Trygve Johnson: the Man Behind the Pulpit

JOHNSON DISCUSSES HOW HE FOSTERS RELATIONSHIPS AT HOPE COLLEGE.


Johnson gives the 2012 baccalaureate sermon. Photo courtesy of hope.edu

The Rev. Dr. Trygve Johnson, the Hinga-Boersma Dean of the Chapel at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, sits quietly in his chair, sipping his creamer-infused coffee out of a deep blue Hope College mug. His John-Travolta-esque gaze is somber and contemplative – introverted – far from the energetic eloquence he shares at the pulpit. His eyes brighten, as he begins talking about different relationships he has fostered at Hope College.

Johnson’s coworkers, like his secretary Lori Bouwman, appreciate him for his vision and ability to connect small facets of the Hope community to develop a big picture of the campus’s future. Many of these facets stem from relationships Johnson builds campus-wide at Hope.

Dead Preachers Society (DPS) is one way that Johnson nurtures relationships with students. According to the group’s mission statement, it is a “society dedicated to the exploration, through study and practice, [of] the arts of Christian proclamation.”

Junior Nathan Longfield, a religion major at Hope, is a member of DPS. Longfield says his relationship with Johnson has developed quite a bit since joining DPS. “We acknowledge each other in probably a little more real sense,” Longfield says. Although he and Johnson don’t stop and engage in conversation every time they see each other, Longfield says he knows that he can always approach Johnson.

Although DPS is primarily a way for students pursuing ministry to grow and develop in their faith, Johnson also uses it to encourage relationships between the students involved. Sometimes, deeper relationships result between group members, which are an added bonus.


HH: A little bird told me that you played a pretty big role in interim chaplains Dan and Grace Claus dating in college. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

TJ: Oh yeah! I take sole responsibility for that. (Laughs). I’ve known Dan and Grace since they were freshmen at Hope, and I invited them to DPS. I can’t actually take credit for their relationship at all, but I did think, “I think the world of Grace, and I respect Grace. And I think the world of Dan, and I respect Dan.” I thought maybe they would click, so I arranged for both of them to be student representatives at the Reformed Church of America General Senate meeting, and it did click. They started dating.

HH: As a pastor of so many students, how do you establish relationships on Hope’s campus beyond the students you meet with one-on-one or in groups like DPS?

TJ: Even though my title is Dean of the Chapel, I’m a pastor at heart. You can’t pastor without relationships, so I always think about my work in terms of relationship. This can be difficult at Hope because of how often the student body fluctuates. Every year, there’s a swing of 1,600 names with students coming to Hope and graduating. It’s impossible to have relationship with that many people.

So, I’ve tried to create a canopy of relationships, making sure that the people on the Campus Ministries staff and team are nurturing relationships. Chaplain Paul Boersma can walk around campus and say “hi” to 10 different people. I might walk across campus and have a meaningful conversation with one other person. We are different, and students connect with us all differently, so it’s good to have that diversity.

But overall I think the most important thing is to just love people. Come alongside them. The key is that no one wants to feel like a project. You need to work to know who they are and where they’re at in life.

HH: I talked to Paul Boersma, and he said that one of the ways you try to nurture those relationships from the start is by creating videos, like the “Frozen” cover you did at the beginning of this year. Can you tell me more about the purpose of those videos?

TJ: Paul Boersma and Paul Genzink, who was the videographer, thought of the idea for the “Love is an Open Door” video. It was meant to be a fun way to kick off the school year. We had overwhelmingly positive feedback from both students and alumni, especially alumni with kids. Our goal was to find a fun way to introduce ourselves to the freshmen, and I think it helped make students feel like we are all more approachable, at least I hope it did.

HH: Something else that you introduce early on in the school year is the “October Rule,” encouraging freshmen to wait until October to start a romantic relationship. How did you come up with that idea?

TJ: I was a junior at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, and I worked as a resident assistant (RA). My friend Keith Starkenburg was also an RA, and we were trying to think of ways to positively influence our residents.

I should preface this story by saying that Keith and I have two very different dating stories. I started dating a girl after my first couple of weeks in college: it was kind of an orientation romance. By October, the relationship was completely sideways and was a total train wreck. Keith, on the other hand, started dating someone, and they’ve been married for about 20 years now.

Anyway, Keith and I noticed a pattern of bad relationships forming in the first couple weeks of school. So he mentioned that we should start an “October Rule” to encourage people not to date during the first month of the school year. Keith just mentioned this in passing, but I took the idea and started promoting it within my dorm.

This really all stems from some practical pastoral wisdom. With the anxiety of starting college, students tend to gravitate to things that will meet deep, emotional needs. Relationships can fulfill this. But in order to have meaningful relationships, you need to have a clear head, eyes and heart. You need to give yourself permission to not feel pressured to date, and the October Rule provides this permission.

Five years later, I was back at Northwestern working as a chaplain. At a service, I presented the October Rule, and it caught on with the student body. Since then, I’ve continued to present the October Rule message to students in every orientation sermon that I give. And with that, it has caught on at Hope, too. And even though I’ve been gone from Northwestern for a decade, the students still recognize the October Rule.

The Campus Ministries team provides podcasts of all of their sermons. In this sermon, from Oct. 3, 2014, Johnson lifts the October Rule.

HH: Where the October Rule applies to first semester freshmen year, the idea of “ring by spring” is pretty common across Hope’s campus. What is your take on the phenomenon?

Dimnent Chapel at Hope College. Photo courtesy of wikimedia.org

TJ: Honestly, I don’t really think about it. It’s pretty overblown. I think that it speaks to a longing, not a reality. At any college where the student body is made up of 18-22 year olds, students will feel like this. It doesn’t matter what your religious background is, if you’re secular, or what culture you come from.

The idea really gets magnified. If you took a survey of all the students who are actually engaged by the spring semester of their senior year, I bet it is a really minute percentage. There’s not an epidemic of people getting married after college.

But “ring by spring” does speak to a true desire: the desire for belonging, love, intimacy and a future. Those desires are something I take seriously; I think everyone should take those seriously.

It’s important to realize that getting married young also isn’t always a bad thing. If someone falls in love, it’s an awesome thing. If you find someone whom you really love, and you want to do life together, then you should. It shouldn’t be mocked or taken lightly; it should be taken seriously. It’s not always better to wait or put your career first. But nor do you need to feel bad if a relationship doesn’t happen to you by your senior year.

HH: Obviously your job focuses on a lot more than just romantic relationships. How do you maintain cohesive relationships across campus, especially when faced with controversial issues?

TJ: If there is a controversy on campus, whether with students, faculty or both, I first try to find the source of the party’s concern. Then I’ll give them call or send them an email and try to set up a time to meet with them and talk about it.

The problem is that in my position, or any position of leadership, I’m often talked about more than I’m talked to. I’m a metaphor for a lot of people. People will make assumptions based on whatever they want that metaphor to be, whether positive or negative, before ever having a conversation. I really encourage conversation and want people to talk about issues face-to-face, rather than behind someone’s back. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. You can call that whatever academic term you want, but it’s slander, and that’s not okay. Instead, let’s talk to each other.

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