In the NBA, there are many different players that make up a championship-caliber club. These days, a team needs more than one marquee superstar to get over the hump. Take Kobe Bryant — arguably the greatest talent in the league today — and his Lakers squad. Sure, Lamar Odom is talented and they have several important role players — but it was this year’s acquisition (read: outright theft) of Pau Gasol that has rocketed them back into the upper stratosphere of the NBA elite. Factor in the emergence of Andrew Bynum as a genuine star and we might see Showtime 2.0 for the next couple of years. Even Michael Jordan could not have enjoyed his great championship run without Scottie Pippen.

However, truly successful teams need much more than superstars. Every team needs role players — e.g., 3-point sharpshooters, defensive hounds, etc. While being a solid supporting cast member might not be ideal, there is one type of label that many NBA players seem to loathe: energy guy.

McSweeney’s defines energy guy in the following manner:

Varejao is what hoops experts commonly refer to as an “energy guy,” a player whose job is to grab key offensive rebounds, track down loose balls, and take charges (often, in Varejao’s case, by “flopping”). Praising this style of play, whose inhibition so contrasts with the fluidity and improvisation of star players like Varejao’s teammate LeBron James, makes the Bill Walton do-gooders feel that they are teaching America’s youth a more ethically sensible version of how to play basketball. I say, Don’t limit their dreams!

For many players, the energy guy label implies that they make up for their lack of inherent skill with lots of effort — as very vocal supporters from sidelines, hyperactive rebounders or pests who annoy the other team’s star. Ronny Turiaf of the aforementioned Lakers has been doing everything he can to shed the “energy guy” label this year — despite the fact that his post-dunk dances from the bench are extremely enjoyable.

From my experience, many first generation Korean immigrant churches are a little bit like the NBA in their attitude — pastors want to be the marquee superstars, while doing everything in their power to avoid being role players or energy guys (I suspect many other churches experience something similar, but I haven’t been a part of them).

The system is setup so that it is very clear that the senior pastor is “number one” and everyone else is probably around #247 or so — existing only to do number one’s bidding. What person in their right mind would stay on as an associate in such an environment? The negative force to leave and either assume a senior pastorate elsewhere or startup a new venture is too great.

Also, this flawed ecclesiology completely ignores an individual’s particular gifting and sense of calling. I have seen many “administrative” pastors in first-gen Korean churches who were completely disorganized — totally incapable of balancing scheduling and facilities needs, office work and all the other behind the scenes things admin people are supposed to do. It’s just a stepping stone, a desperate clinging, to the dream of becoming number one. And someone who believes they are called to serve youth or children as more than just a quick stop to something bigger and better? Give me a break!

On top of all this, the idea itself, that the pastor is somehow the “boss” or “star” of anything, is utterly repugnant to me. This goes beyond the negative professionalization of ministry. In the first gen setting, it’s more about patriarchy, filial piety and a barely-masked “pastor as shaman” attitude.

So… in other words, there is no room for role players in most of these churches. Being anything other than the superstar is so utterly demeaning and unsatisfying that only a masochist would stick around as a role player. And yet, there must be some people who have been called to a vocational ministry other than senior pastor in this setting — while it might not sound like a great “career” path, perhaps some people’s unique gifting and calling equips them particularly as an associate pastor of some kind (or even a *gasp* lifetime youth pastor).

I think most first gen immigrant churches would benefit greatly from having an “energy guy” or two on the staff. Right now, there is a culture of suspicion in many first gen churches — if an associate gains too much popularity, the senior pastor either forces them out because of insecurity, or that person leaves of their own accord because they feel they would do a better job anyways. How different things would be if there would be staff members who were not looked down upon as being “less skilled” than the senior pastor-type, but who believe in the vision and can wholeheartedly and energetically support the church, genuinely cheering on the success of others and revitalizing the efforts of the entire community.

Over the last couple of years, I have done a lot of soul-searching (as most of us in vocational ministry will do) about what my role in the church might be. Like many of my peers who have served in first-generation Korean immigrant churches, I have become more convinced that I do not have a place here because I simply do not understand the church in the same ways as most first gen pastors. The next great task, that I have been wrestling with nonstop for awhile now, is not just ruling out what I think is a wrong approach, but developing what I think might be a more healthy ecclesiology and sense of ministry and where that might take me.

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