James Solheim, retired Episcopal News Service director, dies at 73

By Bob Williams
Posted Aug 8, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] Editor’s note: Memorial services will be held at Trinity Lutheran Church in Thief River Falls on Saturday, Sept. 8, at 11 a.m., and at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Trenton on Saturday, Sept. 22 at 10:30 a.m.

James E. Solheim – the Episcopal Church’s news director in an era bookended by the election of Anglicanism’s first female bishop and the ordination of its first openly gay bishop – died August 8 after several weeks’ hospitalization. A resident of Trenton, New Jersey, Solheim was 73 and suffered respiratory failure, said his nephew, Kurt Kaisler.

Of his career, Solheim said he “followed an ecumenical path, working first for the Lutherans, then the Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ.” Later, “when the Lutherans went off to Chicago to form a new church in 1988, I accepted the position as director of communications in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts,” he recalled in November 2003, shortly before his retirement.

“Of course I had no idea that, a few weeks after I moved to Boston, the diocese would elect Barbara Harris as the Anglican Communion’s first female bishop. The next year was a blur but it provided a dramatic introduction to the Episcopal Church.”

Solheim deftly fielded the unprecedented media response to Harris’s election and ordination as bishop, the late Sonia Francis, the Episcopal Church’s executive for communication, said at the time. “He became a familiar figure to many… and played a major role in disseminating and interpreting the news generated by this international event.”

Francis joined Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning in announcing Solheim’s appointment on April 27, 1989 as the Episcopal Church’s director of news and information. He began work in June of that year, succeeding the Rev. William Dearnaley, and soon rebranded the former Diocesan Press Service as the Episcopal News Service, assisted by then-deputy Jeffrey Penn.

“I have such admiration for Jim’s professional skills as well as his friendship,” Browning said after learning of Solheim’s death.  “He was someone always willing to be helpful to colleagues on the staff.  He certainly was that to me.”

Solheim served “as the principal church spokesperson and acting as a key figure in the dissemination of news to the secular and religious media — and to the communication network of the Episcopal Church,” the news service reported at the time of his appointment.

Solheim supervised media relations surrounding Bishop of New Hampshire Gene Robinson’s 2003 election, confirmed by the General Convention meeting later that year in Minneapolis. By this time, Solheim’s byline had appeared on hundreds of ENS articles, many with companion photo credits, dozens of which won leading awards in national competitions. His 1999 book Diversity or Disunity: Reflections on Lambeth 1998 captured the tone and highlights of that summer’s Lambeth Conference.

“Jim was a consummate professional, a journalist who was widely trusted across the church to interpret the events of the Episcopal Church in a fair and comprehensive way,” said the Rev. Canon Brian Grieves, whose tenure as the Episcopal Church’s director of peace and justice ministries closely paralleled Solheim’s own.

“He made the Episcopal News Service ‘the’ source to go to for accurate information,” said Grieves. “He was also a great colleague, and I was so fortunate to travel with him on several occasions when we accompanied the presiding bishop on overseas jaunts.

“I especially remember his coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” Grieves said. “He helped the church understand the injustice of the occupation through his spot-on reporting.

“His byline on a trove of stories is his legacy that will be mined for decades to come, along with the incredible photos he took that also told their own stories,” Grieves added. “Most of all I’ll miss his wit, his straight forward honesty, and his engaging insights into all manner of subjects. He was a great raconteur.”

Barbara Braver, whom Solheim succeeded as communication director in the Diocese of Massachusetts, recalled first meeting him through the Associated Church Press, an organization that he served as a volunteer and past president.

“Jim insisted on the importance of quotes in his reporting, which not only made for good reading, but also brought the newsmakers to life — and made them accountable for their own words,” said Braver, who retired in 2006 after 18 years as communication assistant in the Presiding Bishop’s Office, serving both Browning and his successor, Frank T. Griswold III.

“Jim had opinions, most assuredly, but was never a partisan, holding himself to a high standard of fairness, clarity and impartiality,” she added. “His work was greatly respected by his colleagues in a broad ecumenical network of journalists worldwide, who valued as well his good humor and his friendship.”

