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Theological Reflection

On the Practice of Ministry

Adapted From Work by Phil Campbell

Theological reflection makes use of categories of meaning for understanding the significance of the ministry experience. These categories include:

  • individual and collective human vocation
  • nature and mission of the church
  • how life (Spirit of Life, interdependent web, God) is understood amid the variety of ministry encounters
  • symbolic significance of discrete actions or events
  • overarching themes that provide a frame of reference for specific interactions and activities, etc. 

Theological reflection on the practice of ministry invites the question, “Why do we do what we do?” It also calls for the practitioner to ask how their practice shapes understanding. Theory and practice are integrated in action/reflection (praxis).

Theology of praxis is not the construction of a systematic theology. It is the interpreting of the various situations that arise in the course of your experience (Farley 2003, 37ff.) Following H. Richard Niebuhr’s notion that faith is essentially about “meaning making,” theological reflection is the process by which we seek to understand the significance and value of our work. “Theological reflection is the discipline of exploring individual and corporate experience in conversation with the wisdom of religious heritage.” (Killen & de Beer 1994, viii).

Another description of theological reflection is what Tim Shapiro calls “home grown theology” that he describes as the work of “laity and clergy participating in thoughtful consideration of how God and the things of God are understood in light of everyday life.” (Shapiro, in Congregations, Winter 2004). Shapiro has adapted the five questions of homegrown theology from Thomas Groome’s work on shared praxis (Groome, 1999):

  1. What’s going on?
  2. What’s positive or problematic about what’s going on?
  3. Does the situation (issue) bring to mind particular stories from our Unitarian Universalist sources or coincide with what you’ve learned from other faith experiences in your life?
  4. What tensions or similarities exist between your present situation and your overall faith story?
  5. What are you going to do?

Theological reflection not only involves what to do. It also addresses how to do it. Theological reflection can be approached from the standpoints of certitude, self-assurance, or exploration (Killen & de Beer, 4ff.). The standpoint of certitude suggests that all theological answers can be found by appealing to tradition. From this perspective, the tradition is a set of answers that can be directly applied to the given situations in which we find ourselves. The value of certitude is that it takes scripture and tradition seriously. Certitude is confident that scripture and tradition contain the resources necessary for our living of our days and for the practice of our ministry. The downside of certitude is that it leaves no room for varieties of experience. It also assumes that the meaning of scripture and tradition is singular and unchanging. Certitude disallows questions and cannot respect multiple understandings. It breeds a “God said it, I believe, and that settles it,” narrowness.

The standpoint of self-assurance is the opposite of certitude. Instead of the conviction that all answers reside in scripture and tradition, self-assurance posits that all answers exist within individual experience. This stance is evident in popular culture claims that individual experience is the sole arbiter of the truth. Tales such as Coelho’s The Alchemist, suggest that meaning is to be found in learning to listen to one’s heart. Everything we need can be found within. The value of self-assurance is evident especially for those who have been marginalized and taught that their experience is without merit. Claiming the validity of one’s experience is an act of agency and empowerment. The problem with relying exclusively on experience is that it breeds insular individualism and discounts the wisdom that can be gleaned from tradition and from the community. Ultimately, self-assurance leaves everyone reinventing wheel ensconced in their individual enclaves.

The alternative to either certitude or self-assurance is exploration. Exploration makes use of reason and is open both to the wisdom of scripture and tradition and to the insights of experience. Exploration “draws us into community” (Killen & de Beer, 17) as we probe the tradition and share our experiences. Exploration invites the deliberative processes of interpreting, correlating and assessing. It honors the insights and perspectives of others (past and present), places individual reflection in communal context, and critically and appreciatively examines personal and group experience.

Theological reflection involves both process and content. It is undertaken in dialog with particular faith traditions. It is not a completely open ended exercise in “anything goes.” Theological reflection makes use of what Stone & Duke call a theological template. Those who engage in theological reflection operate with a theological template that sorts and organizes the data of life. They use their template to identify how things are, make a prognosis of what is likely to happen, and settle on a prescription (a theological proposal) regarding that for which faith calls. (Duke & Stone, 43).

Whereas as one’s template can and should be regularly reevaluated, once constructed, it serves as a primary lens through which we see the world. A template is constructed from a variety of resources and it integrates discreet acts of interpreting, correlating and assessing into a workable, holistic approach that flows out of one’s way of being in the world. Writing from a Christian perspective, Duke & Stone propose that primary resources for constructing a template are the four elements of the Wesleyan quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Experience and Reason. Whatever your template is, it will become more useful the more you use it. As you practice at your site and in your seminar, your theological reflection skills will strengthen and your theological template will become better defined.

Theological reflection does not solve the problems of the practice of ministry. In fact, it can be a personally discomforting undertaking. Theological reflection takes courage because it makes us vulnerable in two ways: (1) we re-experience the incident – the feelings of fear, anger, awe, joy that were there. We become present in and to the event through our remembering and narrating of it. (2) We open our interpretive framework to revision so that all our most dearly held beliefs, biases, convictions, and ways of responding to life may be called into question. In this process of attending carefully to our lived experience and looking with new eyes at the categories we use to interpret life, we can be turned upside down and inside out as easily and as often as we are comforted or confirmed in how we are living. (Killen & de Beer, x, xi)

Further, theological reflection does not settle disagreements. Interpreting, correlating and assessing does not mean we will all come to the same conclusions about war and peace, human sexuality, economic strategies most effective for ending hunger, or whether or not to carpet the sanctuary. But theological reflection will clarify how we make use of faith resources as we wrestle with these and a myriad of other issues. It will help us better appreciate the concerns of others, express our own convictions, discern what is actually at stake, deepen our understandings, and live and minister more fully and effectively.

Sources Cited

  • Farley, Edward. Practicing Gospel: Unconventional Thoughts on the Church’s Ministry. Westminster John Knox, 2003.
  • Groome, Thomas. Christian Religious Education. Jossey-Bass, 1999.
  • Hubert, Ben G. Study Guide on How to Think Theologically.
  • Shapiro, Tim. “Homegrown Theology: Understanding God in Everyday Life,” Congregations, Winter 2004.
  • Stone, Howard W., and Duke, James O. How to Think Theologically. Fortress Press, 2006.
  • Killen, Patricia O’Connell, and de Beer, John. The Art of Theological Reflection. Crossroad Publishing, 1994.

Acknowledgement

Adapted from work by Phil Campbell, Adjunct Professor at  Iliff School of Theology, 2006. revised 2008. Used with permission.