Richard Johnson
Special to The Union

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August 19, 2011
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Johnson to be fourth generation in ministry

When Johanna Johnson is ordained into the ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on August 28, it will mark a significant milestone on two different journeys.

The first is a family journey. Johanna represents the fourth generation of her family to be called to be a pastor. Two great-grandfathers, her grandfather, an uncle and myself (her father) all served as Lutheran ministers in the U.S.

The other journey is a very personal one, as Johanna has followed a remarkable path that brings her to this important day.

Born in Fresno, she moved to Grass Valley just a week after her first birthday, when her father accepted the call to be pastor of Peace Lutheran Church. She attended Bell Hill, Hennessey, Scotten, and Lyman Gilmore schools in Grass Valley, and was a 2001 graduate of Nevada Union High School.

It was in the spring of her junior year of high school that Johanna was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph tissue. She spent the summer undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment, but refused to let her illness get in the way of life. During treatment, she took driver's training and a summer school class, and continued to play soccer.

She was also approached by the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which offered her, as a child battling a life-threatening illness, the opportunity to "make a wish." An avid oboe player, she wished for the chance to sit in the midst of a great symphony orchestra. The end result was an invitation from Joseph Robinson, principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic, to perform with the Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall in New York. Johanna's experience was covered extensively by the New York Times and several television and radio networks.

After graduation from Nevada Union, Johanna attended Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., majoring in music as she continued to play her oboe.

Along the way she took a required religion course at this Lutheran college, and was intrigued. She graduated with a religion major on top of her music major. She was especially thrilled when Joseph Robinson accepted her invitation to play with her on her senior recital.

Her studies, as well as her Make-a-Wish experience, had kindled in Johanna a desire to serve, and so upon graduation she spent a year as a short-term missionary in Slovakia through the Lutheran church's Young Adults in Global Mission program. In a small Slovak village, she taught English, worked with the parish youth, and learned about living in a very different culture. "It was a very difficult year," she later said, "in many ways even more difficult than fighting cancer."

Yet in the midst of that challenging experience, she began to feel the call to serve as a pastor. From Slovakia, she applied to several schools of theology in the U.S.

She was accepted and decided to attend Yale Divinity School - her father's alma mater. Among the oldest and most highly regarded theological schools in America, it is one of the graduate programs of Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

After completing her Master of Divinity at Yale, Johanna began working on two more requirements for ordination in the Lutheran Church.

She did a one-year internship at a Lutheran congregation in Naples, Fla. While there she became involved in Bread for the World, an ecumenical agency dedicated to fighting hunger in the world.

She was one of a handful of young adults invited to take part in a workshop in Washington, D.C., studying ways to advocate for the poor through visiting and writing letters to members of Congress.

She has been invited to share some of what she learned in that experience with government classes at Nevada Union and Bear River High Schools.

The internship experience was followed by one more year of theological training at the Lutheran School of Theology in Gettysburg, Pa. She received a second master's degree at Gettysburg, writing a thesis on helping Christians understand the need for advocacy for the poor.

In the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, recent seminary graduates are assigned to a particular regional synod, and Johanna's assignment was to upstate New York.

Soon after leaving Gettysburg, she went to New York for some interviews, and at the beginning of August received word she has been called to serve two congregations in the Rochester, N.Y. area: St. Martin Lutheran Church in Webster, and Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Penfield.

"These two congregations have never shared a pastor," Johanna said. "They are about ten minutes apart, and are beginning to work together in a variety of ways - sharing a pastor is only one part of it. They have a covenant with each other to do joint ministry in their common community. It's a new model, and we'll all be working together to make it happen."

Johanna will start her ministry in the two congregations in early September, but the final step before doing so is ordination - the rite in most Christian churches that sets an individual apart for service as a pastor.

That event will take place at 4:30 p.m. Sundkay, August 28 at Peace Lutheran Church in Grass Valley.

Presiding will be Bishop Mark Holmerud, the leader of the Sierra Pacific Synod here in California. I will preach that afternoon as Johanna is surrounded by her family, as well as the congregation that has nurtured her along her journey, and many friends from Nevada County and beyond.

Richard Johnson is senior pastor at Peace Lutheran Church in Grass Valley. Contact him at or (530) 273-9631.

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The Union Updated Aug 19, 2011 02:20PM Published Aug 19, 2011 02:11PM Copyright 2011 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.