From the age of 14, Bonhoeffer yearned for ministry in the church. His brothers, however, charged that the church was “a poor, feeble, boring, petty bourgeois institution.” Dietrich’s physician father wrote later: “When you decided to devote yourself to theology, I sometimes thought to myself that a quiet, uneventful minister’s life, as I knew it …, would really almost be a pity for you.”
Ministry in Spain and the U.S.
Despite his family’s reservations, Bonhoeffer prepared himself for ministry. At age 22, he received an appointment as curate (assistant pastor) in a German-language Lutheran congregation in Barcelona. In addition to his encountering businessmen and their families, Bonhoeffer also met poverty firsthand. “I have seen long-established and prosperous families totally ruined,” he wrote, “so that they have been unable to go on buying clothes for their children.… ”
The multiple facets of pastoral ministry were all present: preaching, teaching Sunday school, leading youth activities, doing visitation, counseling the unemployed, meeting with committees, comforting the bereaved. Bonhoeffer preached nineteen sermons; twelve have survived. His senior minister wrote that Bonhoeffer “proved most capable in every respect and has been a great help.… He has been able in particular to attract children, who are very fond of him.”
Bonhoeffer was invited to stay a second year, but he opted to resume his studies at the University of Berlin. The following year, he studied in New York. While at Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer wished to maintain contact with a vital congregation. Through his good friend Franklin Fisher he found one—the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem—and became involved with a boys’ Sunday school class.
Teaching a Rough Class
Upon his return to Berlin in 1931, Bonhoeffer was ordained. He began serving as student chaplain at the Technical University of Charlottenburg.
He also became teacher of a confirmation class in the Zion parish of Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin. Many of the forty children he catechized were from poor, even impoverished, homes. A letter to his close friend, Erwin Sutz, put it succinctly: “It’s about the worst area of Berlin with the most difficult social and political conditions.”
Bonhoeffer was not satisfied with merely in-class contacts with his confirmands, so he rented a room in their neighborhood. Years later, Richard Rather, one of the students, wrote: “Never before or after has Zion Church had such a strong congregation as when this gifted man was its pastor.… He was so composed that it was easy for him to guide us; he made us familiar with the catechism in quite a new way, making it alive for us by telling us of many personal experiences. Our class was hardly ever restless because all of us were keen to have enough time to hear what he had to say to us.”
Two London Congregations
From the fall of 1933 to the spring of 1935, Bonhoeffer served two small, German-speaking congregations in London—one in Sydenham, the other in the East End.
The two congregations were quite different. Sydenham, which gathered businessmen and families, and a few members of the German diplomatic community, numbered thirty to forty. St. Paul’s, a Reformed congregation with a two-century history, numbered about fifty. It comprised mostly tradesmen—butchers, tailors, bakers—and their families.
During his eighteen months in his only full pastorate, Bonhoeffer introduced children’s services, youth clubs, Nativity and Passion plays, financial assistance for German refugees, and a revised hymnal.
Preaching was his finest hour. (He was considerably less enthused about routine parish meetings.) Eberhard Bethge has written, however, that not all the parishioners understood or appreciated his preaching, some finding it too “oppressive and emphatic.” Yet one elderly parishioner said years later, “I never fell asleep while Pastor Bonhoeffer was preaching!”
A Pastor to Pastors
His tenure in England was cut short by a call to serve the Confessing Church in his native Germany. Bonhoeffer became director of an illegal seminary located in Zingst, near the Baltic Sea, and then in Finkenwalde. He now served as chief shepherd of a flock of about twenty-five candidates for ministry.
Bonhoeffer conceived that this seminary (one of five for the Confessing Church) would do more than provide academic preparation. It should also be a place of “brotherly help and fellowship,” with a “well-ordered, well-regulated common life,” a “common obedience to the commandments,” “deepest inward concentration for service outward,” and “prayer, meditation, study of Scripture, brotherly discussion, and open confession.”
One of his students, Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann, wrote years later: “Each Saturday evening Bonhoeffer addressed us, as a pastor, guiding us to live in brotherhood, and working out what had been experienced during the last week, and what had gone wrong. Thus we gradually grasped that this experiment in life together was a serious matter. And gradually we became ready to fall in with him and to do with zest what we were asked to do.”
In this communal setting Bonhoeffer articulated some of his keenest insights for ministry:
—insistence on discipleship as a core in the life of a pastor and congregation;
—the centrality of Jesus Christ;
—the importance of preaching;
—the necessity of a disciplined daily life of prayer, meditation, intercession, and reading Scripture;
—emphasis on care for the sick and troubled and outcast;
—the role of continuing celebration of worship and the sacraments;
—the sincere practice of confession.
Bonhoeffer wrote letters to his students during the dark years of the church struggle (1936–42). Even though his young friends were compelled to serve in Hitler’s army, Bonhoeffer encouraged them to be pastors, no matter where they were: “Certainly none of us is ever released from the responsibility of being a Christian, and no one may deny that he is a pastor.”
A Minister to the End
A pastoral ministry, in a wider sense, continued even into Bonhoeffer’s trying months in Nazi prisons and concentration camps. Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law Gerhard Leibholz wrote in a preface to an early edition of The Cost of Discipleship: “His own concern in prison was to get permission to minister to the sick and to his fellow prisoners, and his ability to comfort the anxious and depressed was amazing.”
The day before his execution, Bonhoeffer conducted a worship service for fellow prisoners. He preached on the text for that Sunday, Isaiah 53:5—“By his wounds we are healed.” He also meditated briefly on the text from 1 Peter 1:3—“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Fellow prisoner Payne Best wrote later that Bonhoeffer “reached the hearts of all, finding just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment, and the thoughts and resolutions which it had brought.”
At Flossenbürg on April 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer’s life came to its untimely and tragic end on the gallows. It is significant to note the descriptive title given to him by the camp doctor a decade later: “The prisoners.…were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts, I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a prayer, and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
To the very end, he was “Pastor Bonhoeffer.”
Dr. F. Burton Nelson is professor of theology and ethics at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois, and co-author of A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (HarperCollins, 1990).
Copyright © 1991 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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