Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Bonhoeffer & Leadership: Immersion

Written by: on January 25, 2021

Immersions are experiences that move us beyond the realms of comfort, safety, and certainty. They are moments of displacement that generate within us theological and existential crises. If navigated humbly, these are the experiences that move us beyond “What do I do?” to the more important question: “Who must I become?”

Immersions are the portals through which we cross the threshold into disorientation and discomfort and begin a pilgrimage through them. These are the experiences that, if we are open to them, have the potential to simultaneously undo and remake us. The Spirit seems to inhabit immersions, even roaming untamed within them, substantively altering who and how we are as human beings.

In a journal entry in 1928, young Bonhoeffer spoke of being grasped by God. He had the sense that God was leading him and imagined that the God who led would, at times, lead him where he didn’t want to go.[1] At the time of this journal entry, the young theologian was discerning his first substantial immersion outside of Germany.  Barcelona would become the first immersive incubator for Bonhoeffer’s transformation.

That city, then and now, was an epicenter of Spanish culture. It would have simple for Bonhoeffer to acclimate to the culture, develop relationships with German ex-pats, and remain relatively unmoved by the experience. Yet that is not how Bonhoeffer immersed.  Instead, he chose to walk off the beaten trails of privilege and tourism and got proximate with those in pain. Far from the masquerade of elitist German Christianity, Bonhoeffer wrote that it was in proximity with the desperate, the impoverished, and the criminals that he began to see more clearly. Immersion created seismic shifts in his theology from wrath-oriented to grace-oriented.

In immersing off the road of comfort and into reality, Bonhoeffer’s heart for the first time awoke to the plight of the poor and the outcast.”[2] As we’ll soon see, a heart for the marginalized became a central theme in his life, theology, love, and leadership.

Let me highlight a progression of four ideas and practices as it pertains to Bonhoeffer’s experience of immersion:

  1. Transformation as being formed into the image of Jesus is the Spirit’s priority, is usually uncomfortable, and often requires immersion. It involves being led where we may not prefer to go.
  2. Because many dominant culture Christians have been groomed to prioritize and preserve our comfort (even equating both as evidence of God’s favor), we often ignore the promptings of the Spirit whenever we sense that she may be lulling us away from the familiar. When we miss her voice, we miss the transformation.
  3. Beginning with this Barcelonan immersion Bonhoeffer began to grow familiar with the whispers of the Spirit. He began to discern that hers was the voice that invited him to rebel against his preference for comfort.
  4. It wasn’t a true immersion for Bonhoeffer to simply enjoy a new culture while remaining entrenched in German privilege. He had to make a concerted effort to edge further and further away from the familiar and toward the “foreign.” It was there that Bonhoeffer was found and formed by God. It was while immersed that God began to heal his sight.


[1] Metaxis, Bonhoeffer, 70.

[2] Ibid., 79.

About the Author

Jer Swigart

12 responses to “Bonhoeffer & Leadership: Immersion”

  1. Dylan Branson says:

    I love how we ended up swapping scenes hahaha.

    There’s so much to be said about stepping away from “home” for an extended period of time. When I led teams for my previous organization, there was normally a marked transformation in my teammates who stepped away with humility into the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong vs those who simply came “for the good food”. During training, we always talked about “side missions” that people who join immersion experiences bring with them into the experience. While they may not be necessarily “bad”, they take away from fully leaning in to what God is waiting to teach us during those times. We end up coming with OUR agenda vs God’s.

    • Jer Swigart says:

      “Our Agendas.” It seems that so frequently get in the way of the possibilities that the Divine is inviting us into. I imagine that inviting folks to interrogate their agendas, identify them, and submit them to one another would be a helpful practice for those entering into immersions. Some honesty and accountability would be great spaces to begin such an experience.

  2. Greg Reich says:

    I have always found it fascinating that the Spirit doesn’t take us all on the same journey when creating in us the likeness of Christ. For Bonhoeffer it was his time with the poor and outcasts that drew him deeper into becoming Christ like. For me it has been through great disappointment and pain that drew me into the depths of Christ. How has the Spirit drawn you into a deeper life in Christ?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      That’s right. All of our pilgrimages are different. And yet, my sense is that there are some common elements or components that are necessary in order for us to navigate these transformative journeys. Sounds like an interesting topic for some doctoral work. 😉

      Wondering what you would identify as the most important practice or posture of our pilgrimages.

      • Greg Reich says:

        Tough question. It may be different for others but for me in this leg of my journey it would be: pray always, love unconditionally, keep short accounts, forgive freely, study the word, and keep an open minded.

  3. Shawn Cramer says:

    Are you familiar with Brenda Salter McNeil’s Work, “Roadmap to Reconciliation”? She has a helpful framework around the cycle of preservation versus the cycle of transformation. One moves from preservation to transformation through an immersive catalytic event. I believe I’ve brought this up with you before, but her work helps give context for what might seemingly be a “one-off” event. A picture can be found here: https://www.christianitytoday.com/women-leaders/2016/february/on-road-to-racial-reconciliation.html?paging=off

  4. Darcy Hansen says:

    I appreciate the movement from a posture of doing to one of becoming in your opening questions. But I am wondering if the questions “Who am I?” and “How did I become who I am?” wouldn’t fit well in-between the two you offered? When I have been invited to those places of transformation, the ones I would not have chosen (as you mentioned), deep internal self-reflection was/is necessary. This immersive experiences didn’t only bring me proximate to those the world overlooks, but they brought me more proximate with God and myself in a hard and holy way. I wonder if short, immersive experiences are really enough to bring about true transformation? For me, if God had allowed me to leave the desert 2 years ago, I would have missed the deeper work of the Spirit in my soul. I likely would have fallen back in step with cultural Christianity’s norms, and definitely would have missed the opportunity to answer those big existential questions around identity and my place in the world. I’m still here- in the desert- waiting to be released, but also proximate to God and those who are wandering and wondering in this desert place, too. What role does duration play in the transformative immersion experiences?

    • Jer Swigart says:

      I like those additional questions. Thanks for offering them.

      An important learning for us has been that the immersion is less the space of transformation and more the catalyst into a transformative pilgrimage. What happens after the immersion is where these kinds of questions need to be taken seriously.

  5. John McLarty says:

    Your post brought to mind the immersion experiences of friends who have seriously studied foreign languages. They travel to an area, say a village in Mexico, where they live with a host family who speaks no English. Their class allows no English. It’s amazing how quickly one starts getting a gist of the language when that’s the only option. And many experience personal transformation (and greater cultural appreciation) in the process as well. At the end of the day, is part of immersion the ability to “speak someone else’s language” in order to better understand?

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