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Finding courage, context and community through practical theology
profile of Sangeon Kim

Sangeon Kim was pursuing pastoral leadership in South Korea when he set his sights on becoming a master of divinity student at Candler. During his time at Emory, he built community and realized there’s a thin line between success and failure.

Things were going according to plan for Sangeon Kim, who was pursuing pastoral leadership in South Korea. However, he could not ignore his increasing thirst for theological expansion and the desire to explore the world outside his home. Finally, he set his sights on studying abroad and ultimately enrolled as a master of divinity student at Candler School of Theology.

Taking risks through new pathways

Upon arriving at Candler, Kim was greeted by a phrase that would become his guiding light: “Be courageous!” This affirmation was emblazoned on the T-shirts distributed during Candler’s 2021 student orientation as words of encouragement for the incoming class. But for Kim, they were more than words — they became his mantra.

For the Candler Class of 2024, courage came in many shapes and sizes. For Kim, courage came through embracing the challenges of building community. To meet these challenges, Kim used the approach learned during his tenure at Candler: practical theology.

“Candler deeply emphasizes the practicality of theology,” says Kim. “This means that the theology we learn in school should not remain in our intellect but should extend and be applied to the world.”

Kim found a way to share new knowledge and strengthen community between Emory and Korea, thanks to research he undertook at Candler’s Pitts Theology Library. Under the guidance of librarian Brinna Michael, Kim researched three pieces of Korean art displayed in the library, and his findings became a digital exhibition he co-curated with Michael: “Hidden Legacies: An Exploration of Korean Art at Pitts Theology Library.” The exhibition forges connections between Korean artists, clergy and churches with Emory, Candler and Pitts.

As he delved into the past through his work at Pitts, Kim was also looking to the future of Candler and its international student population. He wanted prospective Korean students to recognize the value of a Candler education and to show them that they could make a difference in the school’s history. For that work, he collaborated with Candler’s associate dean of admissions and financial aid, Sam Martinez.

Kim says that in most cases, prospective Korean students have a very abstract understanding of Candler and Emory as simply a good school, but may not receive information specific to their needs that would motivate them to apply. Under Martinez’s leadership, Kim planned several events that gave these prospective students a positive impression of Candler and provided clear reasons to attend.

“These events helped them think about the relationship between their vocational calling and a Candler education,” Kim says.

Context is key in building community

Throughout his years at Candler, Kim developed a deep understanding of the importance of context in pastoral leadership.

His time as a ministry intern at Zion Korean United Methodist Church in Duluth and Atlanta First United Methodist Church was pivotal, with the pastor of each church providing different lessons. Zion’s Young-sup Yoon modeled a ministry of unity and healing amid congregational conflict. Atlanta First’s Jasmine Smothers 08T presented a pastoral philosophy that extended beyond the confines of traditional church boundaries as she led the congregation to address the city’s affordable housing crisis.

When the opportunity arose for Kim himself to lead, he found it was important to embrace trial and error. Buoyed by his congregational experiences, Kim embarked on the revitalization of the Wesley Foundation at Georgia Tech, specifically seeking to create a Korean faith community within the university. He soon encountered challenges initially caused by the pandemic, such as disrupted traditional modes of engagement and how to draw attendance.

“There were many cases where no one showed up to the small group. Many times, I worshipped and prayed alone, and eventually, I discovered the problem: I had to understand the students’ contexts.”

Rather than adhering to his initial plan, Kim expanded the scope of the group to encompass a pan-Asian audience, fostering a more diverse and inclusive community of faith that soon drew regular attendance and fellowship.

Success, failure and gratitude

After graduation, Kim will pursue a PhD in history from Princeton Theological Seminary. As he moves forward with his studies, he expresses gratitude for Candler and its lessons.

“The most decisive reason I was accepted to a doctoral program was the help of faculty members at Candler,” he says. “Their classes had a profound impact on my academic development and changed my life for the better.”

Kim says one of the most enduring lessons he learned sprang from the dynamics of moving between feelings of success and failure in his studies. This led to a realization he came to call “51 vs. 49,” which he explains like this:

“There is just a fine line between success and failure. A successful person can fall in an instant, so I have learned to be humble. This is because even if I achieve success, I did that just with 51. Also, even if I failed, I learned that I should not give up and [instead] move forward with hope because I was with not at 0 but 49.

“Thus, success became a reason for humility, and failure became the beginning of hope,” he says. “In other words, although I may succeed or fail when living my life, it is a wonderful life if I move forward humbly and with hope under God’s arms.”

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