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 history of Christianity. His ordination took place on June 25, 1972 at the Community UCC in San Carlos, California, authorized by the Golden Gate Association of the Northern California/Nevada Conference UCC. His ordination is the subject of the Michael Rhodes documentary film, A Position of Faith (1973; released on video in 2005). Throughout his career, Bill provided counsel and support to hundreds of LGBT seminarians and clergypersons in the UCC 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 the UCC Executive Council dating back to 1973.
After graduating from Elmhurst College, Elmhurst, IL in May 1968 (BA, English), Bill served a summer as student pastor at St. Paul UCC in Donnellson, IA and St. Peter UCC, Franklin, IA. That fall, he began his seminary studies at the Pacific School of Religion (PSR), Berkeley, CA. During his seminary years (1968-1971) Bill served as youth minister at Community UCC, San Carlos, CA; student pastor at St. Andrew UCC, Kent, WA (now United Christian Church, Renton, WA); and as interim associate pastor at Community UCC, San Carlos, CA. He also completed an industrial chaplaincy internship at the Wells Gardner Electronics factory in Chicago, IL (under the auspices of the Presbyterian Institute for Industrial Relations) and was a chaplaincy intern at Highland General Hospital in Oakland, CA. Bill received his Master of Divinity degree from PSR in May 1971.
In the fall of 1970, students and faculty at Graduate Theological Union (GTU) seminaries in Berkeley organized a “Gay Seminarians” support group. Having embraced his gay identity that summer, Bill became active in the new group. On November 11, 1970, the Gay Seminarians hosted a public forum on homosexuality and the church for the GTU community, attracting some 400 attendees. During the event, Bill came out publicly as a gay Christian and affirmed his intention to be ordained in the United Church of Christ.
In the UCC, Bill could not pursue ordination until he received a call to a specific ministry of the church. In January 1971, Bill was called to coordinate a house church development ministry in greater Los Angeles initiated by the Southern California/Nevada Conference, UCC. He led a team of UCC lay leaders who provided guidance to a number of house church starts. Bill was in this position when he was ordained in San Carlos. The house church program ended in October 1972 when funding ceased.
Bill Johnson founded the UCC Gay Caucus in 1972 (now the UCC Open & Affirming), aka “The Coalition.” He served as national coordinator for the Gay Caucus/Coalition from 1972-77. 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 the 1980s, as editor of The Coalition newsletter, WAVES .
Back in the Bay Area, Bill served as executive director of the Council on Religion and the Homosexual from 1973-76 and taught a “Men’s Liberation” class in the Women's Studies Program at San Francisco State University during the 1976-77 academic year. In 1974, Bill co-edited/authored (with Sally Miller Gearhart) Loving Women/Loving Men: Gay Liberation and the Church. In 1976, he and revered lesbian activist, Phyllis Lyon, organized and facilitated the first gatherings of parents of lesbians and gays in San Francisco, a group that evolved into P-FLAG/San Francisco.
In May, 1977, Bill complete requirements for the degree Doctor of Education at the Institute for Advance Study of Human Sexuality in San Francisco. That summer, Bill moved to New York City to live with Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet, whom he had met at a Gay Academic Union conference in Long Beach, CA. Their coupling ended but they remained neighbors and good friends. 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 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 “staff associate” job for Bill 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, referring to himself as a “duly ordained word processor.” In the fall of 1984, he joined the law firm of Stuart, Zavin, Sinnreich and Wasserman as a legal secretary. The liberal law partners supported Bill’s continuing justice activism and provided paid time off to attend UCC General Synods and Coalition and other LGBT events.
As the HIV/AIDS epidemic grew in NYC in the early 1980s, Bill became a caregiver for numerous friends. His friend and colleague, Rev. Michael Collins, was among the first people in New York to be stricken with the new, mysterious and 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. In 1988, the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries sought a part-time consultant in HIV/AIDS ministry. Bill successfully applied for the job. In 1989, UCC Christians for Justice Action gave Bill its 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). The curriculum includes two videos – “In the Time of Adversity” and “Living with AIDS” for which Bill served as Executive Producer.
With Rev. 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 issues ranging from discrimination in the Boy Scouts of America, to 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. In 1999, Bill 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. That same year, he organized a national consultation of UCC bisexual members in 1999 and created a task group on transgender concerns in the church. In 2001 he hosted a national consultation at the UCC national offices with transgender UCC members. Bill also served as executive producer of the documentary video, Bisex-u-al (28 min.; 2001) and of the feature length documentary, Call Me Malcolm (2005). 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 $1 million. When the UCC national setting was reorganized beginning in 2000, Bill became 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 serve as Executive Associate to the Executive Minister of Wider Church Ministries (WCM), serving two WCM executives in three years, Dale Bishop and Olivia Masih White, and overseeing a 28-person staff.
Bill served on the founding National Advisory Board of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry 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 as Vice President for Member Relations with the UCC Council for Health and Human Service Ministries (CHHSM), an association of 80 UCC-related corporations operating more than 360 facilities and programs. CHHSM members 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, FL. His ordination robe and stole are in the museum's permanent collection of LGBT artifacts.
Bill Johnson retired from active ministry on July 1, 2013 at the 29th UCC General Synod in Long Beach, CA, having served in ministry for 41 years. In New York City, Bill was a member of The Riverside Church and, later, of Judson Memorial Church. After moving to Cleveland, OH 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 not-for-profit continuing care retirement community in Claremont, California, founded in 1915. He is a member of Claremont UCC, an open and affirming church.
(This biographical statement provided by William R. Johnson.)
Biography Date: November, 2002
“We were in the Belmont UCC in the days after Bill's ordination was voted in the San Carlos UCC down the road. The very folks who had to vote NO on him were able to vote NO on me but it was among a very tiny number, 4-6 votes from our whole church. I know how much people have grown, come to love and understand the ONA process and the LGBT folks who serve and are members in these two congregations. Bill was the inspiration for us to keep AIDS ministries at the larger church level with vision and mission. Generally, he is just a good, genuine, fun-loving guy whom we have appreciated for decades!”
– as remembered by Rev. Wendy Taylor on November 9, 2014