A young man, polite, relaxed and easy-going, with a cigarette in his hand, answers the door, followed by a large dog with kind eyes. Tomáš Jun is just beginning his ministry – like many others. However, his decision to serve at the Ústí nad Labem congregation sets him apart. It was a brave and rather risky decision, yet so far, everything proves it was a good one: keeping in mind the events of the past, the current situation looks quite hopeful. Tomáš Jun is a Protestant Theology graduate. He served his vicariate at the Prague-Libeň congregation and, in 2018, he was assigned to Ústí nad Labem. He moved in with his wife, a graduate of Pastoral and Social Work at the Protestant Theological Faculty of the Charles University, and with two very little boys. The villa which serves as the protestant manse is an ancient house. The wall of the office is decorated with a couple of old photographs, one of them showing the confirmation of approximately fifty young church members at the beginning of the 1950’s. The congregation had roughly 4000 members altogether at the time! Ten years later, this number had dropped to a tenth of the original.
What was your first impression of the Ústí nad Labem congregation?
The congregation basically ceased to exist, there is no core to keep it going. There have been no elders for eight years – and a congregation without elders is really no congregation at all: it lacks people that would be willing to take care of it. A combination of negative influences has led to this situation. I might point out that throughout the whole socialist era, an office of the State Security was located right opposite our church building, which we share with the Hussite church.
This means some people were simply afraid to attend church.
When I ask elderly people about this era, they often say they did not want to cause trouble for their children. Although the congregation has four thousand members, they did not have very close bonds, they were people who arrived after the war, after the Germans were expelled. They didn’t really know each other. What’s more, going to church was not popular at work. It’s no wonder the numbers dropped so significantly.
What about the town itself?
It depends on the place. Some socially excluded localities are in a horrible state. Předlice, Střekov – thousands of people living in ways that are beyond comprehension. The average income in Northern Bohemia is much lower than in Prague, for example; many Roma people live here who only have auxiliary, unqualified jobs, receiving minimum wages. This may come as a surprise, taking into account that before WWII, Ústí was a very rich city. It still has many parts where you can find beautiful old villas, like the one where our parsonage is located. The city’s history was marked by several tragic events. There was the massive post-war expulsion of local Germans – out of the 62,000 inhabitants, 50,000 were expelled. There also used to be a very strong Jewish community here – these people were murdered by the Nazis. And in April 1945, Ústí was hit by a massive bombing raid, the old city centre was left in ruins. The owners of the ruins were expelled and socialist high-rise blocks were constructed on the location.
So you basically knew what to expect. Why is it you still decided to come? Didn’t you have any concerns? Or were you, on the contrary, attracted by the risk?
I’m not a teenager any longer, so no, I am not drawn to danger. However, there is such a significant lack of ministers that I feel it is necessary to go wherever the need is the most urgent. Where else should one preach the Gospel if not here in Northern Bohemia, where the bad news is frequent and where there is not much hope? I don’t want to accept the common mindset: do I like the place? What’s the manse like? How big is the congregation? We need to stop focusing on these typical questions that preoccupy the minds of young ministers-to-be. The church needs to be open to its surroundings, attract the “seekers”, as Halík calls them. I’m not saying I know how to do it.
I’m sure you received many offers.
Yes, the demand was enormous, I received offers from 17 congregations – and my colleagues, who were serving their vicariates, had a similar experience.
Why has there been such a steep decline in the number of ministers and theology students? Surprisingly enough, the numbers were better during the communist era.
I would say believing is no longer “trendy” today. Before the revolution, revolting against the regime was a strong aspect. Nowadays, anyone who believes in God is irrational, hence stupid, in the view of the majority. Wearing this kind of label in today’s consumerist and very (at least seemingly) rational era does not exactly make one popular. You need a lot of support – from others, from God. People have many misconceptions about the Protestant Theological Faculty: it really isn’t an easy school. There were 70 of us in the first year, including long-distance students, and only 10 of us actually graduated.
Does this mean there are many students who don’t become ministers after studying theology?
Yes, in my mother’s times, all theology graduates would go on to become ministers. Nowadays, it is half of the students or less. I am sure money is an important issue here. Then there is also an element of uncertainty about the future: should I become a minister, when no one can tell where the church will be ten years from now? The decreasing number of ministers is a problem, but what I am even more concerned about is the lack of protestant youth. When I used to attend youth assemblies from all over the Czech Republic, usually around a thousand young people would come. Nowadays, it is approximately 500. I think our church doesn’t really know how to work with young people, how to attract them.
Could you say any significant changes have occurred since your arrival? For example the number of people attending Sunday services?
In the first half of 2018, eight people would attend on average. I came in October and at the end of the year, the average was 23. I am also pleased I have three new young men preparing to be baptised, and they have brought their families to our church. I should also mention that some people have come from other churches. I’m not trying to say I deserve the credit for all of this.
The congregation in Ústí is a “supported” one. What exactly does that mean?
This mainly concerns the personnel fund. If a congregation is unable to make contributions to this fund, it may ask for financial support, which must be approved by the Synod. The support lasts four years, then you have to apply again if necessary.
What about the missing elders?
An administrative commission has been put together for this purpose. It meets once a month here in Ústí nad Labem and it has nine members. We can only form a Session once we find six people, plus two substitutes, who are willing to commit to this for a period of six years. I am afraid we will not succeed this year.
The majority of my time is taken up by things that have nothing to do with being a minister. Which is a terrible hindrance when trying to get the church life going. I spend a large part of my day on the phone, around forty hours per month, I am also taking part in the construction work, and I also don’t want to neglect our two boys. And the amount of paperwork is unbelievable! I usually write my sermons on Saturday nights – I go to bed around 5 am. In fact, most of my actual Biblical work takes place at night.
Are you glad you decided to come here? Is there anything you regret?
There certainly isn’t! I believe I am where I’m supposed to be. Nobody else wanted to come here. Fair enough. I did! And I can see it was a good decision, there is hope in the air. People who did not come here in a long time have come back. We have new faces. It is essential to build a core of people who will perceive the congregation as being their own, people who will care about it. I believe that fifteen years from now, this will be a strong congregation and crowds will come pouring in.