VALLEY FORGE, PA (ABNS 2/22/21)—Rev. Dr. John A. Sundquist, who served as Executive Director of American Baptist International Ministries (IM) from 1989 until 2003, entered fully into the presence of his Lord on Sunday, February 21, from his beloved home at Bethany Beach (in Sawyer, Michigan), at the age of 84. International Ministries joins with his family, friends, disciples, and colleagues all around the globe in giving thanks to God for his life of dedicated service to the cause of Christ.
Sundquist’s leadership of IM capped a long and distinguished career in ministry, one that began while he was still a high school student. Born in 1936 and raised within the immigrant Swedish community in Chicago, John’s passion for global evangelization was nurtured by deep community roots in a vibrant local congregation and a family that taught him to “remember you are a Sundquist and a Swede…and remember always that you belong to Jesus.” As former IM Executive Director Rev. Dr. Reid Trulson remembers, “John’s deep love of God and joyous love of others made him an effective ambassador for Jesus to people from small, remote villages or bustling urban centers. He embraced his beloved Swedish heritage in a way that also celebrated and valued the cultures of other people. He took time to see and hear them. He remembered their names. He was genuine.”
Sundquist’s devotion to serving others in the name of Christ both expanded and diversified during his years at Bethel College (1958) and Bethel Theological Seminary (1961) in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he led Bible Clubs, served at a State Residential Treatment Center for emotionally disturbed youth, volunteered in urban ministry and became a Youth Minister. Between college graduation and enrollment in seminary, Sundquist married the love of his life and partner in ministry, Carol Irene Erickson.
After graduating from seminary and getting ordained to the gospel ministry in 1961, Sundquist spent two years as a prison chaplain in Indiana before entering into a combination of pastoral and community ministries in St. Paul, Minnesota. Four years later he became the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Minneapolis, where he launched innovative and successful outreach ministries for young adults. His fellow pastors soon called Sundquist to step into a wider role, as the first Area Minister in the newly-organized Mid-America Region of American Baptist Churches (ABC) (1970).
Sundquist’s next call came to serve as both Associate Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of Michigan and the Area Minister for Metropolitan Detroit (1972-1977), where his passion and skill in urban ministry led Mayor Coleman Young to award Sundquist a citation for “his efforts to bring the community together.” Along the way, Sundquist completed a Doctor of Ministry degree at Chicago’s McCormick Theological Seminary (1977).
After five years in Detroit, Sundquist was called to become the Executive Minister of the American Baptist Churches of Ohio (1977-1985). Under his leadership, the Region both called the first two women ever to serve as Area Ministers in the ABC and created the Ohio Baptist Peace Fellowship—the catalyst for the formation of the North American Baptist Peace Fellowship. During his tenure, giving to all branches of American Baptist mission grew by over one million dollars. Rev. Dr. C. Jeff Woods, current Interim General Secretary and former Region Executive Minister in Ohio, remembers, “John was a passionate innovator in denominational leadership, always thinking of creative ways to bring the larger American Baptist family together to support mission and ministry. Conversations with John were always inspiring and insightful. I benefited from his leadership when I served as Executive Minister for ABC of Ohio, and I still remember seeing the documents signed in orange ink with his penmanship.”
Sundquist’s passion for all forms of American Baptist mission and his effectiveness in Ohio made him the natural choice when the national denomination searched for a person to head up the Alive in Mission campaign of 1985-1988. Under his leadership, Alive in Mission brought together over 1,000 volunteers and raised over $30 million for the expansion of mission both throughout the U.S.A. and across the globe. Throughout his life, Sundquist tirelessly strove to support God’s work through all American Baptist ministries. Rev. Dr. Aidsand F. Wright Riggins III, former Executive Director of American Baptist Home Mission Societies, remembers, “John Sundquist was the first friend I made, moving from California to PA 30 years ago. He was far more than a colleague. Colleagues have arguments. Friends have fights. No, it’s actually brothers who have fights. John and I would fight like brothers do. That’s what John Sundquist became to me – a brother. We fought each other for fun and to make each other sharper and sharpest. More importantly, we fought together against principalities and powers for what was indispensable to us, the good and liberating good news of Jesus Christ. John was a giant among us. He was often a great big brother to me. I grieve his passing. I celebrate the love and legacy he left all of us.”
In 1989, the Board of Directors of IM called Sundquist to serve as Executive Director, a position he held until his retirement in 2003. As former General Secretary of the ABC, Rev. Dr. A. Roy Medley recalls, “Unlike his predecessors, John had not served as a missionary. But John’s interpersonal and organizational skills soon won over any skeptics. John’s vision for ministry was holistic. He cared deeply that others would discover the love of God in Christ for them. He was also a passionate advocate for justice. John was a visionary whose boundless enthusiasm for the gospel would make him not only one of the most respected leaders in mission but one of the best-loved leaders in ABC life and in Baptist life globally.”
