2020 Recipient: Sarah Johnson

Theologian and Church Leader Wins Distinguished Alumni Service Award

August 17, 2020

Sarah Johnson

Theology scholar Sarah Kathleen Johnson has always been interested in religion and Christian worship. In her pursuit of education, her many different involvements at Conrad Grebel University College deepened, clarified, and expanded those interests, through courses, innovative chapel experiences, and late night conversations.

Because of her inspiring creativity, thoughtful dedication, and unique contributions to the Mennonite church, Grebel’s alumni committee has selected Sarah Kathleen Johnson (BA 2007, MTS 2008) as the recipient of the 2020 Distinguished Alumni Service Award.

Sarah moved into the Grebel residence in fall 2003 and immersed herself into life at Grebel.  During her four years in the residence and apartments, she was involved with retreats, Chapel Choir, Chapel leadership, Bible studies, and countless other student life activities. As a Religious Studies major and then as a Master of Theological Studies student, Sarah also had a strong connection with academic life at Grebel.

Taking a wide variety of courses across Grebel’s disciplines, she wrote an honours essay in Anabaptist history with Arnold Snyder and a master’s thesis with Jim Pankratz on integrating youth into worship leadership in Mennonite settings. “Later I recognized that Grebel courses on various aspects of theology and religious studies were deeply Anabaptist in their emphases and underlying assumptions, even when this was not explicit in the course title or content,” Sarah reflected. “I remain grateful for this grounding in my tradition of origin when I find myself asked to represent the Mennonite tradition in more diverse spaces.” This was often the case during Sarah’s studies at Yale Divinity School, where she graduated in 2010.

When she was a second-year student, Sarah already exhibited a passion for ministry in the church and participated in Grebel’s Ministry Inquiry Program at her home congregation, First Mennonite Church. “I had some of my earliest opportunities to explore ministry as a Grebel student which shaped my later church leadership as a pastor at Ottawa Mennonite Church and now with Voices Together. Academic interests that emerged at that time continue to inflect my research at the intersection of liturgical studies and sociology of religion.”

Sarah is currently completing a PhD in Liturgical Studies at Notre Dame.  She is a visiting fellow at the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre (TMTC) and her dissertation title is The Roles of Christian Ritual in Increasingly Nonreligious and Religiously Diverse Social Contexts. “Sarah’s work bridges the academy and the church, as is evidenced not only in her leadership of the Voices Together hymnal project,” noted Kyle Gingerich Hiebert, TMTC director, “but also in her doctoral dissertation, which is an ethnographic study at the intersection of liturgical studies and sociology of religion.”

As already alluded to, Sarah’s research and expertise has been employed by MennoMedia in the development of Voices Together, the new Mennonite hymnal.  In a nomination letter to Grebel’s alumni committee, Executive Director of MennoMedia, Amy Gingrich, commented on Sarah’s diligence. “In addition to curating an expansive set of written worship resources, Sarah crafted a vision for worship resources that included the introduction of visual art in the hymnal as a way to broaden the experience of worship resources in our collection.”

“Sarah is deeply thoughtful and methodical, always striving to develop an excellent product that will nurture the spiritual lives of all users,” Amy added. “She is a passionate learner, always seeking out and including the insights of others. Sarah’s intellect and drive has catalyzed learning among those around her. She has become a sage mentor at a young age. Sarah has worked tirelessly as a servant leader, showing a strong commitment to diversity in all forms and fostering conversations that promote careful thinking about what happens in worship. The church will be richly rewarded in decades to come because of Sarah’s work on Voices Together.

“In her leadership role for Voices Together, Sarah has been at the centre of a very careful process of listening to the diversity of expressions across our churches, examining a dizzying array of potential hymns and worship resources for inclusion, and charting a way forward that is deeply rooted in the Christian tradition and sensitive to present context.” explained Jeremy Bergen, director of Theological Studies at Grebel. “This hymnal will shape not only the worship, but also the theology, mission, and the very identity of Mennonite churches for decades to come.”

“It has been profoundly rewarding,” said Sarah, “to facilitate a collaborative process that brings people together from across the church for important conversations about who we are, where we come from, and who we are called to be in the years ahead, and especially to consider how these questions about identity and purpose intersect in concrete and embodied ways with what we sing and pray and do when we gather for worship.”

Sarah has also worked with a binational team of volunteers, including Grebel Professor Carol Penner, to develop Together in Worship, a website designed to support Anabaptist leaders with free online resources such as lyrics, prayers, and visuals. “It is hard to imagine what it would be like to work on Voices Together and Together in Worship without the formation I received at Grebel,” said Sarah.

After graduating from Grebel, Sarah has given back to the College in many capacities. She has been a guest lecturer in classes, taught several Anabaptist Learning Workshops, led a workshop at Ontario Mennonite Music Camp, and published in The Conrad Grebel Review. Her impact is deep and her leadership is invaluable. The 2020 Distinguished Alumni Award will be presented in the 2020-21 academic year.