School of Divinity

Lynn Gunnar Johnson, PhD

Leadership Coach and Consultant.

Lynn Johnson sitting by a lake

Before graduating from Yale (BA 1961), I had been accepted for graduate study at Union Theological Seminary in New York. The only problem was that I was uncertain whether I really wanted to enter the ministry. So I met the problem head on: by taking a detour to Ghana in West Africa to teach English for the next two years. There was time for reflection, and a lot of reading (eg. William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience), but at the end of my two year contract I was no less clear. So I thought I needed to dig into some serious theology, and perhaps studying in a different environment would provide some new perspectives. I had heard that Edinburgh had an outstanding School of Divinity, so I set my sights on New College, arriving in September 1963.

Memories

My housing during the Fall, 1963 semester was in the town, where I had a room in a private home that operated as a lodging house. There was no central heating, and each room had a space heater that took a shilling for an hour of heat – provided you sat right next to it. The landlady delivered a hot rock at 9pm in the evening and deposited it under your covers. Each roomer was allowed one bath per week.

In my second semester I moved into the college residence hall. Much more comfortable in every respect. One recollection is of the third-year students stopping by very late at night – sipping tea, chatting amiably – very relaxed, it seemed to me, about their impending final comprehensive exams in Greek and Hebrew.

There was a chap in one of my classes who never got used to the Castle cannon going off. Startled, he seemed almost to levitate whenever the BOOM occurred, to the delight of the rest of the class.

I thought it was terrific that the faculty – still wearing their academic gowns – would join us in the Rainy Hall for lunch and mix with the students.

Two memories are associated with then-Principal John Burleigh. A tall, former military man with an imposing presence, Professor Burleigh was an Augustine scholar. On the first day of his course, he asked who had read “The Confessions.” Knowing that my classmates included graduates of Oxford and Cambridge as well as Edinburgh, I did not expect to be the only student to raise his hand. But I was – it was one of the books I read during my time in Africa. It was nice to get off to a good start with a pretty formidable professor.

About two years later, as a student at Union in New York, I attended an event at which Principal Burleigh was the featured guest speaker. Following his presentation, he was surrounded by Union faculty eager to discuss things with him. But seeing me at a distance – believe it or not, I was too shy to approach him – he broke off with our faculty, strode across the room to greet me. I remember his words, “Have you got yourself straightened out yet?”

Career

I’m not sure how I responded to John Burleigh that night, but after two more years, with an assistant minister internship behind me and a MDiv degree in my hand, I still hadn’t “straightened (myself) out.” I took a job in race relations in Philadelphia and connected with an urban ministry programme influenced by Harvey Cox’s secular Christianity.

Over time, however, I found myself more drawn to the secular side of things and left the ministry. I became an academic administrator, completed my PhD in higher education administration at Michigan, and followed a career as an administrator.

Having become a student of leadership, management, and human behavior in organisations, I eventually became an MBA Director and Professor of Management at Long Island University.

I like to think that my theological study has influenced the way I look at the world. Even in the business school environment, that influence shows up. I know that I tend to emphasize values and ways of relating to others more than most business faculty. That influence also affects the way I choose to spend my time – for example, as a Board member of an NGO that assists refugees here in Albany, New York. It also propels my continuing interest in theological questions and spirituality. New College definitely instilled an appreciation for academic excellence in biblical and theological scholarship which continues to this day.

Recent visit

A final memory is of my recent visit in May of this year (2019). My wife, Anita, and I were visiting Edinburgh and I wanted to show her the place of which I had such fond memories. I wrote to New College Principal Susan Hardman Moore to ask if it might be possible to pop into Rainy Hall so Anita could see it. Professor Hardman Moore replied immediately with a warm invitation, and when we arrived she actually met us at the door and graciously gave us a guided tour of the college. This occurred right in the middle of the General Assembly! A very different kind of person than my old Principal Burleigh, Susan shares the admirable trait of taking a personal interest in her students and alumni/ae. In my view, that’s one more reason to come to New College for graduate study in theology.