The Rev. Robert G. Swanson is of the opinion that when the Holy Spirit calls, a response is in order.

A Chicago native, Swanson received such a summons 40 years ago when he felt the calling to come to First Lutheran Church, 415 Vine St., Johnstown.

He served as associate and assistant pastor from 1965 to 1975 and has been senior pastor since 1975.

Swanson, 64, will hold his last service at First Lutheran on April 30.

Among his reasons for retiring, spending more time with family tops the list.

“I have seven grandchildren under 14,” Swanson said.

“I want to go to dance and piano recitals and birthday parties.”

Swanson also would like to have more control over his schedule, since a minister’s time is never his own.

He would like to travel more with his wife, Caryl.

They already have a trip to Charleston, S.C., planned for May.

Swanson’s bishop has already asked him to help out with a ministry for young ministers.

“I want to leave a space for what God has in mind,” Swanson said.

“If I wanted to preach every Sunday, I’d stay here. I never expected to be in a parish. I wanted to teach in a seminary, but God had a surprise for me. Maybe he has one now that hasn’t been revealed.”

Swanson will have more time for hobbies – reading, walking, fishing, singing and developing new teaching courses.

Swanson teaches a class at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown two afternoons a week in the spring and fall.

“ ‘The History and Philosophy of American Education’ is required for anyone who wants to be a teacher,” Swanson said.

“It’s like a hobby to me. They wanted me to do it at other times, but I just can’t.”

Being a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, Swanson hopes to be able to watch more early Sunday afternoon games after retirement, something not so convenient for a minister with church services.

In 1965, Swanson was a recent graduate of the Northwestern Lutheran Theological Seminary in Minneapolis, with a wife and two children.

“When I came here out of graduate school, I expected to be here a couple of years,” Swanson said of coming to Johnstown.

He also was looking to work with a pastor with experience who could tell him how things take shape – something he found in the Rev. Walden Holl, pastor of First Lutheran when he arrived in Johnstown.

“He taught me how to apply biblical theology to real life situations – in worship, learning, social ministry and administration,” Swanson said.

“I wanted to bridge the gap between academic learning and real humans.”

Swanson said that Holl led by example, never asking anyone to do anything that he wasn’t doing.

“People often think that an assistant pastor does the dirty work, but this was a shared ministry,” Swanson said.

“I believe it was spirit directed.”

In 1968, Swanson received a master’s degree in education from the University of Pittsburgh, and in 1972, he received a doctorate in the foundations of education.

“I traveled to the main campus for six years,” Swanson said.

“My congregation made it possible. I was still receiving an income, and I was in Pittsburgh 60 to 80 percent of the time.”

Swanson said he was glad to be in graduate school, but he didn’t want to get caught in the clouds of academia.

“I didn’t want to get out of touch with reality,” Swanson said.

“God’s will and way is in flesh and blood. I want to be active in the community and God’s world.”

To that end, Swanson has served in many places besides the church over the years.

He was chairman of the United Way during the 1977 Johnstown Flood and served on the Westmont Hilltop school board for 10 years in the 1970s and 1980s, serving as president for four years.

Swanson also was an active volunteer with the Red Cross Regional Blood Center and a board member of Johnstown Symphony Orchestra and the former Lee Hospital.

He is vice president of Walnut Management Corp., the for-profit arm of Lee Initiatives Inc., and is a founding trustee of Community Foundation for the Alleghenies.

“The foundation transcends all the Alleghenies now,” Swanson said.

“It’s not just Johnstown. That’s gratifying.”

Swanson believes that he has helped children through being a school board member, has saved lives and alleviated suffering through his work with the Red Cross and has helped those who needed resources through the United Way.

Through his ministry outside the church, Swanson has visited the sick and then taken communion to shut-ins.

“I put it all in order,” Swanson said.

“The congregation has been supportive. It’s a joyful environment, sharing ministry.

There are more than 1,000 baptized members at First Lutheran and about 600 families.

Swanson has a sense that this is the right time to retire – the life of his congregation is stable with strong leadership.

“They have a strong sense of mission,” Swanson said.

“They look beyond themselves. I believe they’re poised to be part of a new era with the developments downtown. They’re ready for some new ministry.”

Swanson knows his leaving will bring a sense of loss and even grief to his congregation – a congregation that has known only two ministers in 74 years.

“I’ve baptized, confirmed and married parishioners and baptized their children,” Swanson said.

“People have asked me if I will baptize or marry their children, but I’m not the kind to come back.”

Swanson said he will retain his membership at First Lutheran.

“Johnstown is a beautiful place, the people, the hillsides and valleys,” Swanson said.

“I’m not leaving. Chicago is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.”

A retirement dinner will be held for Swanson at 6 on April 21 at Sunnehanna Country Club in Westmont.



Ruth Rice can be reached at 532-5052 or rrice@tribdem.com.

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