Tribute to James V. Sundholm

by Glenn R. Palmberg

James V. Sundholm

1945 – 2020

picture of Jim Sundholm

Many of Pietisten’s readers will know about the significant accomplishments of Jim – the positions he has held in the Covenant Church, the innovation he brought, about his inner city ministry, Sankofa, Sudan, World Relief, conference administrator and much more. In this tribute, I want to talk about Jim the person – who he was that made what he did possible.

I met Jim in the fall of 1964 on my first day as a student at North Park College. We became friends and eventually roommates. One Chicago subzero winter night, I was awakened by Jim who said, “Get dressed! We need to go.” When I inquired where, Jim responded, “Can’t you hear it?” What I could hear was the squealing of tires from a car stuck in the deep ruts of ice on Spaulding Avenue. We pushed and rocked that car for what seemed like most of a city block until the driver, a total stranger, was able to drive off into the night. That was one of many times I observed how other people’s problems became Jim’s concern.

Jim used to talk about his childhood and teenage years. He was deeply involved in church, youth groups, Bible camp, Youth for Christ and more. He said he couldn’t resist an altar call. He estimated that he had accepted Christ, rededicated his life, and said yes to Jesus’ call to become a missionary and a pastor perhaps dozens of times. Jim’s brother said that when a preacher or speaker started giving an altar call he knew Jim was likely going forward. While we found the repetition of his conversion amusing, what I began to realize was that Jim never stopped saying yes to Jesus. Jim said yes to Jesus anytime someone needed to be confronted, or when someone was in pain or trouble or distress or hungry or being treated unjustly. When Jim said yes to Jesus, he meant it for a lifetime and at any cost.

Jim was a very gifted preacher. He served on the board of Bread for the World. One day, a member of that board was in a conversation with me. He said, “At our board meetings we used to have different board members give devotionals to start our meetings. One time it was Jim’s turn. Jim gave a powerful, inspiring message. When he was finished, some of us went to the leader of the board and suggested that from now on we just have Jim give the devotional at every meeting. It was obvious that he knows and loves the Bible and is always passionate about proclaiming it.”

One Saturday night Jim came to our house in Chicago. He was preaching the next day in Winnetka. Sunday morning Jim informed me that he had forgotten to pack his Sunday dress pants. He wondered if I had a pair he could borrow. He tried on several pairs, but nothing fit. He said that would not be a problem, he would just wear the casual pants he had been wearing. They were nylon workout pants like one might wear to the gym. Jim first taught the adult class where his attire was very visible. In the worship service, when Jim got up to preach, I hoped he would stay behind the pulpit so people would not see he was wearing workout pants under his robe, but of course Jim wandered all around the front of the chancel. I thought to myself that people are going to be talking about this for a long time. I was partly right. People talked about that worship service for a very long time, but not because of his pants . . . it was because he preached a powerful, moving sermon. No one ever mentioned his pants.

Jim was a pietist. I believe his profound preaching came out of his love of Scripture, his own experience of God’s love and grace, his commitment to new life in Christ and his passion to proclaim it.

Jim often talked about standing on the shoulders of those who had gone before. It was a recognition that in ministry, we build on what others did before us. Jim would sometimes name pastors, professors, and others on whose shoulders he stood. The Covenant Church has always had those voices who called us to ministries of compassion, mercy and justice, people who served as a conscience for the denomination. Jim was consistently one of those voices in our generation. He was at times the voice of the prophet, reminding the church of God’s call to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

In his retirement, Jim delighted in seeing the next generation picking up the mantle, continuing the ministries and causes he cared so much about. The last couple of years, it was common for people I would encounter to ask about Jim. Often people would send greetings with a message like, “Tell Jim he has been my model for ministry,” “Tell Jim he has been my mentor,” “Tell Jim he is the reason I came into the Covenant Church. I wanted to be a part of a denomination that endorsed people like Jim Sundholm.” Jim would smile when I would convey these messages because this Jim, who stood on the shoulders of others, now had people standing on his shoulders.

Jim often expressed God’s goodness to him by God allowing him to have a wife like Carol. He knew he could not have followed the path that he did without Carol having the same commitment and courage and self-sacrificing care for other people. There was never a question that they were in it together.

Donn Engebretson called me on the day Jim died. Donn said, as many of us who knew and loved Jim would say, “On that day, when I stand before Christ, I would like to have Jim’s resume.”

God’s peace, my friend.