Kristen Deede Johnson directs the Studies in Ministry minor at Hope College, Holland, Michigan. The program focuses on the theological formation and vocational discernment of undergraduates considering calls to ministry. She has one published book (Theology, Political Theory, and Pluralism: Beyond Tolerance and Difference, Cambridge University Press) and another in progress on social justice, to be published by Baker Academic.
In your work, what are you creating, and what are you cultivating? (In Andy Crouch’s vernacular, what new culture are you making, and what good culture are you conserving and nurturing?)
Kristen Deede Johnson: When thinking about what I am creating, it is tempting to think primarily of concrete cultural artifacts, such as the book I have written and the book I am in the process of writing. But when I step back to think about this more carefully, I remember that helping to bring beauty and life into this world in new and innovative ways can take a variety of forms.
In my case, I have spent the past five years creating an academic program for undergraduate students who are discerning calls to ministry (widely understood). While much of this work has been administrative and highly detail-oriented, I am now able to step back to see that by God’s grace and with the support of an academic community, I’ve been able to create an academic space in which students can openly engage their faith, explore their callings, cultivate a theological understanding of life and ministry, connect more deeply with the historic and global Church, and become aware of the significance of culture. Since as Christians we inherit a rich history of belief and practice, I hope that this space also involves cultivation as we engage both the Church’s past and the Church’s present.
Who is the “public” for your work—who is it for, and how does it affect the lives of those who engage with it?
This is a tension with which I wrestle on a regular basis. The majority of my work time and energy is focused on students. Whether it’s through teaching, student meetings, or administration of the academic program I direct, it seems like the 50-60 students who are in the program at any one time constitute the “public” I am most focused on and most directly impacting.
On another level, while still focusing on the teaching and administration components of my calling, my “public” is not just these students but the Church. The students with whom I interact are all considering ministry of some kind. As I create and nurture this program for them and as I introduce them to biblical, theological, and cultural concepts in the classroom, I am, I hope, helping to serve the Church by providing it with leaders who have deeper roots in Scripture and the Christian tradition than they might otherwise have.
On yet another level, I grapple with my calling as a scholar and writer. The academic works I have produced up to this point have been primarily for the academic fields of theology and political theory. A book project I am currently working on is aimed at Christians more widely. I spend a significant amount of mental energy grappling with how I allocate my time and whether I’m being faithful to the gifts I’ve been given and the different “publics” to which I’m called.
Why do you do what you do?
To be honest, I did not think I would work outside the home after I had children (although looking back it’s fair to say that the people who knew me the best anticipated that I would). Even as I headed to graduate school, I was certain that I was not called to be an academic. At each juncture of discernment about my callings, I have tried to seek the counsel of others and God and to faithfully move forward. Through conversation, prayer, marriage, education, and the discovery of professional and scholarly opportunities, I have come to be where I am today. I have an underlying conviction that in and through my different callings I am serving the Kingdom of God, which certainly provides motivation on a daily basis.
More specifically, I have become convinced that the richness of the Christian faith can be embodied more fully and faithfully the more aware we are of theology, the traditions and importance of the church, and the significance of culture. In all of my callings I am trying to help raise awareness in at least one of these three areas, albeit in different ways and forms.
What skills, proficiencies, and virtues does this work develop in you?
“Patience” and “trust” are the first two words to come to mind, primarily in relation to teaching. As in many forms of work, one does not often have the privilege of seeing whether one’s teaching is producing concrete fruit. Also as in many forms of work, it can be easy to dwell too much on what I would do differently next time. My own theological vision is one that emphasizes the active role of the triune God in our lives and ministries, so when I am being consistent and integrated, my work helps to remind me to trust that is God at work (sometimes through me and sometimes despite me!). It also helps me to patiently cultivate a long-term perspective rather than to seek instant gratification and immediate results.
What five books would you recommend to someone interested in understanding or pursuing the sort of work you do?
- Augustine, City of God
- George Eliot, Middlemarch
- James Davison Hunter, To Change the World
- Eugene Peterson, Answering God
- J.B. Torrance, Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace
What do you do for fun?
I am a very relational person, so anything that involves connecting or reconnecting with friends near and far is high on my priority list for fun and recharging my soul. I love being with my two-year-old son; his tantrums are not always fun but watching his imagination and vocabulary blossom is incredible. A fabulous day off would involve a walk in the woods (ideally in mountains, but sand dunes are the closest we come in Michigan!) with my husband, son, and (huge) dog. Although I can’t necessarily explain it theologically, the activity that makes me most feel like a human being fully alive (to use the language of Irenaeus) is downhill skiing, preferably on steep and ungroomed terrain.