The 1,000-member Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City, an anchor for the area's Korean community, for years went without a senior pastor to guide its dynamic membership.
That changed last September, when the Rev. Young Jin Kim was installed as the new senior pastor at the 15-year-old church, formally succeeding the Rev. David Kim, who resigned in 1990 to return to South Korea.
The new senior pastor replaced the associate pastor, the Rev. Jonathan Song, who left last year after four years as acting senior pastor to become minister at a church in Baltimore.
"I'm the second senior pastor in the church's history," said Mr. Kim, 46, a native of South Korea, who left an assistant pastor's post in Los Angeles to come to Bethel Korean.
Despite what some members admit was a period of instability, the predominantly Korean church on St. Johns Lane has remained an important magnet for the county's growing Korean population and for Koreans in surrounding communities, Mr. Kim said.
According to the 1990 U.S. Census, Howard County had 8,098 Asian residents, including Koreans, or about 4.3 percent of the county's 187,328 population.
Mr. Kim said that Koreans in particular are attracted by Howard County's educational system, its proximity to Baltimore and Washington, D.C. -- and by Bethel Korean, Mr. Kim said.
The church provides an important cultural link to Korea for Korean families who worry that their U.S.-born children have become too Americanized.
To that end, Bethel Korean offers Korean language, folk dance and tae kwon do classes at the octagon-shaped church, Mr. Kim said.
"Korean people don't like to waste money," he said, "but they will spend money for education and their future."
But Bethel Korean is far from insular. Members have donated money to Baltimore's homeless and plan to distribute food in Baltimore County. In addition, the church draws a number of non-Koreans to its English-language service at 10 a.m. on Sundays.
"Actually, there are two cultures at our church -- Korean and English," the minister said. "We're open to everybody."
Young Hee Hong, a 12-year church member who is part of the women's ministry group, praised Mr. Kim.
"As far as I know him, he has good leadership," Mrs. Hong said. "Our church has gone through a lot of problems before Pastor Kim came. We didn't have a senior pastor for three years. . . . He's done a great job so far."
Mr. Kim was born in Iri, South Korea, a nation of 43 million that is predominantly Buddhist.
The son of a farmer and bookstore owner, he was the second oldest of six children in a Christian family. As a boy, he enjoyed fishing and playing among the streams, rivers and hills near his home.
"One thing I admire about the U.S. is the resources of nature," he said, noting that he has visited the Grand Canyon and Yosemite and Yellowstone National parks. "I like to see the animals, birds and the trees."
After high school in Korea, Mr. Kim studied history and philosophy at Han Nam University, intending to become "a Christian doctor." He failed the entrance exam to medical school, however, and instead enrolled at the General Assembly Theological Seminary.
"God called me not to study medicine, but to be a minister," he said.
In 1974, Mr. Kim was ordained a minister and worked as an associate pastor at Eden Presbyterian Church in South Korea. ++ He joined the army a year later, at the age of 28, serving as a chaplain and captain.
"Every young male in South Korea has a duty to serve the nation," he said.
In 1979, he, his wife and their 4-year-old daughter moved to Jackson, Miss., where Mr. Kim attended the Reformed Theological Seminary. During his 3 1/2 -year stay, he became a minister at Jackson Korean Church and father to a son, now 12.
After receiving his master's degree in missionary work, Mr. Kim moved to St. Louis, where he obtained degrees in theology from Concordia Seminary. In 1991, he moved to Los Angeles, becoming head assistant pastor at Los Angeles Christian Reform Church.
"I love to serve people through the Christian ministry," he said.
Mr. Kim said he plans to emphasize the importance of domestic and foreign missions at Bethel Korean.
"That's the main command from our Lord Jesus Christ," he said. "It is mandated from the Scriptures."