There and Back Again, Pt. 1

May 05, 2014

John Johnson (M.Div. ’77) and Barbara Johnson (M.A. Biblical Counseling ‘06)

John and Barbara Johnson currently serve the Lord and his people on the Navajo Reservation in Crownpoint, New Mexico, where John is the Chief Medical Officer at Crownpoint Indian Hospital and Barbara is the director of the local chapter of YoungLives, a ministry to teenage mothers. The road to serving the Navajo people was anything but direct, with the Lord leading them from Westminster into over 20 years in the church-planting ministry, from the pastoral ministry into medicine, back to Westminster, then on to ministry amongst the Navajo.

In the first of a two-part story, the Johnsons share with us how the Lord brought John from Westminster to medical school, and how Barbara came to study at Westminster years after she thought they’d left Philadelphia for good.

John and Barbara Johnson
John and Barabara with their granddaughter

The Lord initially brought John to Westminster following a season which John and Barbara spent at L’Abri in 1973. John shares, “While I was at L’Abri, one day I was out on the road in the Alps contemplating what I should do with my life. In my mind there were two paths before me – one was seminary and going into the ministry, and the other was medicine; they were twin passions for me and I didn’t know which way I should go. I ended up having a conversation with Os Guinness, and he said to me, ‘You’ve got so many theological questions, you really should go get all those straightened out. You’ll be a whole lot better off in life if you settle those questions first.’ So when I returned to the U.S., I spent a year with InterVarsity on the University of Rochester campus while Barbara finished college, then we moved to Philadelphia to start at Westminster.” John has fond memories of his time at Westminster. “I loved Westminster and I loved the study there. Ray Dillard was there teaching us Hebrew…I was taught Apologetics by Harvey Conn…I used to sit on the benches with Van Til, and he would hand me his books for free because I was plaguing him with so many questions!” 

Following his studies at Westminster, John became a pastor and a church planter. Over his years in ministry, he planted three churches in Ocean City, NJ; Amsterdam, NY; and Ithaca, NY. However, while he was ministering to his congregations, John discovered that his passion for medicine had not waned. John shared, “In counselling people as a pastor, often what I found was that people’s medical problems were causing as many issues in people’s lives as anything else caused by the fall. Little by little, I thought to myself, ‘You know what? I’m making a lot of medical referrals!’ and that revived in me a passion for the study of medicine.” 

Meanwhile, Barbara was home-schooling their four children and working part-time at a pregnancy center. She recalled, “The doctor thing came up again, and I thought he was crazy! John didn’t want to go ahead unless I was supportive, so we prayed and argued for a year.” Barbara remembered the time she realized where the Lord was leading their family. “One day we were driving to a Christian bookstore an hour away and argued about it all the way there. Then we argued all the way back. Once I was home, I was reflecting on our argument, then it hit me that God might want someone who was trained in theology and medicine, who would be able to speak to bioethical issues. So I went into his office and said, ‘You can do it. But you still have to get into medical school!’” 

So in 1995, John started preparing for medical school, taking extra courses and studying for admissions exams while continuing to pastor his church in Ithaca. However, shortly before John was due to take his admissions exam, Barbara was diagnosed with breast cancer. Barbara shared, “It was scary – the kids were young and I didn’t want them to grow up without a mother. But I remember one night when I just felt God put his arms around me to comfort me and tell me, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ We prayed about our situation, and the only thing we ended up changing was where John would take his admissions exam. We knew that if this was what God wanted, it would work out.” Barbara’s work at the pregnancy center also helped her carry on in the midst of her cancer diagnosis. “I would be feeling sorry for myself, then see all these single moms and all their problems – it helped me take my eyes off my own issues. I felt like God had given me time on earth to work, and it made me get serious about living for Jesus. When I finally recovered from that breast cancer, I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to use this time I have to serve Jesus!’”

John was accepted to medical school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., so the Johnsons and their family moved there in 1998, where John began life as a student again at the age of 48. While John was studying, the Lord provided Barbara with a full-time position directing the Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center. Barbara says, “I realized I loved working at pregnancy centers – as a pastor’s wife, I’d tried all sorts of ways to evangelize, and at the pregnancy center, people were actually coming to us and we got to tell them the good news! As the Executive Director of the Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center, I felt like all the things I’d learned at the pregnancy center in Ithaca I could now use in a bigger mission field.” But as John was studying at medical school, and Barbara was working at the Pregnancy Center, tragedy struck their family in 2001, when one of their sons was killed in an accident while at college. “This was the hardest thing that had ever happened to us – worse than the cancer,” shared Barbara. “But we pushed on and I continued to work at the pregnancy center. I felt like my son’s death gave me a renewed empathy and more compassion for the women I was serving.”

Once John completed medical school, he started his residency in Philadelphia, moving the family back to the area they’d lived in while he was in seminary. This time around, though, Barbara was the one who would end up studying at Westminster. John said, “Through the years that I was in the ministry, my office was largely in my home. So my counseling was in my home as well. Barbara and I would work with certain couples, and I found it was much more effective than me working alone. More and more I would include Barbara in my counseling, and sometimes she would take the lead. Over time, it became Barbara who would counsel women and particularly young women. So when the opportunity arose, she wanted to go back to Westminster to get her degree in counseling.” Barbara added, “I never dreamed that I’d get to go to Westminster or that I’d even be back in Philadelphia! I ended up looking for another job in a pregnancy center and found one as a development director at a center in Bryn Mawr. The pregnancy center was letting staff take courses one at a time at Westminster, and that’s how I started taking courses. I’d gotten a taste for seminary, so when my job eventually ended, I took more courses and I realized I wanted to get my masters.” 

Barbara’s time studying at Westminster gave her a real love for Scripture and theology. “I loved the theology part. I loved to hear about the history of redemption and Biblical theology – to see how Jesus is in both the Old Testament and the New Testament and hear how it was all part of God’s plan from the beginning. I felt like if I was going to study something in depth, it was going to be the Bible, and that’s what Westminster was for me.” Barbara also enjoyed the Westminster community. “I loved the professors and seeing what godly men and women they were. I also enjoyed getting to know all the students. There were a lot of people there who were my age, and I got to hear their stories – stories of people who were on fire for Jesus and who were making sacrifices to serve him. I made friends who I’m still in touch with and who still support our ministry.”

In reflecting on their years of ministry, both in the church and outside of it, John offers this advice to students at Westminster. “It’s hard for me to say to students ‘Pursue medicine!’ I think if my story represents anything, it represents being honest with the passions that are in your heart. People at Westminster are there because they love the Lord, the Scriptures and theology, but what else do they love? I honestly believe they can do whatever they want, if the Lord is in it. I loved the ministry and I didn’t leave because of anything negative; but I also loved medicine from a young age - I had these twin passions. I would say don’t let your passions go. I believe the Lord blessed my 22 years of ministry and these 15 years so far into medicine. Being well-grounded at Westminster, to pursue whatever it is that the Lord has for them, I would encourage the folks at Westminster to examine their hearts and take note of what their real dreams and passions are. The Lord has many, many paths along which he can lead you to be fruitful with the Gospel.”

Please keep the Johnsons in your prayers as they serve the Lord in New Mexico. Part 2 of this story will be posted in the coming weeks.

Click here to read part two of the Johnsons' story.