In the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a conservative Presbyterian denomination, there is a sizable contingent of Korean-Americans – they make up 12% of the denomination's members and have 212 churches (source).

These churches often have a position called kwonsa or kwon-sa, which, as I understand it, is for elderly women who are recognized as spiritual pillars of the church. In the PCA, where there are no female church officers, these kwonsa are neither elders nor deacons, and thus do not have official spiritual authority. However, I'm not sure that that's the case more broadly in Protestantism.

Thus I'd like to better understand 1) what kwonsa are, in the context of Protestantism, and 2) how the position is commonly seen to relate to "traditional" leadership positions like pastor, elder, and deacon.

That is, I'm looking for an overview answer that attempts to explain, at a high level, the role of kwonsa in Korean-culture Protestantism, particularly in relation to other church leaders.

I'm aware of the existence of a Korean Language Stack Exchange, but I ask this question here because my query is not merely linguistic, but rather primarily about how this role is understood in the specific context of Protestantism.

  • Disagree with your tag and your denomination choice. Suggest that you change Protestantism to Presbyterian, since that is the denomination in this case. (We have a Presbyterian church down the street from our house with an active Korean group ...) Jul 25, 2017 at 23:26
  • @KorvinStarmast But non-Presbyterian Koreans presumably have Kwonsas too, and it'd be interesting to see how they are understood there – for example, if presbyterians understand them differently compared to episcopalians or congregationalists. Jul 26, 2017 at 0:59
  • Nathaniel, it seems to me that you are trying to make this question cover too broad of a scope. Suggest you review and reconsider. Jul 26, 2017 at 1:27
  • @KorvinStarmast I think it can be answered at a high level (I do mention overview), though I don't know this realm very well, and I may be biased. Feel free to VTC and see what others think. Jul 26, 2017 at 2:03
  • I was trying to help narrow the scope. I think that with a narrow, Presbyterian scope this may be a great question. Jul 26, 2017 at 2:03

1 Answer 1


From Buddhist and Protestant Korean Immigrants: Religious Beliefs and Socioeconomic Aspects of Life by Okyun Kwon (LFP Scholarly Publishing LLC, New York 2003):

Congregational Structure & Female Leadership Positions

... An elder takes care of one or two parishes, but he situates himself as a nominal lay leader in the parishes he takes charge of by exercising a minimal authority in the parish's religious activities. The head pastor appoints usually a female deacon to each parish as a practical leader who actually takes charge of the parish's religious activity. The appointed practical leader is named as ku-yok-jang in Korean, which means a district leader. This lay leadership position has been recently invented by the Pentecostal-line Korean churches. The role of the practical parish leader has been recognized by church officials in expansion of Christianity in Korea. Recognizing the importance of the role of the practical parish leaders, who are mostly female, in recruiting new members, many Korean churches put an increasing emphasis on the position.

Between male elders and female practical parish leaders, another female lay leadership position is situated. This lay leadership position is called kwon-sa in Korean, the highest lay position given to female members in the majority of Korean Protestant churches. The kwon-sa is expected to mediate, support, and encourage parish members to participate in religious activities at both the parish and congregational levels, but like the male elder position in many cases it is nominally given to the devout female elderly members. They are expected to be female spiritual leaders in the congregation. In these three layers of parish leadership hierarchy, another intermediate level female lay leader, called a kwon-chal, is situated. The kwon-chal, which literally means both supervision and encouragement, has become the second-highest lay leadership position given to female members. as the name of the position implies, the kwon-chal's major role is to encourage and support the parish members' religious activity participation.

All these women's lay leadership positions have first been created by Korean Pentecostal churches not only to give special recognition to women's roles in church formation, but also to provide a leeway for women's lay leadership positions in churches as against the already existing male-centered church hierarchy. Soon after these Pentecostal churches achieved a high level of success in church growth by developing women's leadership roles, many conservative mainline churches began to confer female members the same leadership positions for the same reason. ...

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