Pastor of Caring Ministry and Special Needs Ministry
While sitting in church one day, The Woodlands UMC’s Pastor of Caring Ministry, Joy Johnston, began to wonder what it would be like to preach.
It seemed like the sharpest of turns for her. After studying geology at Purdue University in her native Indiana, Joy was working as a hydrogeologist for a company dealing with issues related to hazardous waste. In addition, she was relatively new to church, having only started attending when she and her husband, Joel, needed to find a place to get married. Nonetheless, Joy says she always “felt a call towards God and being connected.”
“I looked into how to get into ministry — quietly on my own — and thought, ‘This could never work,’” she says. “Because at that point I had a six-month-old and a just-turned-four-year-old at home. But eventually God worked all of those details out, and I was able to apply and got a scholarship to go to SMU Perkins School of Theology.”
Her new career seemed off to a great start when she was offered the role of senior pastor at Splendora’s Countryside UMC upon finishing seminary, but then yet another unexpected development reshaped her trajectory once more. Not long after she took over the small, aging church in a poverty-stricken part of East Montgomery County, her congregation began getting sick and, in many cases, dying.
“It was an older congregation, and I found myself doing several funerals,” Joy says. “In that experience, I just developed this passion for working with people when they’re grieving and hurting.”
As she walked through the troubled times with these families, she began to realize something many who knew her had already noticed: she cared. Many of her peers spotted this gift early on, including three pastors at The Woodlands UMC who would eventually pave the way for her to come work at the church: her pal Susan Kent, now Pastor for Local Missions and Women’s Ministry, as well as Pastor of Connecting Ministry Jason Nelson and Pastor of Caring Ministry Cliff Ritter — both of whom attended SMU with Joy.
“I have this real compassion for other things,” Joy says, “so getting involved in environmental engineering, working with hazardous waste and all of that was another way to pour into caring for God’s earth. And then as I just got more and more involved in church, I was able to connect that heart with God’s call to care for creation and to care for people and to just simply care. So therefore, apparently I was called to caring ministries; I was just the last one to know.”
When The Woodlands UMC approached her about joining the church’s Caring Ministry department, Joy knew it was the right step to take, even if it meant leading her away from preaching regularly.
Since joining the staff in July 2015, her days have been filled with doing the gritty but vital work of the church.
“Primarily what that entails is caring for people when they’re in a time of need or crisis,” Joy says.
As the various worship services at The Woodlands UMC grow, it becomes more difficult for the teaching pastors like Dr. Ed Robb, Mark Sorensen, Bert Snyder, Rob Renfroe, Susan Kent, Jason Nelson and Brent Parker to spend time with everyone going through a rough season. That’s where Joy, Cliff, and their Caring Ministry colleagues step in to offer support.
“Because those congregations now are so large, the pastors just can’t do all they need to do and also visit all of the people,” she says. “I feel like I’m a pastor for them too. That’s part of my call — to help them care for their folks.”
The Caring Ministry department is particularly focused on supporting the community with relation to alcohol abuse, domestic violence, suicide prevention and mental health/illness.
“Those are areas where there just seems to be a groundswell of need lately, so I want to be able to help raise awareness and reduce some of the stigma that goes with all of those things and help people get the help that they need,” Joy says.
Whatever the struggle, Joy’s job is to be the church’s first point-of-contact for people going through a tough time.
“We’re here to visit you in the hospital,” she says. “We want to know if you’re ill. We want to come and pray for you. We want to visit with you. Call and let me know. It’s the best deal in town — there’s no charge.”
In the winter of 2017, Joy expanded her role to include being Pastor of Special Needs Ministry, a natural fit for her. She truly loves sharing the Gospel of God’s love to all people and caring for those in need. She feels blessed to be a part of a church that offers worship services and Sunday school classes designed specifically for those with special needs and their families.
Joy and her husband, Joel, have three children: Evija, Jeremiah and Josie.