Moving and Mourning: A Practical Theologian’s Values Matrix for Stressful Times Part 2

Moving and Mourning: A Practical Theologian’s Values Matrix for Stressful Times  Part 2

This post is part of a series on moving and mourning. Click here to read Part 1.


A Practical Theologian’s Values Matrix 

As a practical theologian, there are values embedded in my scholarly discipline that I want to guide my decisions as a theological educator.  

While articulating some of the commitments of my discipline doesn’t help me be completely ready for the unfolding unknown, it does help me remember that I have some scholarly commitments that can help me move through it one day and one decision at a time. 

If you’ve been to seminary, you’ve taken classes in practical theology (in pastoral care, religious education, preaching, worship, leadership, arts and theology, and more) and have already studied some of these marks of the discipline. 

You may not have had a class on disaster spiritual care, but you know some things to help you move through it. 


Here’s my working list of seven commitments of practical theology that can guide wise practice in stressful times: 


1. Self-Awareness.  Practical theology embraces courageous self-awareness.  The foundational skill of listening and paying attention to one’s own experience is crucial.  It also can be difficult to take the time to attend to one’s inner life. Practical theology embraces the difficult, beautiful work of acknowledging and being curious about one’s own experiences and vulnerabilities, the contours of a soul, the way I embody a self.  To know oneself, to examine one’s power and self-interest in practices of ministry, to care for oneself with compassion, to acknowledge one’s emotions and limits are part of responsible study and practice of ministry. In crisis moments, faith leaders need self-awareness.  Where are you holding tension and stress? What are you feeling?  What do you need? Where are you withholding your power? Where are you overextending? Are you feeling supported? 


2. Communal-Awareness. Practical theology is inherently contextual, always examining the dynamic and thickly textured places in which study and ministry unfold.  Who is the community?  What does it mean to belong here?  Who is my neighbor? How would I describe the congregation?  How does our location in the world affect our faith practices and vice versa?  Within the larger project of courageous communal-awareness, practical theology attends to and respects difference.  Thankfully in the past several decadespractical theologians have increasingly focused on recognizing and redressing injustices structured into our communities and contexts of study and practice.  In crisis moments, faith leaders check on the community, which is especially challenged in this time of physical distancing.  Yet we ask: how are you? What is shifting? How is community manifesting in new ways?  What dynamics threaten community?  How does the crisis unfold along lines of difference and injustice? What new ways of being community could lead to more justice and neighbor-love? 


3. Interdisciplinarity.  Practical theology is inherently interdisciplinary.  In my own subfield within practical theology – pastoral care and theology – I integrate both theology and psychology to help understand human suffering and contribute to practices of healing and transformation.  But integration doesn’t stop there. Practical theologians integrate in collaboration with other scholars from postcolonial studies to gender studies to ethnography to performance studies to critical theory to rhetoric to aesthetics and more.  Within theological education broadly, practical theology draws together all of the theological disciplines—Bible, histories, theologies, ethics, and more—as contributing to an integrative and interdisciplinary practice.  What I love about this commitment is that no practical theologian acts alone; rather, practical theology is a process of ongoing collaborative learning with accountability partners.  Who are your accountability partners?  Who can teach you what you need to learn? What do you have to teach? What can be learned in communities of collaboration? How are you checking in with co-workers amid crisis? 


4. Integration. Practical theology is a moving discipline, a craft that integrates theory and practice.  As my teacher Bonnie Miller-McLemore says, practices are theory-laden and theories arise from and are embraced and rejected in and through practices.  It’s not so much that practical theologians are master weavers of a grand integrative tapestry, but rather self-aware co-weavers who labor within living tapestriesmending and proclaiming, designing and noticing patterns.  Practical theologians are particularly good at noticing dualisms that split the world in two (mind-body, church-world, theory-practice, self-other).  By prioritizing integration, practical theologians advocate for multiplicities of connections.  Crisis is often characterized as a time when things fall apart.  Even when ushering revolutionary change that can mend human and communal brokenness, unraveling is disruptive and can threaten coalitions across differences, can tempt us to double down on splitting the world in two between the good and the bad, the us and the them.  How are you resisting dualisms in this crisis moment?    


5. Praxis. Practical theology moves back and forth and back again through action (doing something) and reflection (thinking about what in the world we are doing).  Practical theologians bring together the “what?” and the “so what?”  What are we doing and why does it matter?  What are the consequences of our actions and how do we know the next best thing to do?  Privileging questions above certain answers help practical theologians work toward transformation, which is the purpose of study and ministry.  How are you embracing the deep questions that arise in crisis?  What are you doing?  Do you have time and conversation partners to stop and think about what we are doing? How practices like eating, play, and worship are shifting and morphing? How does what you do matter to you and to others? 


6. Good EnoughSometimes this phrase “good enough” gets used to describe half of an effort, a careless way of moving through the world, a kind of phoning it in, or just plain disingenuous phoniness.  That’s not what practical theologians mean by good enough.  Good enough is a concept from child psychology that recognizes that no human person can or will be perfect – a parent will not be perfect; a pastor will not be perfect.  Even more, the desire or claim of arriving at perfection can be abusive in its self-centeredness and neglect of other people, in its disavowal of feedback and learning.  Instead of perfect, there is both psychological health and spiritual grace in embracing imperfection with introspection.  In a crisis moment that hourly moving us further into uncharted waters, good enough is a worthy goal.  How are you assured that you are good enough?  What perfectionistic tendencies have you let go of in this crisis moment? 


7. Rituals.  Practical theology in all its subdisciplines is invested in and curious about rituals.  How do we draw on the deep wells of wisdom of ancestral rituals?  How is it possible to craft new rituals beckoned by new challenges?  Virtual church? Physically distant funerals?  Telechaplaincy?  Rituals connect generations together.  Rituals weave tradition and innovation.  Rituals invite spiritual depth into a material world. Rituals make room for emotional engagement, for embodimentsmells of incense and lilies, sounds of singing, sights of flickering candles, foods blessed for special occasions, the touch of sacred garments. Rituals salve and lament, dream dreams and cast visions, collapse time. Crisis disrupts rituals while at the same time surfacing rituals we most yearn for in this season of moving and mourning.  What rituals do you need?  What rituals do you miss?  What rituals are you creating? 


Maybe it’s the inherent familiarity of loss and grace in itineracy where pastoral leadership moves; the loss and grace of camp life that starts, gives life, and then disperses at the end of a summer; or the choreography of musical theatre and dance in which hours of hard work and practice build to performances that end (or this year, that may not see the stage).  

Linking the storied threads, moving and mourning are a part of my life and vocation.

 Practical theology helps me navigate the sacred rhythms of moving and mourning. 

Like Rabbi Black, I find comfort in articulating some commitments that can ground wise practice, especially in such a disruptive time. 

Like Rabbi Black, I am drawn to the number seven. 

I find comfort in articulating some values I want to guide my life and my life’s work in this crisis and beyond.

When I feel least prepared to move and to mourn, it can help to remember some resources already available inside the commitments that guide my profession.  

What’s your list of seven? 

While moving and mourning, what seven things do you affirm? What seven values help you navigate this moving and mourning moment?  

Mindy McGarrah Sharp, PhD is an Associate Professor of Practical Theology and Pastoral Care and Director of the Master of Arts in Practical Theology Program at Columbia Theological Seminary.

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