Armin J. Panning (1931-2019)
Seminary President (1985-1996)
By Paul T. Prange
Armin John Panning was a man who knew how things worked. The son of a farmer, William Panning, and Frieda nee Bode, it wasn’t long after his birth on May 13, 1931, in Gibbon, Minnesota, that he began doing chores on the 240 acre farm as the second of five children. All of his life he retained an interest in the mechanics of machinery and in the rhythms of life in the natural world where he hunted and fished.
The family was active in the Missouri Synod (LCMS) congregation in Town Moltke, Minnesota, which supported a two-room Lutheran elementary school. That school was the first place Panning spoke English, since German was spoken in his home. As a young student, he delighted in hearing the lessons of the older children in his classroom, and in that setting he developed his keen powers of observation.
The Missouri Synod congregation encouraged its young people to attend the Wisconsin Synod’s Martin Luther Academy in New Ulm, Minnesota, for high school, so Armin followed his older brother there. Since he was uncertain what he wanted to be when he grew up, his mother marked on his application form that he wanted to pursue the pastor track. In ninth grade he was introduced to Latin, which remained a lifelong love.
Panning drifted with his classmates to Northwestern College (NWC) in Watertown, Wisconsin, the pastor-training college of the Wisconsin Synod. There he encountered Professor Ralph Gehrke, who was an excellent example of an encouraging instructor, and who was able to connect Panning’s interest in Latin with the language of the New Testament, Greek. Panning could not have known then how his interest in the way classical languages work would benefit generations of pastors in the Wisconsin Synod.
Panning experienced some indecision when he enrolled at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary (WLS) to continue his pastoral studies. He knew that pastors were required to do many things in public, and he was not sure that he would enjoy public appearances, even things as necessary as preaching. At the end of his first year at WLS, he was surprised when he was asked to serve as an emergency instructor at Michigan Lutheran Seminary (MLS), the Wisconsin Synod’s preparatory high school in Saginaw, Michigan.
His year at MLS gave him his first insights into the ministerial education curriculum from the teacher’s side of the desk. He taught tenth grade German and eleventh grade English, and through the strong collegiality of the staff there, he learned a great deal more about how the entire curriculum fit together. He also learned how apt he was for the classroom.
Upon his return to WLS, he appreciated even more the education he was receiving. He was especially appreciative of the preparation that Professor John “Nixie” Meyer put into his lessons, since Meyer lectured on New Testament isagogics without notes, simply using a clean text of New Testament Greek. Later, when Panning taught the same course, he imitated Meyer’s preparation and lecture format.
He also appreciated Meyer’s special interest in him. WLS students in those days did yard work and shoveled snow for the professors, and when he was working at Meyer’s home, Panning would hear stories about the congregation where he grew up, since Meyer had some acquaintance with it from the early days of his ministry. Panning remained a member of that LCMS congregation until he agreed to accept assignment in the Wisconsin Synod.
Panning’s first assignment after graduation from WLS was to serve as a tutor at NWC. Although he was the sole resident supervisor of the college dorm, where future NWC Dean Edward Lindemann was in the senior class, Panning taught in the preparatory school department. Future ministerial education professors John Lawrenz and Erhard Opsahl were in his ninth grade English class.
After two years of service at Northwestern, Panning began his parish ministry in 1959 at Salem Lutheran Church in Escanaba, Michigan. The parish had been vacant for only six months, although the previous pastor had served only a year and a half before departing during heated discussions about whether a Lutheran elementary school should be established. Panning found himself being a patient listener to many families with opinions on all sides of the issue. He also found that he was a nervous preacher, unable to eat before Sunday morning worship.
When Gehrke left NWC after the break in fellowship with the Missouri Synod, Panning received the divine call to replace him. After just three years of parish ministry, he returned to Northwestern College in 1962, where he began to teach the courses formerly taught by Gehrke.
He did not return to Watertown alone. While in Escanaba, he dated one of the Sunday School teachers, Virginia Nelson. They were united in marriage in 1961. They have four sons: John, an organ builder and voicer; James, a pastor; Mark, a missionary; and Joel, a policeman. Panning was fond of saying that his family had both law and gospel, but the gospel predominated.
