Reflections on Her Leadership and What’s Next
“There is no doubt I am an unusual choice for a seminary president. I have known that from day one. And it has pressed me to lean ever more deeply into God’s calling.” – Rev. Louise Johnson, President
What has surprised you the most over the past four years?
I have been surprised by the abundance of God. When I came, we were in good shape, but struggling with both enrollment and fundraising. I was scared. Three times in my first year, I was asked to preach on the texts about loaves and fishes – about God’s abundance. By the third time (I’m a slow learner!), I started to get the message: offer what you have and ask God to bless it. It was an invitation to trust God’s abundance and provision. In four years, our enrollment will be about four times larger than when I began. God is good. We are financially healthy, but we still live day to day. We have to keep offering up what we have for the sake of others and letting God work the miracles.
What is the biggest challenge that WTS is seeking to address?
In my mind, there are two significant challenges to the church’s effectiveness. First, we need more leaders. With nearly 2776 empty pulpits (1000 of those full-time calls) and a world that is hungry to hear the good news, we have to raise up more leaders. Secondly, we need leaders who are skilled at growing congregations and starting new communities of faith. Our education systems need to be clearly focused on identifying leaders with these abilities and teaching them not only how to think about them, but also how to do them. It sounds simple enough, but to do this well, I believe, will take a nearly complete overhaul of the systems and programs we have traditionally offered.
Some say you are an unusual president leading us into unusual territory. How is that an asset in your work? A challenge?
There is no doubt I am an unusual choice for a seminary president. I have known that from day one. And it has pressed me to lean ever more deeply into God’s calling. I think of God’s call on my life like that of Moses. I was reluctant to go and lacking in some of the gifts I needed to do the work. I have had to trust God. I have had to find my own “Aarons.” Sometimes it is a challenge because people look at me or at my credentials and decide I’m not worth listening to or taking seriously. Having to prove myself over and over again gets old. But I’ve learned to think of it as my superpower. When I get dismissed I say (under my breath!) “Go ahead. Underestimate me. See how that works out for you.” It can be a strategic advantage when they don’t see you coming!
What keeps you up at night? Makes you excited to get up in the morning?
I worry a lot about bearing a credible witness to the gospel in the world. There are so many people who need to know about the healing power of the gift of life that comes to us in knowing Jesus Christ. I worry that we are a church (and a seminary of the church) who is still largely internally focused. I think my calling to address that need is also what gets me out of bed in the morning.
What could seminary look like 20 years from now?
My hope is that we will find ways to meet the needs of those whom God is calling to serve. That means changes in delivery systems, language and culture, location, and qualifications. One of the most interesting projects we are participating in is a secondary school of theological education. Three pastors (two from Texas and one from Oklahoma) are running a school for Latinx leaders. The school is designed to respond to the desire and calling of leaders in their congregations to learn and grow in their capacity to do ministry. It is also designed to serve as a vocational discernment tool for those interested in public ministry in the church. But what’s really cool is that two of them were educators in Columbia, where they learned the importance of educating not only those who were privileged enough to know how to read and write, but also those who were not. The school is designed to address both learning and literacy. It honors and values the gifts of those whom God is calling and offers them opportunities to learn and grow that were not previously available. I am watching their work, knowing I have a lot to learn. My dream is to work with faithful creative leaders like these to create the “community college” system of theological education.
What about future public ministry leaders does the church need to learn?
For too long, theological education has been an elite endeavor, driven by the values and needs of the academy. It has been largely a middle-class, white-privilege system that has asked anyone who doesn’t fit the mold to get in line. While I believe in an educated clergy, I think we have our priorities misaligned. In some ways, the values of the academy have trumped the values of the gospel.
I was part of a listening group a few years ago where congregational leaders and their pastors were invited to come and discuss a new program that would have seminary students serving in congregations in their first year. A church secretary asked me with great angst what on earth she was going to do if someone came to the church and was in need of prayer and the pastor was not there. She was, of course, concerned about the ability of the first-year seminary student to pray. But the core problem was that she did not feel equipped or authorized to pray. That is a huge issue. We need a whole host of leaders who are equipped and authorized to do ministry. Eight years of higher education cannot be the threshold for praying with a person in need. How do we seek to form/educate, authorize, and effectively deploy leaders for the sake of the gospel? We need to cut the gospel loose, let grace go free, trust the word of God to do its work in the world. We have held the reigns too tightly and so many are suffering because of it.