General CBF / Missions

A Historical Mentor, Vincent Donovan

 My families move to Uganda when I was eight years old amplified my love for reading as I found myself in a world that had no TV, radio, telephones or shopping centers.  For many years, I read the classics of literature, studied history and mythology and read biographies of great leaders.  When reaching adulthood, I become more and more involved in mission and ministry but still never had the desire to read Christian books or biographies.  Actually, I made it a point not to read the books that most people where reading, especially Christian books.  That all changed when I picked up Vincent Donovan’s book, Christianity Rediscovered.  This story of Donovan’s struggle defining and living his task as a missionary, transformed my understanding of Christianity, missions and the role of the Holy Spirit.

Vincent Donovan was a Roman Catholic priest from the United States.  He was ordained in 1952 and was a Spiritan missionary to the Masai in Tanzania for 17 years during the 1960’s and 70’s.  Donovan did his graduate studies at Fordham and the Gregorian University in Rome.  He is famous for his two books, Christianity Rediscovered, 1978; and The Church in the Midst of Creation, 1989[1].  During his time of mission service Donovan struggled with the mission paradigm as practiced amongst the Masai and in other parts of Africa.  This struggle led him to a time of questioning and eventually a time of rediscovering what Christianity was and what truly was the task of the Church.  After retiring from the mission field in 1977[2], Donovan served in African American churches in Ohio, Chicago and North Carolina; he also served as the campus minister at Duquesne University in Pittsburg.[3]  He continued to use the lessons that he had learned in Africa to question the way the Church was practicing its faith and engaging the culture until is death in 2000.

Donovan’s Mission Task
Donovan arrived in Africa to minister to the Masai in 1965 and after scarcely a year was questioning the mission practices that the catholic missionaries had been involved in for more than a hundred years.  He looked around and saw the social ministries and cultural inducements that dominated the mission strategy of the area.  He also noticed the lack of actual Christian converts.  These observations led him to the conclusion that the gospel message expressed had no power and life.  This led him on a mission of rediscovery on which he questioned all the assumptions of mission practice and the church and looked to key mentors to guide his practice.  It was on this journey of presenting the gospel to the Masai, that Donovan discovered Christianity anew, and discovered the task of Christians anew. 

“When the gospel reaches a people where they are, their response to that gospel is the church in a new place, and the song that they will sing is that new, unsung song, that unwritten melody that haunts all of us. What we have to be involved in is not the revival of the church or the reform of the church. It has to be nothing less than what Paul and the Fathers of the Council of Jerusalem were involved in for their time-the refounding of the Catholic church for our age.” [4]

 In a letter, Donovan wrote to his Bishop, he outlined his thoughts and purposed his plans for preaching the gospel directly to the Masai and by passing the traditional methods of missionary practice.  He did not wait for a response but immediately began his new task.  This was completely a step of faith for Donovan who did not really know what he would do or what the results would be.  “Outside of this, I have no plan, no strategy, no gimmick-no idea of what will come. I feel rather naked.  I will begin as soon as possible.”[5]

Donovan studied the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul deeply.  This study into the missionary methods of Paul significantly effected the way that Donovan ministered and his understanding of the task of the church.  Ronald Allen was another significant historical mentor.  His writings on mission practice challenged the traditional mission practices and structures that Donovan found himself within and helped lead him out on his journey of discovery.  Both of these historical mentors profoundly effected Donovan’s life and understanding of Christianity. 

“I believe that missionary work is that work undertaken by a gospel oriented community, of transcultural vision, with a special mandate, charism, and responsibility of spreading and carrying that gospel to the nations of the world, with a view of establishing the church of Christ.”[6]

There are four types of mentoring exhibited in the life of Donovan.  He was a discipler, teacher, coach, and spiritual guide to those he mentored.  Looking at this mix in terms of dominate mentoring function, we would have to place discipler as the key function he mentored from through his ministry with the Masai and in the parishes in which he served in the US. 

