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

“The House of Your Church is on Fire”

Written by: on February 2, 2021

In 1933, Bonhoeffer was invited by Bishop Theodore Heckel to pastor the two German congregations in London. Metaxas writes that there were two reason Bonhoeffer wanted to go: To engage in the grounding experience of honest “parish work” and to push away from the church struggle in Germany to gain perspective on the bigger picture.[1] In regards to the latter reason, Bonhoeffer was one of the first to see that the struggles immediately facing the German church extended far beyond what they seemed. Keeping these in mind, Bonhoeffer made his way to London, but decided against telling one of his closest and most influential friends until after he arrived: Karl Barth.

After his arrival, he wrote Barth telling him of his decision. When Barth wrote back, he told Bonhoeffer that his journey to London was a mere interlude and that he needed to hurry back. Speaking prophetically, Barth wrote, “Be glad that I do not have you here in person, for I would let go at you urgently in quite a different way, with the demand that you must not let go of all these intellectual flourishes and special considerations, however interesting they may be, and think of only one thing – that you are a German, that the house of your church is on fire, that you know enough and can say that you know well enough to be able to help, and that you must return to you post by the next ship.”[2]

Two lessons in leadership stick out from this:

  1. Sometimes you need to step away. At times, we become inundated with our surroundings that we fail to see the bigger picture of what is happening around us. We see the same people, see the same situations, and see the same results. This narrows our focus and can get us locked in on asking the wrong questions. Sometimes we need to step away from the immediate context of the problem to think and reflect from a different angle.

While Bonhoeffer was in London, he built connections with Bishop George Bell, who would become a major ally to the German church and the resistance against Hitler. Bonhoeffer became Bell’s principle source of information of what was happening in Germany and he would then take Bonhoeffer’s messages to the British public.[3]Bonhoeffer also mobilized the German congregations in London to join the Confessing Church.

Metaxas writes, “Of all the countries with German congregations, only one country – England – would take such a stand, all because of Bonhoeffer.”[4]


  1. …but there is a time to return. When one steps away, it would do no good if he or she does not return with their renewed sense of perspective. Stepping away can be a transformative act and stepping back in can spread that transformation to others. To keep the lessons learned from our pilgrimage to ourselves is not only irresponsible, but it defeats the purpose. One cannot put out the fire if he or she is nowhere near it.

To put it another way, it is important to be well-differentiated and reflective, but the leader must also have some sort of “skin in the game.” As Bonhoeffer would later write after his stint in New York:

“I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”[5]

Sometimes we must step away, but eventually we must return.


[1] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2010), 195.

[2] Ibid., 197.

[3] Ibid., 199.

[4] Ibid., 204.

[5] Ibid., 321.

About the Author

Dylan Branson

Small town Kentuckian living and learning in the big city of Hong Kong.

11 responses to ““The House of Your Church is on Fire””

  1. Darcy Hansen says:

    This post hit a tender spot in my spirit. Its been 3 years since I walked away from being part of a local church. During that time, I’ve gained fresh perspective and insight. I have read and written much about the short comings of the American Christian church, but the truth is, I’ve known for a time that I really didn’t have “skin in the game.” While I know my role at my past church was to be a seed planter, that doesn’t give me a pass on participating and serving in a different local faith community. My husband and I were close to committing to a community when Covid hit. Your post reminds me I’m to acknowledge the pull I feel to get back in the game in a more communal and integrated way.

    What was it about “the house of your church is on fire” captured your imagination, invoked perspective, and how will you then act?

    • Dylan Branson says:

      The imagery is one that put into perspective my own church journey here in Hong Kong. My church has gone through many different struggles and hardships and in a real way, it was “on fire”. I kept trying to escape the fire, but was always drawn back to it despite my attempts to flee. To be perfectly candid, I was content to step back and watch it burn for the longest time. But then when I stepped back, I was able to recognize that instead of watching the house burn, there were still people trying to put the fire out and, slowly but surely, I realized it was also my job and duty to join with them. This has put me on a path that (hopefully) I’ll be able to share more about soon =)

  2. Jer Swigart says:

    Great piece, Dylan. I appreciate the practicality of this for leadership. Indeed, there are moments when we need to step away…and then return. Ironically, I’m writing from a bit of a solo-retreat in the snow-covered Cascades. The stepping away has been more important than I could have anticipated.

