Another Model of Theological Reflection

December 3, 2011

Ministry in general is fraught with interesting situations that beg for theological reflection. Add to that the intricacies and confusions accompanying Presbyterian ministry these days, and an elder must give priority to thoughtful engagement with the issues in order to decide what to do. Yesterday I shared an educational tool for interpreting and applying content one has come across. Today I share a model specifically for theological reflection on case studies (or events as they unfold). The hope is that with these tools, presbyters can define the issues, categorize them, expand their awareness of options, and then narrow the choices down to the preferable path. This path will be informed by Scripture, the Christian community, and ministry experience, and it will be yours: a path you can actually take knowing you’ve thought it through and it makes sense to you.

I am indebted to my colleagues at Fuller Seminary, most notably Dr. Gwen Ingram, Director of Field Education, for the outline that follows. I have compressed and adapted it a bit for our purposes, but you can get the whole thing as she lays it out here.  (Scroll down and click on “Guidelines for Theological Reflection” for a PDF downloadable version.)

I. DESCRIBE the case study, the basic facts of the situation, interpretations and inferences from those facts, and the types of issues involved (interpersonal, organizational, or theological/spiritual). Does anyone or the group involved have a relevant back-story that is necessary for understanding the current situation?

II. REFLECT on the points of view that interpret this situation differently, and note those interpretations. The list of possible versions might be quite long.

With those in mind, identify the theological/spiritual issue(s) at stake:

• Consider Scripture passages that might bear on this issue, looking especially for stories where biblical characters had to address concerns similar to the ones in your situation.

• Consider theological ideas you think might bear on this issue.

• Consider stories from your own life or your congregation’s experience that might help illumine the case.

• Any secular sources that might help you sort out the issue?

Now make these same considerations (Scripture, theology, stories, secular information) for the interpersonal and organizational categories you listed in Section I above. Summarize by listing appropriate approaches to caring for each of the people listed under Interpersonal issues; and the same for attending to the necessary processes brought to light under Organizational issues.

III. CONSTRUCT a single response to the situation by deciding which of the many interpretations you collected in REFLECT you should keep and which you wish to discard. You can think in terms of a short-term plan, a medium-term plan, and a long-term plan if the situation merits.

IV. STRATEGIZE how to enact the plan or achieve the goal you built in the CONSTRUCT phase. Figure out how you can proceed with both the technical problems (those elements that can be fixed by specific action in the short term) and the adaptive challenges that require a new paradigm or mindset of the individuals or group involved.

This is an excellent model to use in a small group, perhaps a task force of your session, as a way of sorting through a thorny problem that has emerged in your congregation or presbytery. By seeking the path that addresses the real issues with solid background and biblical input, you and your ministry colleagues can make theological reflection an active part of your decision-making process. The results will be thoughtful, faithful, and defensible, because you will have “heard” all the possible interpretations and evaluated them from a biblical perspective. May the fruit of such a process be a session, congregation, or presbytery that is Reformed and always being Reformed according to the Word of God!

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