A discipler is one who enables others in the basics of following Christ.[7]  It is very evident that Donovan was indeed a discipler.  The message of Christ that he presented to the Masai is often known as the “naked gospel”.[8]  This is because Donovan tried so hard to strip away his cultural assumptions from the Christian message and deliver a universal story of redemption taken by the Masai because of its relevance to their culture. 

Donovan was also a teacher.  He imparted knowledge to the Masai and did it in such a way that individuals embraced the knowledge and used it.  There is evidence of this in the many lives who took roles of leadership in their village, leading their people in worship, teaching, and guiding in the Christian faith.  It is also apparent in those who became evangelists traveling to other villages to share the gospel.

Donovan is also a coach and a spiritual guide.  He coached and guided spiritually his fellow missionaries and priests on how to do mission work and his Missiology by speaking at events and conferences.  He also did this by writing his memoir, which is actually a coaching, and a spiritual guidebook.  By sharing his experience as a missionary, how he went about his task, and his theological reflections, Donovan is coaching and guiding spiritually those that come after him.   

Lessons Learned from Donovan

Faith is a Journey 
As a historical mentor, Donovan has really influenced me as a Spiritual guide.  Reading his story of reflection and struggle with what it meant to be a missionary and what actually was the gospel that we live and present have challenged me to reflect and struggle.  I think that in some way Donovan actually gave me permission to question my faith and the faith of the Western church.  This has led me to begin exploring Christian writers, Missiology, and theology rather than be standoffish like I was for so many years.  Because of Donovan, I have entered into a rediscovery of what it means to be a Christian and through the process; I have realized that Christian faith is a journey of never ending discovery.

The Missio Dei
In Donovan’s story, I can clearly see that it is the mission of God that we are participating in.  The stories of the Masai and Donovan’s insights into our Western culture and society remind me that God is there before we as ministers are.  This insight is so important because it puts me in my place of service and reminds me that I am in need of transformation.  The Holy Spirit transforms lives and grows the church.

Leadership Authority and Risk
One of the things about Donovan’s life that strikes me the most is the risk that he took when he decided that what had been practiced as mission work for over a hundred years was not working and he needed to do something different.  His vulnerability and transparency was courageous.  This is evident in his letter to his Bishop and in the way that he just set out and began, never knowing what would happen or really what to say to the Masai.  Many times as Christians, we think that we need to have all the answers.  It takes great strength and faith to be able to state that we do not know all the answers.  An example of Donovan’s transparency and faith is when, thinking about the task before him, writes, “At this point I had to make the humiliating admission that I did not know what the gospel was.”[9]

Mission Practice and the Gospel
My work in Global Missions with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has been deeply affected by Donovan.  The theology of mission that Donovan lived and teaches through his books is very challenging and very missional.  The questions that he asked regarding the gospel, what it is, what is culture, how do you share it, are all major questions in my work.  My role as resident Missiologist is grounded on many of the ideas and experiences of Donovan.  We find ourselves in the midst of a paradigm shift in how we live our lives as Christians and in the Christian church.  In many ways, Donovan has given us a map, guiding us on the journey as we reevaluate between culture and the gospel, and the lifestyle that results from hearing and learning the “naked gospel” mentioned before.

Conclusion
The life of Vincent Donovan is an inspiring example of faith, hope, and love.  His courage to be transparent and vulnerable allowed the Spirit of God to use his life for the building of the kingdom.  As a mentor to those, he ministered with and among, he discipled, taught, coached and guided for the glory of God and not of self.  He stepped out in faith and in doing so discovered anew the God that is universal, the God of all nations.  This discovery has challenged and empowered many others to take a step of faith and begin a journey of discovery of the one true God experiencing the transforming power of the Spirit of God.  “But I am still running, trying to capture that by which I have been captured.”[10]


[1] Jones, Arthur.2007.Lion In Winter. National Catholic Reporter 2001.[citied 11-01-07]. Available from http://www.natcath.com/NCR_Online/archives/012100/012100g.htm

[2] Donovan, Vincent J. 1982. Christianity Rediscovered. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

[3] Bevans, Stephen. 1996. Models of Contextual Theology. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books. P.65

[4] Donovan, Vincent J. 1982. Christianity Rediscovered. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books. p. xix.

