Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. – 1 John 4:7-8
Bishop Peggy A. Johnson visited New England for the first time since being assigned to lead the Conference. Her tenure begins on Jan. 1, 2023.
On Nov. 19, she met with Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar, Extended Cabinet members, and other Conference leaders for lunch at the Conference Center in Methuen, MA.
In an informal conversation with the group, Bishop Johnson began by talking about her connections with New England.
Her college roommate lives in Vermont, and Bishop Johnson also visited the state to attend a College of Bishops’ learning event. “We were treated with some incredible hospitality,” she said. She’s also a fan of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
Bishop Johnson served 20 years at Christ UMC of the Deaf in Baltimore and represents the Council of Bishops on the denomination’s Committee on Disability Ministries. She described her visit to the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, where she interviewed some of the graduates to ask: What do you think about Jesus? “That was amazing,” she said.
Bishop Johnson recalled a camping trip with her in-laws from Texas and her firstborn. “Never take a 1-year-old on a camping trip to Maine!” she said. “No sleep, but the lobster …”
“You also have this amazing store called LL Bean,” the bishop said, holding up her coat, “and I am a believer.”
She attended a College of Bishops meeting in Newport, Rhode Island, “and I just fell in love with the view – you really have cornered the market when it comes to gorgeous venues and your pristine parts of the world that are not touched by development,” she said.“There’s a real call for caring for the earth up here. I really impressed with the sense that you all get global warming.”
Bishop Johnson and the Deaf Choir from Christ UMC were guests at the last session of the New Hampshire Annual Conference in Manchester, which was presided over by Bishop F. Herbert Skeete.
Of Connecticut, the bishop said she’s never been. “I have to make time to go there.” Only a portion of the state is part of the NEAC, and Bishop Johnson joked about bringing the Connecticut churches in the New York Conference “into the kingdom,” adding, “Don’t tell the bishop I said that.”
Bishop Johnson then shared on a number of topics, beginning with her family.
“I have the support of my family and my extended family for this assignment; I want you to know that,” Bishop Johnson said. “I’m a person who’s embedded in family. My family is part of who I am … Jesus is my first priority, but my family’s number two, and they have to agree.”
Bishop Johnson met her spouse, Rev. Mary Johnson, at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY.
Bishop Johnson was one of only three women on the ordination track and the first woman she’d heard preach at the seminary.
“Quite frankly, they weren’t ready for me down there,” she said.
She recalled a meeting with the dean and the president of the council pastoral counseling, who “asked if I just wouldn’t quit and let my husband preach the Word, because a wife is a helpmate for the husband and women are supposed to be quiet in church … and I said, ‘No, sorry.’”
But her spouse “was always very supportive of me,” the bishop said, and she called Rev. Johnson “my best friend, the wind beneath the wings …”
It was in her second year serving as bishop of the Eastern PA Conference that Rev. Johnson told her: “I really believe I’m a woman and I’ve always believed that.”
For the last 10 years of her tenure as an active bishop, she retired in 2021, “I was a closeted trans couple with my spouse, who is a woman,” the bishop said.
Part of the motivation for her early retirement, she said, was to allow “a time for us, for her to become Mary, and stop being Michael.” Rev. Johnson is a member of the Baltimore Washington Conference and spoke about coming out in this news story.
“I’m not ashamed of it,” Bishop Johnson said. “I’m going to acknowledge it; I’m not going to apologize for it, but I am also going to be aware that this will hurt some people and they’re not going to follow my leadership because of it.”
Rev. Johnson’s training as a spiritual director has made the two of them “uniquely gifted to bring Jesus into the mix of families that are struggling with transitions.”
“Everything we are can be a blessing and a curse,” Bishop Johnson said.
Rev. Johnson did not attend Saturday because she did not yet have her driver’s license and other documents reflecting her name change and was unable to fly. The Johnsons live in Virginia.
Bishop Johnson did say, “She writes wonderful liturgies, but doesn’t want an appointment, DSs.”
The couple has two sons.
Peter and his wife, Alli, have two children, ages 1 month and almost 2 years. Peter is a psychologist at the VA Hospital in Hampton, Virginia. Allie, a nurse, is currently a stay-at-home mom.
Gabriel is plant morphologist in the biology lab at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. (Plant morphology, or phytomorphology, is the study of the physical form and external structure of plants).
His spouse, Cris, is a DREAMER (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) from Mexico. A wedding celebration for the couple is planned for May 2023.