Griswold recalled how Solheim, “in the midst of highly charged and emotional issues, always managed to remain focused and objective in his reporting. These were important gifts to the church, and signs of his own integrity both as a person and a communicator. He was also immensely wise and able to take a long view of things and, when appropriate, able to view ecclesial goings-on with a sense of humor. Jim was a valued friend and colleague: may he rest in peace and rise in glory.”

Jerry Hames, editor of the church’s official newspaper Episcopal Life, formerly The Episcopalian, from 1990-2007, said that he “prized the opportunity to work alongside Jim” whom he described as “a professional in every way, dealing skillfully with the secular media, responding quickly to and interpreting accurately — often under difficult circumstances — the many complex issues that confronted the church over the years he served as its news director.”

Solheim was “highly regarded, not only by communicators within the Episcopal Church, but also by his colleagues in ecumenical circles and the secular media,” said Hames. “He was often the first point of contact for religion writers of such publications as Time magazine and the New York Times when they needed background or an official comment for an article.

“I know I speak for many others whose publications also benefited from his direction and leadership of the news service, his personal support for our work and the integrity by which he carried out his responsibilities.”

President of the House of Deputies Gay Jennings said that Solheim “was a great journalist and an even better human being. He will be deeply missed by many in the Episcopal Church and beyond. May he go from strength to strength in the life of perfect service.”

Bonnie Anderson, former House of Deputies president, said: “Jim contributed his many skills and gifts to the work of God’s church and was a strong, creative and professional advocate for journalistic excellence and truth-telling. He could always be counted on to brief Executive Council accurately and report with the same sense of clarity and fairness.”

In Massachusetts, Solheim served as editor of the diocesan paper, Episcopal Times, in addition to his work as communication director under the administration of then-Bishop David E. Johnson.

Solheim brought to this diocesan work wide experience in religious journalism. He was the founding editor and designer of Event, a monthly magazine dealing with social issues (1968-74); associate editor of A.D. Magazine (1977-83); editor of World Encounter (1984-88), and associate director of interpretation for the world mission office of the Lutheran Church in America. He was, starting in 1983, editor of Grapevine, the monthly newsletter of the Joint Strategy and Action Committee (JSAC), a coalition of the national mission agencies of 14 Protestant churches.

Born May 16, 1939 in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, Solheim was a graduate of St. Olaf College in Northfield, and held graduate degrees from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Columbia University in New York.

Jim is survived by his mother, Verna Solheim Kaisler of Thief River Falls, Minnesota; brothers Ron Solheim of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and Rod Kaisler, Eagle, Indiana; sisters Jill Kaisler Kezar of Thief River Falls, Minnesota, and Ardeth Kaisler Lewon of Surprize, Arizona; and three nieces and six nephews and their families.

Memorial services in New Jersey and Minnesota will be private. A remembrance will be offered by the Episcopal Communicators at its 2013 conference in San Diego.

— Robert Williams is canon for community relations in the Diocese of Los Angeles. In 2004 he succeeded Solheim as director of the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (23)

  1. David Harris says:

    I had the privilege of working with Jim on several occasions, most notably Lambeth 1998. He was indeed a pro. More importantly, he was a fine person and a great friend. I learned so much from him and he was always encouraging about my work. His own skills as a writer, communicator and photographer were amazing. Jim was as fine a friend as one could ever find. I shall miss him deeply.
    David Harris
    President, ENI, Geneva
    Publisher, Presbyterian Record, Toronto

  2. Bruce Campbell says:

    What a terrible shock. Jim without question lived the well-lived life. The highest praise I can give him is that he was the consummate teacher: he taught not by intent but by generously displaying his learning. Everyone who worked with Jim learned from him, not only from his professionalism but from his heart. Plus, he could whip you on a golf course and smile and make you feel good about it. Via con Dios, brother.

  3. Christopher Bugbee says:

    Jim managed to be both old school and young at heart; his antic spirit and consummate professionalism inevitably linked in one integrated personality that never failed to raise the spirits of those privileged to call him colleague.

