When Sukja Bang was a toddler, she contracted polio. Years later, her right leg remained weak. Her parents, worried that their daughter would face discrimination when she entered the workforce because of her disability, tried to persuade her to become a medical doctor.
“My family wanted to make sure I received higher education, especially as a medical doctor, because no one would look down on me. But I’m now a different doctor—in theology,” said Bang, who will earn her doctor of ministry from Fordham’s Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education this May.
Bang is a pastor in the United Methodist Church. She was born and raised in South Korea, where she grew up attending church with her family and realized she wanted to “serve the Lord” as a clergy member. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theology in Seoul. At the time, she decided it would be wise to obtain her Ph.D. in the U.S. and then return home, where she would teach in a seminary school. But she secretly hoped to become a pastor.
“There was a rare chance of being ordained in Korea because I’m a woman and I have polio. Don’t get me wrong—there are many women pastors. But they are more likely invited to be an associate pastor or youth pastor, not a senior pastor. There was definitely gender discrimination there. And on top of that, I didn’t see any disabled pastors at that time [about 30 years ago],” said Bang.
But when she moved to the U.S. in 1992, she said she realized her dream of becoming a pastor was possible. Bang earned her master of divinity from the Drew Theological School in Madison, New Jersey, and became an ordained minister in 1997. Over the next three decades, she served as a pastor at seven churches across Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
In those years, she befriended many parishioners who confided in her, including a couple whose son struggled with depression and drug addiction.
“They trusted me and came to me with many problems. But I really didn’t have a background in pastoral counseling. All I learned from seminary was spiritual formation and a little bit of pastoral care,” Bang said. “Also, there are many Christians silently suffering from depression and other mental illnesses because of stigma.” As a pastor, she wondered, how could she help people spiritually when they are struggling?
Bang found her answer at Fordham. In 2008, she enrolled in GRE’s doctor of ministry program and specialized in pastoral counseling and pastoral care.
“Fordham helped me to know about myself as a pastor and a person so I can be more compassionate and caring for others,” said Bang.
This past January, Bang defended her dissertation, “Clergy Self-Care for Cross-Racially/Cross-Culturally Appointed Pastors in the United Methodist Church,” which explores self-care for pastors like herself—pastors from a racial or cultural group who are appointed to serve in congregations where the race and culture of most parishioners are different from the pastor’s own background. The goal of these appointments is to create a more inclusive church, but pastors still experience subtle and overt forms of racism from their own parishioners, said Bang. In her thesis, she identifies strategies for self-care for these clergy, including the “broaden-and-build theory” and a detailed itinerary for a three-day retreat.
“The thesis makes clear that Sunday worship is still, as Dr. King has said famously, ‘the most segregated hour of Christian America.’ Moreover, given the recent surge in racially motivated violence, Dr. Bang’s project could not come at a better time,” said her mentor Kirk A. Bingaman, Ph.D., professor of pastoral mental health counseling at GRE.
Bang recalled good and bad experiences from American churches, including one of the first places where she served as a pastor: the Doylestown United Methodist Church in Pennsylvania, where the majority of the population is white.
“On the first Sunday, I was surprised and they were surprised to have a Korean female pastor. I knew they were all white Anglo parishioners, but I was surprised by the size of the church,” Bang said. “Twenty-four years ago, my English wasn’t that great. But they embraced me and were willing to work with me.”
Today, Bang is the pastor at the Ackermanville United Methodist Church in Bangor, Pennsylvania, where she has served since 2018. During each sermon, Bang feels the effects of her childhood polio—she still walks with a slight limp in her right leg. But she says her disability hasn’t prevented her from following her calling.
“Being a pastor is a very special vocation,” said Bang, who is now 68 years old. “People invite you to their personal space when they have joy and sorrow, through baptisms, funerals, and weddings. It’s a responsibility, but at the same time, a privilege to be a part of their lives.”