Bishop Susan Johnson wants to see her denomination turned inside out. The new National Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC), who was ordained and installed in Winnipeg on September 29, wants to turn her church’s focus away from its internal concerns and instead focus on being “In Mission for Others.”
This is ELCIC’s current motto, and Bishop Johnson takes it seriously.
“I play with that theme a little bit,” she said in a recent interview. “We would never say the contrary, i.e. ‘we’re going to be a church in mission for ourselves.’ Except I think that that has been the reality of what we’ve experienced. We can get so caught up in our own structures, our own inner workings, our own survival sometimes, as both declining membership and declining finances puts us under a lot of pressure.”
One way ELCIC serves others is through a new environmental initiative, Stewardship of Creation, which challenges all levels of the church to make big and small changes, from campaigning against climate change to reducing the use of plastic cups.
It will take a lot of leadership and energy to maintain this outward focus, but Bishop Johnson comes amply qualified. The 49-year-old former high school music teacher has served as an advisor to the Lutheran World Federation since 1998, and before being elected bishop, she was a commissary in the ELCIC Eastern Synod, and assistant to the bishop of the Eastern Synod for 13 years.
Bishop Johnson, who descends from a long line of pastors, also has the double distinction of being the youngest person and only woman to be elected National Bishop of the ELCIC.
She’s also no stranger to Canadian Anglicans, having spent her 2004 sabbatical in the Anglican diocese of Niagara. Her ordination and installation service reflected the Full Communion relationship between the two denominations: one of her chaplains was Anglican and three Anglican bishops were present alongside ELCIC bishops to lay hands on her during the service. Archbishop Fred Hiltz, installed as primate of the Anglican Church of Canada only three months ago, delivered the sermon.
Both new national leaders—Archbishop Hiltz and Bishop Johnson—share a history of involvement with the other’s denomination. Both want to see the Full Communion relationship deepen and flourish.
This is how Bishop Johnson puts it: “I think we need to consider whether or not there are areas of work that we can do together, even more than cooperatively,” she said. “We need to continue working on training ourselves to always be asking the question, ‘should we be doing this with the Anglicans?’ just like you need to be training yourselves to be asking, ‘should we be doing this with the Lutherans?’ I think we meet together and go off into our offices and forget to even think about that as a possibility.”
She saw lots of room for growth after hearing the Joint Anglican-Lutheran Commission present at the ELCIC National Convention and the Anglican General Synod in Winnipeg this past June. “There are some things that they had hoped to do within the first six years of our Full Communion relationship that haven’t happened yet,” she said.
So what will happen next? Canadian Anglicans should stay tuned to see how Bishop Johnson’s leadership, and ELCIC’s mission for others, will impact our increasingly intertwined denominations.
“I really look forward to our ongoing partnership between our two churches, and to the deepening and strengthening of that relationship together as I think we continue to be churches in mission for others,” she said. “I think we can assist each other to face the challenges that we share and maybe be witnesses to each other of hope and promise so we can continue to serve our God in this country and around the world.”
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