On Bearings Online, we run an occasional series on the portrayal of clergy in popular media. The following essay by Kara Dutt explores the pastor character in the television show Kim’s Convenience (2016 – present). Read other essays in this series »
Pastors often have a front seat view of people’s lives. We are invited into homes, conflicts, and the internal workings of those whom we pastor. It is a great privilege, but admittedly it can get awkward.
Pastor Nina from the sitcom Kim’s Convenience knows this well. (The show’s title refers to the convenience store owned and operated by the Kim family, who make up the show’s central characters.) Pastor Nina brilliantly steps into uncomfortable spaces and shines light on the gawky situations that many pastors will find relatable. What are the ethics of accepting gifts, or in the context of the show, free groceries? When a prank goes too far, how should a pastor react to protect human dignity? Should a pastor outbid a congregant at the church silent auction? Through the character of Pastor Nina, we glimpse the awkward beauty of a congregation’s relationship with their pastor and how those moments can also be, indeed, sacred.
Pastor Nina brilliantly steps into uncomfortable spaces and shines light on the gawky situations that many pastors will find relatable.
Pastor Nina arrives at the Kim family’s church late in season one. As a non-Korean pastor in a majority Korean church, she is learning how to pastor outside her home culture. Pastor Nina makes her way, learning new words and the unique expectations of her congregation. She jumps into the church not always as a leader, but as a learner. We see her missteps but also her attempts to reach out in ways that are authentic to who she is, while also respecting the culture of her congregation. The Kim family has had a tradition of giving groceries to the pastor of their church. When faced with this gift over and over, Pastor Nina tells Mrs. Kim that, while she is trying to understand the cultural norms at play, she is uncomfortable accepting such a huge gift. I am struck by her willingness to be bold and have these tough conversations; it strikes me as the loving, pastoral thing to do.
In season two, Pastor Nina must navigate the most awkward of situations: staying with the Kims while her hot water is being fixed. We watch a pastor in the tricky role as houseguest and how her congregants strive to care for her. Since Kim’s Convenience is a comedy, we are guided to laugh at the uneasy moments, but these situations scream truth as well. The Kims clearly want to do everything correctly from prayer at mealtimes to crafting an appropriate menus. Pastor Nina sometimes acknowledges the weird, and at other times just smiles with so much grace that we are bound to love her.
We see her missteps but also her attempts to reach out in ways that are authentic to who she is, while also respecting the culture of her congregation.
Pastor Nina lets her congregation see her as a whole human being. As a dinner guest at the Kims one night, she shares about her ex-husband cheating on her and about her friends who have stayed close through that experience. Nina doesn’t overshare but allows this family to see she is not only a pastor. She doesn’t always have the right words, but she tries. We see her contagious excitement come to life when Mr. Kim asks, “Are there dinosaurs in the Bible?” even bringing up the Septuagint in her lively answer that he didn’t care to hear. Nina is a real person, with passions and struggles like anyone else.
We also see Pastor Nina cut through the awkwardness with straightforward talk and presence when she needs to declare her own personal boundaries, which is especially evident during her time as a house guest. When a congregant tries to adlib the scripture reading on a Sunday morning, Pastor Nina shows more concern for the reader than whether she says the Bible verses perfectly. She acknowledges small and large gifts to the church with the same delight. In another touching scene, she returns condoms to a young adult without judgement or much talk. Pastor Nina makes these uneasy moments less difficult for her congregation.
Pastor Nina cuts through the awkwardness with straightforward talk and presence.
In an episode entitled New TV, Pastor Nina leads her congregation in setting up an apartment for a new refugee family. Not only does this show the range of Pastor Nina’s work beyond the church, it gives us a window on how she leads. She organizes donations, spends time with the family, initiates a failed game of charades, and shares food and love with both the refugee family and the congregation members supporting the family. Unlike other shows, Kim’s Convenience allows us to see the larger role of pastors beyond Sunday mornings spent in church.
When I watch Pastor Nina, I see reflections of myself and who I want to be as a pastor. She cares for and listens to her congregation genuinely. Pastor Nina may confused in a new culture, but she doesn’t get stuck. She laughs. She authentically shows up and gets a few things wrong but a lot of things right. She works with her community and gets her congregation involved. She loves deeply. Pastor Nina is present to herself and those around her, even and most especially in the beautifully awkward moments of life.