Pastor Bonhoeffer

Though known as a theologian and resister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also a pastor—even in his final moments.

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.”

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February 2016
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