[5] Ibid.,  p. 14.

[6] Ibid.,  p. 158.

[7] Clinton, J. Robert, and Richard Clinton. 1991. The Mentor Handbook: detailed guidelines and helps for Christian mentors and mentorees. Altadena, Calif: Barnabas Publishers.

[8] Bevans, Stephen. 1996. Models of Contextual Theology. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books. P.65

[9] Donovan, Vincent J. 1982. Christianity Rediscovered. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books. p. 25.

[10] Philippians 3:12

13 thoughts on “A Historical Mentor, Vincent Donovan

  1. Having read your blog on Donovan, you mght like to know that my edition of The Missionary Letters of Vincent Donovan, 1957-1973, which began with a visit to colleagues of Donovan’s in Tanzania in 2006 and then a meeting with Donovan’s sister Nora in 2007, has just been published by Pickwick Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock. All the details, including endorsements by Brian McLaren and Andrew Walls, are on the Wipf and Stock website here.

    Blessings!
    John

  2. I had no idea my great-uncle’s book was so well-known until I saw it mentioned somewhere else and started Googling it. I’ll have to check out The Missionary Letters book as well. I was named after Aunt Nora.

  3. Vincent was indeed a great man. He was a personal mentor and a life saver. In my darkest hour he was there for me. Never judgmental just there to help guide you to where he knew you could be. I look forward as well to reading his letters. He is one of those who I wish I could have one more conversation with : ) Nora is as kind with the insight and heart of Vince.
    Each time I run into someone who has read his book and been touched enough to either write or give a sermon about his faith just tickles me.
    Vincent J. Donovan you are truly misses

  4. Fr Donovan was associate Pastor at our church in Monroe, NC. Wonderful intelligent man. So interesting to listen to. I never knew he wrote these books, but just ordered them. Such a kind sweet soul. Do you know if he was ever assigned to a church in PA?

    • Yes, he had a church in PA. Mom (his niece) said it might be mentioned in one of his books. Most likely in a prologue by Nora, his sister. She said it was a small town church, not in a big city like Philadelphia. It’s been awhile since I read them, so don’t remember.

  5. Fr. Donovan truly was and still is an inspiration to everyone he met. I knew him from his time in Ohio. He made all people feel loved and worthy of love. His heart was with all people. He has been so very missed here. But he left a glow of love that will never be truly gone from anyone who was blessed enough to have crossed paths with him.

  6. I am old. My uneducated but very intelligent mother was a woman of deep faith and prayer with 8 children. The older four of us are still believing Christians in the Catholic Church and the later four of us are spiritually lost in the New Age chaos of the baby boomer generation in Australia, shared I think with Anglophones of Europe and North America born after the end of the Second World War.
    The apostle Vincent Donovan showed me that the culture they are immersed in could not discern the good news of the Gospel as presented to them by western Christianity and gave clues as to why.
    Can anyone who reads this tell me whether, inspired by this wonderful man, someone has developed a way to bring them to at least listen to the possibility that Jesus Christ is relevant to them today?
    I was given his first book and it allowed me to remain within the Catholic Church warts and all but with hope for the future. It reminded me of the stories of the early missions to Asia, particularly China and Japan which exactly modelled that of his approach to the Masai.

  7. I knew Vince as a teenager, he ate at a local restaurant, my Mom was a waitress there. She was a single Mom raising 3 children, he was very kind to her. Sometimes while Mom worked, he would take me to dinner and buy me school cloths. Never knew he was such a legend.
    Very generous man, did not know of his passing, may he rest in peace. Tina Saxton, Russell

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