The Rev. Dr. William R. Johnson (born June 12, 1946 in Houston, Texas) was the first openly gay person ordained in the United Church of Christ (UCC) and the first such person ordained in the Christian Church in modern times. The historic ordination took place on June 25, 1972, at the Community United Church of Christ in San Carlos, California. His ordination is the subject of the documentary film, A Position of Faith (1973; released on video in 2005). Throughout his career, Bill has provided counsel and support to hundreds of LGBT seminarians and clergypersons in the United Church of Christ and ecumenically. Bill was the primary author of the extensive body of social justice policies regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons adopted by UCC General Synods and UCC Executive Council dating back to 1973.
Prior to coming out as a gay seminarian on November 11, 1970, Bill served as student pastor of UCC congregations in Donnellson and Franklin, Iowa; Kent,Washington; and San Carlos, California. He also served an industrial chaplaincy internship in an electronics factory in Chicago and as a hospital chaplaincy intern at Highland General Hospital in Oakland, California. Upon graduation from seminary in May, 1971, he was called by the Southern California Conference of the UCC to a specialized ministry among unchurched individuals. Returning to the Bay Area in October 1972, he served as executive director of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual from 1973-76 and taught in the Women’s Studies Program at San Francisco State University during the 1976-77 academic year.
In 1972, Bill Johnson was founder of the UCC Gay Caucus (also known as the UCC Gay & Lesbian Caucus or UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns). The Coalition is now known as the UCC Open and Affirming Coalition. Bill served as national coordinator for The Coalition from 1972-77 and in the 1980s as editor of The Coalition newsletter, WAVES . He traveled widely as a community organizer advocating the full inclusion of LGBT people in the UCC. In the late 1970s, he proposed that The Coalition hold an annual “National Gathering” of Coalition members, the first of which was held in 1981.
In 1974, Bill co-edited/authored (with Sally Gearhart) Loving Women/Loving Men: Gay Liberation and the Church. In 1976, Bill and revered lesbian activist, Phyllis Lyon, organized and facilitated the first gatherings of parents of lesbians and gays in San Francisco. That group evolved into what is now P-FLAG/San Francisco.
In 1977, Bill moved to New York City to live with Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet. When their coupling ended in 1978, they became neighbors and remained close friends until Vito’s death in November 1990. At Vito’s request, Bill officiated at the funeral service. In NYC, Bill worked briefly for the Lutheran Church in America and the United Presbyterian Church before becoming the office secretary at the Madison Avenue Baptist Church, a block away from the UCC national office, in September 1978.
In the Spring of 1978, Bill founded Maranatha: Riversiders for Lesbian/Gay Concerns at The Riverside Church in New York City, the first parish-based LGBT ministry in the United Church of Christ. Maranatha remains a vital presence in the life of Riverside Church. In 1979, he was a contributing author to Positively Gay: New Approaches to Gay and Lesbian Life , edited by Betty Berzon (revised and updated in 1992 and 2001).
In January 1981, the UCC Office for Church in Society created a job for Bill, making him a “staff associate” at $500/month with no benefits. By 1983, OCIS could no longer fund the position so Bill worked for a year as a temporary employee with a number of corporate offices in Manhattan. With his usual good humor, he referred to himself as a “duly ordained word processor.” In the fall of 1984, he joined the staff of the New York law firm of Stuart, Zavin, Sinnreich and Wasserman as a legal secretary. A liberal firm, the partners supported his continued justice activism by providing paid time off to attend UCC General Synod, Coalition and LGBT meetings.
As the HIV/AIDS epidemic grew in NYC in the early 1980s, Bill became a caregiver for numerous friends. His friend and colleague, Michael Collins, was among the first people in New York to be stricken with what was then a mysterious, unnamed disease. As the epidemic grew, Bill offered his services as a pastoral counselor, sex educator, care partner and volunteer on the National AIDS Hotline. When, in 1988, he learned the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries was looking for a part-time consultant in HIV/AIDS ministry, he applied and got the job, which soon evolved into a full-time position. In 1989, UCC members organized as Christians for Justice Action gave Bill its annual Burning Bush Award in recognition of his activist leadership in church and society.
