Louise Johnson embraces historic leadership role
This story was first published in PS Portions in February 2014. Pr. Johnson was named the 14th President of Wartburg Theological Seminary in April 2015.
Two decades ago, the Rev. Louise N. Johnson could not have imagined herself serving LTSP as Vice President for Mission Advancement, using her writing and analytical skills in a post created last October to implement a new institution-wide assessment process for the seminary. Johnson was appointed to the position in fall 2012.
Johnson, a native of Akron, Ohio, is the first woman in the seminary’s history to hold so high an administrative office. She connects with the seminary’s accrediting bodies — the Association of Theological Schools and Middle States Commission on Higher Education — in administering the assessment process. She also relates to alumni and donors, helping with fundraising efforts.
Her father, William, was a Lutheran Church in America pastor, and her mother, Valerie, was a higher education administrator, English teacher, and research librarian. Active in the church during her high school years, she had long conversations with her father during her teen years about the challenges of congregational ministry. At Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, she settled at first on a major in economics, also studying German. After a while, she concluded a career in economics wasn’t in the cards. She majored in German, with minors in music and religion, not really knowing where that combination might lead her.
After college, she developed interests in youth ministry and Lutheran Outdoor Ministries, serving congregations in Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin. While leading training sessions for these ministries, she met two Wartburg Seminary professors, and during the 1990s found herself studying at the Dubuque, Iowa, seminary.
“I loved seminary,” Johnson recalled. She worked for a time at Wartburg in the admissions office, believing at first her work might feel like that of “a used car sales person with a ‘schtick’ to persuade others to go become pastors.”
However, a 12-week stint doing vocational discernment with young adults at outdoor ministry sites proved a deeper experience than she had imagined. “I walked and talked with those I met,” Johnson recalled, “and we talked about their struggles.” She also served at Wartburg in a variety of capacities, including community life, continuing education, and pastoral care. For a time, she also served as pastor of a small rural congregation, Salem Evangelical Lutheran Church in Spragueville, Iowa. “I learned a lot from the people there about who God is in such a place,” Johnson recalled. She was pastor there from 2000-2004.
In 2004, a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment made it possible for her to become LTSP’s associate director of admissions, working with the then director, the Rev. Rick Summy.
Coming to LTSP “was NOT a big adjustment,” Johnson remembered. “LTSP seminarians came from lots of different denominations. I was a little naive about it at first. There was a wide range of traditions. The (cultural) diversity of the place was and is amazing. And yet I had a strong theological base.”
Johnson said her experience of diversity at LTSP calls to mind Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17. (John 17:22, 23 (RSV): “The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.”)
Johnson explained she had been given a sense of unity at LTSP for which “I had been prepared but I had not experienced. Wartburg’s seminarians were predominantly Lutheran, and I was suddenly meeting people from different traditions than my own. I found myself here becoming more and more closely connected to God and persons with lives so different from my own.
“I was meeting people who had fought through segregation, poor schools, poverty, and horrible violence,” Johnson said. She especially recalled a 50-year-old African American student she met on the campus.
“Our students are people who have forged all kinds of paths, who expressed to me an amazing capacity for compassion, truth, and love,” Johnson said. “It is humbling to meet so many people in whom God is at work. It has been holy ground for me.”
Through her work in Project Connect, Johnson said she has been similarly inspired. Project Connect is an initiative of The Eastern Cluster of Lutheran Seminaries that works together with church institutions and leaders to provide theologically sound vocational discernment for young people. Johnson said she has witnessed in recent years “young adults with amazing gifts — life, energy, wisdom, at such young ages.”
And what of her still new seminary post, one that has her serving on the President’s Executive Cabinet? Johnson explained the seminary had engaged in 2011 in a self-study that was a major part of the accreditation process.
“The seminary recognized that it now needed a formal institutional assessment process,” Johnson explained. “It needed to involve someone implicitly familiar with the institution. It was also going to be a major task, requiring the creation of a new position and involving someone who could be analytical and who understands the context of the seminary.” Johnson was selected for the challenge.
After experiencing something of a heyday in the earlier part of the last decade, the seminary has been struggling since the economy crashed in 2008, she noted. It is a struggle, she added, all too familiar to other seminaries, and schools, and for that matter also businesses and organizations of all kinds.
“We are learning to think differently,” she explained. “We have an incredible opportunity to wonder how God is changing us. We’ve had a hard time. How do we bring the best part of our tradition together as we also reach out to those who have not been part of our tradition? A crisis may be a good thing. It can be a period of hope, anticipation, and excitement. Our theological education practices have served us well, but with recent declines across the church, some have been feeling hopeless.
“I’m crazy enough to think that God is calling us to a different kind of hope, a new openness to which we are being called, new ways of doing things” Johnson said. “Through the Holy Spirit we can energize our leadership and find a new, important voice.”