An arm of the Presbyterian Church in America is allowing Min Joshua Chung—arguably the nation’s most prominent Korean-American pastor—to return to ministry despite allegations of sexual misconduct and cover-up.
Whistleblowers are making their accusations public after several years of attempts to confront the influential pastor within a reportedly tight-knit, shame-based community. Former members of Covenant Fellowship Church (CFC) of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, where Chung pastored, say the whole church system breeds abuse.
In much of Asian culture, “you never want to look bad in front of the community and you never want to be the cause of someone else being shamed,” said Frank Mesina, a former CFC member. “Especially in the Korean community, to call out a pastor, you’re going against God-given authority.”
Chung didn’t respond when The Roys Report tried to reach him for comment.
CFC separated from Chung on May 27 and has contracted a third-party investigation into his conduct. Many other ministries have removed Chung from their boards and speaking schedules. And calls for reform are spreading through the Korean-American community, even as whistleblowers fear retaliation.
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“It’s a moment of reckoning for the Korean American church,” former CFC member June Pinyo said.
Sphere of influence
Chung founded CFC in 1990, and it’s now home to more than a thousand members hailing from more than 20 ethno-linguistic groups, according to its website.
His influence extends beyond the church walls. He has either founded or served in leadership for several youth and college ministries throughout the country, and was a board member for international missions organization SIM from 2006 to 2019.
Chung was also an adjunct professor at Urbana Theological Seminary from 2005 to 2018.
CFC’s main ministry is to the students at the University of Illinois and the church recruits heavily during “new student week,” said Tim Ma, former CFC member and 2014 Illinois graduate.
“Almost every day of the week, they try to recruit people,” Ma said. “There’s a picnic. Another day, there’s basketball. There are Walmart runs. They’re a very inclusive, very inviting community. Even the pastors, I would say, do a good job at that.
“But there’s, of course, a lot under the surface as well,” he added.
‘Suicidal and traumatized’
Those who looked deeper discovered sexual misconduct and abuse of power by Chung, former long-term church members, pastors, and leaders state in a 67-page report released to The Roys Report (TRR). A 124-page extended version of the report, containing copies of texts describing one victim’s assault and subsequent intimidation, was submitted to an investigative team of the Korean Central Presbytery (KCP) in November 2020, following up on a five-page allegation letter the whistleblowers sent in August. (The version of the report released to TRR referenced and summarized the texts instead in the interest of the victim’s privacy.) The presbytery is a ruling body of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the denomination that ordained Chung.
In one instance, Chung assaulted a woman in the back seat of a car in 2001, the report alleges. People close to the woman said she didn’t wish to speak to TRR.
The report doesn’t offer explicit details of the incident, but states that the touching was “in a way that could be constituted as sexual assault” under Illinois law. (Illinois defines criminal sexual assault as “using force or threat or force,” and the defendant knows the victim is “unable to give knowing consent.”)
Later, the victim called a friend and told her what Chung had done. The victim was “suicidal and traumatized by her initial and continuous interaction with Pastor Min,” the friend stated in testimony included in the report.
The friend urged the victim to tell Chung she hadn’t consented to his touch. The victim did. But Chung got upset that the victim had told someone and “told her to keep the incident quiet between the two of them,” the friend said in the report.
Chung began private counseling sessions with the victim, using that time to urge her to keep silent about the assault, the report states.
Former CFC member Janet Park said that when she confronted Chung in 2009, he told her that he kept the matter a secret because the victim had insisted on doing so. Other whistleblowers said in the report that that isn’t true. And he “bullied . . . into silence” those who knew of the incident, the report states.
Park is one of the whistleblowers who submitted the report to the KCP.
Over the years, Chung rebuked whistleblowers who tried to confront him for “causing dissension in the church.” They either left or were “forced to leave by the leadership they loved,” the report states. Even the friend in whom the victim confided feared she would be cursed by God if she spoke against Chung.
Pressure to keep silent
For almost 20 years, Chung kept the alleged sexual assault from church leaders and his wife, Park said. During that time, he pastored the church, served on several ministry boards, and taught at the seminary. He also spoke at youth and college-aged events, counseled university students, and preached in several countries.
While this was happening, the report states, Chung was exercising nearly Godlike authority to pressure his victim and various others who’d learned about the incident to stay silent.
“The victim was terrified and did whatever she was told,” the report states.
Yet whistleblowers, who knew about the alleged assault, pressured Chung for a decade to confess to the church.
Park said when she confronted Chung, he said had a dream in which God showed him that he was a “lampstand for his generation, and that he should keep preaching” as part of his healing.
Chung preached messages urging congregants to submit to leaders and forgive them and calling victims to forgive their abusers. In 2018, Chung preached a sermon addressing the #MeToo movement in which he told victims to “repent for your pain and reaction to your sin nature.”
In 2019, Chung told two associate pastors in a “vague” and “minimized” confession that he had sexually touched a woman from his congregation, the whistleblower report states.
One of those associate pastors was KJ Kim, the new head pastor of CFC. According to the report, Kim was initially more interested in stopping the spread of “gossip” and keeping Chung’s sexual misconduct “private” than holding Chung accountable or protecting victims.
In February of 2019, Park said she reported the matter to Kim and urged him to allow a third-party investigation, but Kim refused.
In September 2019, two other whistleblowers met with Kim “as a final step to urge leadership to take proper steps,” the report states. It went “terribly,” according to the report. “Pastor KJ shows no signs of remorse, shows no sign of pastoral care, only concerned with keeping us quiet.”
Kim did not respond to a request for comment on these claims against him.
In August 2019, Chung stopped preaching at CFC, but said it was to facilitate a transition to a team leadership model. Chung continued to speak elsewhere during this time.
