The Rev. John W. Ackerman helped poor kids from north Minneapolis get a chance at college. He traveled to South Africa to provide spiritual coaching to congregations. And he worked to unite Minnesota faith communities in the global movement against climate change.
Ackerman, of Minneapolis, died Nov. 22 of lung cancer. He was 80.
“He was a man of great passion and caring, and I was very honored to walk with him and work with him through these years,” said Dan Johnson, executive director at Christos Center for Spiritual Formation in Lino Lakes.
The two co-authored a book last year, “Staying in Touch: Spiritual Practices for Life Together.” It was Ackerman’s fourth book.
“John read continually about his passionate interest in the spiritual life, but he also kept up a keen interest in what was happening in the world, especially when questions of justice were involved,” said his wife of 57 years, Helen Ackerman.
He was an “apostle” of Northside Achievement Zone, an educational collaborative.
In 2003, when it began as the Peace Foundation, Ackerman started helping organizations and schools reach out to families in a geographic “zone” of north Minneapolis.
“He believed in this comprehensive approach to partnering with families on the North Side and wrapping supports around them so that their children had hope for college,” said Sondra Samuels, executive director. She called the Ackermans anchors in the initiative.
“Not only did they support us financially and were dedicated contributors every year to our work, they would attend functions on the North Side and came to our events and dinners,” Samuels said.
Ackerman was raised in Little Falls, N.Y. and attended Vermont’s Middlebury College, where he met fellow student Helen Macbeth Starr.
After graduating in 1955, he entered Union Theological Seminary in New York. In 1956, John and Helen married and went to Scotland for his second year of seminary.
Ackerman was ordained a Presbyterian minister in 1957 and was a pastor in upstate New York; Washington, D.C.; and New Castle, Pa., before coming to Minneapolis. He worked from 1982 to 1989 at Westminster Church, then at Bryn Mawr Church until 1997.
Beginning in the late 1980s, he also ran a private practice in spiritual direction, organizing small groups and working with clergy. He began writing books, too, advancing four-step models and other tools.
“Spiritual Awakening: A Guide to Spiritual Life in Congregations” was published in 1994. Another bestseller, “Listening to God: Spiritual Formation in the Congregation,” was published in 2001.
Several years ago, he and Helen traveled to southern Africa, where he coached congregations that had relied heavily on his writings. After his second trip, Ackerman wrote a book in Afrikaans.
In recent years, he and Helen, a scientist, grew concerned about global warming.
“Climate change become a huge passion for John during the last decade of his life,” said friend Vera Snow. “He believed life, as we knew it, was in jeopardy and saw it as the moral issue of our times.”
He served on the board of Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, a nonprofit. And in his last four months, he and Executive Director Julia Nerbonne created and launched “Be the Spark,” a program that trains faith leaders how to engage churches in climate issues.
“It was John’s vision that people in congregations all over Minnesota would join in the larger climate justice movement,” Nerbonne said.
Survivors include children Elizabeth Starr Ackerman and Andrew Starr Ackerman, both of New York City.
Services have been held.