I speak often of a group that I belong to and have the honor of mentoring in, and that is Education for Ministry (EfM). For those unfamiliar with the title, it’s an educational formation program for laypeople, but is open to clergy who may be part of a discernment process or who are already ordained. The program is most often studied by those who want to know more about the church, the Bible, and most importantly, themselves. It’s not a self-help group to resolve problems. It is a four-year program, one year each for Old Testament, New Testament, church history, and theology. By the end of the four years people have a greater understanding of how all those things work together and how they can use what they’ve learned not only in their church affiliations and lives, but in their personal and professional lives.
One of the basic things that EFM stresses is a concept called theological reflection. It’s a way of using tools to examine a potential problem, something that a person would want to think more deeply about, possibly a different way of looking at a familiar Scripture, or as a way of recognizing a position or an action that a person can have or take on a given topic. TR’s, theological reflections, come in a lot of forms, but basically, they start at a point, identifying something the person wants to consider and to examine in an organized manner. The goal is to find either an answer or a direction pointing in a direction, often one or the other being something that hadn’t been considered before. This is my personal description of Do-It-Yourself Theological Reflection (DIY TR).
One way of beginning to think about something, once someone has decided they need to think about this a bit more, is to just write down what it is they want to think about. Sometimes it’s clear, and sometimes it requires perhaps a little refining. A way EfM does this is to encourage people to create or use a metaphor to visualize the situation they want to work on, whether with others or just with themselves. It doesn’t have to be a fancy metaphor. I have used a picture of a man riding a quad runner over a jump when the back wheels come off. To me, that represents a part of my life that is out of control and that I need to deal with. It can be something funny, like the cute YouTube about cat herding, one of my personal favorites, for times when things are going every which way instead of in a general direction. It often helps to find metaphors to use, for instance, when contemplating a piece of Scripture.
We then go into the four areas that we want to examine in relation to our discussion or conversation. Culture, contemporary culture that is, is a way of examining what the world around me thinks about the subject that I am contemplating. For instance, how does culture perceive the problem of safety in schools for children and young people? How does culture reflect the ethics of life that we see in our contemporary world? How do books and magazines represent our culture and how does that affect us? It can also be expanded to include different types of cultures, such as those bound together by country of origin, religion, or perhaps even socioeconomic, racial, or almost any group where community is a group of people who are joined together, whether loosely or tightly, by common goals, interests, and sense of comradery. It’s also possible to examine this one area in terms of what socio-cultural life was like in Biblical times if one were considering a TR on based on a passage or piece of Scripture. It may require some research, but research is learning, and learning is a good thing. That’s one reason we use theological reflections.
A second area of interest in and examination is the tradition. Generally, we think of it as the Christian tradition, incorporating the Bible, the church traditions of feasts, seasons, and liturgies, the lives of saints, hymns, and religious reading that we have done. One question I can ask is where in Scripture have I found a similar situation to the one that I’m contemplating. Sometimes I have to Google it, other times it springs to mind. There is also the question of where is God in the situation? That is one of the core questions to be brought out during a theological reflection.
There is a third area of reflection, the position statement, which is an “I” statement of what I believe, I think, I feel, and the like. It’s the trench in which I’m willing to die and, more or less, the line in the sand that I don’t want to cross. It’s how I perceive the situation in relationship to myself and my world around me. It’s usually one of the most important parts of the TR because it requires us to articulate very clearly where we stand on the issue under reflection and why. Did we learn it from our parents? Is it the result of study and experience? Does it come from the culture that surrounded us? It could be any one of several ways.
The fourth area is action: What are we going to do about this? This reveals the impact on our ministries both in the church and in the world. People don’t always realize that the work outside the church is every bit as important as the work inside and is most often a ministry itself. Stay-at-home mother? Someone who helps with the food banks and the homeless shelters? A cheerful receptionist at a busy office? An orderly in hospital? Dishwasher in a restaurant? All have ministries, even if they don’t think of them that way. Even the people who pick up the garbage can be ministers because they are serving a community in a job most of us wouldn’t want but which is necessary and can be done cheerfully and thoroughly. So, when we think about our action, we think less about the salary we make and perhaps more about the pleasure and satisfaction we take in doing our job well. What we do is see is God in the world around us, and we become the hands of God to others, even if we never mention religion. It’s vital to find God working there with us.
So, what’s a TR and how do you know you’ve got one? You have a TR when you think about things in a somewhat structured manner. It takes areas of your life and places the question in the center and then seeing the impact or the change of direction as one progresses through the four areas of interest. How do you know you’ve got one? That’s easy. You find a way for God to work through you, and you understand what you are meant to do to make the kingdom of God appear here on earth. When you figure out the answer to the question, or even a direction towards the answer, then you have probably done so in some sort of reflective way. Remembering to put God into the picture and adding tradition plus culture, position, and action can bring you to a greater understanding of the Bible, the church, the community, the world, and yourself and how all of it works together for the good of all. Try it; it’s a very spiritual experience.
Image: TR Quadrants, created by Kay Flores, 2018. Used by permission.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and a homebody. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.