January 26, 2021
The Rev. Dr. Tom Nees (MDiv, 1962) passed away on Sunday, January 24, at the age of 83.
A Brief Reflection on Tom Nees
By Dr. James E. Copple
I first met Tom when he was pastoring in Dayton, Ohio and I was leading a summer ministries team for the denomination. As our group was setting up to perform outside a courthouse, I found Tom standing in a shaded corner reading a Francis Schafer book. Shafer was a philosopher (more or less) popular with university students at the time. Tom was intrigued by the fact that I was a Conscientious Objector. That began a 50-year dialogue.
Our paths would cross periodically and our conversations would pick up as if we had never finished our last thought. Some years would go by and then I was asked to facilitate a major grant initiative for the White House on faith-based initiatives and public funding. I asked Tom to serve on the advisory council. He served with some giants in the social justice world. Tom would emerge as a leader of that group and led from a position of humility and compassion.
Years ago, Tom and I decided we wanted to memorialize the theme of social justice, a foundational principle of our denomination and embed it in the work of the Seminary. Tom and I were both Seminary graduates and earned our stripes in service to the poor and marginalized. We loved the Seminary and its contribution to our lives and our scholarship. I suggested a lecture series in the name of Tom Nees, the social justice conscience of the Church. He was reluctant to have something so auspicious as a lecture series named after him. I somehow prevailed. The Nees Social Justice Lecture Series awards a student a $1000 prize for the most outstanding paper on a social justice theme and every three years a prominent speaker is brought in to preach on the social justice themes of the scriptures. You want to memorialize the work of Tom Nees, contribute to this lecture series. It was one of the crown jewels in the legacy of Tom Nees.
Over lunch discussing the lecture series, Tom said, “You know Jim, we both sail. We should gather a group of guys and go some place fun and sail, read books, and have great discussions.” I responded, “I’m in – when do we go?” For the past 12 years, we have sailed in the Caribbean every year with good friends and colleagues and together we would solve world problems. However, Tom had the EF Hutton effect – when he spoke, we all stopped talking over each other and we simply listened. His wisdom, compassion, and interest in each and every person he met are characteristics that distinguished him from other leaders.
Miss him? He is one of those people in one’s life that is irreplaceable. We started a book club called Leading to Serve. The reading group consisted of about 15 good folks struggling to make sense out of this world. Tom would help us get there. I can’t imagine anybody taking his place.
We would talk weekly about the books we were reading and discuss them at length. If I failed to call – he would call me. His questions were never easy and he would often ask me to make sense out of the political and social world in which I worked. I seldom had anything to say that he had not already considered. The Church of the Nazarene has lost a giant, but it is a giant that that laid a foundation of righteousness anchored in justice. The prophet Micah had Tom Nees in mind when he wrote, “What does the Lord require of thee, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” That’s my friend and fellow justice warrior – Tom Nees.
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The Tom Nees Social Justice Award was established at Nazarene Theological Seminary in 2006. The first recipient was Dr. Nell Becker Sweeden, who now serves as Director of Nazarene Compassionate Ministries. Drawing from the legacy of Tom Nees’s work in Washington DC among the poor, the award is intended to inspire seminary students toward scholarly work that advances thinking and conversation around biblical justice from a Wesleyan-holiness theological framework. As Tom taught us, “our times need what Wesley and his followers provided for an earlier age – evangelism and social reform combined in one gospel presentation” (Nees, Compassion Evangelism, p. 9). The community of Nazarene Theological Seminary is profoundly grateful for the faithful and effective life and ministry of our alumnus, Dr. Tom Nees (Class of 1962). And I am personally thankful for the intentional investment that Tom made in my life.
Dr. Jeren Rowell
President, Nazarene Theological Seminary