Practical theological reflection and Christian formation: a necessary pairing

Practical theological reflection and Christian formation: a necessary pairing

Built in to our core graduate courses in the theology program at Seattle Pacific Seminary is a practicum course. The intention is “to help students make connections between the academic work they are doing in their Core courses (in Scripture, church history, and theology/ethics) and the abbey and apostolate dimensions of their theological formation (continuing the work begun in the introductory courses in spiritual formation and mission).”

Each student works out an individualized learning contract with our Practicum Coordinator that addresses vital areas of character, spiritual formation and missional competence. Depending on what year we are in the program, we are required to do some combination of the following: (1) meet regularly with a mentor approved by the Schooled of Theology; (2) participate in a weekly campus-based spiritual formation group with other students and a designated faculty member; and (3) design and execute a project that will integrate what they are learning in the Bible, Christian Heritage and/or Theology/Ethics courses with their personal and professional development as a minister of the gospel.

Parts one and two mentioned earlier–mentor meetings and Wesleyan class meetings–are required of first year seminarians. Since I’m in my second year but still working on my core classes, I’m required to take this practicum in conjunction with my core theology/ethics sequence. Though part three is the main component of the class for a second year student like myself, there’s an additional piece that I’ve come to realize is core to my formation as a Christian–not just a student studying theology: engaging in a weekly practical theological reflection cycle.

What’s that, you ask? It’s ok–I hadn’t had any experience with it before this Fall, though it did resemble some of the reflection cycles I’ve had to do as a [student] teacher. The best way I can summarize this particular cycle that draws from the work of Richard Osmer is that it’s a process that calls one to examine a ‘critical incident’ in our context and interpret the situation or event by asking:

  1. ‘What is going on?’ or Priestly Listening
  2. ‘Why is it going on?’ or Sagely Wisdom
  3. ‘What ought to be going on?’ or Prophetic Discernment
  4. ‘How might we respond?’ or Servant Leadership

This reflection cycle is rooted in our [ministry] contexts so that we may better understand the relationships among past experiences, current situations, what we bring and the ways in which God is at work.

As a seminary student preparing herself for ministry, I see the value in this process as I form my own disciplines and practices. But this reflection cycle isn’t learned so that I can have more tools for ministry [though it certainly is a valuable tool]. Rather, the process is forming me as I intentionally [though not always willingly] seek to hear and feel and see what is happening around me and to me and through me so that I may ask myself how I might respond to the situations at hand. Whether or not a response is enacted, is another story.

I’ve spent the past few days attending a “Scripture as Christian Formation” conference with the Rev. Eugene Peterson. One idea that I will continue returning to is something Rev. Peterson always says: We do not advance in the Christian life by gaining more expertise. And so I am careful not to turn this process into another thing that moves me closer to becoming a ‘good’ Christian–whatever that means. Participating in a regular cycle of theological reflection or doing all those other things we are told or guilted into that will make us stronger Christians is not the goal. The goal is that in engaging in these practices we might be transformed, becoming individuals more aware of our being made in Imago Dei and living lives that in no uncertain terms convey that.

Though it can be a tedious and perhaps uncomfortable process, this practical theological reflection cycle is an important one in our human and Christian development. I challenge you to try this process if you don’t already have one that you follow and see where it leads.

Recommended reading
Le Cornu, A. (2005). Theological Reflection and Christian Formation. Oxford.

Osmer, R. R. (2008). Practical theology: An introduction. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.

Introducing the Pastoral Spiral [ppt]