Sundquist was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with IM’s global servants and the leaders of national churches all around the world. It was important to Sundquist to get to know each of them as persons, and not simply employees or organizational leaders. IM global servant Rev. Dr. Stan Slade, who later served with Sundquist on IM staff, remembers, “Even when John was still leading Alive in Mission, we began to get encouraging personal notecards from him, signed with an orange felt-tip marker and his characteristic, ‘In the power of the gospel.’ Then, during my first international trip with him, I was amazed by the way John kept track of personal information about national leaders and knew by name not only all the global servants, but all their children and even the pastors of their home churches back in the U.S.” IM global servant Dr. William Clemmer adds, “John actually went to Haiti ahead of us in 1991 and welcomed us as we landed: 3 kids in arms and another well on the way. I remember John hanging out clothes in the yard of our make-shift Haiti apartment as Ann was unpacking… and John helping the ‘doctor’ nail together boards for bookshelves. What a mentor, what a friend… what an advocate we all have with Jesus!”
Sundquist’s personal touch was joined with a powerful desire to see IM break new ground in global mission. Under his leadership, IM created strategic plans for the 1990s (“A Passion for Mission”) and for the 2000s (“Go Global”), leading to a host of new initiatives and new ways of partnering with churches in the U.S. and around the world to advance the global mission of Christ. IM global servant Rev. Lauran Bethell remembers, “John Sundquist was singularly responsible for the fact that I am still a global servant, and that the fledgling anti-trafficking work that God brought into being over three decades ago became a part of a worldwide movement that has saved countless lives. Ever the visionary, John always saw beyond any roadblocks. If he recognized God’s call in a pioneering endeavor, he would make sure that it happened, no matter what.”
While Sundquist worked enthusiastically to support the ministries of others, he never lost the passion to become directly engaged in vital projects and to proclaim the gospel personally. Perhaps the crowning example of this was his long-term engagement in the peace process in Nagaland, including the electrifying moment when Sundquist preached to the crowd of over 120,000 people gathered for the celebration of the 125th anniversary of the coming of the gospel to Nagaland. As Rev. Dr. Benjamin Chan, IM Area Director for East and South Asia, remembers, “John made an incomparable contribution to modern Naga history through his visits to Naga churches and communities, his sensitive but strong advocacy for peace with Naga leaders and his bold public call for action at the 125th-anniversary celebration. John loved the Naga people without reservation, and they loved him back.” Former IM Board President, Judy Dean, remembers what it was like to be with John when he addressed the massive crowd, but also a quieter moment that week, when “a small group gathered on a hillside, where a tall, granite monument was unveiled, etched with the name of Rev. Dr. John Sundquist and International Ministries, in appreciation of John’s leadership, his involvement in peacemaking and the role of IM in supporting the churches and ministries there.”
Sundquist became deeply personally involved in ministry not only in Northeast India, but also in Europe, especially the International Baptist Theological Seminary (as it moved from Rüschlikon to Prague to Amsterdam) and the Moscow Protestant Seminary, and throughout the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), which he served in countless capacities, including as President of the North American Baptist Fellowship, member of the Strategy Group on World Evangelization, chair of Baptist World Aid and a BWA Vice President. Current BWA General Secretary and CEO Rev. Dr. Elijah Brown, remembers, “Baptists around the world continue to hold in high regard friendship with John Sundquist. From years of faithful service in his many leadership positions across the BWA, including chairing the search committee that unanimously recommended Rev. Dr. Neville Callam from Jamaica as the first BWA General Secretary from outside of Europe and North America, John Sundquist helped guide the BWA family forward as a truly global movement. He was a great friend of the BWA and has gifted for all of us a legacy that continues to bear witness to the Kingdom of God.”
In retirement, John joined then Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board (MMBB) executive director Rev. Dr. Sumner Grant and a team of volunteers in launching the Heritage of Sharing campaign to invite MMBB members, board members, staff, and other benefactors to contribute to emergency assistance for members in need. He knew first-hand of the difference the grants made to missionaries and staff when they faced unforeseen hardships. Since its inception in 2005, Heritage of Sharing has raised and distributed approximately $5 million in emergency funds and small grants to members. Dr. Grant shares, “John was a great friend of over 30 years. In my estimation, he was one of the greatest denominational leaders of the past generation. He was an outstanding preacher, great motivator, and passionate champion of international missions. He endeared himself to all with his gregarious warmth and affable sense of humor. Above all, he was possessed with a deep love of the church, American Baptists, and the One he served, his Lord Jesus Christ. His legacy will endure for generations yet to come.”
Sundquist is remembered most deeply and lovingly by Carol, his wife of over sixty-two years, together with his son John and wife Karen and their son Emmett, and his son Stephen, his wife Rebecca, and their children Linnea, Olivia, and Wells.
Rev. Sharon Koh, IM’s Executive Director / CEO notes “John was an inspiring story-teller, and his passion for God’s mission is still a legacy today. I enjoyed meeting him in person when I was first appointed and continue to cherish the kind words of wisdom he shared with me that day.”
More details on when and how IM will hold a memorial to honor John will be available soon.
International Ministries, also known as the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society, works cross-culturally to invite people to become disciples of Jesus Christ and to proclaim, through both word and deed, God’s reign of justice, peace and abundant life for all creation.
American Baptist Churches USA is one of the most diverse Christian denominations today, with approximately 5,000 congregations comprised of 1.3 million members, across the United States and Puerto Rico, all engaged in God’s mission around the world.