Over the past number of decades, there has been a turn towards an autobiographical approach in the field of Practical Theology. Practical theologian Heather Walton has been developing an approach that draws on autoethnography and narrative. Walton uses her personal history as pastor and theologian to explore an embodied and lived theology. The purpose behind these explorations into her experience lies in her desire to make sense of her calling. Pete Ward, Professor of Practical Theology at Durham University, claims that the use of narrative in this form of recollection enables Walton to pay attention to the various details that surround her experience, thus leading to a celebratory incarnational theology.
I am currently serving as pastor of an English language international congregation in Hannover, Germany, and as I reflect on the journey that led to this point in my life and vocation, I cannot help but apply a similar autobiographical approach. My own autoethnographic reflection is located in the same exploration as Walton – one that is situated in an ongoing and regular encounter with God through prayer and worship. I am drawn to the field of practical theology because it takes theology seriously as a means to foster a continual relationship with God and it “enables a theology that is relational and that starts with encounter and wonder… it is the encounter with what is beyond theological expression.”
I often describe my Christian upbringing and important stages of faith formation as hybrid. As a teenager, I was heavily influenced by both my church youth ministry program and my participation in Young Life – a parachurch organization that works with teenagers. While on a hiking trip with Young Life after my junior year of high school, one of the activities our leaders had us participate in was “solo time.” We made an individual camping spot, within sight of one another of course, in order to spend time in prayer and Bible reading, beginning a conversation with God about our life and future discipleship. It was at this time that I received the missional command Jesus gave to his disciples in Matthew 28:19, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (NIV). It was an important moment in my life, so much so that I can still picture in my mind the spot in the woods that I made my own, and can still see and hear my leader Shanna Housman bringing me food and sustaining me with encouraging words along the way.
I was able to put into practice these words of commissioning as I participated in service trips with my youth group from Christ Memorial Church. There was a particular trip we took to serve at an orphanage in Tijuana, Mexico, and then at an outreach center in Los Angeles, California, which planted seeds of what life might be like to say yes to this missional life God was calling me to. There were significant moments of saying yes to God at each fork in the road over the subsequent years: taking a year between high school and college to participate in the organization Youth with a Mission, volunteering with Young Life as a college student, and helping lead a Bible study with people in my community starting my freshman year of college. By the time I reached the midway point of my college career, I had a decision to make: Would I take God’s call seriously to go and make disciples of all nations? With my solid Reformed theological upbringing, I decided that if I wanted to baptize people and teach them the commands of Christ, I should have the education and ordination to back it up, so off I went to seminary. For the sake of brevity, and to get to the heart of this essay, I’ll skip past early pastoral ministry, a Ph.D. in youth ministry and theology, significant family loss, and the birth of our two children.
When my husband Phil Tanis accepted a position as Executive Secretary for Communications with the World Communion of Reformed Churches in Hannover in 2014, I had a deep conviction it was the right move for our family even though I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do. During the interview stage for Phil, and the early days of his work before we moved to Hannover, the idea of an English language worshiping community was discussed amongst the executive committee of the World Communion as well as the local Reformed Church. At the time, as I faced the daunting tasks of moving to a new country where I didn’t know the language, looking for a new place to live, finding schools for our four- and eight-year-old, and packing our family, I couldn’t even consider what the landscape of a worshiping community would look like.
However, within our first twelve months of living in Hannover it became apparent a new community was needed. On Pentecost Sunday, 2015, the Reformed English Language International Service in Hannover was launched, and I was the first volunteer preacher. It felt joyfully providential that we would begin a new international ministry on Pentecost Sunday, the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit’s power of speaking and comprehending multiple languages across people groups. As I looked out over the small group of people gathered to say prayers and sing praise, I marveled at the providence of God, fulfilling visions and prophetic words right before my very eyes.
What astounds me still is the broader, more vibrant picture God had in store for me. When I received the words from Matthew 28 as a high school student, my vision for making disciples of all nations was to serve one people group. I explored and pursued opportunities to serve in a specific country. I went to mission conferences and prayed for hours about the vision for a certain group of people God might be calling me to. What I never would have imagined was God’s grand intention for my call. For here, serving as a pastor in Germany, I am serving nations, plural. The other day I jotted down the countries represented by interns who have served the World Communion of Reformed Churches and have become not just friends but brothers and sisters in Christ as they participated in the faith community of our church. Here they are in no particular order: the United States (including Puerto Rico), South Africa, Taiwan, South Korea, Pakistan, Jamaica, Hungary, Zambia, and Indonesia. Families from Denmark, Cuba, Canada, India, Australia, Ireland, Germany, Scotland, Namibia, and the United States have become key members of our congregation.
On a recent Sunday, one of the lectionary passages was from 1 Corinthians 12. Verse 12 states, “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ” (NIV). Later in the chapter it says that if one part of the body suffers, all suffer with it; and if one part of the body rejoices or is honored, every part rejoices. Now, as we read headlines from around the world, we are more keenly aware of the implications of political, environmental, or military endeavors. Was there a volcanic eruption in Indonesia? We ask about Meta and Nita and Taya’s families and church communities. Was there another missile tested from the Korean peninsula? We ask about Eri’s family and how the Presbyterian churches of South Korea will be affected. Was there rain in southern Africa? We ask if the communities around Fundi and Jessica have seen some reprieve. As the global body of Christ suffers, I now suffer with it. As the global body of Christ rejoices, I now say prayers of praise and thanks for the blessings of God.
