Jeff Johnson’s life and ministry have been profoundly influenced by various communities and a deep commitment to spreading the message of God’s unconditional love. As he prepares to become bishop of the Sierra Pacific Synod, his journey is characterized by resilience, inclusivity and a genuine desire for positive change.

Born to first- and second-generation Danish Lutheran immigrants, Johnson grew up in the middle-class suburbs outside of Los Angeles. His parents, both educators, instilled in him a strong sense of learning and community. The family found spiritual support in churches led by compassionate pastors. In these congregations, Johnson said, he first encountered the concept of God’s all-encompassing love, which later became a cornerstone of his ministry.

His journey was not without struggles. As a young boy he began to discover his identity as a gay individual, leading him to question whether God’s love included him. It wasn’t until he attended California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, and later went to Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, Calif., that he found unwavering acceptance, love and understanding from campus pastors Gerry Swanson, now deceased, and Richard Rollefson. He said their teachings instilled in him the belief that God’s love is unconditional and nonviolent, a message that has been central to his ministry.

A life of service and inclusivity

Johnson’s path to becoming a bishop was marked by his dedication to the church and building communities of inclusivity and acceptance. For 10 years he served as pastor of First United Lutheran Church, San Francisco, during the height of the AIDS crisis, where he worked alongside individuals who taught him about fortitude, courage, resistance and hope during a devastating epidemic. In 1999 he was called to lead University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley, where he has continued to serve and be challenged daily in various aspects of ministry.

Throughout his ministry, Johnson has remained committed to spreading the message that all individuals, regardless of their background or struggles, are included in God’s love. He believes the church’s most critical mission is to remind people, especially those who may have doubts, that they are embraced by God’s love unconditionally and always. In a world marred by systemic sins like heterosexism, racism and misogyny, he advocates for cultivating courage, truth-telling and accountability to combat injustice and create new pathways for amends and renewal.

The journey to bishop

A profound commitment to resilience and transformation marks Johnson’s journey to becoming bishop-elect. Given overwhelming global issues—from the climate emergency to systemic inequalities—he recognizes that the road ahead will be challenging. He emphasizes the need for flexibility, adaptability and sustainability to meet these challenges.

As bishop, Johnson said he intends to encourage stronger connections across congregational boundaries, fostering shared mission plans, collaborative calls, pastoral teams and shared administrators. He believes in deepening community organizing efforts with neighborhood partners and addressing issues that matter most. Moreover, he emphasizes the importance of putting the synodical house in order by budgeting sustainably, managing property effectively and creating renewable resources to ensure the synod has what it needs to fulfill its mission.

With the church’s structural model becoming increasingly obsolete, he believes one of the most critical tasks is to create space for new, sustainable models to emerge while retaining the message of God’s unconditional love. Johnson’s vision for the church is to evolve and adapt to contemporary needs while remaining a trustworthy partner and space for all, regardless of race, gender or orientation.

A vision for the future

Johnson said the church must evolve to meet the challenges of our time and create space for new structural models to emerge. He envisions a future where the church grows as a welcoming, affirming, reconciling, and trustworthy space and partner, addressing issues of race, gender and orientation head-on

As he embarks on his journey as bishop, Johnson offers a message of resilience, inclusivity and hope. He serves as a beacon of unconditional love and a catalyst for positive change in the church and the communities he will serve.

Johnson will be installed as bishop on Saturday, Dec. 9 at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Walnut Creek, Calif.

Mandi Slagle
Mandi Slagle is the communicator of the Sierra Pacific Synod.

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