The Rev. Dr. John R. Wimmer, program director in religion at Lilly Endowment Inc., died June 24, 2020. During 18 years at the Endowment, he oversaw the distribution of more than $500 million in grants that supported a wide variety of religious institutions. Previously he was the founding director of the Indianapolis Center for Congregations. A United Methodist minister, he is survived by his wife, Janilee, and their son, David. His final book, Blessed Endurance: Moving Beyond Despair to Hope (Upper Room Books, 2018), was published as he was being treated for the prostate cancer that took his life.
The church has lost a friend. Theological education has lost a friend. I have lost a friend. After an illness that came quickly and stayed long, we are left to remember a friend.
John was a pastor and friend of the church. The needs, failures, and hopes of congregations were never far from his mind. When Lilly Endowment was beginning to address the financial needs of ministers, John’s concern for congregational vitality led him to accept a weekend assignment as a part-time pastor at a struggling United Methodist congregation. He spent a year leading that congregation to new strength and helped it find the resources to support a full-time pastor.
John was a friend of theological schools. Friendship entails knowledge and appreciation, and John knew theological schools like a friend. He understood their burdens and limitations and their unique worth in so many ecclesial contexts. He was interested in efforts that would strengthen and transform and was deeply supportive of organizations that serve them.
John was my friend. Friendship is a delicate thing when it’s between a program officer and the executive director of an agency always in need of money. John knew how to be a friend and not compromise the integrity of our respective roles. We talked about problems in schools and love for our families. We talked about work and what we might do when we were not working. We talked about denominations. We talked about the hopes and hurts that inhabited our lives.
Over the years, we had many meals together, and John would often have a bourbon. In one of my last emails to him, reflecting on COVID-19 sheltering in place, I included a line I had recently seen from Thomas Merton’s 1966 journal: “Fortunately I have bourbon at the hermitage.” John responded: “I’ve always liked Thomas Merton — now I know why!!”
We have lost a friend, but the blessing of a good life remains.
Daniel O. Aleshire retired in 2017 as executive director of the Association of Theological Schools.