Minister

Rev. Jonalu Johnstone

Biographical Introduction

Born in Virginia in a military family, my father was from Maine and my mother from Oklahoma. Through my whole life, I have known that people had different points of view, cultures and habits. My parents believed in raising their children religiously, but my mother’s Southern Baptist traditions did not align exactly with my father’s American Baptist background! Consistently, though, we attended church and were even part of a mission (start-up) congregation in Woodbridge, Virginia.

My family prized education, my father joining my mother as a public school teacher when he retired from the Marines. And I taught, too – special education in both public schools and institutional settings. My commitment to community-based treatment led to my involvement with creating individual and group home settings for people with developmental disabilities in West

There, I met Jane Powell, a social worker and long-distance hiker, who has been willing to follow me and companion me for more than thirty years now, even though I did become a minister. She’s not too interested in church, but is friendly and tolerates my profession.

My life has been blessed, but I have known a struggle or two. Significant personal influences have included feminism, surviving the most damaging flood in West Virginia in 1985, my brother’s premature death at age 44, and of course, my involvement in ministry.

Background and Experience

I struggled to find my life path. The child of two teachers, I was drawn to teaching. A champion for the underdog and ever ready for a challenge, I concentrated in special education. With a BS in Special Education for the Emotionally Disturbed from James Madison University, I taught in public schools and institutions in Virginia and the District of Columbia for six years. During that time I earned an MS in Special Education for Severe, Profound and Multiple Handicaps at Johns Hopkins University.

Moving to West Virginia, I worked in community-based mental health/mental retardation services. As a Behavior Specialist, I created individual and congregate training programs for people with special needs and educated their care providers and teachers. Working at the West Virginia Department of Health, I monitored programs throughout the state, administered grants, and provided staff training, working with Medicaid regulations and two court-ordered consent decrees for deinstitutionalization. When I encountered burn-out and realized I needed to do something differently, I worked part-time for about two years while reviewing my life goals. During that period, I wrote a book and found myself in leadership in my lay-led UU fellowship in Cumberland, MD, and in women’s spirituality circles. I also realized that at the core of all human needs – my own, those of the clients I had worked with, and the people I encountered in daily life – was the need for spirituality, a uniting force within our lives to move us towards connection and away from alienation. From that insight and from my wonderful friends in the fellowship came my call to ministry.

I received my M.Div from Harvard Divinity School in 1993, having completed an internship at the UU Church of Reading [MA] with The Rev. Jane Rzepka. There, I worked with the Middle School Youth Group, formed a Welcoming Congregation Committee, and learned that no matter what the appearances are, people are often struggling in silence to cope. I witnessed how a growing mid-size church functions and what effective lay leadership looks like. I had entered seminary with an interest in Extension Ministry, and I pursued it upon graduation.

I had entered seminary with an interest in Extension Ministry, and I pursued it upon graduation. James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Madison, WI, did not really exist when I went there in August, 1993. There was no meeting place, no office, no membership; only a mailing list and an organizing committee of about twenty people. When I left six and a half years later (January, 2000), the congregation had grown to about 140 members, with additional part-ime staff, and a strong Lay Ministry Group in place. JRUUC taught me the skill of balancing the need to get things done with the need to build structures that will keep getting things done. I learned a great deal about organizational development; observed the workings of a large congregation (our sponsoring church, First Unitarian Society of Madison); participated with young adult/campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin, and remained active in the community through interfaith work in the GLBT community and through Madison Urban Ministry. It was a rich time professionally, well-supported by relationships with an on-going clergy group, my Tai Chi practice, and a spiritual director. The importance of small group development and lay leadership training became clear to me.

A very different opportunity called me – Growth Consultant for the Southwestern UU Conference. I had fantasized about such a job, and couldn’t resist – especially when family issues made part-time employment desirable. Being employed half-time with the Southwest Conference, a district of the UUA (Jan, 2000 – Dec., 2002), I traveled around 6 states and consulted formally with 28 of the 75 congregations across the district, plus encountered others through workshops, district conferences, and informal consultations by phone and email. The position originally slated for 18 months was extended to 3 years through the UU Funding Panel and the generosity of individuals and congregations in the district. I developed training materials for consultations; identified strengths, needs and recommendations for growth in individual churches; wrote a grant for extension of the program; created and facilitated district-level workshops including “Healthy Volunteers, Healthy Congregations,” “Getting Comfortable with Sharing the UU Gospel,” “Why Can’t We Grow?” “Are We Anti-Racist, or What?” “Raising Our Voices for Unitarian Universalism,” and, with other district Growth Consultants, “We’re On a Mission” (at the Mid-Size Church Conference); analyzed patterns of membership numbers throughout the district over a 10-year period and created a report to identify where and how we needed to focus growth efforts; staffed the district Extension Committee; preached and led worship at participating churches, and organized highly acclaimed annual Small Church Conferences. Training for the position included UUA Extension Training, as well as an Alban Institute workshop with Alice Mann. Particularly compelling to me were the challenges of moving from pastoral to program size, a considerable obstacle among our churches. I now have well-grounded insights into this dilemma.

