Introducing new energy; Our Savior’s pastor ‘embracing the challenge to be made new’

Published 10:30 am Friday, March 3, 2017

Dr. Chad Johnson wasn’t sure why he was hearing helicopters flying over the church on that April day.

“We could hear them passing back and forth; … our phones started ringing off the hook,” he recalled.

Johnson, 43, the new pastor at Austin’s Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, sat in the winter light of the church sanctuary, talking about a stop on his journey to Austin.

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It was April 20, 1999, and he was an intern pastor at Abiding Hope Lutheran Church in Littleton, Colorado.

Johnson and others soon learned of the horrific events unfolding at Columbine High School, just a few miles away. Two students at the school were shooting fellow students. A tragedy seldom witnessed had taken place, with 14 students and one teacher dead; 21 others were injured in the attacks.

He spent the afternoon at a nearby elementary school with law enforcement officials, “working on bus rosters and school lists,” trying to determine who had survived and who was still missing.

By evening, there were 35 students still unaccounted for.

“We knew that some of that number were laying on the floor of the high school,” he said.

Chad Johnson is the new pastor at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and is hoping to bring new enthusiasm to the church and ministry. Eric Johnson/

Chad Johnson is the new pastor at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and is hoping to bring new enthusiasm to the church and ministry. Eric Johnson/

In the days that followed, experts told the local ministerial group that they would all be gone from Littleton within a few years following the massacre — the overwhelming stress of dealing with the resulting sadness and depression would destroy them if they did not leave, he said — but Johnson chose to stay on for a time as intern, and then return in 2009 as lead pastor.

“There were families totally ripped apart,” he said.

Some in the congregation were asking the most fundamental of questions about faith: “Why would God let this happen?” and “Where is God?”

“We preached the next night that God was on the floor with those kids; God is in the lost places. God is with us; we can’t do it alone. God is with us,” Johnson said.

The changes wrought in the community manifested in relationship breakdowns and other heartbreaks. At the same time, Johnson could see church bringing lives together as well. The experience perhaps reaffirmed his reasons for being in the pulpit.

“I believe the church has the capacity to bring about the biggest change; it can transform people’s lives; it can transform the world,” he said.

The Viborg, South Dakota, native grew up on a farm and earned a degree in business management and human services from Midland College in Fremont, Nebraska, in 1996. However, he began to “listen to other voices … always discerning” and opted to go into the ministry. He earned his master’s in divinity degree from Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio, and his doctorate in ministry in Leadership in the Emerging Culture from George Fox in Portland, Oregon. He served as an associate pastor at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Vancouver, Washington, before being called as a lead pastor at Abiding Hope. He and his wife, Susan, have five children. Three of them — Norah Noel, 6, Merritt, 3, and Holland, 3 — are their birth children, while two others were adopted from Ethiopia. They are Koko, 9 and Jewel, 3.

As his family settles into its new home, he is very intentional about hopes for the ELCA church. He wants to see Our Savior’s be a church that “passionately worships God” whose members will “raise up and go out to do God’s work. That’s number one.”

Having an abiding love of children, and “doing whatever it takes” to give them a full, spiritual and healthy life is also a top priority, he said.

“We are the heart, hands and feet of Jesus Christ” who build relationships “that transform lives,” he said.

He applauds the church for providing room for the Anyuak community to worship. The community of East Africans, who immigrated to the U.S. some years ago, are largely from Ethiopia. Johnson believes coming to a church with congregants with the same nativity as two of his children is quite wonderful.

He invites anyone to attend services at Our Savior’s, and notes that the church offers an open communion table, where all are welcome and “all of the divisions of the world are stripped way.”

“We are radically inclusive,” he said. “Our world needs that.”