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Speaking to the Soul: Experience + Reflection = Learning

Speaking to the Soul: Experience + Reflection = Learning

by Kristin Fontaine

Years ago I completed an excellent leadership training that was offered by the diocese of Olympia. It was a full residential week with a small group (under 30 people). It was intensive, interesting, and exhausting. I learned a lot about myself, my learning styles, and my leadership leanings in a supportive environment.

This training was my second brush with the Experience + Reflection = Learning (E+R=L) model and we used it through out the 40 hours of official training and frequently as part of informal, after hours discussions.

My first encounter with the E+R=L model was during Year 1 of Education for Ministry (EFM). My husband and I participated in a local group in Texas, in part, as a way to meet new people and socialize, as we had moved to Texas the year we graduated from college. We were struggling a lot with making friends, and with culture shock and our EFM group was mostly very nice, very thoughtful, very kind people.

I don’t know that we went into great detail about the E+R=L model during our meetings. It was a little bit like an equation one learns to use by rote in math class. Helpful in very specific applications but not explored outside of those limited areas.

After a little over a year in Texas my husband’s division was sold to a company in Chicago and we faced the choice of trying to stay on in Texas with very little support system, applying for jobs in Chicago and trying to move there, or returning to Washington State and moving in with my husband’s parent’s while we got back on our feet.

We chose Washington where many of our close friends lived and where we would have support from family. With the help of my in-law’s we drove ourselves, our pets and our belongings back to Washington and moved in with them.

Six months later we were moving into our own place with two college friends. My husband found a church for us to join and we settled into our new lives. We were quickly recruited to serve on committees at our new church and progressed over the next few years to running a Sunday School and serving on the vestry. It was during this time that I found out about the leadership training and signed up for it.

During this second exposure to the E+R=L model I really started to understand what it could be used for. It tied into seminar work I had done in college. I had learned how to read, think, and talk about texts; but, I had never really thought about the process of doing so in a structured way. Having a ‘formula’ to use helped me frame and clarify my thoughts.

I returned from the training full of inspiration. Like any convert to a new idea, I was applying the E+R=L model to everything around me (whether it needed it or not). Over time, this evangelistic fire faded until it all but disappeared from conscious use.

After years of writing for myself and publishing on my, somewhat clunky, personal website, I was recruited to write occasional essays for the Episcopal Café. When writing for myself I only wrote when inspiration struck and my essays could be few and far between even though I enjoyed writing.

Last fall, I was asked to help fill in for a regular who wrote for Speaking to the Soul. The first few weekly essays were fairly easy to write as I had a fair amount of pent up ideas that were percolating in the back of my mind. Regular deadlines also helped prime the pump for a time.

Then my well of ideas ran dry and I still had deadlines to meet. After wresting with several false starts and ideas that went nowhere, “E+R=L” came to the rescue. I remembered the process we had used in EFM to read bible passages, identify what ‘spoke’ to us, and use the E+R=L model to develop our ideas by applying our experience to the passage we wished to reflect on. Suddenly I had something to write about.

Last week, those modes of thinking came to my aid once more when I wrote Listen to Live. As I read through that essay after it was posted, I realized that it opened me up to a whole different view of the Old Testament.

I used to think that the Old Testament was a collection of stories that showed the way the world used to be; and further, that it was a model world, a world that reflected the aspirations and desires of its authors and storytellers.

Thinking that way made it very difficult to read, let alone, think about, large portions of the Old Testament. There is a lot that is awful in those stories. However, when I applied the E+R=L model to my own essay and the comments of people who responded to it on the Episcopal Café, I saw a new way of understanding the Old Testament stories, starting with Judges.

The story comes to a head in Judges 17:6: In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.

That phrase is repeated again as the last line of the book of Judges and gives weight to the idea that the authors of this book are writing from the future and casting back to to time to show the turmoil and chaos that existed before the coming of the Kings of Israel.

Judges and Ruth are the prequel to the foundational story of a major change in the relationship between the people of Israel, their prophets, and their God. Rather than looking at them as contemporary stories of the life and times of the Judges that represent how life should be lived, it occurred to me to look at them as backstory for how the events in the books of Samuel and Kings came to pass.

