Remembering Dr. James A. Scherer
September 1, 1926 – December 20, 2023

Dr. James A. Scherer, the venerable Lutheran missionary, church historian and pioneer in the academic study of missiology, died Wednesday December 20, 2023, in North Riverside, IL. At 97, he left a legacy of theological scholarship, Christian missions and a long life richly textured with faith, service and intellectual pursuits.

Sherer’s Early Life

A black and white headshot of Dr. James A. Scherer

Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, James A. Scherer was an early scholar of Lutheran parochial schools. These teachings paved the way for a Yale education during wartime, where he majored in history and emerged as a distinguished member of Timothy Dwight College.

Life took an international turn for Scherer when he became a “Yale Bachelor,” teaching English at the Yali Middle School in Changsha, Hunan, China. This experience fueled his lifelong passion for missions. It is also when he met his future wife, Frances E. Schlosser, a Yale-in-China nurse who was serving as the Dean of the Xiang-Ya Nursing School. They married on Easter Day in 1948 and returned to the United States in 1949.

The couple settled in New York City, where Dr. Scherer pursued a Master of Divinity degree at Union Theological Seminary (UTS). Commissioned as Lutheran missionaries in 1952, the Scherers set off on a profound expedition to Tokyo, Japan with their two young children.

In the years that followed, the family navigated the complexities of a nation emerging from occupation. Dr. Scherer’s tenure in Japan involved intensive language study, grassroots evangelism and contributions to literature and radio outreach.

In 1956, The Scherers returned to the United States and Dr. Scherer assumed the role of Dean at the Lutheran School of Missions in Maywood, Illinois. His academic pursuits continued, culminating in a Th.D. from Union Theological Seminary (UTS) and Columbia University in 1968. Scherer’s doctoral dissertation, titled “Mission and Unity in Lutheranism,” was published in that same year, laying the foundation for his scholarly impact.

The Scherer Lecture Series

As Professor of World Mission and Church History at the LSTC, Dr. Scherer delved into ecumenism and world religions, while taking part in missionary conferences.

He authored four books and contributed to numerous others, with his best-seller, “Missionary, Go Home!” (1964), addressing criticisms of foreign mission activities.

His leadership extended globally as he chaired the international Commission on Church Cooperation of the Lutheran World Federation from 1977 to 1984, based in Geneva, Switzerland.

In 1989, Dr. James Scherer established an endowment fund in loving memory of his parents, Eleanor and Arnold Scherer. He initially designed the fund to promote scholarships for international students and assist in other worthy mission-related causes. The fund’s priorities shifted in 1992 “to endow an annual lectureship at LSTC dealing with some aspect of the church’s worldwide mission, missiology, or the life of the world Christian community.”

Now entering its 32nd year, The Scherer Lecture Series, and hosts world renowned scholars who cover a range of issues encountered in global Christianity, from worker justice to peacemaking, from international relations to care for the earth.

Dr. Peter Vethanayagamony, Professor of Modern Church History at LSTC, now oversees the lecture series and the annual World Mission Institute that is also supported by the endowment and is jointly sponsored by Catholic Theological Union and McCormick Theological Seminary and Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Vethanayagamony enrolled at LSTC as a doctoral student because of Dr. Scherer’s international reputation as an ecumenist, leading Lutheran missiologists, and well-published scholar in the academics.  When he arrived at LSTC Vethanayagamony was delighted to learn that Scherer would serve as his mentor.

Dr. Scherer played a key role in shaping Vethanayagamony’s doctoral dissertation and subsequent research in World Christianity.

“Because of my admiration for Dr. Scherer,” says Vethanayagamon, “I continue to carry out mission events he had initiated way back in 1992 in collaboration with Catholic and Presbyterian missiologists.”

Sherer’s Impact at LSTC

Even after Dr. Scherer’s retirement from LSTC in 1992, his commitment to missiology, mentorship and LSTC persisted.

Dr. Mark Swanson, professor of Christian-Muslim Studies and Interfaith Relations and Associate Director of The Center of Christian-Muslim Engagement for Peace and Justice, remembers Dr. Scherer for the direct impact Scherer made on his career.

“After I had been called to join the LSTC faculty in 2005, Jim wrote me a long, carefully argued letter, urging me to accept the call,” said Swanson. “I was moved by the thought and care he put into that letter – and will always be grateful for it.”

Scherer’s dedication to international mission work, scholarly pursuits, and mentorship endeared him to a vast network of students and missionaries, leaving an indelible mark on the landscape of theological education and global engagement.

His passing on December 20, 2023, leaves a void in the world of missiology and the hearts of those who knew him.

Dr. James A. Scherer is survived by his second wife, Liene Sorenson, his son, James D. Scherer, his daughter, Dr. Susan M. Scherer, five grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren. He will be remembered not only for his academic prowess but also for the enduring contributions he made to Christian missions.

In the days s following his passing, the echoes of admiration and gratitude from his colleagues reverberated, painting a poignant portrait of a remarkable man whose life was an indelible tapestry woven with threads of faith, service and intellectual brilliance.

Former colleague, Dr. Kurt Hendel remembers Scherer with deep reverence, characterizing him as an excellent scholar, empathic teacher and gracious colleague and friend. Hendel further emphasizes Dr. Scherer’s exemplary role as a servant of God, faithfully witnessing Christ’s teachings as both a missionary and professor of missions.

“The loss of Dr. Scherer’s missiological expertise is keenly felt within the community of faith,” said Hendel. “It’s a testament to the profound impact he had on all those who crossed his path.”

Former LSTC dean, Dr. Kadi Billman, recalled, “Even after his official retirement, Dr. Scherer remained a steadfast presence at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, actively engaging with ecumenical colleagues in missiology.”  

In her reflections on Dr. Scherer’s life, Billman underscored his commitment to initiating deep conversations about World Christianity and global ministry, noting his active participation in numerous LSTC worship services and special events.

Dr. Scherer, Billman contends, “Was not only a faithful servant of Christ but also a devoted citizen of the world and of LSTC, leaving an indelible mark on the institution.”

A funeral service celebrating Dr. Sherer’s life was held at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, IL, on Saturday, December 30. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

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