Mormon president missionary at heart

Service: Clarence Johnson says his experience as a young man spreading the word of Christ was not unlike his work in the church today, urging kindness and compassion among the 2,500 members he serves.

March 30, 2001|By Diane Reynolds | Diane Reynolds,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

At a time in life when the typical young person is self-consumed, 20-year-old Clarence E. Johnson was knocking on doors in rural Mississippi, telling people about the saving power of Jesus Christ.

Johnson, now 61, has dedicated his life to serving God and recently was appointed Columbia stake president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is underscored by his vision:

"If I were somehow able to persuade people that they are children of God and that he loves them and desires to bless them, and if I could somehow help people understand how significant that really is, that is what I'd like to accomplish. If we view everyone around us as brothers and sisters of God ... that helps us treat each other with greater kindness, love, understanding and compassion."

In his new position, Johnson presides over a stake - the equivalent of a diocese - of six congregations totaling more than 2,500 members. The stake lies roughly between Route 97 in Howard County to the Anne Arundel County line, going south to the Patuxent River and north to the Pennsylvania border.

Like all who work in the Mormon Church, Johnson volunteers his time. He earns his livelihood as chief information officer at Optical Capital Group in Columbia. Yet it is apparent that the church is at the center of his life.

Johnson describes his youthful missionary work as pivotal. "Losing oneself in the service of others is an experience many young people don't have. Something occurs to a person inside when they are truly centered on serving other people. The love they experience helps transform them."

For Johnson, missionary work "is what planted my feet firmly and helped my understanding and testimony of the Gospel grow and helped me develop a closer relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. For a young man of 20 to be given that kind of responsibility and opportunity is unparalleled."

Was college teacher

After missionary work, Johnson returned to college, married and started a family. After teaching political science and history in several colleges, including Valley State College in North Dakota and Lake Michigan College in Michigan, Johnson and his family moved to Glenwood in 1979.

"I had many opportunities [to serve the Mormon Church here]," Johnson said. He served as bishop of the Columbia first ward and as counselor to former stake president C. Brent Bargeron. However, he notes of his new job: "You never know the full scope of it until you have it."

Asked why Johnson was chosen, his associates point out that people are called to such positions by God and cannot ascend merely by seniority. "We believe these callings come from the Lord. ... he was called because of his faithfulness to the Gospel and his ability to lead," said Erwin Schoeny, one of Johnson's two counselors.

According to Wanda Franklin, public affairs director for the stake, Johnson "is a very loving person, and you need a loving person. He is also a very good administrator and you need those two things, which are almost disparate. You also need to be guided by God."

Johnson's associates view him as humble and as an inspirational leader and speaker. "He's always been very kind and accepting," Schoeny said. "When I've felt I've made a mistake, he tells me what a great person I am."

"He's an extremely spiritual leader for our church," said Everard F. Cox, stake patriarch. "Everyone would follow him wherever he would go." He said that although Johnson recently had a heart attack, he is "feeling fine and is in great shape."

Challenges ahead

For Johnson, the biggest challenge he anticipates as stake president is that "many people think the church is old-fashioned in terms of family, ethics and integrity. Society is moving in one direction, and we're trying to pull it back. We think the family is the most important unit in society, and we do all we can to try to strengthen families and the ties between husbands and wives and parents and children."

The father of six children, ranging in age from 36 to 13, Johnson finds that "nothing brings me greater joy than my family."

Schoeny concurs: "His children love him a lot. He's a very devoted husband and father."

For Johnson, faith is at the core of a life that "has been blessed in many ways. By trying to live by the Gospel, I have found a greater degree of happiness and joy than I would have found had I not had it."

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