Canada: In mission for others, when church and home feel the same
Voices from the Communion: National Bishop Susan Johnson
(LWI) - Having grown up in a nurturing Saskatchewan environment with a family of pastors, one of whom was her father, National Bishop Susan Johnson says she always felt as comfortable inside the church as she did at home recalling that “basically, church and home felt like the same place.”
As the National Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) since 2007, Johnson is committed to guiding the church to extend this feeling of home and nurture to those who are excluded.
Johnson has served as LWF Vice-President for the North America region, and on special advisory committees, works directly with LWF member churches like The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) leading a campaign that sponsors scholarships for ELCJHL students, and led the ELCIC to become a vocal advocate for reconciliation among the country, churches, and Indigenous people.
In this interview Johnson shares how her nurturing family and childhood church shaped how she leads the ELCIC, and how she leads the church into biblical contemplation and action when looking at its own transgressions.
What are you personally working on in 2021?
This year on sabbatical, I wrote the third edition of my dad’s book titled, “"Praying the Catechism.” In the book, my dad was in conversation with Martin Luther and in this third edition, I join the conversation with my dad and Luther. The premise is 90 days of conversation to take you from Ash Wednesday to Pentecost, although it can be read any time of the year. It was originally designed to prepare adult catechumens for Baptism, but it is useful for anyone.
Last year, you sang a hymn each day during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Tell us how that started?
The hymn was intended to invite the church to sing with me, it was never a performance. I wanted people to feel like the hymns were still accessible during the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown.
People were afraid and I thought, what can I do? I thought of writing a prayer a day. Then I thought ‘what if I sing a hymn every day?’ I remember my grandmother long ago saying that I had a gift of singing and that I should use it. Remembering her words, I thought I would try to impart a sense of faith and calm and hope to the listeners during the pandemic. The hymn functioned also as a prayer from mid-March through July. In September I reduced the hymns to three times a week and took a break before beginning again for Advent, Christmas, and then Lent.
Tell us about one of the ELCIC congregational initiatives.
I have been passionate about spiritual renewal for a longtime. I think as a church we assume people are learning basic discipleship techniques and practices, but this is not always the case. In 2019 we began “Living our Faith” a four-year plan which started with the “Year of Prayer” for 2019-20, encouraging people to learn more about prayer and the styles of prayer while incorporating prayer into their daily lives. During the 2020-21 term, we focus on reading scripture, mimicking the book club format, we created a “Bible Book Club” to look at diverse types of literature in the Bible, and to read, gather, and study together.
Next year, we will move into worship, which will be enriched because we have already added to our prayer life in year one, and we are reading and studying Scripture in year two. The emphasis next year will be ‘how else can we enhance our personal devotional life?’ The final year will focus on love. Love is the action of all the previous years. We will ask ‘what is our generous giving, what's our service, not just in the congregation, but in the community? What are we doing about evangelism, all those ways that we show love?’
What inspires you to serve the church, the global community, and your commitment to ecumenical partners?
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:30-31)
That is what motivates me to reach out within the faith community and out into the world to show God's love. I cannot show God's love if I am not showing up.
I take seriously our full communion relationships with the Anglicans, and the Episcopals and our Lutheran churches beyond borders such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and our partners, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land and the LWF communion of churches.
There are times when the ELCIC feels like it is a small church when compared to some of our sister churches around the globe. It is true, we are not a big church, according to Canadian ecumenical standards and LWF standards, but I remind our churches that we are a medium-sized church, and this means that we have more resources and, therefore more responsibility than a small church would have.
When we work with our ecumenical partners that generosity and responsibility to others stretches wider, sometimes it is better to remember, to show up, and to act together.
Working with Indigenous Peoples is important to the ELCIC. How has the church participated in the healing and reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous people?
ELCIC is committed to promoting right and renewed relationships between non-indigenous and Indigenous Peoples within Canada, believing that recognizing and implementing indigenous rights is essential to being the kind of society Canada strives to be. We support the work and witness of the “Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada” (TRC).
Canada set up the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” to investigate the history of residential schools and made 94 recommendations to accomplish reconciliation going forward. We must keep working as a church while also pushing the government and society to read the TRC and to engage and live out those recommendations.
Unfortunately, there is a continuing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. We need to take this type of systemic violence, seriously. Overall, the church recognizes that these are not the only forms of racism that we perpetrate or have been a part of as a church or as a nation, and certainly as individuals, but we must start, and these are necessary places to begin reconciliation.
How has the ELCIC responded to the recent news of the remains of 215 children found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School?
Even though the Lutheran churches were not involved in running the schools in the way some of our ecumenical counterparts were, Lutherans were around during these atrocities, and we did not speak up, or we said we did not know what was happening. As Lutherans we must take responsibility for that silence.
The bishops from the five ELCIC synods and I, released a letter reminding members to join in prayer for the families of those children, for the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, for the City of Kamloops and for First Nations Communities across Canada as they grieve this loss, as well as a renewed call to re-engage in the work of reconciliation. ELCIC Statement on Indigenous Reconciliation.
What does it mean for your church, your work, you to be a part of the communion of churches?
It is helpful to know that we are a part of something bigger. An example is when the youth from a small parish youth group, go to a national gathering, and they are excited to see that they are part of something larger. For the ELCIC, hosting the Tenth LWF Assembly in Winnipeg in 2003 really helped a lot of people capture that sense of vision. To be a part of the LWF Communion says, “This is our work. We participate in this; we participate in ongoing service to the world.” There is a pride in terms of what we can do together, and it is always helpful to be able to say, ‘we do more together than we can apart, of course with the help of God.’
“This is the first hymn I remember learning as a child. This hymn always brings me back to the feeling of family and church and God being close.”
Video: National Bishop Susan Johnson
The Lutheran World Federation is a global body that shares the work and love of Christ in the world. In this series, we profile church leaders and staff as they discuss topical issues and set out ideas for building peace and justice in the world, ensuring the churches and communion grow in witness and strength.