,” he said.
But Korean Christians often feel deep loyalty to their churches, clergy, and denomination, especially through relationships. Raymond Chang, president of the Asian American Christian Collaborative, said that for many Koreans, denominational affiliation is tied to missionary movements in Korea and deep relational connections.
Cultural barriers can alienate immigrant pastors from white-dominant structures, but “many Koreans see themselves as part of broader denominations regardless of how active they are because of their consideration of a history where the gospel was shared through these traditions, shared theological commitments, and general communal disposition,” Chang said.
In California, nearly 50 Korean parishioners protested outside the offices of the California-Pacific Conference when three conservative Korean pastors were removed from their positions in 2021.
Jonathan Lee of San Diego Korean United Methodist Church, Jae Duk Lew of Valley Korean United Methodist Church, and Nak In Kim of Bell Memorial United Methodist Church each had their appointments as senior pastors terminated.
To date, no congregations have successfully disaffiliated from the California-Pacific Conference, though during an August meeting for Korean Americans in UMC leadership, Chang Min Lee, senior pastor of Los Angeles United Methodist Church, said seven churches in the annual conference have voted to leave.
“It is unknown how many of them can actually leave,” he said.
Sang Won Doh of the Greater New Jersey Conference said that five of the ten largest churches in his conference are Korean churches, and three of them have left the denomination.
After First Korean United Methodist Church of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, disaffiliated from the UMC, about 50 members who wanted to stay in the denomination started a new congregation, Unity Church in Christ.
“We chose to stay at The United Methodist Church because of the promise to honor the conservative faith of Korean American churches,” Seokjung Yoon said at the Korean American gathering this month.
In Chicago, Center Church of Truth now rents space from a Lutheran church for Sunday worship and meets at a Baptist church during the week.
“We feel really loved by these Christians from other denominations,” Kim said. “They understand what we went through. They have been Good Samaritans to us.”
Though Kim describes the current situation as a “wilderness time,” he said the congregation still loves the UMC and prays for its members.
“We feel God’s comfort and encouragement from heaven,” he said. “We feel like we can believe and practice without pressure. We feel freedom.”