The Rev. Cindy Johnson has become the first woman collared pator at St. John Lutheran Church in Carroll.
The Rev. Cindy Johnson has become the first woman collared pator at St. John Lutheran Church in Carroll.
August 5, 2013

The Rev. Cindy Johnson thanks God that He was persistent or she would not have become the first collared woman pastor at St. John Lutheran Church in Carroll.

Johnson believes God first called her when she was visiting Lutheran Lakeside Camp at East Lake Okoboji.

"I was walking from my cabin to the dining hall when I heard a voice," she recalls. "It wasn't male or female, per se, although I've tended to say, 'He said.' He said. 'I want you to be a minister for me.'"

But Johnson was a young teenager at the time and not ready to start that path.

Instead of God's calling quickly leading her to ministry, she says, she took the rough road: failed marriages, single-motherhood and life-threatening health problems.

"I went on with life until I was 43, when I heard God call again," she recounted in a recent interview in her office at St. John Lutheran, on East 18th Street. "He said, 'I said I want you to be a minister for Me.' And that's when I went and talked to my bishop. I talked about how I'd been married and divorced. And I said, 'How is God going to use me?'"

The bishop reminded her of the story from the Gospel of John about Jesus' meeting with the woman at the well. The story reflects God's forgiveness and promise of new life to the world.

Johnson, 57, says, "God will use whomever wherever they are in life."

So in the summer of 2002, Johnson entered Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque. During her third year of seminary, she interned at St. John Lutheran Church in Bellevue, Iowa. In May 2006 she graduated from seminary, and in November that year became pastor at Peace Lutheran Church in rural West Burlington, where she served before she received the call to come to Carroll. She interviewed here last November and was installed as pastor on March 2.

When Bonnie Jackson, chairwoman of St. John's call committee, contacted Johnson about the Carroll opening, began telling Johnson where Carroll is located in west-central Iowa.

Johnson recalls with a laugh, "I said, 'Bonnie, I know where Willey is.' It was just interesting that I was coming back to Carroll County."

Johnson was the oldest of three children of "Bud" and Marian DeBoer. She grew up on a farm west of Le Mars, and then the family moved north of Bronson, in Woodbury County. The family operated what Johnson calls an old-fashioned farm. Those were the days farmers could make a living by growing crops on 160 acres and raising cattle and feeder pigs. "Bud" DeBoer also was a salesman for Funk's seed corn.

In the summer of 1973, before Cindy's senior year of high school, the family moved to Coon Rapids, where "Bud" had taken a job with Garst Cattle Company. Cindy graduated from Coon Rapids High School in 1974, however, "Bud" passed away from cancer and the family moved back to Le Mars. Cindy's mom, Marian, served as high school principal at Le Mars for 18 years. She passed away in 2008 at age 79.

In her work history, Johnson went from restaurant waitress and cook in Le Mars to insurance agent in Sacramento and Bakersfield, Calif., before she returned to Le Mars in 1992, wanting to return to a more-comfortable, safer environment. In Le Mars she became assistant activities director at Brentwood Good Samaritan Center nursing home and activities director at The Abbey nursing home.

Then, she says, "By this time, I was hearing God calling me again to be a pastor."

She talked to the bishop at Storm Lake and laid out reasons for her hesitancy: messy relationships where she married and divorced three times; single motherhood; and no college degree. Would God really be calling her?

But Johnson recalls the bishop urged, "Well, get going."

So Johnson, who was living in Remsen at the time, did get going, starting at Western Iowa Tech College. But she soon had to drop from school after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent months of chemotherapy.

"The people of Remsen supported me and kept me going as I was going through chemo," she says. "Then, when I was in the last stages of therapy and starting to feel better, I went back to Western Iowa Tech in the summer of 1999."

She eventually earned an associate's degree from Western Iowa Tech and then a diversified studies degree - elementary education and psychology - from Buena Vista University.

Johnson served as organist at St. James Catholic Church in Le Mars and accompanist in the Le Mars Gehlen Catholic School music department before becoming Gehlen's full-time vocal music teacher at Christmas 2001, replacing a teacher who moved from the area. She taught until she entered seminary.

"I taught at Gehlen and loved that, what a good school. But then I went to seminary, and that's where I needed to be," she says.

At St. John, Johnson says, she's found a welcoming congregation that is revitalizing.

"My position here," she says, "is almost as a coach and this is the team. I'm here to lead them and inspire them to be the very best followers of Christ they can be. I'm here to hold their hands during the hard times and to remind them that they're precious children of God, that Jesus died for them, that they're loved so much."

The congregation numbers approximately 350 with attendance of about 100 at weekend services.