    May his memory be for a blessing.


  4. Mary Lynn Hendrickson says:

    Sad news about such a vibrant and talented man. And brave, too, even in the ranks of heaven, for to quote the old Norwegian funeral blessing…
    “Lo, there do I see my sisters and my brothers.
    I see the line of my people back to the beginning.
    They do call to me to take my place in the halls of Valhalla
    where the brave may live forever.”

  5. Tom McGrath says:

    I am grateful for the life of Jim Solheim. He was a solid professional journalist who could always be relied upon to uphold the highest standards. And he was a good and generous colleague to me and many others through our work in the Associated Church Press. I learned much from Jim, not least of which was the importance of civility in discourse, a lesson much in demand today. I am saddened at his passing.

    Tom McGrath
    Loyola Press

  6. John Barton says:

    I never met James Solheim, but must have read much of his ENS work. May he walk in the Glory and Light of God’s peace and his family and friends be consoled in their loss.

  7. Mark A. Staples says:

    Jim and I go back to the days when he edited World Encounter magazine and I was features editor for The Lutheran. He was a dearest friend and colleague. Thankfully we renewed our friendship briefly this spring when we served as judges for this year’s Wilbur Awards for articles on religious topics produced by secular periodicals. We promised to remain in touch, but at least we had that time. Jim was a fussy editor and writer in the very best sense. He truly was one of my closest colleagues at that time. And he had a uniquely dry wit.

  8. I can’t remember a time in my professional life when I did not know Jim. He was present at most meetings of the National Council of Churches Communication Commission and its news and information committee. Some of the news stories he managed at the EC were above average in controversy and he handled each media inquiry with graciousness and honesty. One year he gave a workshop at the NCC on how to handle “bad news,” and he mentored all us commmunicators. I last saw Jim at breakfast in Zabar’s just before he retired and enjoyed joining him in humorous reminiscences about long forgotten ecumenical headlines. I will miss him terribly.

  9. Mike Barwell says:

    Jim was a wonderful colleague, good friend, superb news writer and photographer, great traveler.
    I will miss him.

  10. I’m shocked and saddened at the news of Jim Solheim’s passing. Aside from all the other accolades listed here, Jim once gave me a charming lesson in how to pack for the road. He was a shining light of religion journalism and his contributions are countless. We have lost a genuine exemplar of both faith and vocation. Rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon you, Jim.

  11. Len Freeman says:

    God Bless you Jim. You were a consummate journalist, but even more a wonderful human being. God smiled upon us through you. And we return the favor. Blessings brother. See you on the other side.

  12. Oeivind Oestang says:

    I met Jim at the WCC Assembly in Canberra in 1991. His family background made him look out for colleagues in Nordic Lutheran churches. We were in touch now and then also after I left my Church of Norway job. I remember him as a friendly and professional colleague. May he rest in God’s peace.

  13. Rev. Richard Foster says:

    I met Jim on Sept. 9, 1967 on registration day at Luther Seminary. We sat beneath a blue spruce tree and that began a 45-year friendship. He was my companion and confidante, traveling chum and intimate friend. He always had a fireplace going, it seemed and deemed himself “the keeper of the fire”. He was that and more. Together we poked our ways through the world, travlling each summer for 43 years. Through the Maritime Provinces of Canada to the tangos of Argentina, Jim and I had a wonderful life with Minnesota years, New York years and the New Jersey years. I loved him.

  14. Herb Gunn says:

    Jim Solheim, Friend.

    What a shock to hear this sad, sad news, but bearable and prayerfully received with so many comments from so many people who loved and were befriended by Jim.

    There was a time when Episcopal News Service broke from the church-pablum that passed as religious news and marketing. Count many among those who learned the difference, then tried to make a difference their own diocesan worlds. Thank you Jim Solheim, friend, teacher and mentor. You are missed and mourned!

