“I think any authority has to be held really lightly,” says Pastor Steven Brnjas. “The pastoral office has certain authority attached to it, but I like to think that I don’t function in a way where I’m the authority. Rather, I walk beside you. I don’t want to walk ahead of you, not behind you, but rather beside you, as we negotiate what life as a church means in 2014.”
Brnjas has found himself in a position of “authority” throughout his career, although he suggests that’s more a matter of perception than reality. On February 1, he started his tenure as pastor at Elmira’s Zion Mennonite Fellowship, and while his long and unusual career has sent him from the police force to the pulpit, he says that a basic Christian principle has informed him through it all:
“We always have grounding philosophies of life, and mine comes from Jesus – basically, treat others like you’d want to be treated, love your neighbour as yourself.”
He continues, “By that being my grounding philosophy, then I think it helped me in a lot of situations where that could have turned out worse. Because of that philosophy – that spirit that came out from me – people reacted perhaps in a different way than they might have normally.”
From 1984 to 2003, Brnjas was on the police beat in downtown Kitchener, where he “tried to deal with people and patients with kindness,” he says. We’re used to hearing about people whose faiths were shaken when faced with horrible suffering, but for Brnjas, the opposite was true.
“I’m not sure how you can do a job like that without faith,” he says.“Because of the things you see, for me the idea that there is a God that is not absent, that is dealing with all this difficulty and this pain and this evil, and still functions within it, was a source of comfort for me.”
During his time in the force, Brnjas was active in the Mennonite church, becoming so involved that he was offered a job as a pastor in 2003. For the next six years, he presided over Bethel Mennonite with his wife Linda (who is now the Mennonite Church Eastern Canada regional minister).
Switching gears again, he followed this with two years as a restorative justice counsellor for the Mennonite Central Committee, dealing with sex offenders just released from prison. “It taught me a lot about grace,” he says. “It really helped inform my faith even more. … From there, I just felt a callback to pastoral ministry.”
After another two years spent on missionary work, including a visit to poverty-stricken Ethiopia, he landed at Zion Mennonite Fellowship, where he has just begun work. Heavy on his mind is an effort to keep the faith relevant for the 21st century.
“If there are misconceptions, I think some of the misconceptions come from the message we put out as Christians, which is then picked up by media and spread in a negative way,” he says. “The idea that because we are followers of Christ that we have it all together is one of the misconceptions, which couldn’t be further from the truth. We gather as broken people, seeking healing.”
He concludes, “I think the message that’s coming across is what the church is against as opposed to what the church is for. My emphasis over the years, I think, has changed. I’m emphasizing God’s grace, love, mercy, and forgiveness. I think with the society we live in, that’s the message that will resonate. If I’m here wagging my finger about what you’re doing wrong, how much chance can I have of actually sharing who Jesus is?”
Those of us with memories of lining up at confession view religious leaders with a certain awe and fear. Brnjas says he’d like to counter this.
“One of the things about being a storefront is, my hope is that when people see the ‘Open’ sign is on, and they see me in here, they will think this is a safe place to come in and share their story, and that their story will be valued.”