Johnson says, "I'd rather have members who are disciples of Jesus Christ than members who are just sitting in pews so that I can say that I have 1,000 people. I love people, and I'd like people to come and experience the love they're going to receive here at St. John, not just from me but from the whole congregation.

"This is a place to get recharged. You have a week where people are just after you all the time, so then you have to have a place where you can recharge and experience holiness, which is God's love and mercy. Then this is a good place to be."

Johnson says she studies scripture throughout the week, decides what points she wants to make at Sunday's services, and then speaks extemporaneously.

"I find I talk a lot about the grace of God, about a God of second and third chances," she says. "God knew we were all messed up, so he sent Jesus.

"It's a joy to serve the Lord as a pastor, somebody who can tell people about God's love and forgiveness and how to live that out. I'm a big one for when you understand that God sent Jesus for you, your response then is to do things for God and Jesus."

Johnson is heartened to see the St. John congregation has an "outward focus" in the community. The church opens its doors to the community, providing meeting accommodations for Boy Scouts, Al-Anon and other organizations, as well as providing an after-school program for kids.

The congregation recently participated in a reverse-giving program, calling it "Cast Your Bread Upon the Water." Congregation members received a total of $2,000 in various denominations from the church's general fund and were directed to take that money and grow it - do something good with it. A further stipulation: the money couldn't come back to the church or be spent personally. Congregation members used the money for such things as helping a local boy with medical needs, assisting hunger-relief programs and contributing to business micro loans for women in Third World countries.

"This congregation has worked hard to revision what their purpose is in the community," Johnson observes. "I see them being here to stay, and I see myself being part of the team for some time."

For her part, call committee chairwoman Bonnie Jackson says Johnson has proven to be an outstanding fit for the church.

"We feel really blessed to have Pastor Cindy here as our pastor," says Jackson, who served on the call committee with Ed Smith, Nicole Carroll, Alex Paulsen, Gary Schulz and Amy DeMonia. "She's just very loving and compassionate, and she has this great gift for getting to know people.

She gets to know people really well and makes connections with them. She comes across as clearly loving what she does, and that shows in her ministry to us and in the community. She's gotten to know people in those four months very quickly."

Jackson says St. John, which belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is advancing from a three-year redevelopment process to the revitalization stage.

"After that point (redevelopment), we were looking for someone specifically to come and help us to continue to grow and do more outreach and just be a stronger church," Jackson explains. "When called (Johnson) she was really excited about St. John Lutheran and the Carroll community. Now she and members of St. John are working together to make us a more vibrant and growing congregation."

Johnson also is taking training in Baltimore, Md., she says, "to be a revitalizing pastor to stay here and keep us going on the trajectory we're on."

Johnson believes insight her from own life experience, where she's taking advantage of a new chance, has helped her in her ministry,

"I understand people who are going through a dark night of the soul," she says. "I also understand the joy that comes when you know you're not alone, ever. I take to heart the verses of Romans 8 that nothing will separate us from the love of God."

She calls those her foundation verses of her understanding of God.

She adds, "Our being reconciled to God brings about a response where we then want to serve Him in ways of helping others and telling others that they too can have this good relationship with the Lord."

Johnson says she grew up in a faith-filled family, members of the Reformed Church in America. Her dad was an elder in the congregation, Sunday school superintendent and choir singer, and her mom participated in Ladies Aid and taught Sunday school. Johnson became Lutheran during her first marriage.

Johnson has three sons: Kevin Schulz, 35, Brian Schulz, 33, and Michael Leonard, 22. Kevin and Brian both live at Le Mars, with Kevin working at SmithCo Side Dump Trailers, and Brian at Bearz Construction. Michael lives in Dubuque.

Johnson's brother Mark, 54, is a former defense attorney now living in Queen Creek, Ariz., doing acting work.

Forty-five years ago, the family lost youngest child Keith, then 4 years old, when he was struck by a car.

As a pastor, Johnson says, she's honored to preside at funerals and enjoys weddings. In fact, she recently had the opportunity to perform her son Kevin's wedding in a small gathering at a park in downtown Le Mars.

"It was so neat to see this man who I'd held in my arms his first few minutes of life, given him life, and now he was standing before me," she says. "And he was so happy. He had this big grin on his face, and his bride looked so pretty. And they have such good hopes for their future."

During free time, Johnson enjoys quilting and crocheting, and she participates in a prayer-shawl ministry. "We pray as we crochet or knit, and then we give those shawls to people who are in need of a shawl," she says.

She reads historical novels and books that she says "show connection between our past and present that will then connect to our future."

She has a 5-year-old rat terrier, Lovey, who's right up there as a love of her life but no match for granddaughters, Riley Jo, 9, and Ryan Joy, 5, who live in Sioux City.