    Herb Gunn
    Sent from my iPhone

  15. Solange De Santis says:

    I first encountered Jim Solheim at the 2003 Minneapolis General Convention when I was a reporter for Canada’s Anglican Journal. I was so impressed – he was a real pro, knew what journalists needed and was absolutely trustworthy. I thought the Episcopal Church was fortunate to have a person who could be both an articulate, eloquent spokesperson AND edit a journalistically-solid news service. He was just a great guy. Jim, you are already missed.

    Solange De Santis
    (former editor, Episcopal Life)

  16. Carolyn Purden says:

    Such a sad loss. Jim and I were old friends for years through our involvement with Associated Church Press. As we both shared the same Taurus birth sign, we were fated to be collaborators, and collaborate we did on so many issues that confronted ACP in those days. Many were serious – such as the folding of AD Magazine – but some were just plain exciting – for example, when we persuaded the ACP board to break with tradition and hold its convention in a city where we did not have a large number of members. The Boston convention was one of the best ever!
    Jim was the consummate professional and diplomat and he served his various churches well.
    Carolyn Purden
    Former editor, Anglican Journal

  17. Charles Austin says:

    I knew Jim from “all sides.” We worked together in Lutheran communications and when I was a reporter for secular newspapers, he was one of those honest, reliable communicators who knew what reporters wanted and how to get it to us. He cared about the Church, he cared about honest communications and he cared about the people around him. He was a blessing. I am sad to hear of his death. When I think of people in church communications who “got it right,” he is always on the list.
    Charles Austin
    former director of News, Lutheran Church in America
    Former reporter, The New York Times, Religion News Service, The Record, Hearst News Service.

  18. Horace Beasley says:

    It is not possible to express the role of Jim Solheim in my life. As others have eloquently expressed, he was a good friend. Whether in Philadelphia, Boston or Trenton, Jim was the consummate host. His home was a place of warmth, (you could always find a log on the fire), lively social engagement among his many friends and ample food and drink. Likewise he was a consummate traveler. We spent two wonderful summers exploring the great cities of Italy and the art. music and history found there. He liked to comb the back streets of those cities in search of local and/or regional dishes that would curl your toes and make your hair stand on end. Another summer was spent tearing across the Canadian Maritimes. What fun we had. With Jim’s death there’s a hole in the universe, Yet, I give thanks for his presence in my life and the joy that came from knowing him as a friend.

  19. Ian T. Douglas says:

    Jim was a dear friend, an incredible professional, and a deeply faithful brother in Christ. He will be sorely missed.

  20. Patricia Lefevere says:

    Gone much too quickly. Was there a deadline the rest of us didn’t know about? I enjoyed meeting up with Jim in several world ports — the back streets of Santiago de Compostela for the Faith and Order conference, Canberra, Australia and Geneva often. He was a tremendous help in covering the Episcopal “heresy” trial in Wilmington, Delaware for this fellow Minnesotan, and a Catholic to boot.

    Whether I was free-lancing an article for the National Catholic Reporter, the United Methodist Reporter, United Church Observer or whatever, Jim could be counted on to summarize the issues cogently and bring me up to speed on the conference, meeting or controversy we were presently huddled around. May St. Peter smile for Jim’s lens and dish out a good quote too.

  21. Chris Glaser says:

    Jim’s death grieves me deeply! He interviewed me for an article that never appeared in A.D. magazine, given the politics of the Presbyterian Church at the time, but we always made it a point to have a dinner together at every subsequent General Assembly and compare notes. His sense of humor and great choice of restaurants made such church gatherings more bearable. I thank God for his life, his writings, his laughter, and his way of cheering you up with his smile.

  22. John Freed says:

    Just now learning about this. I was privileged to meet Jim in 1998 and was always impressed with his professionalism and high standards. A good man, he will be missed.

  23. The Rev. Stephen R. Weston says:

    I, too, am saddened by the death of my brother, and as read his epitaph in the words of friends with whom I worked (Barwell and Freeman in particular), I realize we really did make a contribution and had the privilege of working with some of the greats, especially Presiding Bishop Ed Browning, Barbara Braver, and especially Jim Solheim. I remember how irritated Bishop Spong became at some of Jim’s questions. He always pressed for what was underneath, and not just what was running on the surface. I salute you, Jim.

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