Brian Johnson never dreamed of being a commissioner to the General Assembly.
As a cradle Presbyterian, Johnson served in almost every role at his church in his small hometown of Minden, Nebraska. A few years ago he moved out into the country, tried to retire as a contractor and joined First Presbyterian Church of Hastings. With some free time in his semi-retirement, he jumped right in to volunteer service at his new church, joining the Christian education committee and doing some small projects around the church — including building a beautiful nametag holder when the church started using nametags.
In 2018, the nominating committee of his new church asked him to join the session and the congregation affirmed his call. Johnson took that call very seriously and added more committee work to his call to serve. He also started attending presbytery meetings and studying the work of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He also found time to help lead a mission trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and help with flood relief efforts in Nebraska.
As nominations for General Assembly commissioners were due in 2019, Johnson’s pastor asked him if he would be interested in being a commissioner. (Full disclosure, the reporter writing this article is his pastor.) Brian spent some time thinking and praying about the opportunity and eventually said, “Yes!” The Presbytery of Central Nebraska only sends one ruling elder commissioner, and he was the only person who was nominated. Once Brian was selected, he also took this call very seriously and started studying. He read through the Book of Order. As resolutions began being posted on PC-Biz, he read through each one and took notes. He also bought himself a laptop to help him prepare and for use at the assembly.
Johnson had never been to Baltimore, and it had been years since he had been back east, so he started dreaming of having his wife, Laurie, join him for the assembly and then extending their time to visit historic sites. He also read up on Baltimore and all the activities that were being planned for the assembly.
Then COVID-19 hit.
The Office of General Assembly scrambled during the month of March, trying to figure out what to do, and Johnson waited anxiously for any updates. Once the decision was made to hold the assembly virtually, he was understandably disappointed. But he continued his diligent preparations and also started orienting himself to the technology. Fortunately his session and committee meetings, and his Bible Study were held by Zoom, so he quickly became comfortable with the platform. As the date of the assembly approached, he attended all of the orientations and further familiarized himself with both the business of the assembly and the technology necessary to make it happen.
For the opening plenary, the delegation from Central Nebraska decided to meet in the fellowship hall of First Presbyterian Church of Hastings, respecting proper social distancing. Johnson, Sharon Rees (teaching elder commissioner), Polly Deppen-Williams (executive presbyter), Keeran Woode (young adult advisory delegate), Sara Babcok (a Young Adult Volunteer serving as a help desk volunteer), Sue Medsker-Nedderman (moderator of the Presbyterian Women for the Synod of Lakes and Prairies) and Greg Allen-Pickett (pastor of FPC Hastings who also serves as a reporter for the Presbyterian Outlook) all gathered together. They shared a socially distanced meal that included crab cakes in honor of the missed trip to Baltimore.
Johnson reports that it was a joy to gather together and have people to interact with during the opening plenary. Watching the business of the church and the parliamentary wrangling taking place via Zoom was challenging, but Johnson kept up. Having worked on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, he particularly appreciated the opening of the assembly that focused on Indigenous people and their stories.
For the remainder of the assembly, Johnson will participate from his home office in his farmhouse in rural Nebraska with his wife nearby and his dog Maxie at his feet. He’s anxious to learn more about the national church and to help do his part to serve and guide the future of the church as a commissioner. While he laments not being able to gather in person, he is grateful for and amazed by the technology that facilitates the business of the assembly. He is hopeful for the future of the church and feels blessed to be a part of it — even in this new way.