No longer a trustee, Southern's Jerry Johnson still leading with conviction

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)--Twelve years have passed since Jerry Johnson first fell in love with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

It was 1989, and Johnson -- then a 24-year-old Southern Baptist minister from Colorado -- became the youngest member of the board of trustees in the storied history of the school.

Johnson's service as a board member came in the midst of what is more commonly known among Southern Baptists as the "conservative resurgence." During his nearly decade-long service as a board member, Johnson helped guide Southern Baptists' Mother Seminary back to her conservative, biblical roots.

"I don't believe in reincarnation, but it does seem like another lifetime ago," Johnson said, laughing.

Johnson is no longer a trustee, but he is still serving at Southern Seminary. In August, the 37-year-old Texas native began teaching at Boyce College (Southern's undergraduate program) as an instructor of Christian ethics. In addition, he serves as interim pastor at Elk Creek Baptist, a 200-year-old church in Taylorsville, Ky.

Johnson is also a student, and is scheduled to graduate from Southern this spring with a Ph.D. in Christian ethics. He resigned from the board of trustees in 1998, only to turn around and enroll. However, for someone whose work as a board member has been recognized in such books as "Baptist Reformation" and "The Truth in Crisis," Johnson quickly discovered that he was a somewhat unknown figure on campus.

He wasn't about to complain.

"For the first semester, several of my professors didn't know that I had been a trustee," he said. "I didn't announce it."

Johnson, who grew up in Malakoff, Texas, learned early in life that God sometimes calls the youngest of Christians into leadership positions. Some people questioned whether a man in his mid 20s should be serving on the board of trustees. But Johnson -- while admitting that as a trustee he was sometimes naïve -- says that teenagers and young adults can be just as gifted for service.

"Several of the disciples that Jesus called were probably older teenagers," he said. "... There were some really young people involved in leadership. Paul said to Timothy, 'Let no man despise thy youth.' That's the verse I came to know in youth ministry."

Johnson took that to heart in 1990, when -- as the pastor at Central Baptist Church in Aurora, Colo. -- he rented a van and drove a group of teenagers to the Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans. The money for the 20-hour trip came out of the travel allowance the church had allotted Johnson.

Johnson said that he wanted the youth group "to see the experience and to be there, because I really believe that the future of the kingdom and of the SBC is in the hands of young people ... and I believe that (God) wants to use young people. I feel like I have a responsibility -- and still do -- to be involved" in helping young people become more involved in ministry.

It was in Colorado that Johnson truly became involved in Southern Baptist life. He had been involved in state denominational service, and in 1988 began serving on the national level when then-SBC President Adrian Rogers appointed him to the Southern Baptist Convention credentials committee.

A year later, a friend called Johnson to inquire about his interest in serving on the board of trustees at Southern. Johnson didn't think twice about accepting the nomination, although he was skeptical about his chances of getting elected. His doubts soon ceased, and his love relationship with Southern Seminary began. Ironically, right around the time that Johnson was elected to the board, his mother had found a copy of William A. Mueller's "A History of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary" at a garage sale. The book, published in 1959, was a page-turner for Johnson. He read it cover to cover.

Because of earlier experiences in a couple of schools -- Baylor University and Criswell College -- Johnson said he "knew how not to do theological education and I had a vision for how to do theological education." Johnson, saved at the age of nine and called into the ministry at the age of 16, had attended Baylor for six months before becoming disheartened with what he says was a lack of conservative theology. He left Baylor and was ready to "walk away from the Southern Baptist Convention" when a friend told him about Criswell in Dallas. Criswell College, known for its conservative teaching, was a perfect fit.

With those two models, Johnson knew how he wanted the teenagers in his church to be educated.

"I was thinking, 'Where are we going to train these students, and what kind of institutions will Southern Baptists have?'" he said. "I thought I knew how to be a positive influence at Southern.

"... I did try to call attention to the conservative theology that this school was founded upon. I was trying to call attention to the fact that we needed to get back to the Bible and the Abstract of Principles as normative theological guidelines. That was not popular for the first two or three years."

Although Johnson's age at the time was controversial to some, he says his nomination was fair because his church was among the leaders in Colorado in Cooperative Program giving and in baptisms.

Eventually, Johnson served on the board's academic committee. During his final two years as a trustee, he was chairman of the board. Johnson's time on the board of trustees gave him a unique opportunity to meet new professors; he interviewed many of them.

"I believed in these guys," he said. "I fell in love with them. I saw their expertise in each discipline, their excitement for ministry. I decided that when I was ready to do the Ph.D. that this was the best place to do it."

So in 1998, Johnson resigned from the board -- he believed a dual role at the seminary would be a conflict of interest -- and enrolled as a student. However, his service in denominational life wasn't over. In 1998, messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention elected Johnson to the committee on order of business. The three-year appointment may not be the most celebrated position in denominational life, but it is no less important.

Members of the committee on order of business decide the structure of every convention, invite every speaker and determine the length of every sermon or speech. When a motion is made from the floor, it goes through the committee, which then decides whether to bring it before the full convention or refer it to another committee.

As chairman of the committee at the 2000 and 2001 conventions, Johnson had a rather public role. Whenever the scheduled time ran out during a business debate, Johnson would make a motion from the podium to lengthen debate by a few minutes. At the 2001 convention in New Orleans, Johnson's committee decided to allow messengers to debate amendments to the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. All of them failed.

"Some people felt that we didn't give enough time last year ... so we thought, 'Well, let's give them more time this year," he said. "I didn't agree to the motions that were made this year, but I agreed that they should have a fair hearing."

Johnson's term on the committee ended this year, meaning that for the first time since 1987 he is not serving in some sort of SBC-elected position. For now, he is simply enjoying his new role as instructor. He is also enjoying spending time with his wife, Rhonda, and his two children: Isaiah (4) and Eva (2). They have been married for five years.

"That's one thing where I didn't start early (in life)," he said, laughing. "That's one I waited awhile for."


(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: JERRY JOHNSON.

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