The Rev. Craig Johnson, bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is resigning to take over as interim senior pastor at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church.

Johnson, who leads the largest ELCA synod in the country, will now be chief religious leader of the largest ELCA congregation in the country following the death of Mount Olivet's senior pastor, the Rev. Paul Youngdahl, last week.

"My primary role will be to build a foundation for helping the members and staff heal from this trauma and move the congregation forward in its mission," Johnson said Monday.

Johnson, 64, will step down as bishop of the Minneapolis Area Synod on July 31 and take over at Mount Olivet in Minneapolis on Aug. 1.

Elected bishop in 2001, Johnson was re-elected June 1, 2007. Bishops serve six-year terms and are limited to two terms in the Minneapolis Area Synod. Johnson's second term was scheduled to end in two years.

John Kapanke, Mount Olivet's vice president, said Johnson is a "known commodity" at Mount Olivet, where he was an associate pastor from 1977 to 1991. He said the church is happy Johnson decided to accept the job leading the congregation of nearly 13,500.

"He's well-respected not just in the Minneapolis Area Synod but throughout the ELCA," Kapanke said. "He was just a logical choice. There's no question in my mind he's the ideal person for this position. We're all grieving over the loss of our senior pastor. God in his wisdom has really sent us a wonderful person to serve that senior pastor role. He's a humble man and wonderful pastor."

Youngdahl, 73, died unexpectedly June 20 after suffering a thoracic aneurysm. He led the church for nearly four decades, taking over from his father, Reuben Youngdahl, who arrived at the church in the late 1930s and was senior pastor until 1968. The father-and-son preachers are largely credited with building Mount Olivet into one of the largest megachurches in the country.

The Minneapolis Area Synod has about 214,000 baptized members and 162 congregations in seven metro counties. Minnesota has more ELCA members than any other state, with close to 800,000 baptized members. Nationwide, the ELCA has nearly 4.5 million members.

Finding a permanent replacement for Johnson could take up to a year or more. An interim synod bishop will likely be appointed in the near future and could serve between six months and a year, ELCA officials say. The synod will hold a special election to find a replacement for Johnson.

John Brooks, a spokesman for the ELCA, said it's not uncommon for bishops like Johnson to leave their posts and return to leading congregations. Johnson, in fact, seems happy to do so.

"Rarely do pastors receive an opportunity to give back to a congregation later in life that has so profoundly shaped their ministry," Johnson said. "Rarely are we able to honor the legacy of a friend, mentor and colleague."

Rose French • 612-673-4352 For more religion news, see the Acts of Faith blog at