The stories of courageous and faith-filled women in her ancestry motivate and inspire Sharon Tan, the recently appointed vice president and dean of Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary.
On her mother’s side, the story of faith goes back three generations to her great grandparents living in a village in China. They came to know Christ through missionaries from the West. Driven out of their village because of their faith, the family eventually settled in Malaysia.
Tan’s grandmother, who became a math teacher, was a faithful and active church member known for her generous spirit. Tan’s mother, a physician, took the Christian faith full circle, returning to their homeland of China on short-term missions.
On her father’s side, Tan’s grandmother came from China to Malaysia as a bride at age 16 and gave birth to Tan’s father at 17. The young mother came to know about Jesus. Hungry for the Word, she would sneak out to attend church and eventually taught herself to read so she could read her Bible.
Her grandmother’s love for reading Scripture emerged early in Tan’s own life. Her aunt taught Tan to read and gifted her with a Living Bible. She was just 8 years old when she read it cover to cover.
“I just got caught up in the stories,” Tan recalls.
Tan describes herself as a “Jesus-follower.” Following Jesus has taken her on a path through several Christian faith traditions. In addition to the strong influence of her “very devout” Baptist aunt, her childhood faith was shaped by her own parents who raised their four children at the Methodist church next door to their home.
In 1978 Tan’s family made a visit to Singapore to attend a Billy Graham crusade. Relatives in Singapore who had become charismatic Christians guided the family’s faith in a new direction.
“We sort of dove into it,” reflects Tan, “and moved into independent charismatic-type churches.”
For a charismatic, Oral Roberts University was the natural choice when Tan decided to study in the United States. She earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration and Bible. When she moved on to law school, she was delighted to find Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where she could pursue her practical career path in law while also earning a master’s degree in theological studies.
Four years of working for a law firm in Atlanta convinced Tan that practicing law was not what she really wanted to do.
“I thought about teaching in law school,” she recalls, “but eventually decided to explore the other side of me that was theologically curious.”
After a summer at Youth with a Mission’s discipleship training school in Montana, Tan headed back to Emery University to earn her doctorate in ethics.
In 2004, the offer of a job as professor of Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, took her into very new territory.
“The only job offer I had was a seminary in a place I had never heard of before,” she says. “It felt like the ends of the earth from the equatorial climate of Malaysia. I remember shoveling snow and wondering what I was doing there.”
Even so, Tan could see the hand of God at work in the move. She felt she was experiencing the kind of direction that the early church felt when they were forced to move out from Jerusalem.
“Layered onto the way we move because of economics is God sending us,” she says.
Eventually serving as dean at United Theological Seminary and later at Eden Theological Seminary, Tan honed her skills in administration. She also tapped into her own diverse background to draw out the unique gifts and theological perspectives offered by faculty from communities of color.
“I think of diversity as God’s creation, a way he gives us gifts,” she says.
Amid the variety of church traditions and cultural expressions of Christian faith that have shaped her, Tan has found a strong foundation in a personal walk and connection with God. In recent years this has taken shape with a Bible meditation and prayer group where members commit to an hour in prayer each day. She has found the practice transformative.
“Before I was afraid of a God who was looking for ways you’re doing it wrong,” she says. “Now I have come to see God as a God of love, not someone who just wants you to toe the line.”
Just as a heritage of stories demonstrated her forbears’ openness to God’s spirit and direction, Tan’s story is one of a woman continuing to pursue a “theological curiosity.” She is intrigued by the seminary’s blend of evangelical and Anabaptist roots.
“Alongside my evangelical beliefs, I was drawn to Anabaptism,” she says. “Academically I’ve been interested in reconciliation and social ministry and Anabaptism feels comfortable to me. It’s a good fit.”
Kathy Heinrichs Wiest is a freelance writer who loves the smell of whole wheat bread in the oven, the feel of an orange being plucked from the tree and the view from her front porch in Kingsburg, California. On Sunday mornings you’ll find her in the fourth pew from the front on the left at Kingsburg MB Church, moved by the hymns and praise songs and inspired by the stories of God at work locally and around the world. She and her husband, Steve, own Dovetail Remodeling. They have two grown daughters, one son-in-law and a precious granddaughter.