What are you thinking!?

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by Kyle Johnson

Proclaim member
Seminarian studying at
the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

“Kyle, what are you thinking!?”

In early 2014, I started seriously considering a call to ordination.  Never one to plunge head-first into anything, I shared this news slowly, one person at a time, to close friends, colleagues, and pastors from my past.  I distinctly remember a common response:

“Kyle, what are you thinking!?”

Their astonishment was understandable, I suppose.  I was serving as a chapel musician, university organist, and music lecturer at the time.  My professional life to that point had included earning three degrees in music, several years of college teaching work, and 20+ years of church music experience.  Now I wanted to become one of “them?”

“Kyle, what are you thinking!?”

It was like coming out all over again.  But “coming out” implies motion, movement from one self-understanding to another.  And my movement from the organ console to the pulpit, though frustratingly slow at times, has felt rather natural thus far.

I think this may be because I have many fantastic role models who understand the potential of the music-ministry intersection.  My current pastor and fellow Proclaim member, James Boline, was the first pastor I called in my vocational “coming out.”  Jim is a trained musician, and shared with me his own process of discernment: “I had to decide whether I was a pastoral musician, or a musical pastor.”

Then there was a call to Phyllis Garrett, my childhood pastor from First United Methodist Church in Eureka, Kansas, who is now over 90 years old and still an active pastor.  She graduated from the same ELCA college I did (Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas…GO SWEDES!) and taught music for several years before going to seminary.  Phyllis gave me my first informal organ lessons when I was a young teenager.  When I “came out” to her about my new call, she chuckled dismissively:

“Oh, I’m not surprised.”

Finally, I had the opportunity last year to do some interim cantor work under pastor and Proclaim member Keith Fry.  I could see that his professional experience as a church musician allowed him to thoughtfully discern where his congregation was musically.  He was equipped to articulate his musical vision for his congregation, and trusted me to take the first baby steps in nudging the congregation towards that vision.

Jim, Phyllis, and Keith understand the amazing potential that arises from the intersection of music and ordained ministry.  Through them, I have witnessed first-hand how that understanding has translated into vibrant, boundary-expanding worship that is exploratory yet strives for excellence.  The calls I feel to be both a professional musician and a minister of Word and Sacrament are not mutually exclusive; rather they combine to become an invitation to explore a (frustratingly yet-to-be-well-defined) vocation filled with rich potential for unique service.

At least, that’s what I’m thinking.


Kyle Johnson is a second-year M.Div. student at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  He earned the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in organ performance from the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, where he studied with John Ditto.  He also holds music degrees from Bethany College and Indiana University, studying organ with Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra and Larry Smith, respectively.  In recent years he has found a great deal of artistic satisfaction in composing sacred choral and organ works, and has titles published through Augsburg Fortress, Colla Voce Music, MorningStar Music Publishers, Santa Barbara Music Publishers, and World Library Publications.  His website is: www.kylejohnsonmusic.com.

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