The Embodied Theory-Practice Relationship: Two Voices on Vocation as Practical Theologian and Pastor
By Stephen Cady and Robert Allan Hill
April 10, 2010
Association for Practical Theology
The Embodied Theory-Practice Relationship: Two Voices on Vocation as Practical Theologian and Pastor
Over the last three years, we have had many conversations together about the benefits of a bi-vocational commitment as a pastor and academic. Because we are related (Stephen is Bob’s son-in-law), these have mostly occurred informally amid Christmas dinners, summer vacations, and other family visits. However, as we have both found our way more deeply into our commitments in both arenas, we found that the conversation we have shared informally, if more formally offered might be of some service both to the church and to the academy. As such, we offer this paper, written in two voices, sometimes distinguished, but often not, which moves our conversation about the benefits of a bi-vocational commitment as a practical theologian and pastor from the dinner table to the lecture hall.
When I was applying for doctoral work I was given quite a bit of advice. I was offered counsel as to which programs had the most to offer, whose graduates received tenured faculty positions, and how to navigate the rolling waters of the academy. One word of caution, however, sticks out in my mind. On multiple occasions I was told not to mention, under any circumstance, that I had an interest in serving a church either during my doctoral work or after. The fear was that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as an academic. Thankfully, however, I ignored that advice and upon accepting my position as a doctoral candidate in Practical Theology, and with the hesitant approval of my department, I sought an appointment in a local congregation. Admittedly, my decision was motivated more by finances than by principle, but now two years into both my program and my pastorate, I would not have it any other way.
The dichotomy that sometimes is supposed to exist between the faith community and the academy can be unhelpful to both. Like theory and practice, the academy and faith community are not two distinct entities existing in a vacuum. Rather, the academy exists, in part, in service to the faith community, by preparing clergy for leadership in communities of faith. When the distance between the two is overly exaggerated, both the church and the academy lose a valuable partner in ministry and in education.
This paper claims that the relationship of the academy to the faith community is not unlike the relationship of theory to practice: a practical theologian is ideally suited to bridge both divides. The paper argues that far from being an impediment, or a detriment, pastoral experience and leadership concomitant with academic work can actually benefit the research and teaching of the academic as well as the congregation being served. As such, we identify the theologian herself as the locus of this mutuality and claim that the ongoing interaction with the current praxis of the church influences the direction of theoretical studies (and vice versa) in a way that is not fully present without that relationship. To that end, we will first look at the connection of the theory/practice relationship to the academy/faith community relationship before exploring the benefits of this embodiment in the second part of the paper. The final section will suggest a few implications for both sides of the supposed dichotomy.
A. Theory/Practice Relationship
At the heart of this conversation is an attempt to rescue practical theology from its perception as merely “applied” theology and to maintain the constructive element of its task. Practical theologians have had carefully to construct their understanding of the relationship between these two crucial components of academic work. In general, contemporary practical theologians seek to allow current practice to inform theories generated in the academy and then to allow those theories to inform the ongoing praxis of the church. Don Browning, for example, says, that “theory arises out of practice and leads back to practice,” in what we might call a theory/practice circle. Richard Osmer, in the appendix to his book The Teaching Ministry of Congregations, highlights several of the ways that practical theologians construct this relationship, ranging from a neo-Marxist to a neo-pragmatist perspective, and recognizes that “decisions about the theory-praxis relationship influence in fundamental ways the phenomena investigated in empirical work, the interpretive framework used to understand what is found, the norms offered to assess both church and society, and the models used to guide and reform present praxis.” However the relationship between these two is worked out, it is worked out within the practical theologian himself. Thus, the role of the practical theologian is to embody this relationship. The commitments she makes to certain sources of justification or forms of cross-disciplinary conversation will affect the relationship between theory and practice as it occurs in specific moments of practical theological inquiry.
