While some bishops in the United States serve episcopal areas that include three or four states, Bishop Patrick Streiff serves one that includes 14 countries. The Central and Southern Europe Episcopal Area consists of 12 countries in Europe and two in Africa.
In addition to talking about his amazing work as a bishop, in this conversation from Zurich, Switzerland, we talk about his early life in Bern, the beginnings his faith development, his love of study and skiing, and his doctoral thesis on early Methodist John William Fletcher.
It is such a privilege to meet Bishop Patrick Streiff.
Bishop Patrick Streiff
- Learn more about the daily Moravian Watchwords Bishop Streiff uses to keep his spirit in shape.
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- Bishop Streiff previously served as part-time director of the Centre Méthodiste de Formation Théologique.
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This episode posted on September 10, 2021.
Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications’ and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
One of the perks of my job and getting to do this podcast is having conversations with our bishops from all across the connection. And today I get to share with you a conversation I had with Bishop Patrick Streiff of the Central and Southern European Episcopal area which covers 12 countries in Europe and 2 in Africa. You are going to enjoy this conversation.
Welcome and early life
Joe: Bishop Streiff, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Bishop Streiff: Thank you, Joe.
Joe: I am talking to you from my home office here in Nashville. Where are you located right now?
Bishop Streiff: At present, I am here in my episcopal office in Zurich.
Joe: With technology, it’s just wonderful that we get to do these things even when we’re so far apart.
Bishop Streiff: Yes.
Joe: I read in your bio that you were born near Basil, Switzerland. What was it like growing up there?
Bishop Streiff: I come originally from the German-speaking part of Switzerland. And I’ve grown up there in a family together with one brother who is 2 years older than I in a nice house together also with grandparents that lived in the same house. We had a big privilege that there was also a big garden. So we often played as children and invited other children in for playing, which was really very nice.
Joe: What was it like having your grandparents live with you? Were they influential in your spiritual and physical development?
Bishop Streiff: These were the parents of my mother. They were very strongly in the United Methodist Church as was my mother. And that helped me to grow also in the local congregation of the Methodist Church.
For me as a small child it was wonderful to have grandparents around. And I appreciated both. For my mother it was not always so easy because the grandmother was quite a strong woman. And so there was sometimes a little bit of conflict.
Joe: I can imagine. Yeah. It’s not always easy, is it, to have your parents living right there with you?
I get the impression that you went to church very early. It was something that your family did throughout your life?
Bishop Streiff: Yes. When it comes to my mother and my grandparents that’s true. I went very regularly to the Sunday school which I liked very much. And we had good time there together.
The other element which I have not yet mentioned is that my father has been a scientific career person. He came from originally Catholic background. At that time, when the Roman Catholic Church was somehow very narrowly minded. When he talked about his journey he said, Well, he only heard about saints and all we should and not do. And so when he grew up and with his studies, he lost more and more contact to the church. But he always allowed my mother to be very active in the church. It was simply something where he had a lot of problems because of how he grew up.
But it influenced me also in my growth. I realized it later when I was in studies—I had some study colleagues in the Methodist Church that grew up in what I would say was a bubble of Methodist churches. I grew up in a situation where my father was very—in a good way and also critical towards the question of faith and God. And my mother who had in a positive way a childlike faith and trust. And you can imagine that for my brother and for me it was also a kind of challenge. Which way to go? And during my teenage years and has always been for me a question, what is my own way? And am I finding my own way in my faith journey?
Finding my own way
Joe: Was there a moment when you feel like that began to happen for you—that it stopped being kind of like your mom’s way, but it was your way in your faith journey?
Bishop Streiff: Well, it was more a progression in my own faith development.
Just as an example, we had from time to time a kind of evangelistic meetings of several churches together. Sometimes also a kind of youth, evangelistic meetings. And somehow, when the preacher invited you to come forward to give your life to Christ, I never went. And somehow, I felt I’m already in that way. And did not go because somehow I felt, Well, Jesus has been with me. But it needs to become more clear.
And then at one point after such an event, driving on my bicycle back home. I supposed should I have gone up or not… You can imagine the situation. Then, all of a sudden there came a peace in my life. “Yes, I know you. It’s good. Continue your journey with me.” And that has been extremely helpful for me.
Joe: It’s remarkable. I had a very similar experience. So I understand exactly what you’re talking about. I appreciate you sharing that because I think a lot of people might have had a similar experience. So it’s good to hear that.
Questions and freedom to think
Bishop Streiff: One other element, which was important in that faith journey: Somehow I had always in a person that needs some freedom of thought and also to be with those who have critical questions. That’s the part of my father in me, as there was then also a part of my mother of really trusting God in a way.
