Practial Theology

How do you define practical theology?

This question ended up being rather important when I started to collect data for my dissertation (Hansen-Holloway, 2008).  One of the common themes present in every interview I had with the clergy in my study was the disconnect they found between the theory they learned in the classroom and the needs of the congregations they served.  It was the practice of doing the theology, ministering to the needy, visiting the sick, listening to the hurt and being present when words simply were not enough that taught the clergy how to live the theories that they learned.   Practical theology is the practice of living theology.

Unfortunately, teaching practical theology is a very difficult task.    Actually teaching any kind of skill that requires action is difficult.  Traditionally the classroom is the location of inaction, of talking, reflecting or reading instead of doing.    Many Divinity schools see themselves as institutions of higher learning. Rightly so, part of a theological education is learning how to THINK theologically.  Every minister, be they lay or ordained, needs to be able to wrap their minds around the complex ideas of their faith.  If the goal is to make disciples, understanding the faith one is sharing is integral to that mission.

But I think that we academicians, theologians, and educators forget that theory is only one chapter of a very long book.  Theologians who do not feel the compelling need to LIVE their theology, are blind to the real nature of the faith they are studying.  Practicums, internships, and labs are the teaching location for actions.  Scientific and medical professions have figured out how to incorporate the two successfully, but theologians are still struggling with the concept. Field education or internships are limited in length and number.  Most schools require 2-3 internships.  The internships offer the opportunity to reflect and learn, but their short length and varied supervision appears to have mixed results. All of the clergy in my study felt the best instances of on the job training happened while they were in school taking classes and working concurrently. The best learning of practical theology occurred when the classroom and the pew met.

Clergy students get it.  Every time I teach a class, mentor a young pastor, lead a catechumen I hear it.  I hear the same question, “How do I live this faith?” or “How to I make this relevant to the person in the pew?”

You see, in the end, that is the question that practical theology answers.

Dr. Mel

Hansen-Holloway, M.G. (2008). Wiggling Through It: A Comparative Case Study on Decision-Making Processes of United Methodist Church Second-Career Clergy Students’ Routes to Ministry. NCSU: Raleigh, NC.


2 Responses to “Practial Theology”

  1. Mel:

    Your excerpt above is very poignantly well written. I agree with you on all points presented. If I am to offer any valid or worthy contribution, I will simply share some of the impressions that I have retained from personal experience.

    During my studies at the Moody Bible Institute and Theological Seminary here in Chicago, Praxis was stressed emphatically by the Faculty and perhaps even to a fault. The city of Chicago presents a very rich and adventurous plethora of contexts and opportunities to get one’s ministerial knees dirty, scraped and even battered. For me, personally, it wasn’t until I hit the streets in ministry that I most deeply appreciated and really took ownership of what I had been blessed with in the classroom.

    I recall a compelling montra that one of my undergrad Pastoral Studies Professors, Dr. John Koesller, used to ask us frequently during interactive discussion; “So……what does that look like.” As we would all pretentiously pontificate around his curriculum, that question always presented a very sobering reminder to each of us.

    Another of my graduate Professors here at Moody, Dr. Julius Woi Long Sing, is infamous for challenging seminary students with, “So What!? What is the ‘so what’ of that passage!?” And he absolutely expects an answer not only in our classroom discussions but more importantly in our research, writing and practical assignments. That always brings us back around to what is really important at the end of the day.

  2. I was reading the Nov. 23, 2009, Faith In Action, the weekly newsletter published by the UMC General Board of Church and Society. This is a lovely little newsletter full of articles that deal specifically with how Methodist attempt to live their theology. The GBCS has the unenviable job of trying to implement the UMC’s Book of Resolutions. It is unenviable because we United Methodist can be somewhat divided in our desires to live a christian life (just read our competing statements on things like abortion and homosexuality, and you’ll get a feel for what I’m talking about here.)

    At any rate, This weeks newsletter includes a lovely article written by Linda Bales Todd, Director, Louise & Hugh Moore Population Project, General Board of Church & Society. The article titled, New rules of engagement:A reflection on domestic violence, deals directly with our struggle to live our theology. It is well worth a read, and can be found here.

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