Pastor Robert Johnson’s easy and outgoing personality belies the power of the position he’s held for almost two months. Johnson is the senior pastor of Saint Mark United Methodist Church in Wichita, one of a minute few mega churches In the UMC denomination and at 106 years old, the church has a rich and respected legacy in the Wichita community.
Johnson, who served 10 years as the executive pastor of Windsor Village, the United Methodist flagship church in Houston, TX, was used to mega churches. His experience at a mega church was one of many things that helped secure him this prestigious assignment. But even with his prior experience, Johnson says he was surprised by the influence of Saint Mark in the Wichita community.
“When I tell people I’m the Pastor of Saint Mark, the respect that I get is amazing,” says Johnson. “This church matters to Wichita.”
Johnson says he recognizes the great position he’s been put in and his objective is to “leverage that influence to do even greater things in the lives of people in the community.”
Johnson appears to have “the stuff” to accomplish his goals.
In addition to his warm personality -- at age 50, he exudes a Southern homeboy charm -- you can’t miss his deep rooted spiritual conviction. As early as high school, Johnson says, he knew God was calling him to become an ordained minister.
He grew up in a Baptist Church in Colombia, MS, and was blessed to be mentored in his early years by several progressive thinking ministers.
“My childhood pastor was doing amazing things,” says Jonson.
The church operated a multi-purpose community center that housed a Head Start Program and several social service agencies. He was the first of several minister’s Johnson would encounter with a community consciousness.
When he was in college, he helped out a nearby United Methodist Church on weekends. He liked that that the church has a social conscious and the fact that the denomination’s founder John Wesley opposed slavery. If he was going to become a minister, he knew he wanted to be formerly trained, and the United Methodist Church’s Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas was among the best. After graduating college, he worked for a couple of years, before attending the seminary. He’d married his high school sweetheart right out of college, and the couple settled in the Houston, TX area, after she got a job working as an accountant for Shell Oil. He was looking for a minister to mentor him through the ministry candidacy program when he walked into Windsor Village and met the church’s renowned Senior Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell. Johnson says the experience changed his world.
“When I saw it, I knew it was what church is supposed to be,” Johnson exclaimed.
Caldwell, a former Wall Street Banker, had grown a fledgling church into an 18,000 member strong powerhouse.
“The church was scripturally sound, socially conscious, and spirit filled,” recalls Johnson. The music was polished, the building was beautiful and Johnson was impressed by Caldwell’s message and practice of economically empowering the community. The church had developed the Power Center, a $9.1 million 104,000 sq. ft. complex. The multi-use complex helped address the unmet needs of the surrounding poorer neighborhood by providing medical services, a private school, junior college classes, and a branch of one the state’s leading banks.
"For a church to intentionally turn its back on economic development and financial enlightenment," said Caldwell in an interview in U.S. News & World Report, "not only are they passing up an opportunity to make America a more vibrant and safer place to live, they also are denying one of the main threads that runs through the Bible."
Although Johnson didn’t end up starting off his ministry with Caldwell, he eventually spent 10 years as the church’s executive pastor, and Caldwell’s vision of church remains one of his major influences.
Before coming to Saint Mark, Johnson served almost two years as pastor of Aldersgate UMC in College Station, Texas. Prior to that, he spent 7½ years as the senior pastor of an inner city church he founded in Houston.
Two months in at Saint Mark, Johnson has a realistic view of the landscape. Saint Mark isn’t without its challenges. Like most churches, he says, Saint Mark can use more members and more money. However he’s convinced Saint Mark has the strengths and structure to do and become even more.
He cites the E.C. Tyree Health Clinic, housed on the lower level of the church, as one of their strengths
Other strengths include the church’s strong musical ministry and it’s growing demographic of active and faithful retirees.
Some of the things he hopes to accomplish are to grow young adult participation in the church, better use the church’s strong group of retirees to help the church build the community and impact lives, and to work with non-profits to help empower the community. He’s particularly interested in growing leadership through educational programs and plans to draw on his experience with similar programs at Windsor. These programs brought in high quality speakers to speak on the topic of leadership along with a spiritual component.
Johnson also hopes to increase the diversity of the church.
“God is calling Saint Mark to move beyond the box of being a Black church,” says Johnson. “We will always be based in the African American community, but how can we evolve in how we do things in a way that we can become a more welcoming place to more diverse demographics.”
Saint Mark has accomplished a lot, he says, but it can’t afford to rest on its laurels.