March 21, 2015

First Woman Gets Adventist Doctorate in Theology in South Korea

The Seventh-day Adventist Church’s flagship university in South Korea had to be convinced to change its policy to accept Miriam Sunmee Yun-Welch into its graduate school of theology.

The problem wasn’t the fact that Yun-Welch was legally blind. Nor was it that her health was fragile, or that she had attempted suicide three times while struggling with depression years earlier.

It was that she was a woman — and no woman had ever received a doctorate from Sahmyook University’s graduate school of theology.

Yun-Welch made history last month by graduating with a doctor of ministry degree, a milestone that she hopes will encourage other Asian women to pursue ministry-oriented doctorates that prepare them for leadership roles in the Adventist Church.

“It is my prayer that as the first woman to graduate in any doctoral area of theology at Sahmyook University, I will help open the door for more female leaders in the Adventist work in South Korea and Asia,” Yun-Welch said.

Even more important than leadership, she wants Korean women to become actively engaged in church work in a male-dominated culture that traditionally has treated women poorly.

Yun-Welch, 49, is not seeking to become a pastor but to combine her new education with 33 years of public health experience to become more effective in sharing Jesus, particularly within the framework of the Adventist Church’s comprehensive health ministry.

“I would like to say that I am not now nor ever have been in favor of the ordination of women pastors, although I do believe that women could and perhaps should be ‘ordained’ to a specific area of work within the Adventist Church, such as women's ministries, family ministries, health ministries, and children's ministries,” she said in one of several interviews conducted by e-mail over the past two weeks.

The first fruits of her trailblazing efforts are already evident. A second doctor of ministry candidate, a pastor’s wife, is studying at Sahmyook University, and a woman is pursuing a PhD in theology.

Sahmyook University professors described Yun-Welch as an outstanding student and a dedicated Adventist.

“She is one of the best graduates who have ever gone through our seminary in Korea,” said Jong-Keun Lee, dean of the graduate school of theology at Sahmyook University, who has known Yun-Welch since teaching her as an undergraduate student in the 1980s. “I am very proud of Miriam for her Christian virtues and dedication to the glory of God.”

Un Bae Kim, dean of the undergraduate school of theology and Yun-Welch’s DMin thesis adviser, praised his former student as diligent and said her success served as an inspiration to other Adventist women to pursue postgraduate studies for service to God and man.

“Miriam never quits once she has started a job, even when others discourage her,” he said. “She just keeps moving slowly and steadily along to the finish line.”

Kim Sang Rae. president of Sahmyook University, presenting Miriam Yun-Welch with a doctorate in ministry diploma as Jong-Keun Lee, dean of the school of theology, watches. Photo courtesy of Jong-Keun Lee

Growing Up Blind

Yun-Welch’s struggle to get into graduate school represents, perhaps, a microcosm of a much larger battle that she has fought her whole life. The eldest of four siblings in an Adventist pastor’s family, Yun-Welch was born blind on Jan. 6, 1966, with cataracts in both eyes and poorly developed optic nerves and retinas. After multiple surgeries, she can detect light with one eye and needs 1,400-power magnification to use it.

“All through my school years I have needed a ‘seeing-eye friend’ to sit next to me and read the teacher’s notes from the board,” she said. “The blessing in all of it is I have an excellent memory and very sharp hearing.”

The young Miriam was mercilessly teased as “four eyes” until depression drove her to attempt suicide three times. For a year and a half in public grade school, teachers beat her every Monday morning for missing Saturday classes.

At the same time, her family’s Adventist faith offered opportunities unavailable to peers. Her father, Philip Bohyun Yun, served as pastor for the church’s language institute in Korea, surrounding the family with English speakers who taught English to the children at an early age. Her father also had a keen interest in public health. He was South Korea’s first Adventist pastor to be sent abroad, to the Philippines, to obtain a master’s degree in health, and he later received two of the Seoul government’s highest civilian awards for his anti-smoking initiatives.

Yun-Welch, who worked closely with her father in his health programs from 1983, determined to follow in his footsteps and study theology when she finished high school. But her father told her she needed “a real profession” and encouraged her to take business administration instead. 