John Calvin wrote, “It is for us to work hard and strive in every way to bring, if possible, the whole world to agree in the unity of the faith.” (Commentary, 10:8) Those in the community of the World Communion of Reformed Churches often say that to be Reformed is to be ecumenical, and the community of RELISH reflects that inherent nature. Although the leadership of our community happens to be from the Reformed family, the makeup of our congregation is very ecumenical. We have a mixture of Catholics and Protestants and charismatic non-denominationalists. We have families and university students and young professionals and older congregants. We strive to do what I. John Hesselink suggested when he wrote, “The classic Protestant definition of a true church is one in which the Word of God is faithfully proclaimed and the sacraments are properly administered.” Pete Ward posits it is the first task of a preacher to seek to understand and interpret the Bible as best as possible. The second task, then, is to try and make connections to the lives of those who listen as we seek Christ in scripture. This process of reading the Bible and making connections to life is a practice that has been around since the time of the New Testament. It has been refreshing to try and answer questions about women in ministry or the role of sacraments across Catholic and Protestant theological understanding. It is done in friendship, as I attempt to proclaim the Word of God. And truly, I must confess, deep theological questions and conversations wrestling with life are much more fun in a German beer garden.
You might find it ironic that although we are a community comprised of people from around the world, we worship in English. I recognize that, in many ways, I am living the life of a privileged pastor; able to move to a different country and operate in my mother-tongue without many repercussions. Don’t get me wrong – I have had my fair share of difficult and frustrating situations as I wrestle to make myself understood in German. There are seasons when I am desperately homesick for my people (and more often than I anticipated, Lake Michigan!). But what strikes me about pastoral ministry in an international, expatriate setting is the desire to gather. A parishioner mentioned a couple weeks ago how refreshing it was to come to worship where she was in a safe space. There is an element of refuge about being able to worship in your mother-tongue when you are abroad.
There is another aspect of worship that revealed itself over the course of the early days of the global pandemic: people were hungry for God’s word. I had multiple people ask me if I would record a reading of scripture, share a few words of reflection, and post it on social media. They were hungry and thirsty for a reassuring word from God. This, in turn, led us to gather for worship more frequently, and also led to a young adult Bible study being formed. The church worldwide has been challenged to adapt in these days, to do things differently, and this holds true in our European context. People are looking for the Living Word to shape and guide their lives.
One of the drawbacks, however, of our across-cultures, international community is the very transient nature of our congregation. Over the last twelve months we have had three key families move to their next chapter of life: to England, to the United States, and to Australia. This makes retaining a sense of identity and momentum in ministry like trying to hold sifting sand. To live in an expatriate community is to share a bond of collective experience – we need and rely on one another in ways I describe as life in the trenches. We share names of doctors and hairstylists and dentists and restaurants and parks not simply as information, but as lifelines for our sanity. More importantly though, we pray for one another and encourage one another with a language that usurps any other – the language of faith. We’re praying for Catherine’s dad in Australia and Steffi’s cousin in India and Kata’s friend with COVID in Hungary. On my hardest days as pastor, I struggle with my heart being torn into tiny pieces as, one by one, families and friends that I have not only pastored but also shared joyful friendship with move to far corners of the world. But on my best days as pastor, I rejoice at the vision of the church on the move. For it is Jesus who said to go into all the nations to make disciples and to teach others the commandments of Christ. I take great comfort in knowing that God’s Spirit has gone ahead of James and Lewis, Joshua and Ethan, Kendall and Duncan as they begin again in a new school trying to make new friends. For God promised me, and I, in turn, remind my younger friends who are on the move, that Jesus stated, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
This year marks thirty years since I received that early vision of God’s calling on my life. Paying attention to the various details around my experiences has led to a celebratory incarnational theology. It is a privilege and honor to live amongst and serve the nations God has placed me with here in Hannover. It has enabled a continued reliance upon, and a relationship with, the God who called me so long ago. It is a relationship that is situated in an ongoing and regular encounter with Jesus through prayer and worship and it continues to fill me with wonder as I encounter this Living Word made flesh for us and our salvation.
What a gift this is. Thank you for writing it down and sharing it with us.
Many thanks, Gretchen, for your ‘autoethnographic narrative’ of the call to you from the God of all nations. My own story found resonance with yours. In the 1970s I pastored a small congregation in Biloxi, Mississippi. The dominant employer/industry in town was Keesler Air Force Base, which meant people continuously moving to town from all kinds of places and traditions (although not as broad-ranging as in your community!). People came, but they also kept moving away in the military style of permanent mobility. A great deal of my own theological reflection in those years played in and out of the transience we experienced as a congregation. Thanks for sharing your experience and taking me back to my own.
I actually found myself thinking about call this morning, before I read this, including my own callings, and responses, admittedly in ways a bit discouraging–probably not at all fair to myself, and certainly not to God. Reading this both lifted my own spirits, and caused me again to give thanks for the many ways your faithful witness has uplifted me. Thank you, Gretchen.
Thank you Gretchen. What a great spiritual enriching read this morning. Thank you for your thoughts of how God is using you as you carry out His great commission to us. Blessings to you.
We worship at a similarly mixed expat church in Nairobi, Kenya and resonate with much of what you have said, especially about praying differently for other nations when you actually know someone from there. Also as Frederick Buechner said, “At its heart most theology, like most fiction, is essentially autobiography.”
Thank you, Gretchen. I do hope to worship with you all someday soon, while visiting my family. I have many questions (of curiosity), so let’s hope there’s some beer and curriwurst in our future. Let me just add that the congregation that I served in Brooklyn was, as the Dutch say, a “hotel church,” with many transients, although hardly to the extent of yours. We had to develop a special liturgy of “farewell blessing”.