Making Theology Matter, Part Three: Learning-in-practice and practical-prophetic leadership in ministry

 Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen

This piece is an excerpt from Auburn’s New Report:
Field Education as the Practical-Prophetic Heart of Effective Ministry Preparation
Read the full report here.

One obvious reason why effective preparation of ministry leaders is so crucial today follows directly from the sorts of complex, adaptive challenges faced by faith leaders today. The Reverend Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, inspired by the work of Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow and his own long experience pastoring in inner city churches, is taking on criminal justice reform. To Warnock, our national system of mass incarceration, especially as it impacts the African American population, represents a system that “is more criminal than it is justice.” Taking on such complex challenges requires not only having the moral courage to jump in and say, “maybe we can make a difference,” but also having the skills and capacity to engage the work of analysis and strategic action. TFE has historically engaged practical-prophetic training, as Graham Taylor did in drawing on applied sociology in partnership with Jane Addams in turn-of-the-century Chicago and George Webber did in his innovative work with the East Harlem Protestant Parish in post-World War II New York City, among others.

A model of such moral courage, Leah Gunning Francis took to the streets to understand the movement for Black Lives that took over the streets of Ferguson, MO after the police shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Walker. While now Gunning Francis is Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty, and Associate Professor of Christian Education and Practical Theology at Christian Theological Seminary, she was then Associate Dean of Contextual Education at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis and lived only a few miles from Canfield Green Apartments where Michael Brown, an unarmed teen, was killed and left lying in the street for hours. As she saw the unfolding protest building, she decided to seek to understand the faith leaders—both clergy and the young adults who were leading the protests in the streets.

As she learned, these “leaders emerged organically from the ground up, not from the top down. They were not appointed, nor did they fit any stereotypical model of what a ‘leader’ looks like or how leaders talk. They were women and men; black, brown, beige and white; gay and straight; able-bodied and differently-abled; well-heeled and bare-heeled; young and not-so-young. These people found themselves responding to a call that came from around them and within them, and they refused to remain on the sidelines at such a time as this.” In her depiction of the stakes, she turns the tables on traditional theological education which tends to highlight the role of faculty and clergy, and instead acknowledges the role of young leaders within the movement. “Indeed,” she writes, “the argument could be made that young people ignited leadership among clergy; they created the space and the impetus for the clergy to live into their roles as leaders.”

It is clear, however, that for the full promise of such practical-prophetic capacity to be realized in forming future faith leaders, important structural, theological, and pedagogical issues must be confronted. Sarah Coakley raises exactly these structural, theological, and pedagogical issues, which, if addressed, would unleash the prophetic potential of faith leaders in relationship to the significant social challenges they face today. Her reflections use the umbrella term “pastoral theology,” and it is clear that she includes within this the ministry leadership area of the curriculum, including the work of TFE. She pointedly says that even using the terms “systematic” and “pastoral” theology is to state the problem. The structural divide between theological disciplines and departments has its roots in the nineteenth-century European Enlightenment, especially the model developed at the University of Berlin by Friedrich Schleiermacher. While seeking to save a place in the university for theology, his decision to move theology to the professional schools, such as medicine and law, institutionalized a divide between “rational” areas of inquiry, systematic and historical theology, biblical studies, ethics, and the professional areas that are viewed as “not really intellectual in the same way…more connected by affectivity, pastoral response, love, rather than thought.”

Coakley provocatively describes the divide between so-called “rational” areas and “affective” areas as a wound, and says “we need to, as it were, re-mend this wound.” To her, the hard work of healing this divide is imperative because, in a sense, in allowing the divide to remain, theology doesn’t matter in the way it should. Theological education in the modern West has de-intellectualized pastoral theology, the effect of which is to actually “defang it for critical theological thinking out in the field.” Drawing on her pastoral experience in prisons, Coakley laments how chaplains are let in the prison “under this guise of non-demanding intellectual pastoral input, which is absolutely unchallenging to the prison system.” Of course, she says, “The prison system doesn’t mind a few chaplains as long as what they’re there to do is mop up distress without in any way questioning the system as it stands.” Insofar as that is the case, she says, theology doesn’t matter; it isn’t able to perform the prophetic function it needs to perform.

