Doctoral Studies, Reflective Practitioners & Pastor’s Live Stream Event

As some of you know, I started work on my doctorate degree last week. I’ve always loved to learn and I am excited after 12 years to be back in school. It is a three – four year program of studies that are meant to coincide with continuing on in your ministry position. So while I will continue with my work through New Direction, I hope to be rejuvenated and challenged in the course of my studies as well. My thesis project, while likely to undergo some refinement yet, will focus on building a model for congregations and Christian organizations to move towards a posture of generous spaciousness. This posture is intended to aid faith communities in acknowledging diversity in their midst and embracing the spiritually formational opportunity of learning to embrace the tensions such diversity inevitably creates. These tensions include, but are not limited to, those between the autonomy of the individual and the call into community; the power of conviction and the humility by which we hold such conviction; the willingness to endure being misunderstood and not taking offense; the reality of different expressions of faithful discipleship; and the diverse priorities of people in the conversations integrating faith and sexuality.

There is nothing new under the sun. So I don’t expect to be developing anything that hasn’t already been worked on in other contexts. However, it is my hope that work on such a model will give pastors and leaders concrete support in shepherding their communities through the landmines of tension and diversity in a manner that is pastorally faithful and helpful and that ultimately builds up and strengthens the Body of Christ both within its fellowship and in its mission to their context.

The first week was mainly a time of orientation and getting to know our cohort learning group. But already, in a few of the sessions I could feel the excitement of applying some of my learning to this area of engagement I am so passionately committed to. One of the comments of the director of the program was about educating the reflective practitioner. This is the intention of the program I am in – taking those with ministry experience, encouraging them to reflect on their experiences, and deepening their insight through further education and application.

In educating the reflective practitioner there are three stages of growth. In the first, the practitioner reflects on a given action. In the second, there is a knowing in action. And in the third, there is reflection in action. What this means is that initially, a practitioner does something and afterwards, hopefully, reflects on it. This builds towards the second stage where the practitioner takes the reflection and uses it as knowledge in their subsequent action. Finally, this experience becomes like second nature in allowing the practitioner to respond with discernment in action. A concrete example would be a pastor who encounters an LGBT person in their congregation or neighbourhood context. In those encounters they do the best they can to converse in a manner that is consistent with their values for ministry. Inevitably, as they reflect on these encounters there will be some learnings and understanding that they are able to add to their ministry experience. At this stage, they may realize some deficits in their ability to navigate these conversations and reach out for some additional input and help from such resources as websites, other pastors with more experience, books etc. Then in subsequent encounters, this pastor will be able to bring some of that experience into their conversations. Finally, after having many such encounters and conversations, they will be able to be responsive to individual and unique needs because their general reflection and knowledge gathering will have prepared and equipped them for such discernment. It struck me as I sat listening to this general description of educating the reflective practitioner, that for many pastors they simply don’t experience enough encounters with LGBT people to move through these stages. They don’t have enough experience and knowledge to get to the stage of being reflective IN action. Not only that, but I have encountered a lot of pastors who presume that they know enough to be reflective in action. They have some gay friends, have read some books on the topic, and feel like they know what they need to know. Unfortunately, given the degree of complexity and uniqueness of each individual journey, such presumption limits the pastoral effectiveness of being able to be responsive. It also means that for many pastors it is difficult to really be aware of the context of their own beliefs and feelings, to critique or deconstruct personal assumptions, and to assess alternative perspectives without interference from their beliefs, feelings and assumptions. This kind of reflective process happens when a practitioner has had the opportunity to reflect on action through varied experiences, to apply knowledge (from both reflection and accessing resources) in additional ministry experiences, and finally to be responsive (uncoloured by their own assumptions or feelings) in diverse experiences.

What does this mean? Well, it would be helpful if more people were able to be honest and upfront with their pastors about the reality of same-sex attraction in their lives. I understand that it does not always feel safe to do so or that the demonstrated consequences hinder such disclosure. However, the only way that pastors will move towards becoming reflective IN action is if they have the opportunity to engage different people with different experiences and move towards a non-threatened, open, generous capacity to respond without assumptions, feelings and rigidness affecting their response. Note – being reflective IN action does not presume a particular theological position. It is simply describing a pastor who will have the capacity to embody humble generosity in walking with an LGBT person. So if more people came out to their pastor – then more pastors would grow in being able to respond well. That’s kind of a no-brainer – but also somewhat idealistic.

It also means that pastors need to realize that to grow in their effectiveness to engage in this area of ministry, they need to open their lives and hearts to more LGBT people. It isn’t just gay people who need to come out – it is the pastors who need to step out and invest their lives in friendship with LGBT folks.

Pastors, generally speaking, need to be a bit more humble about the need for more experience in this area and not hide behind excuses of being too busy, or knowing everything they need to know because they have 2 gay friends and have read “Love is an Orientation”. While it is understandable that many pastors are busy people, being teachable, open and eager to grow in experience should be a base-line posture when considering this area of ministry.

It also means that more resources need to be made available that are relational and narratival in nature. The truth is, not every pastor is going to have the opportunity to grow through personal experience pastoring LGBT people. But they can benefit from hearing other pastors’ experiences and even more from the first hand accounts of LGBT Christians navigating journeys of faith in community with the church.

This is why New Direction is sponsoring a FREE live stream event on Tuesday, June 21 at 2:00 pm EST. I will be hosting a panel of three other pastors as we engage video interviews with a number of gay Christians. The first hour will be facilitated discussion with the panel – then the second hour will be engaging the questions and comments from those who are joining us online. We want this to be a time set aside for reflection on action. We also hope it will be a time for some new knowledge that can be applied. And we hope to benefit from those who have journeyed the road long enough to be reflective in action. This means we will hear about personal transformation as attitudes and assumptions have been critiqued, various perspectives considered, and a willingness to risk and engage modeled.

The pastors on our panel will be:

Mark Tidd ~

Mark is the pastor of Highlands Church in Denver, CO. He and Highlands made the decision to become an affirming and inclusive church at significant cost. Since that decision Highlands has grown, has a vibrant sense of mission, and embodies hospitality to all people.

Michelle Top ~

Michelle is co-pastor with her husband Ed at the Lantern Church in Calgary, AB. Michelle lives an incarnational model of ministry as she lives, works, plays and participates in her local neighbourhood. Along the way, God has brought lots of LGBT friends into Michelle’s life and she finds herself navigating some of the inevitable tensions of grassroots ministry in a larger denominational context.

Pernell Goodyear ~