The argument of this essay is that just as the relationship between theory and practice is embodied within the person of the practical theologian, so too is the relationship between the academy and faith communities. The job of the practical theologian is to observe the practices of the church (understood broadly) and, through thoughtful interpretation in dialogue with conversation partners from social science and the humanities, to construct a theological response that aims to improve faith practices. In other words, theory is formulated in the academy in dialogue with the practices of the faith community. This conversation happens within the practical theologian himself. Charles Foster investigates this relationship by exploring the pastoral imagination. He affirms “a form of paideia—embodied in the person of pastor, priest, or rabbi—that inspires and equips an imaginative habitus, or way of being in the world, for a religious community.”
The danger for practical theology of becoming applied theology carries over to this relationship as well. That is, one does not want to understand the academy to be the place that creates the rules and the communities of faith to be the places that implement them. At the same time, however, if one focuses too heavily on practice and does not reflect critically on those practices based upon our theological understandings, then one risks allowing thoughtless or harmful practices of faith to be perpetuated. Again, these dangers may be lessened when there is a person who is serving as the embodied bridge between these two important institutions of faith.
The challenge, then, is to find the appropriate balance of construction and interpretation in the mode of practical theological reflection within communities of faith. This, we are claiming, is forged in the person of the practical theologian who is able to be connected both to the academy and to the community of faith, in order to embody the theory/practice relationship.
B. The Swinging Pendulum
Shifts in emphasis within broad ranges of theological study are not uncommon. For many years, for example, within Homiletics, the inductive narrative approach to preaching held the center ground across much of the discipline in the United States (1975—2005, or so). Over time, questions arose and various arguments with them about the narrative emphasis. A chastened inductivity currently still commands much support, but the emphasis has changed. Thomas Long’s recent Lyman Beecher Lectures provide both a clear history of the tidal changes, and a careful defense of a modified narrative approach. Likewise, within New Testament research, in Johannine studies, the stereoptic, two level drama approach to the Fourth Gospel held center ground across much of the discipline, in the United States (1975—2005, or so). However, over time, questions arose and various arguments with them, about the historical and theological claims within the Martyn\Brown\Ashton understanding of John. A current (2007) review of the state of Johannine studies identifies this once pervasive (and still compelling) position as one of five. A chastened ‘aposynagogos’ approach still commands much support, but the emphasis has changed. Shifts in emphasis within broad ranges of theological study are not uncommon. Over time they are to be expected.
This sort of shift in emphasis may now be gradually emerging within practical theology. Bonnie Miller-McLemore has argued that for many years, largely in response to Edward Farley’s critique of the theological encyclopedia, an “academic paradigm” has held the high center ground in the United States. Edward Farley’s Theologia, both built on earlier and presaged later significant approaches which accused the ‘clerical paradigm’ with the ironic elimination of theology from theological education and called for a return to theology as habitus. Miller-McLemore shows how in an attempt to respond to Farley’s critique of theology for the sake of clergy alone, we have created an “academic” paradigm which often views any use of the words “clerical” or “application” as pejorative. Shifts in emphasis within broad ranges of theological study are not uncommon, and are to be expected. This paper’s argument is situated within the possible emergence of one such shift, from a non-clerical, academic paradigm, to or toward a clerically chastened habitus paradigm.
These works and others tend and intend to build on the work of Farley, Browning and others. However, as with the Long (Homiletics) and Ashton (New Testament) reformulations, they also tend and intend to caution against throwing out the baby with the bathwater. They wonder, and wander in various ranges of thought in their wondering, whether the pendulum may have swung too far. Various shared features of these writings deserve note. As a group, they recognize that participation precedes competence. As Miller-McLemore writes in the collection of essays on this theme, For Life Abundant, “[Students] need more than just the capacity to ‘think theologically,’ but also the capacity to “practice theology” by putting theology into action through one’s body on the ground.” Therefore they tend to honor and to highlight situated learning. In fact, for some, the pedagogical perspective employed assumes that such situated learning works best. They draw on varieties within pedagogies of contextualization, in order to engage and expand our understandings of embodied theory and practice, and they attempt to legitimate peripheral participation, or limited participation, as a part of embodied theory practice. To some degree they benefit from the insights provided by Osmer’s ‘second level’ analysis of theological inquiry. Osmer emphasizes that the four practical theological tasks (descriptive\empirical, interpretive, normative, pragmatic) are “distinguishable but not separable,” and hence the hermeneutical circle may be entered at any point. He argues that “reflective practice is epistemic.” Osmer’s definition of rational judgment includes professional values and acquired expertise. He affirms the importance of interdisciplinary partnerships as well, like partnerships with homiletics, biblical studies, and pastoral care.