A year later, the group of 14 whistleblowers submitted their report to the PCA’s Korean Central Presbytery and called for the KCP to investigate Chung, arguing CFC associate pastors had failed to discipline him, said Park. They were also concerned that other victims may exist, she said.
The cost has been high for the whistleblowers, said Amy Han, one of the whistleblowers who submitted the report.
“We lost our church family and community,” she said. “We’ve lost our reputations. Sometimes we’ve lost purpose and direction. Many times, I thought I lost my own understanding in God. I personally do it for the survivors. Ultimately my hope is to discover who God truly is, beyond the God that CFC represented.”
Covenant Fellowship Church is nondenominational, has no elders, and is not a PCA member. But Chung is subject to the PCA’s Book of Church Order because of his PCA ordination, KJ Kim told TRR.
In addition to the alleged sexual assault, the report lists several other allegations against Chung. A total of 19 people signed on to the report or are cited as witnesses.
The report accuses Chung of orchestrating a cover-up of sexual abuse allegations against another Korean-American pastor of a church with close ties to CFC. It also alleges that Chung urged a woman not to go to police when she sought his counsel after being sexually assaulted by another church member.
In April, the Korean Central Presbytery received an eight-page report summarizing its investigative team’s findings and recommendations. The KCP ruled only on the sexual assault allegation, calling it “sexual harassment.” They determined that Chung was guilty but has done enough for restoration to ministry. They also ruled that the period when Chung wasn’t preaching at CFC was enough discipline for his sin.
“Regarding recovery, the pastor reconciled with his victim, and regarding his relationship with God, he recognized his sin before God and relies on the blood of Christ,” Rev. Sungwoo Nam, KCP clerk, said in a statement. “We judge that his relationship with God is restored as we consider the grace of God. We remind him to abide by the BCO (Book of Church Order), and we believe that he should return to ministry.”
Nine teaching elders protested the KCP’s ruling, saying they didn’t think Chung was truly repentant, and called for indefinite suspension. The motion to rescind the KCP decision needed a two-thirds vote in favor. A July 13 vote narrowly missed that threshold, with 22 in favor of rescinding the decision, 12 against, and one abstaining.
The decision to return Chung to ministry may be appealed to the Standing Judicial Commission of the PCA’s General Assembly.
Whistleblowers say they’re disappointed, but not surprised, with the ruling.
“It was another missed opportunity,” Amy Han said.
Chung’s church reckoned him to have an especially high place of anointing, making him untouchable when he does wrong, said Dan Lee, another whistleblower in the report.
“MC (Min Chung) is anointed by God, God only exists at CFC and there is no other place like CFC,” Lee said, describing the church environment. “Since there is no room in the culture for open candor, exchange of perspectives, and helpful permissive dissension, there is only a cycle of abuse that continues at all levels of leadership.”
A culture ripe for abuse
Former members of Covenant Fellowship Church say Chung’s abuse is part of a larger pattern of abuse and silencing at CFC and affiliated ministries.
A sexual assault victim who wished to remain anonymous, but whose identity TRR confirmed, said that CFC’s culture discouraged reporting sexual assault to police. The woman, a former CFC member, said she was sexually assaulted by a leader in the church—not Chung—and reported the incident to a pastor.
“I went to my head pastor and I was emotionally distressed,” she said. “I talked to him about it. Nothing was ever followed up on with me. Nothing was put in place, to my knowledge, to keep me safe from him. There was never a feeling that this should be reported.”
Women in many Korean churches are told to be submissive, former CFC members said. Conversations about sex, including consent, are taboo. And women are taught to protect men, even when the men are doing something wrong or hurting the women, said former member June Pinyo.
“There’s such a pressure put on women to be pure going into marriage, but then we create this environment in the church where it’s kind of ripe for abuse, and for women to stay silent when there is some kind of assault,” Pinyo said.
Other groups sever ties; CFC commissions investigation
SOLA Network, a digital platform and conference including Asian American pastors from all over the country, recently broke ties with Chung. For many years, Chung had been a council member and a writer for their site.
Joshua Generation, commonly called J-Gen, a ministry for high schoolers that Chung founded, also severed ties with Chung. J-Gen canceled its summer retreats to “grieve and reflect.”
In May, CFC severed ties with Chung and hired Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (G.R.A.C.E.) to conduct a third-party investigation.
Pastor KJ Kim acknowledged that Chung has been accused of a pattern of abusing his authority.
“Over the course of the past few years, the leadership of Covenant Fellowship Church has sought to investigate claims of abuse regarding our founding pastor,” Kim wrote in a statement to TRR. “One was a claim from many years ago of inappropriate touch with an adult woman. We acknowledge that this was wrong.”
Kim said the woman had forgiven Chung “long ago.”
“However, there have also been a number of accusations of abuse of power and harsh treatment towards others that continued to surface regarding this same pastor,” Kim continued.
Because of “the trust that had been damaged and the pain that had been caused,” he said, the church board voted unanimously May 27 to separate from Chung.
Kim also alluded to the KCP investigation. But he said the church had recently decided to hire an outside group to investigate “in order to work towards rebuilding trust and create a healthier culture that better reflects Jesus.”
However, a senior consultant at Center Consulting has ties with Chung. Charles Zimmerman has been a speaker at One In Love, which Chung founded, and they’ve both been main speakers at Global Kingdom Young Adult Missions Festival, where Chung was a board member.
Zimmerman didn’t answer calls or emails to comment on his relationship with Chung.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify when the KCP received the whistleblowers’ allegations and to more accurately state certain charges.
Rebecca Hopkins is a journalist based in Colorado.