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Garrett-Evangelical Graduate Supports Seminary Through Gift Annuities

Garrett-Evangelical Graduate Supports Seminary Through Gift Annuities

Rev. Deborah Johnson (G-ETS '81) heard her call while working in campus ministry at Iowa State University.

She had grown up in Northern Michigan near Cadillac and went to college at Central Michigan University, where she majored in education. She had planned to become an elementary school teacher, she said, but later changed her mind after becoming involved with the Wesley Foundation on campus. Instead of being a teacher after she graduated in 1974, she accepted a two-year position in campus ministry at Iowa State.

"It was in the practice of doing my ministry, I realized my call," she said. With the encouragement of Gary Putnam, the campus minister and a Garrett-Evangelical graduate, Johnson explored going to seminary and ultimately chose Garrett-Evangelical for three reasons. First, she was impressed with the number of women enrolled in the master of divinity program at Garrett-Evangelical, and second, she wanted to live in a city.

"I had grown up in rural Michigan, and I was planning to come back to Michigan and serve, so I thought that if I were ever to live in a big city, this was my chance," she said.

Her third reason for attending seminary at Garrett-Evangelical was many of the pastors she knew had gone to Garrett-Evangelical. "My reasoning was, these people went to Garrett-Evangelical and learned to be a pastor, so maybe I could too," she said.

She enrolled in the fall of 1977 and enjoyed her experience tremendously. "It was so fun," she recalled. "I had never had a woman pastor growing up, and there were women pastors all over the place at Garrett-Evangelical." Her first advisor was Rosemary Radford Ruether, which she said, "was like sitting at the feet of a saint."

At the time, she said, Garrett-Evangelical was paying attention to the fact that women in seminary needed to meet with other women and learn things differently. "We had a class in pastoral care for women and a class on church administration for women, where we learned about boilers and tuck pointing and other things we might not have known about" she said. "It was great community building with other women students, but also very practical."

After graduating in 1981, Johnson became the pastor of the Manton United Methodist Church, about 20 minutes from where her parents were living. "It was like coming home," she said.

Four years later, she moved to the Marne United Methodist Church in Marne, Michigan, near Grand Rapids, where she was the pastor for five years. After that, she helped start a church in Hudsonville, Michigan and served there for seven years. In 1997, she moved to Lansing Asbury United Methodist Church and served there for 11 years until she moved to the Sturgis United Methodist Church in Sturgis, Michigan. She retired from that church in 2014.

She said she was known for creating programs and her mission work. "I had a real emphasis on mission in all of the churches I served," she said.

Throughout her ministry, Johnson stayed connected to Garrett-Evangelical, meeting and mentoring students. In 2005, Bill Amundsen, a retired minister in Michigan who was serving as a part-time development associate for the seminary, visited her. "He took me to lunch and told me how he supported the seminary each year through gift annuities, and said, 'This is something you could do for Garrett-Evangelical,'" she recalled. "It was a good time in my ministry for me to do that, so I agreed."

Johnson took out her first gift annuity in 2005, and she has continued to take out one or more gift annuities each year since then, a total of 22-thus far! It has been an easy, but meaningful way to support Garrett-Evangelical, she said, and each year the rate of return on the new gift annuity is a bit higher because she is a year older. She has requested that the proceeds from her annuities be used to fund an endowed scholarship in her name.

When Johnson retired in 2014 she was pleased when the lay leaders in her church encouraged the congregation - and former congregations served by Johnson - to add to the scholarship in her name at Garrett-Evangelical. People from every congregation she served contributed to the fund. "I didn't need gifts when I retired, but people wanted to give me something. It was very touching," she said.

Although Johnson is technically retired, she still guest preaches at area churches She is also serving as chair of board of the Wesley Foundation at Ferris State University and working with the campus ministry there, coming full circle from where she began.

If you are interested in learning more about gift annuities, and if they might be right for you, visit our website,, or contact David Heetland at [email protected]