A pastor leading interfaith dialogue
The longtime pastor of a Florida church led his congregation to model the “extraordinary love and compassion” of Christ in their public response to hateful actions toward their Muslim neighbors.
The Rev. Dr. Dan Johnson, one of six sons on a fifth-generation family farm and a cradle United Methodist, sensed a calling to ministry from early childhood. He remembers building an altar of stray logs as a second grader and inviting his friends to the Lord’s Supper.
However, a possibly distinct vocation for him emerged in middle school when his principal stopped him in the hall and suggested that he think about getting a Ph.D. As the years wore on, Johnson struggled to relate his pastoral and academic callings, both of which seemed increasingly appealing.
Johnson attended Asbury College and then Asbury Seminary, where he chafed at times against what seemed to him to be an overly narrow and defensive posture toward perceived outsiders. The great enemy of that time, he recalls, was liberal German theological and biblical scholarship.
Feeling more and more certain that he would eventually teach at a seminary, Johnson decided that he should get to know those “horrible Germans” first hand and so applied for a World Council of Churches grant for a year-long fellowship to study Old Testament in Tübingen after seminary.
That year, spent in the lively company of Hans Küng, Jurgen Moltmann, Martin Hengel and many other brilliant thinkers, was an early ecumenical foray in a career that would prove to be marked by generous fellowship with supposed enemies.
Johnson had been ordained a deacon before leaving Asbury and, while at Tübingen, he decided that experience as a pastor would help an aspiring seminary professor.
When he returned to the United States, Johnson served a struggling United Methodist congregation in south New Jersey first as an associate and then as the senior pastor.
After four years of prayer and patient struggle, the church began sunning revival, with a rising membership and a vibrant community life. At the end of that period, Johnson decided that it was time for him to get his doctorate and so, with his bishop’s blessing, took up studies in Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary as well as a part-time post at a church in Windsor, NJ.
He also received the John Wesley Fellowship, which, Johnson notes, provided “huge support at several levels,” whether financial, emotional or spiritual. The Christmas conferences provided him “an oasis of rich fellowship,” where Johnson found the assurance of belonging “to a group of faithful scholars who were deeply committed to Scripture and orthodox Christianity, as well as to the Church.”
Johnson cherished the luxury of time to read and reflect. But when a library staffer remarked that he was not like most academics, Johnson realized that his love for people and for pastoral interaction would really flourish in a parish setting. He returned to work as a pastor after graduation, eventually being appointed as senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist, a large congregation in Gainesville, Fla., where he has served for the past 19 years.
In 2007, Johnson was invited to return to the academy, this time as chairman of the Board of Asbury Seminary, a position he held until 2011. At Asbury, Johnson once more encountered the challenge of uniting academic achievement and pastoral formation, but now his long experience both as a scholar and as a pastor uniquely equipped him to help professors and pastors or denominational leaders understand and serve another.
“I think having the Ph.D. enabled me to appreciate the role faculty play,” Johnson said, stressing the profound difference that a seminary education made in a pastor’s engagement with Scripture.
Years before he returned to Asbury, the great, and perhaps defining, struggle of Johnson’s career was unfolding in Gainesville. In 2010 Terry Jones and his Dove World Outreach Center announced they would hold an “International Day of Burning the Quran” on Sept. 11.
Horrified by this virulent distortion of Christianity, Johnson urged his congregation to resist the substitution of hatred and vitriol for the “extraordinary love and compassion” of their Savior. Johnson, along with two Muslim physicians, a Rabbi and a Hindu woman, eventually founded the Gainesville Interfaith Forum, which for the past three years has hosted a “Gathering for Peace and Understanding” on 9/11.
Johnson’s leadership, in his congregation and in his community, received international attention. Trinity UMC was unique in offering a decisively public, but unabashedly theological response to Jones as well as finding a way to maintain a fierce commitment to the uniqueness and centrality of Jesus while at the same time adopting a posture of charity and hospitality toward their abused Muslim neighbors.
Becoming a John Wesley Fellow allowed Johnson the years of formation that prepared him for this ministry – a ministry that requires him to patiently listen to Scripture and to patiently apply those lessons to the needs of the particular community where he serves.