Members of Peace Lutheran Church cherish many memories of their pastor, the Rev. Richard O. Johnson, who retires this month after 29 years with the Grass Valley congregation.
The time during a wedding when “Pastor Dick’s” Volkswagen Bug rolled into the blackberry bushes lining the church parking lot.
The many times Johnson has peppered his sermons with song.
Johnson’s scholarly treatment of scripture during his adult Bible study classes, including his recent focus on the little-known Old Testament book of Habakkuk.
One of western Nevada County’s longest tenured ministers, Johnson is leaving to teach through Pasadena-based Fuller Seminary in the institution’s online program and at campuses in Sacramento and Menlo Park.
Johnson will preach at Peace for the last time at 8 and 11 a.m. Sunday. A farewell reception starts at 12:15 p.m. in the church’s Fellowship Center, 828 W. Main St., near downtown.
Johnson treasures his own memories: when support poured out while his daughter, Johanna, fought Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 15; when his wife, Lois, a teacher, felt wrapped in the love of colleagues during a difficult work transition; and when congregants encouraged his aspirations to earn a doctoral degree in church history from Berkeley Theological Union.
“We love this church and this community,” Johnson said, reflecting on his 38-year career in ministry. “It’s been a very special place that will continue to be our home for the foreseeable future.”
Johnson leaves Peace after shepherding his flock through two major expansions, two minor building projects and support of Interfaith Food Ministry and a school and church in Rwanda. Peace also supports Hospitality House homeless shelter, Nevada County Habitat for Humanity, Music in the Mountains, Foothill Children’s Chorus and other secular programs.
Meanwhile, parishioners embark on a transition that could take more than two years, said congregation Vice President David Emanuel. An interim minister could be on board by April. Then, members will call a permanent pastor.
“I expect that the next several years will bring a time of renewal and growth for Peace with the new energy and new ideas that a pastoral transition always brings,” Johnson wrote.
When Johnson brought his family to Grass Valley in 1984, it was a kind of homecoming. His great-great-grandmother arrived by covered wagon in Camptonville in 1860 and settled in Modoc County soon after. Subsequent generations were born in Susanville, including Johnson in 1949, and he grew up in Chico, he said.
Johnson graduated from the philosophy and religion department of then-San Francisco State College and went on to Yale Divinity School, graduating there in 1975. Descending from a long line of Methodists, he was ordained in the Methodist church and first served in Pinole. There, he married a Yale friend’s sister, Lois Solberg — the daughter of a Lutheran minister.
After nine years in ministry and while serving in Clovis, Johnson suffered a loss that prompted deep self-reflection, he said. He also found himself drawn to the teachings of Martin Luther, the 16th century Catholic monk whose efforts to reform the church broke open the Protestant movement.
He felt attracted to what he called “the constancy, richness and beauty” of the Lutheran style of worship with a format evoking 1,800 years of Christian traditions. He found special depth in its weekly celebration of Holy Communion, he said.
“In worship, we are not just observers but recipients … of something tangible, something very substantial,” Johnson said. In the sacrament, participants “experience the real presence of Christ among us,” he wrote.
Leap of faith
In 1984, while living in a parsonage with two small children, Johnson left the Methodist church. It was a difficult exercise in trust, but “the doors just all opened quite dramatically,” Johnson recalled. Two weeks later, though he had never presided over a Lutheran worship service, Johnson received a call from a growing congregation in Grass Valley.
Peace Lutheran had started as a mission congregation in 1965, but by Johnson’s arrival, it was overflowing with children and about to expand its facilities. The new minister brought a sense of energy, recalled longtime member Myrna Heppe.
“Through the years, we have kept that going,” Heppe added.
In 1993, congregants built a larger sanctuary; and in 2009, the church opened its Fellowship Center — projects championed by “fabulous lay leadership,” Johnson said.
Johnson proved “a gifted teacher,” Heppe said. He was instrumental in enriching the church’s traditional worship format, or liturgy, which will continue at two services each Sunday (a third, more casual service recently was started at 9:30 a.m.)
“That’s when I feel the most fulfilled, when I’m presiding at the liturgy,” Johnson said. “That will be the single hardest thing about leaving.”
Peace Lutheran’s commitment to music has been particularly satisfying, added Johnson. He chants part of the liturgy, sings in the church choir and plays a mean piano.
“This has been a congregation that has valued music as part of the expression of their faith,” Johnson said.
‘A God story’
Johnson calls the coming change “another God story.”
A couple years after earning his doctorate, Johnson learned of Fuller Seminary through a congregant’s relative he met during a garage sale, he recalled. Eventually, Johnson began teaching courses in church history for Fuller every other year.
He juggled occasional classes with his busy ministry. But when the online teaching opportunity appeared in fall 2012, Johnson felt a new call.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do,” said Johnson. “I got a Ph.D. because I hoped I might go into teaching.”
Johnson already started his first online class and is “enjoying it more than I thought I might,” he said.
Yet, as Johnson packs up the books that line his office, the good wishes come with tears.
“These 29 years have been a great joy,” Johnson wrote. “As I continue the journey into the next stage of my life and ministry, I carry with me great appreciation and love for this congregation.”
Freelance writer and Grass Valley resident Trina Kleist can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 575-6132.
“We love this church and this community. It’s been a very special place …”
Richard O. Johnson
Peace Lutheran Church reverend