Leaving the pulpit

Messenger photo by Kristy Zurbrick
Rev. Gordon Johnson recently retired after 62 years in the ministry, the last 50 years of which he spent at First Presbyterian Church in London.

(Posted Nov. 29, 2017)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

On Nov. 12, Rev. Gordon Johnson gave his last sermon as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of London. The occasion marked not only his retirement, but also a celebration of his 50 years with the church. A few days beforehand, he sat down with the Messenger to talk about the career he said he initially fought to avoid some 62 years ago.

How did you get into the ministry?

“I did everything to stay out of it. It was the last thing I wanted to do,” said Johnson, whose father was an Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) minister.

“I thought I could never measure up to my father,” he continued, “and I saw how much it drained him. Time. Energy. We didn’t see much of him. It was a hectic pace, 24/7.”

As Johnson was completing his studies in sociology and philosophy at the University of Toledo, he struggled to decide what would come next. Aptitude assessments pointed to a people-oriented career. He thought about teaching and missionary work.

“Finally, I had to make a decision. So I said, ‘I’ll go to seminary, Lord, and if it’s not where you want me to go, close the doors.’ The doors flew open,” he said.

Johnson began the program at United Theological Seminary in Dayton in 1955. He was 20 years old. At the same time, he served as the pastor at Lakeview EUB Church, traveling from seminary in Dayton to Lakeview every Friday afternoon to attend to his pastoral duties, including two services on Sunday, then driving back to Dayton Sunday nights to attend classes the rest of the week. He kept this schedule throughout his three years in seminary.

After graduation, he served as one of two pastors at Bowling Green Trinity, then converted to Presbyterianism to accept an invitation to preach at Deshler Presbyterian Church and its sister church in North Baltimore. He hadn’t envisioned either scenario– a multi-staffed church or a two-point charge–as one he’d pursue.

Another divine push came in 1967, when he received a call from First Presbyterian Church in London. Once again, he wasn’t excited about the prospects. First Presbyterian was a big church, and Johnson and his wife, Ruthanne, and their children were happy in Deshler.

The interview process required Johnson to give a sermon after which the congregation would vote whether to accept him as their pastor.

“I said, if there’s one vote against me, I won’t accept,” Johnson recalled.

The vote was unanimous.

About the trajectory of his career, Johnson said he didn’t seek out opportunities; they found him.

“Wherever doors opened, I went. And the Lord has been right every time,” he said. “Every ministry I’ve had has been exciting and fruitful.”

What kept you at First Presbyterian for 50 years?

“The people here are interested in living beyond themselves. They’re a very mission-minded congregation,” Johnson said.

Shortly after Johnson took the pulpit, the congregation launched a study to determine their purpose as it related to the broader community: What could they provide the residents of London beyond spiritual guidance? The answer: a daycare and preschool.

“There were no daycares in the area and only one preschool. With more women working, there was a need,” Johnson said.

The decision necessitated construction of a new church to make room for a daycare, something the congregation was hesitant to do. The sacrifice of memories and resources was a concern. At the start, only 51 percent of the congregants approved of the relocation. Eventually, that number increased to 75 percent and the project moved forward.

“Our daycare became one of the largest in central Ohio,” Johnson said.

The church supplements the daycare/preschool’s revenues in order to keep fees low. On any given weekday, the voices of children excitedly going about the process of learning can be heard throughout the church.

The congregation’s dedication to helping others isn’t the only reason Johnson spent five decades of his career in London. He stayed because, in the course of performing 838 baptisms, 461 marriages and 741 funerals, he came to regard his parishioners as family.

“I’m filled with gratitude for the experience I had here. I couldn’t have had a finer group to work with… it’s been a rich experience,” Johnson said.

How did you manage the demands of your career?

Johnson was quick to give credit to his wife of 58 years.

“There’s no way I could have survived without Ruthanne. She has been my strength and support, and she’s deserving of sainthood,” he said with a smile.

In addition to attending two sermons every Sunday for over 2,500 Sundays, Ruthanne has been an integral part of many facets of the church. She has even filled in at the lectern on occasion.

“I only missed the pulpit twice, not counting vacation, in 50 years,” Johnson said. His appendix ruptured one Palm Sunday morning and he once was bed-bound with back spasms. “Ruthanne preached from my notes and did an excellent job.”

Johnson counts his children–Cindy, Mark and Julie–as blessings, too. Through readings, they and Ruthanne helped Johnson to deliver the lesson accompanying his last sermon. The focus: a passage from 1st Thessalonians featuring these words from Apostle Paul: “Hold fast to what is good,” as well as a passage from Micah urging all to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

You talked about how you got into the ministry. How do you get out?

“You never get out. Once you’re ordained, you’re ordained for life,” Johnson said.

A pastor who retires from having a church can still perform pastoral functions. Johnson has no plans to perform weddings or funerals. He is making the transition to the role of parishioner–singing in the choir, assisting with church missions, listening from the pew.

It’s a tough transition to make after 62 years.

“I walk through the doors of retirement fearful, apprehensive, and in some ways not wanting to go,” Johnson said.

He said he has no idea what he will do in retirement, but added, “I’ve learned that the Lord will provide.”

In reflecting on a career he describes as “choosing him,” he said, “I’ve found satisfaction that my life has been meaningful. I don’t know where else I could’ve found that.”

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