The argument of this paper is that the personal location of people simultaneously engaged in both pastoral ministry and theological education can be a fruitful embodiment of theory and practice within practical theology. We will now shift our attention to review how this relationship benefits the practical theologian and the church.
Embodied Theory-Practice Relationship: A Tale of Two Desks
Every doctoral student is asked to do two things well: read and write. This is partially because most of the student’s life for the foreseeable future will be spent doing those two things. After the student finishes her dissertation and is (hopefully) in a faculty position, the student is asked to add to those two proficiencies the ability to teach. A student in practical theology adds yet another level to this mix inasmuch as a practical theologian is expected to listen well. This is not solely for the purpose of recording class lectures or understanding assignments, but rather refers to the task of practical theological inquiry itself. As Don Browning has stated, practical theological inquiry begins when one is brought up short. Said another way, practical theological inquiry should have magnitude; it should engage an authentic and resonant challenge of the church. In other words, the “practical” side of our field matters. As such, a student of practical theology must develop the ability to listen attentively in order to distinguish the exigent needs of the faith community so that she might describe them fully, interpret them faithfully, assess them normatively, and respond to them strategically. While it is possible for one to develop this careful ear for the on-the-ground dilemmas of the church in the academy solely, it is best developed in consistent and thoughtful participation with living congregations.
Imagine a student who is engaging in doctoral level practical theological inquiry and is searching for a research topic for his dissertation. Chances are high that he had some idea of his interest, and perhaps even narrowed it down significantly, prior to entering his program. As he begins the long and winding road through coursework and exams, however, he will be continually forced to refine and revise that interest so that it may address an exigent need of the church. If the student is currently engaged in pastoral ministry, his ears will already be tuned to the needs of at least one congregation.
Each week someone serving in pastoral ministry is asked to read, write, preach, teach, and listen in order to assess the needs of his or her congregation. This is an ongoing process that continually forces the pastor to engage one’s ministerial imagination in order to discern the salient issues in any given experience of being brought up short, and then to address them swiftly and thoughtfully. In short, the fully engaged pastoral imagination is an ecclesial partner for academic practical theological inquiry. A student of practical theology desires to develop the muscles of the pastoral imagination, and then to benefit from their steady toning throughout her academic work. If this student were to be engaged in the ongoing practice of ministry in a local congregation, he would have the benefit of consistently being reminded that the often theoretical conversations of the academy do matter in congregations and would then learn to hold at bay those possible areas of inquiry which fail the “magnitude” test. Indeed, a student in practical theology who was currently serving in pastoral ministry might not be able to avoid constantly assessing their work based upon the real lives of people in her congregation. This paper argues that such a bi-vocational commitment would not only improve the work of the practical theologian, but would also have a greater impact on the church.
Embodied Theory-Practice Relationship: Chapel and Classroom
In the course of preparing students to preach, one addresses the issue of exegesis. Within that major undertaking, the teacher may want to highlight the movement from text to sermon that occurs in preaching on passages from the gospels. One particular approach here involves a choral image. The students are asked to imagine the passages of the Gospels, not as solos, but as hymns sung in four-part harmony. Thus, every passage will potentially include soprano, alto, tenor and bass lines: the soprano melody of the voice of the historical Jesus to the limited extent one may yet hear it; the profoundly significant alto voice of the early church which developed the notes sung well before their appearance in the canonical score; the tenor of the author, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John; and the ongoing basso profundo, the baritone line of interpretation of the passage, starting right in the Bible itself (for Mark, beginning with Matthew and Luke, for example; for John, beginning with 1 John, for example), and continuing on in some ways to yesterday and today and next Sunday when the sermon is finally preached. The gospels are sung in four-part harmony, as many congregations once regularly did sing hymns. The preacher will watch carefully to hear and overhear the various ‘parts’ within the fully harmonic beauty. To this point, standard instruction in homiletics can proceed without any interaction with the argument of this paper.