Thinking out loud with her interviewer, Coakley suggests that the required institutional reform for theological education could reasonably end the practice of having a department of pastoral theology or ministry (and one could add TFE) separate from the central pillars of the curriculum. She argues that learning skills shouldn’t be dislocated from the “hard, intellectual, interdisciplinary efforts to understand, say, jails, and look at how they were themselves founded on theological principles in the early modern period but have lost their moorings and become secularized—yet theological questions are still implicit in what they do.” Echoing what William Sullivan and others say above, Coakley argues that such ministry training is “actually more demanding” because you need all the critical intellectual pieces and other interdisciplinary connections, as well as situational skills and wisdom, for prophetic voice and action.

Helpfully, she gets specific about how such integrative work could form leaders for the kind of practical-prophetic voice she calls for in our culture in places like prisons. In her own teaching, she does this by way of presenting actual case studies arising from practice, not merely telling stories about particular situations but subjecting them to critical social and theological analysis, something many TFE leaders already do to some extent. However, Coakley wants something not just pedagogical here but structural and institutional. She argues that it is not enough that theological reflection happens in TFE with the staff or site supervisors or with peers, as important as that is. She is seeking a kind of deep “integration of the highest intellectual endeavors with truly transformative implications of this kind of work for all other parts of the self.”

Such structural integration, then, helps heal the wound both ways. It gives teeth back to those working in what she calls the “pastoral theology” areas, including TFE, allowing practical-prophetic voice and action. And it helps systematic and historical and biblical theology to matter, in that students have “to also learn how not to drop [their] theological insights in a crisis,” something they too often do because the structure of education has not helped them learn the disciplined practice of bringing those critical intellectual tools to bear in pastoral situations. Coakley suggests that it is “a fundamental mistake” for theological schools to let students off without practicing how those subjects “inform the decisions that you’re making” as you engage not only in the minister’s own congregational or other organizational leadership, but in relation to challenges in the culture—in relation to prisons, hospitals, city governments, corporations, or social issues like race, environment, immigration, and many others.
Social ethicist Elizabeth Bounds, a professor at Candler School of Theology, represents one example of the kind of structural shifts called for by Coakley. In an essay describing her experiences working at the intersection of student engagement in community ministry placements and the classroom, she tries to make sense of what theological reflection is and how it can be more effective. Candler’s robust and integrative program includes varied community placements over two years, faculty-facilitated reflection seminars (what Bounds focuses on here), and courses intentionally paired with contextual experiences. Frustrated by the difficulty students have in connecting their texts (assigned in classes) with their contexts and the situations they face, she sought deeper clarity about what would facilitate this kind of equipping. She wanted to know “how to help students begin to practice, or practice more richly, the dialogue between theology and context that is at the heart of theological reflection.” Her simple definition of theological reflection is intentional engagement with three dimensions: the self engaged in a situation bringing to bear critical theological frameworks.

Like Coakley, Bounds stresses how important it is to overcome the structural and pedagogical divide holding these dimensions apart. Students need various tools from classes for thinking critically about themselves, doing social analysis of the context, and doing theological analysis of the particular situation at issue, likely one calling for the student to consider what kind of leadership response is called for. Because of the difficulty in achieving this kind of integration, Bounds highlights the importance of 1) offering basic, focused, and repeated assignments so students can practice the integration of the sorts of analyses that facilitate risking action and learning from actions taken through further reflection, and 2) the importance of close collaboration between teaching faculty and site supervisors as two facets of the support students need to grow in their practice. Leaning into what Sullivan, Foster et al., and Bass et al. have suggested, Bounds moves away from theological reflection to say that what TFE has historically called “theological reflection” should, rather, be thought of as “knowing-in-action,” forming in students a necessary capacity for practical wisdom, or phronesis.

Review of a wide range of literature, including some of the best writing on TFE, convinces us that the formation of effective leaders for ministry matters deeply and is the very hardest work. From the perspective of theological education, then, a close look at where things stand regarding this crucial area of formation for ministry leaders can help readers interpret their own institutions’ current circumstances and develop proposals for new experiments.

The Rev. Dr. Christian Scharen is Vice President of Applied Research and leads of the Center for the Study of Theological Education at Auburn and the co-author of Making Theology Matter, a report published in August 2018. Read the full report now.

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