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Tim Tseng update

Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling

June 23, 2010

Dear Canaan EM sisters and brothers,

Have you heard about the “Glass Ceiling”? This is a term applied to the experiences of Asian Americans and women who may reach mid-management level in their careers, but are generally by-passed for top positions in their companies. Though things have changed greatly in America, I believe that the “Glass Ceiling” [or what my friend Jane Hyun calls the “Bamboo Ceiling”] still exists.

Several of my Asian American friends overcome the “ceiling” by working in Asia. There are often greater opportunities for growth there. Others become activists and try to fight the system by direct action.

A large part of the “Glass Ceiling” problem is that Asian Americans are not given or do not choose opportunities to exercise leadership. Most of us are raised to be excellent performers, but not strong leaders (there appears to be an implicit, but misplaced, faith in American meritocracy). Therefore, we are not taught the skills needed to navigate the leadership landscape. We unwittingly contribute to stereotypes that Asian Americans are ineffective leaders.

Let me extend this analogy to Asian American churches. Immigrant churches do a poor job of training their youth and young adults to exercise leadership. In some cases, authoritarian leadership styles in the church do not empower young people to lead. Also, many parents focus on preparing their children to study and perform well, but do not encourage them to learn the social skills needed to be leaders. Is it any wonder why so many Asian American Christian young adults leave their churches or are viewed as lacking initiative?

In order to break the “Bamboo Ceiling,” we need to raise up a generation of strong young Asian American leaders. And the Asian American church is in a strategic position to raise up Christ-centered and ethical leaders to transform church and society.

One doesn’t have to serve in a formal position to be a leader at Canaan. I like Fuller Seminary professor Bobby Clinton’s definition: “Leadership is a dynamic process in which a man or woman with God-given capacity influences a specific group of God’s people towards His purposes for the group.” Leadership is about nudging and moving people towards God’s purpose.

Our English leadership team has been working hard at discerning God’s purpose for us. We believe that God wants us to be more missional, supportive of families, and able to grow people in life transition. But we cannot lead without co-workers and supporters.

I’m glad you’ve read this far because it is at this point where I want to appeal to you to consider serving as a leader at Canaan. There are at least three types of leadership roles you can play:

1. Leading in a ministry project. These are short-term or occasional programs that have a beginning and ending. Examples of ministry projects are Vacation Bible School, Short Term Missions, and Retreat Planning.

2. Leading in a regular program. These are ministries that we have committed to maintaining long-term. Examples are Sunday worship, Youth fellowship, and  Community Groups.

3. Serving on Leadership Team. These are elected positions (elders and deacons) that provide direction, make day-to-day decisions, and provide oversight for all ministry programs and projects at Canaan.

In addition to these areas of leadership, I hope that all of us are involved in disciple-making or mentoring relationships. Here, we help lead younger Christians to become more mature followers of Jesus or are being guided by someone who helps us to grow.

Canaan’s nominating committee will soon identify people to serve as elders and deacons. I hope that you might be open to serving, if asked. And if you are interested in serving, please do not hesitate to ask.

One last point. We are blessed with several families with babies. Many of the parents have been active leaders in the past and would very much like to serve now. But I think it is only fair to allow these families a “pass” because the infant years are so physically intense. So we should go out of our way to support these families.

Nevertheless, it is important to ask parents of infants if they want to serve as leaders rather than assuming that they are too preoccupied and not ask. It’s perfectly fine to say “no” without guilt.

But don’t turn down an opportunity to lead just because you don’t feel ready or confident! Go against the grain! By learning to lead in the church, you’ll gain skills that will help you break the “bamboo ceiling”! [be like Martin Luther King, Jr.!]

See you Sunday!

Tim Tseng 曾 祥 雨
Interim English Pastor
Canaan Taiwanese Christian Church

P.S.  If you’re interested in volunteering for CityTeam, go this weblink:

References cited:

J. Robert Clinton, The Making of a Leader: Recognizing the Lessons and Stages of Leadership Development (NavPress, 1988)

Jane Hyun, Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians (CollinsHarper, 2003)


About Tim Tseng, Ph.D.

I am Pacific Area Director of Intervarsity Christian Fellowship's Graduate and Faculty Ministries. I'm also a historian, theological educator, and pastor.


5 thoughts on “Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling

  1. Dr. Clinton also says that God’s main concern is development of our character and our gifting over time through experiences that we should reflect on and learn from. Becoming a leader is meant to be attainable! Best wishes and blessings on your church.

    Posted by NavPress | June 24, 2010, 1:14 pm
  2. How is it possible to raise leaders in a church where, as you put it, “authoritarian leadership styles in the church do not empower young people to lead.”?

    I respectfully disagree that the solution is to raise more leaders under such conditions where the authoritarian grasp is not addressed. Inevitably, such “leaders” will only find themselves as servants with no voice, no ownership of vision, and ultimately no home to call their own. They will leave and the cycle will begin again until the next group discovers that in the end, the promise of leadership was only a thinly veiled excuse to find servants to carry out the authoritarian rule.

    Without any talk of accountability for the current leadership, ownership of new ideas and visions and the freedom to do so, … if the only call given is for “new leaders! (ie: serve serve and serve some more)” then I’m afraid the leaders with inspirations will walk away while the only folks to answer the call will be those who believe in the authoritarian rule and aspire to be as such; and the cycle continues.

    The answer to the call of leadership will only be as effective as the leadership’s answer to the call of its people. The people have spoken, and the answer has been … and continues to be “serve”.

    Posted by Anonymous | June 24, 2010, 3:59 pm
    • Dear Anonymous,

      Usually I don’t respond to anonymous posts, but your make some very good points that I affirm. But first, I think you misunderstood my original point. I was not suggesting that the solution to the authoritarian leadership structure of any church (or organization) was to simply raise more leaders within that structure. That’s not possible. My ministry with ISAAC is seeking ways to transform authoritarian congregational culture to one that regularly builds trust.

      Also, Canaan does not have an authoritarian leadership structure. I know that you didn’t say we did, but I wanted to be very clear about this. We are not perfect, but I believe that we are relatively healthy. I’m hopeful that our leaders will become even more transparent, accountable, and committed to empowering people. In the meantime, I firmly believe that we are a healthy enough congregation where English speaking leaders can be empowered, equipped, and raised up.

      Finally, while I respect those who choose to leave a church because of authoritarian leadership, it is important to also affirm those who stay because they trust that God will transform the culture through them. As you said, the cycle continues because the very people who are needed to change the culture depart. Only those who stay can hold the authoritarian leaders accountable and build a culture of trust.

      Thanks again for your passionate and heart-felt comments. They are very helpful and I hope will fuel more conversation for the sake of building stronger Asian American leaders for church and society!

      Posted by isaacblog | June 25, 2010, 1:45 pm
      • Thank you for your reply and clarification. Hoping and praying with you too…

        Posted by Anonymous | June 26, 2010, 7:59 pm

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