The Calling to Be a Pastor

It’s not everyday one gets to showcase a pastor from China. =)

The Calling to Be a Pastor

By staff reporter QIAO TIANBI

Yang Min, a junior at the Nanjing Union, works on her paper 400 Year of Silence-Changes in lsraeli Theology Since the Babylonians Seized lsrael. Gao Ying on the campus of the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary.

The Christians that live in China are generally either born into Christian families or are new converts. After the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) churches resumed their activities and gained a large number of new converts. Gao Ying, pastor and vice president of the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, was one of them.

Born into an atheistic senior government official family, Gao Ying, along with thousands of her peers, was sent to work in the countryside during the “cultural revolution.” In 1974, she came back to Beijing and worked in a factory. The “cultural revolution” launched China into a morbid decade that disrupted the normal lives of the people and distorted human relations, leaving many ideologically disillusioned and emotionally apathetic. Gao’s salvation came in the form of the father of one of her classmates, who was a pastor. It was he that opened the door of Christianity to Gao and awakened her interest in it.

It was after a church activity that Gao attended in 1980, when she was struck by the friendly, equal and trusting relationships between the Christian brothers and sisters, that she decided to be baptized and join the church. Gao’s decision was not well received by her parents, and her relationship with them became very tense. “My parents couldn’t understand me at that time,” Gao Ying recalls, “especially my mother. To her mind, religious belief was backward, superstitious and reactionary. She was shattered at my choosing a road so opposed to her own political beliefs.” Gao Ying’s conversion to Christianity was indeed a big blow to her mother, who was convinced her daughter had been led astray.

“Soon after I was baptized, I heard that the theological seminary was planning to recruit students. I was very excited; it was as if I had heard the Lord’s call and been given the opportunity to fulfill my responsibility and mission. I immediately applied to join the theological seminary. My mother could not accept my choice, and threatened to sever all ties with me. I left to take up my studies at the seminary, hoping she would eventually come around to my way of thinking.” In 1981, 26-year-old Gao Ying began her 11-year theology studies. She was among the first batch of recruited students at the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary after its 15-year hiatus.

At that time, there was limited information available on religion, let alone on the theological seminary’s resumption of enrolment. The majority of Gao Ying’s classmates, therefore, were from Christian families. Most teachers in the seminary were knowledgeable senior scholars, greatly respected by their students.

From 1987 to 1991, Gao Ying studied in the UC Berkeley Seminary in the United States. In 1989, when she read in the American newspapers about the turmoil in Beijing she was seized with worry about her parents on the other side of the globe. She tried to ring her mother in Beijing for several days, but found it impossible to get through. Finally, she dialed president Ding Guangxun of the Nanjing Union Theological Seminary. It was he that helped her get in touch with her mother. When Gao and her mother finally spoke on the telephone, they were both overcome with emotion, and were able to reach a mutual understanding. It was in 1991, when Gao’s mother got sick and was hospitalized for 40 days before dying, that Gao returned to China.

When she arrived back in Beijing, Gao first served as a pastor in Chongwenmen Church. Formerly known as Asbury Church, it was the first church in North China, built by American Methodists. During the “cultural revolution,” it was used as a school hall, and in 1982, it became a church once more. It is now the biggest Protestant church in Beijing. Gao later took up leading posts within Christian organizations and other social positions in the Chinese capital. As she says, “I am very busy. Since being promoted to pastor, I am not involved in the more detailed aspects of the work, but do need to spend much time coordinating various church affairs. There are over 200 volunteers working in Chongwenmen Church alone, and we have activities every day. I also have lots of social activities to attend.” No matter how busy Gao is with her work, she never misses her sermon at Sunday service. Her colleagues say that Gao’s sermons are the most uplifting the church has ever heard. She modestly attributes the power of her preaching to many years’ experience.

Having studied overseas and worked for the church for many years, Gao is now vice president of the largest theological seminary in China. She recalls her experience of theological pedagogy in China: “When I studied in the theological seminary, most of my fellow students were from Christian families whose belief in God was unshakeable. Many of us at that time had a working background that endorsed our vocation. Students today are mostly from single child families, and quite a number of them are from non-Christian families and prone to the influence and distraction of secular culture. Consequently their religious belief needs to be consolidated.”

As the highest seminary in China, most of Nanjing Union’s teachers are its own graduates. This guarantees the consistency of teaching on the one hand, but restricts improvement of its teaching standards by virtue of new input on the other. Observing the large gaps between the Nanjing Seminary and those she had observed overseas, Gao decided to organize more exchange activities. To date, 80 percent of its 40 teachers have attended short-term exchange programs overseas, and one-sixth have studied abroad. In January this year, a Ph.D student in theology came from the United States to join its faculty, whose members now include five foreign teachers, including two Americans, two Canadians and one German. However, its teachers are less qualified, admits Gao Ying, than faculty members of seminaries in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the majority of whom hold doctorate degrees.

The Nanjing Seminary’s new campus will be completed this year, and its enrolment capability will increase from 170 to 500. Gao’s current concern is to heighten academic qualifications and demands on her faculty. Her projected requirement of teachers at the Seminary is that they have at least a master’s degree. As a means to achieve this aim, the seminary has been active in sending its teachers for further studies abroad, while promoting a visiting scholar program with its counterparts overseas.

Teaching and academic research in the seminary is also on the up. Study courses have been adjusted to synchronize with those overseas, and more attention is being given to serving the church rather than merely academia. Students are organized to do internships within the church in order to accumulate practical experience on the one hand, and to improve their essential understanding of their faith on the other.

“I am a noble single,” Gao says, jokingly, “I have only myself to feed, and no other family members to worry about.” Gao did not intend to remain single; it is a natural consequence of her unique life experience. By the time she had studied for 11 years in the seminary and become a pastor, most men of her age had already married. Gao’s religious beliefs also limit her range of suitable spouses.

When asked what makes a good pastor, Gao mentions the scene from the American movie The Miracle Worker: The boy who has fallen in love with Helen Keller asks for permission to marry her. Helen’s mother refuses him, saying, “Helen is a special girl, she needs the complete devotion of another person who is ready to sacrifice his or her needs to hers, which is hard for anyone other than us, her parents.” “Being a pastor also needs complete devotion,” says Gao. “To be a pastor is my vocation, not merely occupation. To me, being a good pastor is more important than anything.”

Article from China Today


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