And on that more critical aspect and questioning about God. I had at one point—I think I was about 15-16—I went to some free classes on religion that we had at school where you could join or not, and we read a book from what we would today is a rather liberal German theologian Dorothee Sölle called Political Theology. And somehow how she presented Jesus and his impact in society just caught my attention because I realized if faith is something really worth for me and my life, it needs to have an impact in society.
Then then a little bit later, Helder Câmara the bishop from Brazil in South America, one of these Catholic bishops working in a kind of liberation theology—came to Switzerland. He came for a big gathering, and that impressed me extremely. When he shared how he wants to be a bishop helping for the liberation of his people and that he moved out of a big palace to be closer to the poor.
When I started then to read a bit more about Wesley and the origins of Methodism, I found that there also again, and that’s somehow confirmed for me, “Yes, I want follow Christ, and Christ frees us for a life in love and faith and hope.”
Joe: You’re a bit of a theologian and a historian, I understand. And it seems to me you’re an academic. Right? You like school. You like being a student. Were you always a good student? And what were your favorite subjects? What did you like to study?
Bishop Streiff: I was always very interested in many things, and I was always a good student. And part of it, I think, is also that I could grow up in an environment that really valued that. And somehow helped me to move forward.
Among my favorite subjects in high school was history and English. It was not French. [laughter]
But English as language and history. And I think when I look back, it was much also, not only, but much also due to the teachers I had that were fascinating persons and helped somehow make things very interesting.
Joe: Did you ever consider a different career or was ministry kind of the path you were on for the majority?
Bishop Streiff: I thought about at one point before I was really clear about my calling, I thought, well, history, English, are things that would be interesting for me to go on with studies.
But when I was—don’t remember exactly, around 16, 17 perhaps, almost 2 years before I finished high school—I was of a summer in England which was for me a very helpful experience with the British Methodist Church, and their very strong relationship between works and acts, evangelism and really mission in the society. The church there was much more open to work in the society than I experienced in my congregation in Switzerland. Again, that was kind of fascinating.
Faith needs to have an impact in society. And we need to be there for people. And it needs to have some liberationist element in it.
During that time in England where I was for the first time for 5 weeks away from home, I had to think….had time to think about my life. And during that time it became stronger and stronger like a very small voice telling me, ‘Patrick, you should become a pastor. I want to call you.’
And then I thought, ‘Oh, how shall I tell that at home to my father? What will he think about it?’ And I wrote from England back to him, because I felt like that is a little bit prepared. And then later when I was back and we got to share about that, he said, ‘Well, if that’s your calling, do it.’
Bishop Streiff: And that was somehow very typical for him, I realized for him, even when I was afraid before I spoke to him. But somehow it was typical for him, very open that it his son can go a very different way than he went. And then later on we both have in the evening a long, long discussions together about faith, about God, about our churches. That was wonderful.
John William Fletcher
Joe: Wonderful. I know also you got a doctorate. In your doctoral thesis it was John William Fletcher, the early Methodist… I don’t know that that’s a Methodist that a lot of people know about. Can you tell us about him? And what got you interested to study him?
Bishop Streiff: Yeah. I really never did other study. So right away from high school I went to do the practical year, as we have the tradition in Europe, that first you do a full practical year with another pastor before you go to theological studies. And to get a local church and really experience. You have that…you have some first experiences before you go into theological studies.
Then when I went for theological studies I realized I would have finished my degree in our Methodist seminary at age 24, so young. And with the possibilities I had I thought correctly about perhaps going on to a state university and doing something more. And that was confirmed somehow on the way. And then I discussed it with 2 other pastors who were working on a doctorate. And one of them said among with the subjects he thought about would be interesting was Fletcher. I said, “Who?” I did not know the name.
Fletcher came originally from Switzerland, from Nyon at the Lake of Geneva from a lower nobility family there. And then went to England, had his evangelical conversion experience, listening to a sermon of Charles Wesley, became a friend—the became very close friends, Charles Wesley and he—and he was in England a kind of tutor to noble families.
Usually these tutors when they had done their job with the children, they received a placement in the Anglican Church as a kind of like an active retirement. So the nobleman where he worked in family was that kind of donor for a few churches in Shropshire. He offered Fletcher that he could take over one of these churches.
John Wesley would have liked that he became his successor. But Fletcher always refused. That was too high for him. But in theological disputes within the Methodist Revival, he became the one who wrote many theological treatises to explain Wesleyan-Armenian theology.
The interesting thing for me was when I planned my PhD and was searching for material in Manchester about him, I came in contact with other Methodists and one from Australia told me when I said on whom I do the PhD, he said, “Oh, the saint.”