    That said, I’m interested in your interpretation of Bonhoeffer’s journey to London. When hearing “stepping away” I am quick to conclude that Bonhoeffer needed a breather (much like I am taking at the minute). Yet, was it a stepping away to rest, or was it a shift in social location so as to gain a better vantage point on what was broken? I may argue the latter, thus making this less a “step away” and more a “Zooming out.” Either way, both practices seem critical for sustainability and impact.

    • Dylan Branson says:

      I can see where you get that. I see it in the same way – that he took the post to “step back” and “zoom out” to get a broader picture on what was happening in Germany. I think in stepping back and zooming out, it brought with it a time to breathe and reflect as he processed what was happening. In a way, it was an “active rest” where he could further hone his pastoral craft while also seeing the church struggle through a different context.

  3. Greg Reich says:

    Brilliant! As I read your post I was drawn to the life of Peter in the gospels. He started his call as a fisherman. Through out his time with Jesus his paradigms were rearranged. During that time his perspective was always on an earthly king until Jesus is killed. His world and perspective are crashed so he does what he knows. He returns to fishing. I am sure he knew it was not the final destination but it was a place familiar to him, a place that allowed for speculation. Then Jesus comes again and points him back to his destiny. Barth may have been prophetic but until Bonhoeffer was allowed to get away and be available for Jesus to point him back to his destiny he would have never been convinced of Barths words. Do you remember a time when someone spoke prophetically into your life, but you didn’t fully come to see it until you were able to get to a place where Jesus clarified the process?

    • Dylan Branson says:

      I remember my grandfather telling me when I was around 13 or so that he thought I was going to be a preacher one day. When he said that, my first response was, “Papaw, you’re crazy. You know that I can’t preach or speak in front of people” (typical Moses answer). Flash forward several years and I was behind the pulpit for the first time when I was 16. By that time, my grandfather had passed away and I remember standing behind the pulpit for the first time thinking, “Guess you were right, Papaw” before bursting into tears for the next ten minutes and delivering a 5 minutes sermon haha.

      Flash forward to my exodus from the church, to my reentry with a new perspective on calling and reinvigoration of my desire to serve, and we’re at the juncture I’m at now 🙂

  4. John McLarty says:

    Dude- this post is brilliant in so many ways. Bonhoffer shows wisdom both in recognizing what he needs and in not giving Barth the chance to talk him out of it. But he’s also got the long game in mind. Great leadership is often that “both/and” ability to respond to the now while preparing for the later.

    • Dylan Branson says:

      Agreed. Metaxas hits a lot on Bonhoeffer’s foresight and his ability to see beyond the present situation. It’s like he had one foot in the present and one in the future, always thinking forward without missing the immediate context he found himself in.

  5. Chris Pollock says:

    Interesting, to learn the story a little more closely. The involvement of others who both influenced Bonhoeffer and were affected by him.

    It seems that Bonhoeffer was listening and willing in such a super-sensitive moment. History was happening and a finer tuning in was happening with-between Christian leaders.

    Bonhoeffer wasn’t alone. Was he a sacrifice, a martyr-admitted?

    He was in harm’s way. Yet, the encouragement to be there and present, revealing the truth and the stance of love for those oppressed in such a darkened, dangerous place to be.

    Was he scared? I wonder, in his closest moments with God, in view of the giant before him, was he scared? Like, Garden of Gethsemane stuff.

  6. Shawn Cramer says:

    I have an upcoming post that’s forming slowly about stepping away. Bonhoeffer’s journey to Harlem, Douglass’s trip to the UK. There’s something about disengaging to re-engage, like muscle building.

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