Rejoice in hope

Interview with Julia Helmke, General Secretary of the German Protestant Kirchentag since July 2017.

What previous experiences have you had with the Kirchentag?

I have come to Kirchentags since I was 15 years old. As a young person coming from the Bavarian diaspora, for example, what fascinated me in particular was the Market of Opportunities. It broadened my horizons enormously to discover how faith and active engagement can be lived out in so many different ways. I an grateful to the Kirchentag for pointing me in this direction. Something that was also new to me was being able to ask honest questions about faith and doubt, and to get a taste of the variety of what was on offer. The multi-faceted diversity of the Kirchentag was instrumental in shaping my religious faith. Whether it be spirituality, prayer, ecumenism, or the encounter between different political, social and church viewpoints, the Kirchentag offers this wide open space for faith and for encounter, and I find this most important for society.

Culture was the focus of your work as Culture Officer for the Hannover Regional Church. What is important for you in the dialogue between church and culture?

What links church and culture together is found in the big existential questions: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? Not just as an individual, but also as a society. The church cannot exist in isolation from the cultural context, it is always a case of inculturation. The church and the arts can profit from each another. Creative artists ask questions about the meaning of life and are prepared not to give an answer. Fulbert Steffinsky said: “Faith can always go a step further, it does not have to stop at the question itself but can go on to give an answer.” We Christians find the answer in the biblical texts. What we can learn from our dialogue with artists is not to be over-hasty in giving answers or look only at the completed final outcome, but to focus instead on the process of searching and trying things out and to trust that process. This is also something that is important at the Kirchentag – trusting in the competence of those taking part in it and coming together to look for the direction in which we collectively want to be heading.

The Kirchentag is always a collaborative project and forms of cultural expression such as music or visual arts have always been an integral part of Kirchentags. I see this as important, since there is always something creatively chaotic and defiant about the artistic viewpoint. I will be happy to maintain this, as it is a force offering energy and bringing joy. What I really wish for, however, is that art should be seen less as an elitist project, but more as something permeating through the actual content of the events and that they should be much more strongly entwined with each other. I am thinking here of performance art, which is a good reflection of the character of the Kirchentag as movement.

As “boss” of the Kirchentag you are also responsible for the ongoing strategic development of Kirchentag. Are there any point you would like to emphasise?

For me it is important that the good reputation, the good name and the prominent position held by the Kirchentag should be maintained, and that is my fundamental concern. It is a unique style of event and movement, which I want to be alongside as it constantly changes. From a strategic point of view, it is a case of ensuring that the Kirchentag is placed on a firm financial footing for the long term, and to plan it in such a way that people will continue to be interested in playing an active part in it. For that we need a strong network reaching out across the widest range of different socio-political areas, such as is already the case with the Presidential Assembly of the Kirchentag. I regard it as one of my duties to nurture this. We must be seen to be accessible and to stand for a Protestantism that wants to engage with society. As the Kirchentag we also need to have a strong public perception, and behind this lies the question: how can we continue to communicate Kirchentag to the outside world to the best effect?

At the same time I am finding a strong desire for transparency. The Kirchentag structures are not easy to penetrate, and sometimes decisions take effect in a very non-transparent way. We need to work at that. It is also important for us as a movement to remain dynamic and elastic, in order to be able to react to topics at short notice. We must not become an unwieldy tanker, but need to continue to offer a lively counterbalance to the ecclesiastical structures of the Regional Church. In its earliest days Christianity was a movement and for almost 70 years the Kirchentag has maintained this for itself, and that is what I would like to continue to strengthen.

Are there any topics that are particularly important to you?

What lies close to my heart is the question: how can we, as Kirchentag, make people feel at home, people who come to Kirchentag, but also migrant congregations, and those people who (do not) find a home in their own congregation? We are the German Protestant Kirchentag, but what does that mean for the future – also in relation to Europe? How international do we want to become? How widely should we open up, also towards other religious groups? Another exciting topic is digitisation, which we need to pick up on, not just regarding subject-matter, but also in the development of new formats.

Your study of Protestant theology took you among other places to Montpellier and to Costa Rica – what were your experiences there?

I have always been curious and I like learning. For me, being a Christian includes widening one’s own perspectives and to experience the contexts in which faith may be lived out. In France I experienced Protestantism as being in a minority, but at the same time very much a present and lively minority. In Costa Rica I was able to experience really at first hand the liberation theology which I had got to know during my studies, in a country where Lutherans make up only just about one per cent. These experiences constructively brought into question those things that we take for granted and regard as normal. These experiences are also helpful to me in relation to the Kirchentag: test everything, hold fast to what is good.

How do you personally recharge your batteries, what gives your strength?

In all the activity I need stillness and prayer. In my training to be a spiritual companion, I realised that in the midst of life it is good in biographical terms not just to want to grow up to the heights, but also down into the depths and to find an anchor there. For me personally I find this in the Way of Ignatius and it means an inward sampling that strengthens and nourishes. For this I regularly go for a short time to a monastery. I can recharge my batteries in my family, or over a good meal with friends, or when singing, or with a cup of tea and a book on the sofa, or maybe during aimless play with my two dogs. All these are moments of grace. And I also love relaxed movement such as when walking and dancing.

Your first Kirchentag as General Secretary will take you to Dortmund. What are you expecting?

First of all I am looking forward to Dortmund very much, partly because Dortmund is very much looking forward to the Kirchentag. It will be a compact and visible Kirchentag. Dortmund is preparing itself for Kirchentag for the third time and is really enthusiastic about organising the Kirchentag in their city and their region – that is really great. The Ruhr is a region in a state of change. Society has been changing and this is still so today. Dortmund is a little bit like the Kirchentag, a laboratory in which there are tensions, both intercultural and social. But various ways in which these tensions might be resolved will be tried and tested. New alliances will be formed with the will to move things forward. In this the church is a part of civil society. We are looking forward to the Kirchentag being part of this new development and celebrating together, but also to observe both wounds and wonders.

In five years time, what do you wish for the Kirchentag?

My wish is that we will have had a fruitful and invigorating Ecumenical Kirchentag in Frankfurt 2021 to look back on, with steps towards a greater growing together ecumenically. I am also hoping that the ideas for a European Kirchentag will be further strengthened. But the most important thing is that people will still be enthusiastic about being involved with the Kirchentag and will experience it as a source of strength and a space for creative activity. ‘Rejoice in hope’ is my motto, of which I am always reminded by the bell when I walk through the garden of the Kirchentag Office in Fulda.

Julia Helmke was Head of the section “Church in Dialogue” at the “Haus kirchlicher Dienste” in Hannover from 2005 to 2015, where she was also Deputy Director. She is an ordained minister and an expert on films. As Cultural Officer for the Hannover Regional Church she initiated among other things a culture prize and a fund for church-related cultural work. Since 2015 she worked as Department Head for socio-political issues in the Office of the Federal President and during that time took responsibility for the appearance of the Federal President at the Kirchentag and the Katholikentag, along with the fields of literature and film, church and religious communities, commemorations and engagement policy. The 49-year-old is also a trained spiritual companion and is involved as a volunteer in Protestant film production and teaches Christian journalism as a visiting professor in Erlangen.