While I served the district, I also engaged in other part-time roles, notably Consulting Minister, Channing UU Church, Edmond, OK (Dec, 2000-Dec, 2002) and as consultant for the UUA for development of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metropolitan Strategy for Growth (Sept., 2001-Dec, 2002). The former further acquainted me with the challenges that face small churches (about 50 members), gave me the opportunity to supervise a student minister and organize development of a Strategic Plan, and helped me with establishing clear limits and boundaries. The latter helped me learn to balance many competing agendas, develop consensus among a breadth of congregations, individuals and interest groups, and coordinate a tremendously exciting and innovative approach to growth.

Finally, in August, 2002, I began work with First Unitarian Church, Oklahoma City, for a few hours a week, which was expanded to 1/2 time in January, 2003, then to 3/4 time and a called ministry in 2005. My role as Program Minister has included: overseeing Covenant Groups; leading a task force to systematically review and revise Adult Religious Education and other adult programs; jump-starting a Young Adult Program; participation in worship (preaching about monthly) and religious education at all levels, including youth and Coming of Age programs; reorganizing from a church council to a team model for programming; working with the Lifespan Faith Development Team, Church Council, and then, Connections Team to better develop the organization; working with Membership Committee on improvements to welcoming newcomers and maintaining membership, and being part of the community organizing group VOICE (an IAF affiliate).

Views on Social Justice

A church concerned only with its self-perpetuation and care for its own membership does not deserve the name “church,” and is likely to fade into oblivion. Only by having a mission larger than ourselves, a mission to shape and change the community and the world, can we become fully who we are as a congregation.

Through my life, I have worked at a number of particular issues: BGLTIQ rights (including marriage equality), feminism, community-based services for people with disabilities, peace, anti-racism and multiculturalism, local food, environmentalism, economic justice, health care and more. Underlying all of them is my commitment to leave the world better than I found it as I live out the values I champion.

Community organizing has offered a tool for effective confrontation of the powerful to bring change. Since 2009, I have been involved with the organization that came to be VOICE (Voices Organized in Civic Engagement), a congregationally-based community organizing group affiliated with the IAF (Industrial Areas Foundation). The combination of leadership skills taught and the bridges built across differences of race, religion and even language has widened my world and that of my congregation. Plus, we prevented an electric rate increase, influenced the election of the Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction, educated the community about the state testing culture and the Affordable Care Act, and helped change the conversation around health care and corrections reform.

Theological Orientation: What is your dominant theology, and how do you deal with other Unitarian Universalist theologies with which you may not be in sympathy?

My theology is theistic, but open to a wide variety of points of view. My UU convictions suggest to me that truth can be found in every religious and theological viewpoint – and so can the trickster! I bring from my Southern Baptist background faith that God is Love. From my pagan training, I hold a commitment to a connection with the earth. I’m drawn to the flow of the Tao, the Christian mysticism of Julian of Norwich, the process theology of Whitehead – and believe that they’re all talking about much the same thing. The Hebrew prophets, the Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hahn, and 20th century humanists remind me that theology has to be played out in concrete ways in our daily lives. Much of my belief system is based around what has worked for me, how I want to be in the world. For example, I’m not sure that people are basically good. However, I do like myself better when I act as if people are basically good. I then appeal to their finer motivations, rather than their baser instincts.

This position, based perhaps in my great comfort with ambiguity, supports my work with those with whom I disagree theologically. I need not agree with a theological position to see how it works for someone else. I’m always open to the idea that I may be completely wrong. So, I can talk to my Southern Baptist relatives, my New Age and Unity friends, and the hardcore atheist in my congregation without defensiveness about my own positions, despite my not agreeing with theirs. After all, they may be right.

That said, Jesus remains an important figure for me, but I think of God as dwelling in the spaces between and among us, and even the spaces within molecules and in outer space. My personal spiritual practice is crucial for me to function as a minister, even as a human being.

Additional Information

What I haven’t named in the foregoing is my commitment to building bridges – among people, among ideas, and between people and ideas. Making connections is my mode of operation, and my mission in life.