In 1990, Bill was elected to the UCC national staff as a Program Minister of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, Division of the American Missionary Association, and served as Minister for HIV/AIDS Ministries and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns for 11 years. In that position he helped establish the AIDS National Interfaith Network, which he served as Program Officer and as Interim Executive Director; established the United Church HIV/AIDS Network; and co-authored, with Cindy Bowman, the multi-generational UCC AIDS prevention curriculum, Affirming Persons-Saving Lives, the first such curriculum designed for use in Christian education settings (1993). In 1999, he hosted “Called Out for Good,” a consultation with openly gay, lesbian and bisexual UCC pastors focused on the special challenges and concerns of being out in parish ministry. With Loey Powell, he advocated for domestic partner benefits for LGBT employees of the UCC national setting, which were put into place by the UCC Pension Boards in 1996. He provided leadership for the UCC on numerous issues including ending discrimination in the Boy Scouts of America, equal marital rights for same gender couples, bullying and harassment in public schools, and ending hate-related violence. He created a variety of resources for UCC congregations including Open and Affirming: A Journey of Faith (a welcoming congregation video and resource book); Circle of Grace (nine Bible study lesson plans); and two volumes of Preach Out! (compilations of LGBT affirming sermons by UCC pastors).
Bill organized the first national consultation of UCC bisexual members in 1999, and the first national consultation with UCC transgender members in 2001. He served as executive producer of the documentary video, Bisex-u-al (2001). While on the UCC national staff, he supervised three UCC seminary interns: Sean Murray, Kate Huey and Darryl Kistler, now UCC clergy; and one UCC college student, Eric C. Smith.
In 1999, the Board of Directors of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries committed $500,000 to create the William R. Johnson Scholarship Fund for openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender UCC seminarians studying to be parish ministers. Beginning in 2001, an average of 8 to 10 scholarships have been awarded annually from the endowment income, which has grown with additional contributions to more than $900,000.
In the reorganization of the United Church of Christ national setting in 2000, Bill Johnson became the Executive for Health and Wholeness Advocacy and Minister for HIV/AIDS and Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Concerns in Wider Church Ministries (WCM) of the UCC.
In January 2002, Bill was called to the administrative position of Executive Associate to the Executive Minister of Wider Church Ministries (WCM), leaving behind 30 years of work on behalf of LGBT people of faith and their loved ones. He served as Executive Associate to two WCM Executive Ministers, Dale Bishop and Olivia Masih White, overseeing a 28-person staff. During his tenure with WCM, Bill envisioned and initiated work on the feature-length documentary film, Call Me Malcolm , for which he served as an executive producer.
Bill served on the founding National Advisory Board of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry (now the Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion) at the Pacific School of Religion. He also served on the founding national Advisory Committee of the LGBT Religious Archives Network. He founded and serves as coordinator for Elmhurst College Gay and Lesbian Alumni. In 1992, he received the Elmhurst College Alumni Merit Award and was the subject of a profile in the Elmhurst College magazine, Prospect, in the summer of 2010. On National Coming Out Day in 2011, the college named its annual LGBT lecture in his honor, the William R. Johnson Intercultural Lecture.
In January 2005, Johnson was called to serve in the telecommuting position of Vice President for Member Relations with the UCC Council for Health and Human Service Ministries. The Council consists of 80 UCC-related corporations that operate more than 360 facilities and programs that provide primary and acute health care services, services to persons with disabilities, services to children, youth and families, and services to the aging. In 2010, his title was changed to Vice President as he assumed new responsibilities. Bill served in that position until April 1, 2013.
In July 2012, the Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas, TX presented Bill with its annual Hero of Hope Award, in recognition of a lifetime of service to the LGBT and ecumenical communities. In the fall of 2012 his ordination robe and stole were featured in an exhibit curated by Brian McNaught at the Stonewall National Museum & Archives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. His ordination robe and stole are in the museum’s permanent collection of LGBT artifacts.
Bill Johnson retied rom active ministry on July 1, 2013 at the 29th UCC General Synod in Long Beach, CA, ending 41 years of service. In retirement, Bill writes and accepts speaking engagements to share his experiences as a Christian gay activist minister.
Bill is a graduate of Elmhurst College (BA, 1968), the Pacific School of Religion (MDiv, 1971), and the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality (EdD, 1977). In New York City he was a member of The Riverside Church. After moving to Cleveland in 1991, he was a founding member of Liberation UCC in 1993, where he sang in the church choir and served in a variety of roles over 19 years, including treasurer and moderator of the congregation. In October 2012, Bill moved to Pilgrim Place, a UCC-related continuing care retirement community in Claremont, California and joined the Claremont United Church of Christ. He participates in Another Voice, the LGBT community at Claremont UCC.
Biographical statement provided by William R. Johnson for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Religious Archives Network
Honor our Distinguished Alumni/ae at the Alumni/ae Banquet on Saturday, March 18th, 2017 as part of our Earl and Boswell Lectures