During his 13 years in Watertown, Panning taught classical and New Testament Greek and ancient history (Old Testament). He also served as secretary and then vice president of the faculty. His knowledge of the scope and sequence of the curriculum, both prep and college, became encyclopedic, leading him to an easy analysis of the impact of curricular changes, both proposed and implemented, through the years. Although he understood the reasons, he regretted the cancellation of Saturday morning classes, since they were slotted into Wednesday afternoon, which had previously been a welcome break time for reflection in the middle of the curricular week.
During that time he also earned an M.A. in Greek at the University of Michigan. Despite his deep knowledge of the Greek language, he was sympathetic to students who struggled to learn it. Many students remember that he could seemingly turn any answer, no matter how wrong, into something salvageable. It was clear that he considered embarrassment of any student unhelpful to the learning environment.
In 1975, Panning accepted the divine call to serve as a professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, teaching in the areas of New Testament and church history. Soon he began to serve as vice president and financial aid officer. His administrative style was to work behind the scenes in order to assure smooth operation.
When Professor Armin Schuetze retired from the presidency in 1985 and returned to fulltime teaching, the WLS Governing Board, noting Panning’s inclination to arrange things quietly in the background, asked him to serve as the next president of WLS. While he never pictured himself as a dynamic, out-front kind of leader, Panning accepted the challenge.
Panning’s installation as president took place on September 15, 1985, at Calvary Lutheran Church in Thiensville. One of Panning’s first projects was the building of a gymnasium/auditorium on the seminary campus, where installation services would take place in the future.
Panning understood administration to be service. With a servant’s heart, he considered the paperwork and office time a way to spare his colleagues of those responsibilities so that they could concentrate on their teaching. He understood that a fulltime administrator is always in danger of becoming too distant from students and faculty, and he was grateful that the WLS president still had some time in the classroom.
For ten of the eleven years that Panning served as president, there were more candidates than divine calls when the WELS Assignment Committee met in May. Panning used those circumstances as teaching moments, emphasizing that a divine call into the ministry of the gospel is a privilege, not a right. Still, those meetings with disappointed candidates and their families were always hard. Panning brought a pastoral heart to bear.
He considered his writing for the Northwestern Lutheran and Forward in Christ as an opportunity to serve the whole synod in a pastoral way. As early as 1971, he shared responsibilities for regular contributions to the columns “Studies in God’s Word” and “The Word for Today,” as well as numerous editorials.
During Panning’s administration, the synod adopted a new biennial budgeting process called zero-based budgeting. It asked schools and areas of ministry to justify their work and compete for allocations of synod support. Panning was always uncomfortable with the process. Aware of the central role that Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary played in the synod, he wanted neither to see it weakened nor to see other parts of the work hindered. Although there were cuts in manpower, technology, and maintenance in his budgets, the prescribed program of study never suffered. Panning understood the central importance of well-trained ministers of the gospel.
Upon his retirement from the presidency, Panning had time to work on the volume of Northwestern Publishing House’s People’s Bible series for the book of Romans. Drawing on his experience of teaching Greek and New Testament isagogics, he had previously written the volume for Galatians and Ephesians.
He also served a one-year sabbatical in Bulgaria, following it up with an 18-month term as the Friendly Counselor for that world mission field. Although he had the privilege to represent WELS around the world as president of WLS, he had especially fond memories of another sabbatical, this time in Sweden, where he had the privilege to teach Galatians and symbolics. He died on April 7, 2019.
Panning was a man who knew how things worked. He had a deep appreciation for the grace that God showed him in Christ Jesus, forgiving his sins and calling him to service in the ministry of the gospel. The Church properly gives thanks to God for the service of this fine Christian gentleman.
For Further Reading:
- Leroy A. Dobberstein, “President Armin J. Panning,” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 82, no. 4 (Fall 1985): 288.
- Armin J. Panning, “New Testament Studies in the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Curriculum,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.
- Armin J. Panning, “Church History in the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Curriculum,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.
- Armin J. Panning, “The Seminary Curriculum: The Rest of the Curriculum,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.
- Armin J. Panning, “Language Requirements for a Gospel Ministry,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.
- Armin J. Panning, “Our Primary Calling – Providing Pastoral Candidates,” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary Online Essay File.