Thanks to her memory skills, Yun-Welch received a full scholarship and graduated six months early from Sahmyook University. She worked at Sahmyook University’s business office for six years and, in an early indication of her leadership skills, opened the university’s multimedia center.

Yun-Welch remained engaged in church health activities, but she wanted to do more. So in 1994 she quit her job and studied massage therapy in California. She worked for two years at a health center at Asia-Pacific International University in Thailand, and later taught massage and hydrotherapy for two months in the Philippines.

The experience changed her life, she said, and she returned to South Korea in 1997 with a desire to share Jesus through the church’s health message. She married Michael Welch, an English teacher and physical therapist from the United States, in 1999, and the two went on to obtain master’s degrees in public health and other health certifications. While teaching public health at Sahmyook University for much of the past decade, the couple has led health seminars in more than a dozen countries, including China, Mongolia, Indonesia, Italy, and Ghana, and usually traveled at their own expense. They also have presented five times at a health summit organized by the North American and Inter-American divisions in Florida.

Yun-Welch, meanwhile, has suffered health problems that threatened to sideline her work. Just six months after getting married, she discovered that she had lymphangioleomyomatosis, a fatal condition that causes “blisters” on the lungs that regularly pop and partially deflate the lungs. Doctors said the average lifespan after such a prognosis was three and a half years but told her that she might live up to seven years.

Yun-Welch said she and her husband recommitted their lives to God.

“We just gave it to the Lord and told Him, ‘Lord, You put us together for a special work, so You take care of me,” she said. “And here I am still working for the Lord 16 years later with ‘Swiss cheese lungs.’”

She added: “Needless to say, I am careful with my diet. I take supplements when needed, and I exercise a lot daily to develop the capacity of my lungs. It has worked.”

Pursuing a Doctorate

In the late 2000s, Yun-Welch had something of a revelation as she worked with her husband to start a master’s program in public health at Sahmyook University. She said she realized that she had been combining a practical health skills with a theoretical knowledge of theology. She wanted to learn practical theology.

“Here I was, educated and still feeling so ignorant of the God I loved!” she said. “So I decided to learn some more.”

She approached Sahmyook University with a request to study for a DMin in September 2009. She was firmly told about the graduate school guidelines, which said the university only accepted men who could be hired by a church conference and work in pastoral areas as a minister for at least five years upon graduation.

But Yun-Welch didn’t take no for an answer.

“I felt that that was too narrow a rule,” she said. “I told all the deans of the various schools: ‘Seventy percent of all Korean Adventists are women! In this second century of the Adventist Church in South Korea, we need to train female leaders, too!’”

Yun-Welch explained to the deans that she had worked for the church all her life and had even been hired by the Korean Union Conference as its first-ever female financial intern in 1988. She also worked as a conference employee during her six years at the university’s business office.

Finally she told them: "I am a pastor’s daughter, and I have been doing everything in the pastoral area all my life except for marrying and baptizing, plus I have years of Adventist Volunteer Service work in the mission field, something that most your PhD and DMin candidates do not have!"

Sahmyook University rewrote the rules for postgraduate theology students in October 2009, allowing Yun-Welch to enroll the next semester.

The Adventist Church’s Northern Asia Pacific Division, which includes South Korea, announced Yun-Welch’s graduation with a glowing statement on its website.

“Miriam has been specially chosen by God to a life of ministry, and she has found comfort and peace of mind in a Savior who understands what it is like to be ridiculed by others,” it said. “We praise God for what He has accomplished through Miriam's life, and wish her God's greatest blessings as she continues to serve Him.”

Her husband, Michael Welch, said he was intensely supportive of his wife and more than a little proud of her abilities to organize and lead health outreach projects.

“It was a huge relief for her to graduate, and we can hardly wait to see where God has for us to go next,” he said.

Yun-Welch, who works as a professor and researcher at the university and managing director of the Korean Institute on Alcohol Problems, said her graduation is just the start. She said she hoped to see Korean laywomen become more educated and active in church outreach because in a male-dominated culture like South Korea their self-esteem can be undermined and their willingness to work can be limited to areas where they are directed by men.

“Women are underutilized as soul winners,” she said. “I believe that in this ‘end-time setting’ we must fully utilize all the resources of the Adventist Church to carry the last message of salvation to a dying world.”