An engineer of the Church in tune with the times

Whenever innovations were in the offing, he was front and centre—and he was never shy to apply his international perspective. In retrospect, this allowed him a special view of God’s work: District Apostle Helper John Sobottka from Canada is retiring this Sunday.

He had an international upbringing: In the year 1964, family Sobottka emigrated from Germany to Canada with the then seven-year-old Hans Joachim. He brought with him a number of Prussian virtues: punctuality (five minutes early is just right), order (anything less can only be tolerated in the wine cellar), and planning (life is structured into a series of five-year plans).

He worked on an international level both at church and in his profession: starting in 1981 he accompanied the later District Apostle Leslie Latorcai to India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Myanmar (then Burma). And as a civil engineer he also travelled throughout Canada, the USA, and Europe.

At work in Asia and Africa for 40 years

And John Sobottka was also deployed in an international capacity as a Bishop (starting in 2000), Apostle (2002), and District Apostle Helper (2003). His work led him to countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Starting in 2009 he took on responsibility for Nepal, Rwanda, Tchad, the Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic. And for one other country that is very dear to his heart: Cambodia.

How do you reach people in so many different cultures? “We have to be able to communicate with them in their unique situation. It’s a matter of understanding a bit of their history, where they are today, and what their visions are for the future,” he said in an interview with And the important thing then is “to integrate the doctrine and the gospel into that, and show them how it can work with their history, with their present situation, and also with their expectations of the future”.

According to his own calculations, he covered approximately thirteen million kilometres over the nearly 40 years he served in ministry—and was on the move for an average of 180 days per year. “I love infrastructure,” admits the professional engineer who was responsible for building churches, organising humanitarian aid, and establishing training programmes for both ministers and teachers.

Part of the process of change

His perspective and multilingualism repeatedly landed John Sobottka in Church committees that were working on organisational and doctrinal developments at the time. For example, he helped along with the “Serving and leading” conceptual model, the “Instructions for ministers”, as well as the English translation of the Catechism. He was also part of a Church body known as the Coordination Group—the management interface between the Church’s Work Groups, Project Groups, and the District Apostle Meeting.

The translation of the Catechism left an enduring impression on him. Working as part of this small group it was clear to him from the beginning that many other translations would emanate from the English version—for example, in Asia. “It sometimes took us half a day to translate one sentence properly,” he relates of his collaboration with Bishop Sam Mueller. “We were sort of antagonists to each other.” After all: “I believe in conflict. Conflicts can often be a source of something better than what you happen to be doing at the moment.”

It is also from the Catechism that Apostle Sobottka draws a deeper understanding of the processes of change in the Church: “That’s one of the great things about the Catechism—the concept of the church. We human beings are imperfect, the congregation is imperfect, and the visible church is imperfect—because it consists of imperfect human beings. But we want to reflect the invisible church, the church as it is supposed to be. And the fact that we’re not there yet tells me that we obviously still need to keep changing.”

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