2011-08-11 / Faith
Loss and scandal have led pastor to higher spiritual plain
The 51-year-old minister says the motto reflects his own failings in life.
A rising star in theological circles, several years ago Johnson became the senior pastor at Calvary Community Church, a congregation of about 4,000 in Westlake Village.
But in 2007, Johnson had an extramarital affair that became public—causing his life to unravel and leading to his resignation as Calvary’s spiritual leader.
The affair led to the end of his 28-year marriage and the loss of all things he once valued, but Johnson said the experience also taught him valuable lessons in grace, forgiveness and emotional healing.
“It’s given me a lot of passion for people who struggle with their choices,” said Johnson, who re-charted his life and became the leader of a new congregation called Life Change Community Church, founded in late 2009 by a group of worshippers eager to establish in the Conejo-Las Virgenes area.
The congregation, which has about 300 regular attendees, hosted its first weekly service in January 2010 at the Edwards movie theater in Calabasas.
When the movie theater became unavailable for rentals earlier this year, services were moved to the Renaissance (now the Sheraton) Hotel in Agoura Hills.
In addition to offering contemporary worship and services at 10:30 a.m. every Sunday at the Sheraton, the church organizes weekly Bible study groups and a range of ministries for all ages.
It also hosts a Christian-based 12-step program called Celebrate Recovery at The Bridge Church in Newbury Park, as well as several humanitarian programs.
Congregants recently served breakfast at a San Fernando Valley homeless shelter. They’ve collected about 280 pounds of food for a local pantry and helped build homes with Habitat for Humanity.
The son of an Indiana pastor, Johnson said God called him to follow in his father’s footsteps at age 17.
He obtained his Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and ministered at several churches in the South for two decades before moving to California to take a teaching pastor job at Saddleback Church.
The large church in Orange County was founded by the Rev. Rick Warren, who has written several Christian best-sellers, including “The Purpose Driven Life.”
In 2003, Johnson was chosen as lead pastor at Calvary Community Church. While he said the experience was golden, the new pressures and responsibilities came at a price.
“I used to believe I succeeded early. But with that was a lot of fear. I was more insecure than I believed I could show,” he said.
“I felt I had to show I was a good leader, smarter, wiser and stronger than I was. I thought leaders are not supposed to show their vulnerability.”
To get back on the right path after his resignation from Calvary, Johnson sought guidance from God through prayer. He also joined a 12-step recovery group and took medication to heal his depression.
Johnson said his challenges have allowed him to become a better spiritual leader.
“Now I show a more authentic life. I don’t have all the answers, and I think that rings more true with people,” he said.
Life Change Elder Russ Sands said Johnson’s personal travails allowed him to become more understanding and perceptive of other people’s needs.
“It was hard-earned, but he has a lot of credibility with people because he’s been honest and forthright. He’s really redeemed his life through this process,” Sands said, adding that Johnson showed courage when he decided to remain in the area despite the criticism thrown his way.
Sands, who lives in San Francisco and spends half of his time in Southern California to be near his daughter and her family, attended Calvary during Johnson’s four-year tenure at the megachurch.
He said Life Change founders sought Johnson as a pastor because he’s an energetic and forthright leader and teacher.
“When he’s preaching, I feel like he’s talking right to me. He’s unique in his ability to do that,” Sands said.
He said Life Change offers a safe haven for people from all walks of life because the church’s leadership and congregation are unprejudiced.
“People are welcome as they are. That’s not typical amongst churches. It’s a place where imperfect people can become part of a fellowship without being judged, where they can explore their spiritual relationship with God and be accepted,” he said.
To learn more about Life Change or view one of Johnson’s recorded sermons, visit the church’s website at www.lifechangecommunity.org/lc3.