Bishop Johnson spoke of the struggles Gabriel has faced as a gay man, including being the victim of more than one assault.
“I’ve spent a lot of time worrying for [Gabriel]. I have prayed, ‘God, don’t let the Christians kill him,’” she said. “We have to be careful what we say because somebody can be killed, or some kid can commit suicide because they’re not accepted by the people they love.”
Having seen her son-in-law’s difficulties with immigration, Bishop Johnson said she is happy to see that New England has a Justice for Our Neighbors ministry.
Bishop Johnson acknowledged that 18 months is a short time (she will serve until Aug. 31, 2024; a new bishop will be assigned as of Sept. 1), but, she said, “this is a time when we can do some good work.”
That work, she said, needs to begin with healing after the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference, which ended with the NEAC being the only conference that did not have a bishop assigned to it (read more).
“Certainly, I know there needs to be some healing around here. I know what you all went through at jurisdictional conference was not pretty, I watched the pain,” Bishop Johnson said, adding that she knows that she won’t be able to rectify every issue, but is committed to pastoral care and healing.
“I want to have deep conversations with people who have been in pain and hear what it is that’s been going on … because until we give ourselves the resources to move on and heal, we’re not going to be as effective,” she said.
Bishop Johnson was clear about her role during these next 18 months: “I want to prepare this Conference for your next bishop in 2024, so that you can move forward in some even healthier ways and healed ways,” she said.
I need no better vision than the one that was cast at the 2022 Annual Conference session declaring a commit to love liberation freedom and full inclusion, Bishop Johnson said. (Read The New England Declaration).
“What’s not to love?” Bishop Johnson said.
“It’s huge, it’s brave, it’s risk-taking, and it’s going to take a huge amount of work,” the bishop said. “To really put the teeth in what this really means is going [cause] pushback. It’s not going to be a party, and I’m ready for pushback and no party.”
It’s the job of the bishop to continue to bring the vision forward despite any resistance, she said.
“I hope you’ll stand there with me. There’s a lot at stake,” she said, “because there are people who need to know the love of God, and if we’re not being as inclusive as this [declaration] calls us to be, we’re just not doing the work of Christ.”
Bishop Johnson called herself a “relationship builder.” It’s not simple, she said, but understanding the relationships that exist across the Conference is critical to moving forward in healthy ways.
“I love to preach at churches. I will come to see you. I will drive. I’m not crazy about snow, but I’ll make it work,” she said.
In addition to preaching, Bishop Johnson said she enjoys leading Bible studies.
“Even though these are ancient words, they keep speaking to us, coming to us again and again,” she said. “Never shortchange the Word. Justice work is embedded in the Word of God.”
“I really do pray for you all,” Bishop Johnson said. “I do believe in the power of prayer, and I always want to lead with prayer.”
Continuing a practice she began in her previous assignment, Bishop Johnson will pray for a different district each week and will accept emails with prayer concerns (and joys too, she said).
“Prayer is so important. It’s the strength of this work. We do spiritual work with spiritual means,” the bishop said.
On ministry with youth and children
I am passionate about youth, children, and young adults, camping, but I know that’s tough too, she said. “Churches don’t have tons of kids anymore,” and we can’t expect them to just show up in our buildings.
“We have to be smarter about how we do children’s ministry and youth ministry,” she said.
On appointments, Cabinet
“I value diversity, inclusion, and missional appointments,” the bishop said.
Bishop Johnson called District Superintendents “the secret sauce that holds the denomination together” and said she’ll make working with them a priority. She wants to build a collaborative team, she said. “The connection is connected because of the DSs.”
On the laity
“The laity. They’re the body,” the bishop said.
“Please hear me, laity, I’m passionate about the collaborative work we do together and also know you’re sitting in the pews and you have a voice that we’ve got to hear, and I want to hear you,” she said.
The bishop said that she’s excited about the continued development of Certified Lay Servant Ministries and will seek to build connections with lay groups such as United Women in Faith and United Methodist Men.
Bishop Johnson said she knows the work is not easy, but she remains confident about our success.
“Church is not a walk in the park, it’s a war zone sometimes. We are waging war against the powers and principalities that want to take us down, want to divide us, want to look at us as irrelevant,” the bishop said. “We have the power of the Holy Spirit to turn this world upside down, I believe that with all my heart — and I’ve been a bishop,” she added with a laugh.