Encomium

[1] I worked with John Stumme only since 1999, during the six years that I was on what until recently was called the Division for Church in Society board. Our biannual meetings gave me brief but striking glimpses into the workings of the Division, with its overwhelming polyphony of projects and agendas. Add to this picture the noise of twenty Board voices from every nook and cranny of the church, trying to make sense of this vast wealth of ideas and agendas. To this intricate and baffling chorus John Stumme added a steady and firm continuo for the better part of two decades. Always soft-spoken and rarely agitated, he deftly intervened in our wandering and sometimes acrimonious Board deliberations to offer the wisdom of a precedent or a caution derived from experience. In response, we Boardmembers all stopped to listen. He invariably spoke in a soft voice which commanded respect, but offered little hint of the shrewd mind always quietly at work. Long seasoned in the protocol of board communication, he got immediately to the point, respecting his listeners by not wasting their time. As such, he invited conversation. Having seen much and carried much responsibility, he showed no need to prove himself by trumping the rest of us in conversation.

[2] I had an added privilege of access. Since I chaired a committee which collaborated with the Studies department for five years, I worked with John off-season and behind the scenes. Although the “Studies” department he directed was small-with a budget of well under half a million dollars-its output was of keen interest inside and outside the church; if you doubt this, consider the wide attention given to the ELCA’s statements on sexuality, particularly homosexuality. As a result, the Studies functions recurrently were coveted, even siphoned off, by other offices in the church. Here John faithfully guarded the turf which had been entrusted to him by the ELCA constitution. The Studies Department was chartered to prepare social statements and other social documents of lesser moment (usually at the behest of a Churchwide Assembly resolution) and then to forward them to the Church Council for approval. There were several ways that this process might fail, and during my time on the Board we experienced at least two significant derailments. On both occasions, John was ready with pointed advice for improving this process of consultation, and he was fearless about preserving what a Catholic might term the salutary “subsidiarity” of the ELCA constitutional structure. I learned much from watching him patiently budge process-endless process!-in the direction of judicious and fruitful consultation.

[3] Had John been possessed of small-mindedness, our collaboration might not have happened. Back in 1995, he and I locked horns in print regarding the biblical foundations of the social statement, “For Peace in God’s World”. Yet just a few years later, he warmly welcomed me to the Studies committee, and never raised our previous disagreement, even in jest. Instead, he looked for common ground, and even more, a welcoming gesture. He knew my inordinate fondness for tangy Vietnamese cuisine, and more than once drove us both for miles for a quiet evening of fish sauce and catch-up. He was too modest to share his private life, and too discreet to spill many beans about Higgins Road, but we had relaxing conversations which restored my spirits for the next day’s round of work on Board business.

[4] Back to the big picture. The Studies committee was charged with brainstorming ideas and editing text. Here is where I learned how significant an imprint John has left upon the life of the ELCA through the social statements, messages and other texts he has authored. These texts have taken on a life of their own in the church’s moral deliberations. In particular, the social statements for which he has been the principal author express clear theological conviction, even if his theology is indelibly infected with that distinctively Lutheran disease of Paulio. They read easily and are rich in substance in no small measure because he exercises a mastery of plain English-what else to call it? The statements may lack dramatic fizz and narrative power, but they are accessible and never wander off into a haze of detached dependent clauses. Be not deceived by John’s undemonstrative prose, for his writing is possessed of uncompromised prophetic power, even in lowly “messages”. Consider, for example, the 2001 message on “Commercial Sexual Exploitation”. As this message developed, it grew to encompass the entire sex industry from porn videos to sexual slavery. Think about it; for the first time in its history, the Lutheran church has pronounced uncompromising judgment upon an entire billion-dollar industry. Too easy a target, you think? Then read “For Peace in God’s World” (1995) against contemporary U.S. foreign policy. I am sure John has not backed off one inch from the commitments to a “culture of peacemaking” which lie at the heart of that statement.

[5] John has a moral passion which escapes the easy boxes of left and right. During our committee and Board meetings, I often felt my sentimental liberal chatter bump up against his doggedly unsentimental realism about human affairs. I never heard him deliver cheap shots against Democrats or Republicans. Rather, I have seen in him the best Midwestern instincts of decency, tolerance, openness to others, and perhaps most of all, a pragmatic willingness to set ideology aside and work with good ideas, whatever their origin. And he puts them to work. He has a passion for civil society: for renewing the institutions which give weight and savor to our social lives. He is passionate for educating, passionate for peacemaking, passionate for building anew amidst the wreckage of failed visions and dashed hopes. To be sure, these interests of his are finite. After years of work on homosexuality and the consultative process that continues, I won’t venture to claim that he is still passionate about sex; some topics just never come up. But I have it on good authority that his passion for basketball continues, despite major heart surgery. And where else to experience civil society at its most elemental, even if he occasionally limped into the office with major-league bruises?

[6] “Retiring” boardmembers often find other ways to be useful to the church; I certainly hope that some units of the ELCA will continue to make use of John’s vast experience and good sense. But I can’t imagine that he will haunt the halls, looking for invitations. He would be the first to remind us that when it’s time to move on, there’s absolutely no point in hanging on to what had been. In his deliberate but low-key way, I am sure he will find some other foundationally sensible and useful thing to do, and for a good long time. Watch the heart, John-the physical one, that is. Your other one is as sound as can be.

Stewart Herman

Stewart W. Herman is a (remote) visiting fellow at the Christensen Center on Vocation at Augsburg University, retired from teaching ethics in the Religion Department at Concordia College, Moorhead, MN.  In 2019-2020 he was first drafter of the social message on government and civic engagement for the ELCA.