Restructuring these stories in my head as a modern novel with Judges as the backstory, Ruth as the prologue, and the books of Samuel and Kings as the main novel opened my mind to see these stories in a different light.

I no longer had to look at them through the lens of ‘this is how it was and should be’. I could see these stores as the set up for the main event. They are showing the reader how very bad the situation is and why the people demand a major change from the way leadership has been called into being for generations to the rise of the Kings of Israel.

I owe that insight to the E+R=L way of looking at a text.

I didn’t really understand all the ways I was already using that tool when I was first introduced to it in EFM over 24 years ago. It took additional exposure to the concepts behind it and practice with it, to teach me to use it intentionally to disassemble my preconceived ideas about a text and rebuilt my thoughts around a new revelation.

I understand that this revelation might not break new ground for anyone but me. But the process of the intentional examination of my thoughts, reading the actual text, and stripping away the accumulated notions of years opened me up to a new way of thinking about a particular text and shook me into a whole new experience.

It’s a amazing feeling.


All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway

Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.


Image: Kolb’s Learning Cycle


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Marshall Scott

Actually, if people will stop and think, this should be familiar to many of us at the Café, if not exactly in those terms. For many of us, this was the model (again, perhaps with different labels) for Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). Again, for many who have experience in industrial processes, and in the efforts made to apply industrial processes to a whole variety of “non-industrial” institutions, this is the same cycle that is used in Process Improvement/Continuous Quality Improvement/Total Quality Management (PT/CQI/TQM). This understanding of self-awareness of experience, used to make new choices, and to then assess the results of those choices, to have new data – however we may label the steps, provides a tool that, used thoughtfully, can have real benefits. Certainly, it has its limitations; and it is not a quick fix (which has often resulted in its failure in corporate application: it simply is not quick, and so in hasty application excitement can give way to exasperation and rejection, when it hasn’t really been applied; which sounds like a quote I vaguely remember about the Christian faith). But, like any tool, used properly good can be done with it.

I would report, too that it was brought to the United States by an Episcopalian. I met Dr. W. Edwards Deming in his last years, and he was a member of the Episcopal Church (although I can’t speak to how active).

I have long thought this has corollaries, and perhaps warrant, in various resources in our tradition. I thought about those specifically to share with chaplains, as over the years many chaplains have seen this as just so much “corporate jargon,” really, jingoistically applied. I think there’s a good deal of theological reflection we can do on the process, as well as in the process, as Kristin has shared. If you’re interested (and, really, I won’t be hurt if you’re not), it’s available here (and, as with many blog posts, it starts at the bottom).

Philip B. Spivey

This is a wonderful and refreshing excursion into the realm of what we used to call ‘consciousness-raising’. The value for me of this approach is that our subjective experience plays the central role in the transformation of awareness, thought, not cognition, is the catalyst.

Recently, I fished a pearl-of-a- sentence out of a book review in the NYT. In describing how she experienced the author’s novel unfold, the reviewer observed: “With each new fact that emerges (in the novel), a piece of what we thought we knew is dislodged.” In the best of worlds, isn’t that what we should hope for throughout our lifetime?

Another journalist, Anna Arendt, also captured an aspect of this phenomenon when she says in one leisurely, wonderful and revelatory sentence: ” Action is, in fact the one miracle-working faculty of man, as Jesus of Nazareth, whose insights into this faculty can be compared in their originality and unprecentedness with Socrates’ insights into the possibilities of thought, must have known very well when he likened the power to forgive to the more general power of performing miracles, putting both on the same level and within the reach of man.”

Perhaps the mind and subjective experience plays a larger role in our spiritual evolution than was previously thought.

JC Fisher

You’re blessed, Kristin, to have a diocese that believes in Experiential Learning.

I went through vocational discernment in a diocese where the director’s pedagogy was pretty much “Guess What I’m Thinking”. I couldn’t contain my frustration with it and, well, despite believing I *might* be hearing a call to ordained ministry (and gifts to offer therein), my assessment in that program told me I didn’t. Would a discernment program w/ E+R=L have made a difference in that assessment of Yours Truly? We’ll never know…

David Allen

This reminds me of Bayes’ Theorem;

Initial Beliefs + Recent Objective Data = New and Improved Beliefs

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