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The heart of a spiritual shepherd will reflect the heart of Jesus, the Chief Shepherd. Jesus said in John 10:14 that he was the good shepherd who knows his sheep and the sheep know him. Jesus’ care for his sheep is a template for pastors and their congregation. Bonhoeffer followed in the steps of Jesus. The seminary at Finkenwalde was not a church. Nevertheless, Dietrich Bonhoeffer cared for his students as the spiritual shepherd of his student.

This care and love for his students was expressed in the Finkenwalde circular letters. For example, in the May 1940 letter, Bonhoeffer wrote of his “pleasure” when he received letters from his students.

Dear Brothers,

Today I must thank all of you collectively for the recent greetings and letters that I have received from you. Otherwise I shall be unable to work through all my correspondence, and I do not want you to wait even longer for my thanks. Every greeting and longer letter has given me pleasure and made it possible for me to focus again on each of you.[1] 

Each letter began with either “Dear Brothers” or “Dear Brother…” His simple salutations reflected Bonhoeffer’s closeness with his students. The circular letters make it clear that at Finkenwalde, he took to the time to get to know his students. This was especially evident when he wrote of former students who were killed in battle. His August 15, 1941 circular letter is an example of this. He gave the names of four former students who were killed on the eastern front: Konrad Bojack, F.A. Preub, Ulruch Nithack, and Gerhard Schulze.[2] Bonhoeffer then went into great detail about their lives:

Konrad Bojack was with us in the summer of 1935. He became a pastor in Lyck (East Prussia), where he leaves behind his wife and two small children. With the earnestness and joy of Christianity, his sermons emerging completely from the Word of God, and his love for the church, the ministry, and the congregation, he was a fine witness of Jesus Christ for us all. As a native of Silesia who chose to make his home his home in East Prussia, he had allowed the questions and needs of the German border region to grow dear to his heart. He proved his love for this new homeland as a faithful pastor of his congregation. He found his mission and his congregation’s salvation in the authentic preaching of Jesus Christ. He was killed on June 22 close to the East Prussian border. We grieve the loss of this quiet, honest brother. In this life, he trusted in Word and sacrament. Now he may behold in which believed.

F.A. Preub was with us the same time as Konrad Bojack. He became a pastor in Landsberger Hollander in Neumark, where he leaves behind his wife and two children. In him we had a brother who was always friendly and joyful, whose faith in Jesus Christ was secure, who attended faithfully to the office entrusted to him even under difficult conditions, and who served his congregation with great love and devotion. Now Christ has called him to his own heavenly congregation.

Ulrich Nithack was with us in the summer of 1938. No one who met him could have failed to experience his radiant happiness and inner confidence, rooted his faith in Christ. His never-failing readiness to serve other members of the community and his thankfulness for the smallest things brought him the love of all the brothers. His pursuit of a personal life of sanctification through Jesus Christ emerged from a faith that was in the best sense childlike. For him, prayer was at the center. In a certitude that strengthened all of us, he saw his path and calling to be entirely within the Confessing Church, which he loved with all his heart. He gave himself completely to every task assigned to him. With his death some of the light of Jesus Christ, which we are given to glimpse here and there through one another, has gone out for us—but only so as to shine all the more brightly in the eternal sun of Jesus Christ.

Like Ulrich Nithack, Gerhard Schulze was with us in the summer of 1938. He came from a conflict-ridden congregational post in which he represented the concerns of a church bravely and clearly. With his lively, cheerful, winning manner he quickly found friends and community wherever he went. He desired to devote his life completely to the Confessing Church’s struggle. God led him in a special way through depths and heights; he was allowed to experience the power of the grace of God in his life more powerfully than others. He wished to proceed in his future ministry from within this experience. His death affects many friends who accompanied him through his life. Yet a life so rich in grace fills us anew with the certainty that the mercy of God has no end.[3]

Bonhoeffer must have spent significant time with his students to know their backgrounds and families. His relationship with his students also went beyond their years together at Finkenwalde since he also was aware of certain details of their lives after the seminary was closed. In an era long before e-mail, Facebook, Skype, cell phones and text-messaging, Bonhoeffer invested the time through good-old-fashioned face-to-face conversations and letter writing in order to get to know his students.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not that aloof theologian who put up walls between his students and him. The Preacher’s Seminary was not your typical seminary where students went to class and heard a lecture and then went to their dorm room, library or to the cafeteria. Finkenwalde was an opportunity for Bonhoeffer to put into the practice his thoughts on authentic fellowship.

[1] Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945, 44.

[2] Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945, 44.

[3] Brocker, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945, 206.


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