It’s interesting, for a long time in Methodism Fletcher was considered the saint of Methodism. I found that very interesting, the prime theologian after John Wesley, who had the same kind of saint because he lived, so much an exemplary life of holiness, of Christian perfection for the people. And I think that’s quite rare that theologians are also those who lead such an exemplary life of love towards others.
Life as a bishop
Joe: Let’s talk a little bit about your life as a bishop. I looked up that your episcopal area covers, is it 14 countries? Twelve in Europe and 2 in Africa. Is that correct?
Bishop Streiff: Yeah. And depending if we are counting all as active, but it can go up to 16 countries. It’s certainly the most diverse episcopal area you can have.
There are 7 annual conferences. Of course, in size nothing to compare with a big annual conference in the United States or in Africa, but still seven of them. Most of them are of more than just one country. So you have legal systems that are very different. You have culture that is very different between east and west. It was the only episcopal are that has always covered the western world, and to cover the eastern world. And you have countries that are very secure in their culture. You have countries that are very Catholic, like, for example, Poland. Others that are predominantly Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, like Romania or Bulgaria. And you have countries that are 99.8% Muslim, like in Northern Africa.
So it’s a wonderful, diverse situation. And the role of the bishop is much more being someone who connects people and works for the unity of the church in very diverse situations.
Joe: How many languages are represented? Do you have any idea? …across your episcopal area.
Bishop Streiff: I think that there are probably 20 or more different languages in which ministry is done, and that’s not dialects. Usually in every country, you have several of them. And sometimes they overlap. And so in most places where I go I need translation myself. I have no possibility to know all these languages. I need the help of translators.
Joe: Do you enjoy that? Do you enjoy the close contact with all these different cultures in the different countries?
Bishop Streiff: Yes, very much so. Very much so. I think it gives a richness of experience of the church and of the ministry of the church. Even in Switzerland now we have much more migrant communities or communities where people come from very different countries. And for me it’s always like a foretaste of God’s kingdom. And also learning to be together, co-abiding in a huge diversity of situations and peoples and cultures and backgrounds.
Joe: That’s a great response. I love hearing that. That’s exciting.
So, when you’re not working and you want to do something just for you, just for fun, just for recreation, what do you like to do? What are your hobbies, interests, anything along those lines?
Bishop Streiff: Yeah. Presently, since I’m a bishop, that timeframe is somehow reduced. But I really try to have such times. Very early I liked to swim and to be in the water. And then I was a pastor in the French part of Switzerland, always at one of the lakes which gave me possibility to swim.
I also always like skiing. And of course at the beginning was downhill skiing. But then I started to discover cross country skiing. And where we now live is in Biel, it’s a little bit north of Bern, of the capitol, close to the Jura Mountains. And the Jura Mountains are not very high, so downhill skiing is awfully difficult because it’s only at the top that you have enough snow, but for cross country it works perfectly. So during wintertime my wife and I enjoy on a free time day just to go there for 2 or 3 hours go cross country skiing.
In summer now, a lot of hiking because I realize it helps me to move. Otherwise I am so much sitting. And in so many things. And then in between I need to move. And it helps me also on the stress level to come down and be in nature.
How do you keep your spirit in shape?
Joe: Wonderful. Oh, that’s so good to hear. So, the final question that I ask of every guest of Get Your Spirit in Shape is what’s one way that you keep your spirit in shape?
Bishop Streiff: Here in Europe we have a strong tradition of the Moravian Watchwords, the daily Moravian words. And since there is internet and email I even get it shortly after midnight. But it’s really one of the very first things that I look up in the morning, and take a moment to reflect on it, and sometimes look up another passage around it. And between the place where we live, close to Bern, and the office in Zurich, it’s a good hour train ride in a comfortable, fast train, and that helps me also to have some spiritual time.
And then one of the things which really gives me always joy and help me is when I have the possibility to meet congregations, to visit congregations, to meet with people half of my time. And so somewhere around this very COVID situation to travel, to meet people. And then also in local churches I often ask people at the coffee, how they come to this church, or how do you experience Christ in your life? And these are so fascinating stories. It helps me personally also for my faith. And I often say a bishop really experience the worst problems of the church, but also the most wonderful ministries.
Joe: That’s fantastic. Well, Bishop, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today. It has really been a pleasure to get to meet you in this way.
Bishop Streiff: You’re very welcome. Thank you, Joe.
Joe: That was Bishop Patrick Streiff of the Central and Southern Europe Episcopal Area of the United Methodist Church. To hear more conversations with our bishops and other leaders of the United Methodist Church go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode of Get Your Spirit in Shape. We’ve put some links on the page to learn more about Bishop Streiff and also a transcript of this conversation and my email address so that you can share with me your ideas about Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Thank you so much for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation that’ll help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.