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Let’s start with a question. How do you view theological reflection? Is it a dull, uninspiring process, or is it a powerful opportunity offering an insightful and refreshing life, discovering where God is in your pastoral practice? At first, I found theological reflection a beautiful and mysterious way of searching for God in the midst of learning a new and challenging CPE skill. However, as time progressed and I discovered a simple pattern for doing theological reflection, it soon became just another conquered, powerless and lifeless mechanical skill in completing the requirements of a unit of CPE. Initially, for me, there was only an exploration of the visible processes instead of an exploration of the hidden meaning present in my caregiving experiences.Thus, in essence, theological reflection developed into a purely intellectual process devoid of God and emotion.
Then something amazing happened; I discovered the ‘feeling wheel’and started exploring something I was told for a long time that I had, but never had allowed myself to truly experience. This something was called my ‘feelings’ (whatever they are?) or ‘heart’. I say this tongue in cheek, but I often wonder how many of us pastoral carers forget that we are neglecting one of the most critical resources we have to the care of others, our own feelings. God gave these ‘feeling’ things to us, so they must be pretty important, not only to each of us personally but also to each of our callings. In fact, if we can seek to discover by narrowing in on the associated feelings that a care-receiver is feeling we can then better get to the heart of the matter and utilise that information to examine what God has said about said feelings in our continual pastoral care journey with a care-receiver.
Emotions are not a detrimental element in our pastoral care practice that must become subservient to theoretical models of pastoral praxis. No, in fact, they are to work side by side with all pastoral education. This then is genuinely how the ‘head’ and the ‘heart’ are to interact during pastoral engagements. Now, this may be making you think, “James, I’ve been around, and I have this ‘head’ stuff down pat, but if I’m being really honest I lack the emotional capacity for pastoral engagements,” or “James, I bring the ‘heart’ elements really well to my pastoral care encounters but lack the intellectual knowledge for helpful pastoral care.” What these two questions are ultimately asking then is ‘how do I reconcile my desire for developing Godly wisdom required to live out my calling according to how God has wired me?’
What then should each of us do? What is the key to unlocking the blending of the ‘head’ and the ‘heart’? The answer is to give ourselves entirely to not only the ‘process’ but also to the ‘experience’ and ‘journey’ that theological reflection invites each of us to. We achieve this by subjecting both the ‘head’ and the ‘heart’ to your faith tradition in the authentic attempt to find where your God or Deity is amid your personal and professional experiences. For me then as a Christian, I must take all of my pastoral experiences to the foot of the Cross and allow my Christian tradition to illuminate both the visible and hidden meanings of my pastoral care experiences. For a Muslim, bringing pastoral experiences before Allah and the Islamic tradition; for the Hindu, bringing pastoral experience before the many Deity’s; or for the Buddhist, bringing pastoral practice before Buddha on the journey to Nirvana. As I started to journey through the process of theological reflection with the mindset of a pilgrim seeking to discover the heart of the matter of a care-receivers plight, as well as my own, it liberated me to be truly present and identify with the issues each care-receiver was struggling with. As a result, what became critical for my future caregiving encounters was the thought of not having to find ‘solutions’ but seeing caregiving as two people valuing each other enough to search the human heart and walk into ‘tomorrow.’Right here is the importance theological reflection offers to pastoral care.
Robert L. Kinast explains that theological reflection can “contribute to pastoral care by interpreting experiences in a faith context, reinforcing the pastoral care giver’s identity, and orienting one’s ministry style to be more congruent with that of Jesus.”Or, on the other hand, caregivers of different religious backgrounds can also seek their pastoral praxis to become more congruence with their Holy Deity. And is that not what each of us as caregivers must be aiming towards in outworking our pastoral practice? Now it would be remiss of me to not include a sample structure of the process of theological reflection in this writing. Therefore, John De Beer and Patricia O’Connell Killen outline a very popular method of theological reflection in the book ‘The Art of Theological Reflection’ because it can be completed from either the perspective of the caregiver or care-receiver. They explain that “When we enter our experience, we encounter our feelings. When we pay attention to those feelings, images arise. Considering and questioning those images may spark insight. Insight leads, if we are willing and ready, to action.”I am a particular fan of this theological reflection approach because it offers a way forward for Pastoral Carers from all faith traditions to honestly explore their pastoral practice, spiritual life and search for meaning and purpose.
What is happening in essence then, as Joye Gros explains, is the interdependent activity of connecting faith to life and life to faith. Theological reflection is, therefore, a natural activity that gives a Pastoral Carer the potential for transformation.Furthermore, it stops us from seeing our God/Deity only in our periphery. Think of it this way – the repetitive process of seeking God leads to us continually finding God. The more we find the Heart of God in our pastoral encounters, the closer to God we desire to become. Right here is where Matthew 13:15-17 is so relevant. Theological reflection requires that ‘We need eyes to see, and ears to hear, so that we can understand with our hearts.This scripture was key in transforming my approach to theological reflection; I’m wondering and hoping if it can be like that for you too? You see, the more I was authentically seeking God, the more I was finding Him. Hmmm, who’d have thought God would show up for me of all people? I guess He does want to journey with me after all!
My thoughts were that I had to search and search and search for God like He was in a far away land, but what I discovered was that He is closer than I ever thought possible. This does not mean theological reflection is an easy process by any means. No, it requires perseverance, eyes to see and ears to hear, but my word, the joy it brings when you ask, and God answers. Getting my head around this concept was the breakthrough moment that transformed theological reflection from being a powerless mechanical activity to a life-giving and life-changing experience that has revolutionised my pastoral practice. Theological reflection then is nothing less than the practice of exploring the meaning of pastoral experiences by taking the intellectual knowledge of the head seriously in combination with the emotional knowledge of the heart to discover the mystical dance occurring between God, the caregiver and a care-receiver. As such, the importance of theological reflection to each of our pastoral care practices cannot be underestimated. Finally, as we conclude, I want to invite you to come and join me on the life-giving and transformational journey that theological reflection offers to not only pastoral care practice but also life in general.
Gordon J. Hilsman, How to Get the Most Out of Clinical Pastoral Education: A Primer, (London & Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2018), 58-59.
Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2008), 51-77.
Patricia O’Connell Killen and John De Beer, The Art of Theological Reflection,(New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1994), 21.
Joye Gros, Theological Reflection: Connecting Faith and Life, (Chicago: Loyola Press. A Jesuit Ministry, 2001), 2-6.
Life Application Study Bible. New King James Version, (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2006),1704.