Suppose, however, that the teacher is also a preacher, who is responsible every Sunday for a sermon within the context (a highly particularized context) of a University Chapel, located not more than 100 yards east of the offices of practical theologians, the library stalls of graduate students, and the very classroom setting for learning and teaching about exegesis. On one hand, now, the stakes have been radically raised. Sunday arrives, and the text, Luke 4. Is there an exegetical chorus heard in the sermon? For those students who are seized by the confession of the church, and who have become a part of the addressable community in the University Chapel, an interpretive moment has arrived. And for the teacher, a moment of truth has come. Do the pods of church and school, ecclesia and academy stick to each other, in Osmer’s image, in ways that allow for transversal reason to engage both student and teacher? The worship service in question is a real, live service, with real living and dying humans. Real ammunition is in use. On any given Sunday the possibility stands that one student or one retiree may hear his or her last earthly benediction, that morning. The setting is not a contrived ‘preaching club’ quasi-service, nor even a seminary only mid-week devotion. The church has gathered and the hope still lives for something to hear and something to eat, through preaching meant to teach, to delight, and to persuade. Moreover, and quite visible to the eye of the worshipping homiletics student, there stands a person, now robed, who looks quite like the disheveled teacher she remembers from Tuesday’s homiletics lecture, which dealt with exegesis and the gospels.
We have here ‘a theory-practice relationship embodied within the vocation of a practical theologian who is working concurrently in the academy and in the pastorate.’ Furthermore, for teacher and student and congregation, the experience in worship of the sermon may therefore take on either a greater sense of risk or a greater possibility of benefit. If the sermon bears faithfulness to the teaching earlier in the week about the sermon, the student may benefit. Having offered some preliminary description and empirical observation of a weekly pattern actually found in at least one setting, we pause to provide some reflection upon and interpretation of the experience, the pattern. The preacher may on occasion refer, in passing, to the SATB critique of Luke 4 by saying, ‘as we teach our students across the plaza, passages like this in the gospels are like our own favorite Methodist hymns…’ In fact, the preacher may not be able to avoid saying something like this, given the inter-textuality, the inter-psychic connection in his own life between pulpit and lectern.
Conclusion and Appropriation
Throughout this essay, we have made a claim that pastoral experience and ministerial leadership, engaged alongside academic work, can benefit the research and teaching of the academic as well as the congregation being served. We began by describing the dichotomy between the academy and the faith community and have shown that, like the theory-practice relationship, the bridge between these two areas is personified in a practical theologian. We demonstrated that paradigm shifts, such as the one we are suggesting may be emerging, are both common and necessary in growing fields of inquiry. We have further suggested ways in which this is embodied, both from the point of view of a student of practical theology, and from that of a professor.
Let us now reflect on a few ways that this argument might be helpful.
First, the paper proposes a certain kind of academic reflection. Those teaching on the faculty of a school that prepares people for ministry may benefit from participating in a local congregation in some capacity. While it might not be feasible or fruitful to have an entire faculty serving as the minister of a congregation, it might be feasible to encourage participation in some capacity within congregational life, even if only as a participant in worship. As we have described above, this is as beneficial to the practical theologian as it is to the church.
Second, seminaries or schools of theology may choose to commit to maintaining a certain percentage of faculty who are serving in primary leadership roles in local congregations. This would be a clear means by which to break down the false dichotomy between the academy and faith communities. Additionally, it might also serve as an important bridge from the local congregation to the seminary for those who might be discerning a call to ministry.
Third, faith communities might consider supporting a “practical theologian in residence” who would serve the congregation in a unique way and be allowed to “test-drive” new constructive practices of education, spiritual formation, worship, or pastoral care. This might be done on a limited-time/rotating basis or with someone on a more permanent schedule. Either way, this would offer congregants opportunities to converse with those who find their homes in the academy while at the same time creating a lab for constructing better practices of faith. It may also have the unintended consequence of offsetting the budget of the seminaries in that part of the funding for these particular faculty members would be coming directly from a local congregation.
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