George Hovaness Donigian
George Donigian is the pastor of New Hope United Methodist Church in Anderson, South Carolina. He is an ordained elder and member of the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church. He also works as an editorial consultant.
Donigian, of Armenian heritage, grew up in a family grocery store in Hopewell, Virginia. He worked on a garbage truck during college, was employed at a sandpaper factory before seminary, and served as a pastor of several United Methodist churches in Virginia prior to moving into the publishing world.
During his publishing career, Donigian has worn many hats: acquisitions editor for leadership, small-group, and program resources – Upper Room Books; director of trade marketing – Upper Room Books; and team leader/editor/publisher/creative director, Discipleship Resources (another imprint of the General Board of Discipleship).
Donigian holds a B.S. in English and Elementary Education from Berry College in Rome, Georgia, and a Master of Divinity and Ethics from Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He is married to Mary Teasdale. They are the parents of 6 adult children and grandparents of 4.
George’s website: http://www.georgehdonigian.com
The Sunday Scripture Podcast features a couple of interviews with George about his book: <http://sundayscripture.podomatic.com/entry/2014-02-27T21_38_57-08_00>
A Conversation with George Donigian
Here’s your chance to learn a bit more about George Donigian, author of the Lenten book A World Worth Saving.
In his book, George encourages us to observe a different kind of Lent by fasting from apathy—putting feet to our prayers through actions of compassion, mercy, and justice to help this hurting world.
Q: Your church affiliations have been quite varied, including Lutheran, Southern Baptist, United Methodist, and the Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Church. How have these churches impacted your view of Lent and Lenten practices?
A: The churches that observed Lent focused on self-denial and urged people to give up a practice that they enjoyed, such as chocolate or desserts in general, or to give up a harmful practice, such as tobacco. I saw many people who began that pilgrimage of self-denial and then gave up after a week or two.
I think we need to see Lent in a more positive light and as a season of mission and ministry (though the mission doesn’t end with Easter). The world needs Christians to engage in deeds of mercy, compassion, and justice.
I’ve read and edited books that focus on spiritual disciplines, especially the importance of fasting as a spiritual practice. We need to fast because fasting breaks our cycle of self-interest and helps us look beyond ourselves.
I’ve learned many suggested ways to fast. For example, Steve Harper wrote about fasting from anger in his Devotional Life in the Wesleyan Tradition. Kent Ira Groff suggested a carbon fast for Lent. Practices like these help us unplug from seeing life as usual, but I want even more for us in the church to show our love to others. We do that by fasting from apathy and other practices that link our inner lives with our outer actions.
Q: You speak in your book about the spiritual aspects of apathy. What does that mean to you?
A: Apathy refers to an attitude of non-caring, and the church historically has spoken about apathy as a spiritual illness. Without going into all of that history, I think it is important to remember that Christians are called to imitate One who cared for all people and demonstrated love in many different situations.
Can you imagine what an apathetic Jesus would be like? It’s almost impossible to consider that question. I cannot imagine a non-caring Jesus. That goes against everything I read in the Gospels.
When I read John 3:16, I notice the first part: God loved the world so much. God demonstrates love and caring for humanity. That’s what we aim to do. To be spiritually healthy is to care for the world—the people and all of God’s creation, the earth itself, the environment that surrounds us.
Q: Usually people draw inward during Lent, yet in your book you speak of “practicing the presence of God in all activities.” You advocate going out into the world and doing acts of mercy and compassion. How do you manage to balance activity for God and spending quiet, focused time with God?
A: If there is one overarching question in my life, it concerns balance. I try to spend quiet time each day in which I read the Bible and reflect on the passage, pray, and invite God’s presence. I prefer to exercise alone and use that time for solitude. Those quiet private times are the fuel that powers my engagement in ministry with others—whether that is ministry with children in after-school programs or with hungry and homeless persons.
Q: Lent is often associated with Catholic, Orthodox, and mainline Protestant denominations. What can other church congregations gain from reading your book as they prepare for Easter?
A: I think every congregation would benefit by reading and discussing the book. It includes guiding questions for conversation at the end of each chapter, plus a brief guide for small-group conversations.
Often the church assumes that we all understand and agree on definitions of words, and I think that we need to test that assumption. As I wrote in the chapter on justice, many people identify justice with our legal system, but that’s not the sole type of justice that the Bible identifies.
Another chapter offers ways we can respond to the hunger in our world, and I believe it is important for every congregation to address physical hunger along with spiritual hunger.
Still another chapter looks at healing for our broken world. Every congregation can grow in its understanding and actual practice of ministry by reading the book and talking about its suggestions.
Q: Which chapter in A World Worth Saving is your favorite?
A: Choosing a favorite chapter is like choosing a favorite child. These days I think my favorite chapter is the one concerning guilt, because guilt is such a large part of the experience in Western cultures. Guilt accrues to us because our culture emphasizes the rights and needs of the individual.
Years ago I worked with a Korean clergywoman on a project that looked at shame in Korean communities. From her I learned that the Korean language had multiple words for shame, depending on the degree or type of shame. I think it is important to recognize that guilt differs from the experience of those who grew up in Eastern cultures, in which community is emphasized over the individuals. In Eastern cultures, shame is the dominant factor—as in “do not bring shame on the community” or “don’t bring shame on the Armenian people.”
Growing up with one foot in the East and the other in the West, I experienced a fair amount of both. I strongly believe that Jesus frees us from guilt and shame.
As I wrote in the book, marketers often use guilt to motivate people to buy things they don’t need, to give to causes in which they may only marginally believe, and to change personal habits.
One Upper Room staffperson who read the manuscript argued with my statement that Jesus did not use guilt to motivate people, objecting: “What about Matthew 25—the sheep and the goats? Are you saying that Jesus didn’t inflict guilt there?”
“No,” I replied. “Jesus was not putting a guilt trip on people, but simply stating a reality. We may experience twinges of guilt when we read that passage, and those feelings may grow from what we are doing or not doing, but the guilt does not come from Jesus.”
I also enjoyed writing about my hometown, Hopewell, Virginia. We had a rare mix of ethnic groups, people who settled there to work in the manufacturing plants in the early 20th century and found ways to hold on to their traditions while embracing their new lives in the United States.
As a child, I didn’t appreciate how rare our community was. There weren’t many towns of 18,000 back then in Tidewater Virginia where you could hear Armenian, Greek, Lebanese, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, and other languages in the same neighborhood.
Q: After reading A World Worth Saving, what spiritual practice or practices do you hope readers will choose to incorporate in to their own lives during Lent?
A: I hope that people will continue to pray as they follow the daily news reports. I hope people will notice what strikes them as unjust or unfair or simply not right and that they will focus their ministry and mission on these topics.
The Swiss theologian Karl Barth reportedly said that preachers should prepare sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Today I think all Christians need to do that.
I hope we will continue to see the needs of our world and respond in loving and caring ways to those needs, remembering that God loves this broken world in which we attempt to make visible to others the love of Christ.
Additional Reading on Making Christ’s Love Visible to Others
Yours Are the Hands of Christ by James Howell
The Unmaking of a Part-Time Christian by Derek Maul