Doing Theology in the Doctor of Ministry Program
I. The Definition and Necessity of Theological Reflection
Doing theology is defined by some as the process of faith-seeking understanding (Jones, 2009). When a believer accepts the Bible as authoritative, theology is centered in the process of reflecting on and applying biblical truth to a particular situation. This interactive reflective process involves scripture, beliefs of the church, the one who seeks understanding, culture, and the specific ministry context to which theological reflection is applied.
Theology for a Christian believer is like politics in a democracy–unavoidable. To say that you are not a theologian is not true if you are a Christian. you have simply adopted someone else's theology and that is in itself a theological position. In a democracy, if you do not vote, you have made the political decision to let others decide the matter for you.
People may question the validity of a broad definition of theology. They do so based on several faulty understandings. First, for a variety of reasons, the definitions of theology and theologian have been progressively narrowed over time. Many feel that the only ones qualified to do theology are academically trained scholars. This progression from a broad definition of theology that can be done practically by all believers to a more narrow definition of an exclusively scholarly enterprise of school-based academics is unfortunate and non-biblical.
Others confuse theology with doctrine. Doctrine is a special form of theology that has been agreed upon by a body of believers as authoritative. In most cases, the theology done for the DMin program does no relate directly to doctrine.
Thirdly, some question the broad definition of theology employed by the Andrews Doctor of Ministry program because it joins theology and ministry. In our definition, theological reflection claims the reflectively acquired wisdom of God formed in a particular life situation. The reflection necessarily assumes an interpretive process that seeks meaning and illumination through the joined sources of Word, faith, narrative, and the situation itself. Theological reflection acknowledges God's movement in all of life, thus these sources are each respected. Theological reflection becomes an ongoing contribution, and critical thinking an ongoing part of the minister's reflective life (Bell, 2011). Unfortunately in some places, a separation has occurred to the great detriment of both theology and ministry. Theology has become more theoretical and abstract and avoided practical ministry. Ministry has been seduced by functionality that trains people in methods and skills with little or no reflection.
Lastly, some object to the broad definition of theology because of the way they have been trained. Much theology training has really been the teaching of historical theology. Students have been trained to know and understand the results of what great theologians of the past have done. Such training may be helpful but it has often not proceeded to the next step–training people to do for their time and place the same thing that former theologians did.
Not accepting this broad definition has far-reaching consequences. Lack of theological reflection results in a ministry model disconnected from divine revelation and spiritually grounded experience; a ministry influenced by cultural trends which usually are not subject to the gospel. For this reason, the Andrews DMin program considers doing theological reflection to be essential to the program and requires it of all students. The ultimate goal is that the value of such reflection may be recognized and become so much a part of their ministry that they will continue to practice it and teach others to do the same.
II. The Process of Doing Theology
If the theological reflection is important for believers, what process in doing theological reflection should be followed by those in the Andrews DMin program?
The core question that we want to answer is quite simple yet profound in its depth. Imagine that a leader in your church has heard you are doing a DMin project and he/she comes with this query–"What is the biblical/theological basis for your project?" A careful reflective in-depth answer to that question will be a formulation of your theology.
Five key elements interact to form the answer:
Biblical knowledge and understanding
Self-knowledge and awareness, including personal history, culture, etc.
Knowledge of the history and culture of the project context
Seeking to understand how God is at work in the present situation
Reflective and critical thinking guided by God's presence
In-depth understandings of these five elements combine to form the raw material of theology. The more perceptive and careful we are on each element the more insightful and helpful is our theology.
One way to comprehend and pursue what we do in theological reflection is to understand how these five elements translate into five steps.
The first step is to discover the biblical passages or statements that apply to our project or ministry. Examples would be: Jesus calls us to preach, God loves the poor, etc. We explain and/or explicate the statements and then make a judgment or proposal. We state what we see as the result of our biblical research in a tentative theology.
The second step is to examine the way we arrived at the first level. How did we come to our explanations? At this level, our own presuppositions surfacing from our history, training, and culture are noticed and evaluated.
The third step is to explore the voices and assertions of historic Christian faith that influence the context of the ministry itself. The beliefs of our faith arose through the biblical discoveries and life experiences of others who moved through the spaces of their history. They lived in the rich ambiguities and temporal meanings of human experience and summon us to reinterpretation in the time and place we experience (Bell, 2011).
The fourth step is meaning-making in the current situation. Meaning-making is a process of interpreting the time, place, culture, and humanity of the situation. Theology, when contributing to how Christian faith is lived, is led by spiritually grounded reflection on the sources of Word, tradition, and narrative, but finally interprets the particular experience of our life. Thus the spiritually grounded experience itself contributes to the redemptive and transforming effect of theology (Bell, 2011).
The fifth step describes the humility with which we must approach the intellectual challenge of the first four levels. Significant theological insight requires critical thinking. Critical thinking means the Doctor of Ministry formulates important questions, imagines dimensions worth exploring, uses abstract ideas, critiques assumptions, converses with shared traditions, examines the transformation of persons and culture relevant to the context of ministry, and exercises objectivity. But in the person of the Doctor of Ministry, though intellectual standards are embraced, dependence on God's presence is constant and humility is always present. Theological reflection thus means the Holy Spirit transforms us into humble learners.
All five steps are needed to develop an insightful theology for a DMin project. Research in DMin education is carried out in an in-ministry project addressing a ministry situation and primarily aimed at developing the Doctor of Ministry as one who can do theology and teach others to do the same. The project blends theology and ministry. It employs theological reflection, research, and academic writing. After engaging personal spiritual and theological reflection, the researcher examines literature contributing to a body of relevant knowledge then narrates and evaluates a personal intervention implemented over time, usually in a local church, with these five steps of reflection.
The desire of the DMin program is to not only have this kind of theological reflection done for the DMin project but experienced in all dimensions of the program, thus to see it become a habit that is always done in ministry. The contribution of theological formation to the transformation of the person is at the core of DMin education. Rather than detracting from the professional nature of DMin programs, this vision binds serving competently with the interpretive process that seeks meaning and illumination through the joined sources of Word, faith, narrative, and the particular situation. The DMin program develops persons as theologians. The theological formation is sought, theological thinking is developed, and theological expression is nurtured. Rather than approached as a distinct element, theological formation is integrated throughout the professional competency process in the years of a DMin program (Bell, 2011). Even beyond is the hope that graduates will help those they minister to follow the same path.
For further reading:
Anderson, Ray S. "Memo to Theological Educators: a Proposal: pp. 317-328 In The Shape of Practical Theology. Downers Grove: IVP, 2001.
Bell, Skip. "Pastoral Ministry as Interpretive Theology". Presented at the Annual Association of Doctor of Ministry Education Conference. New Orleans, LA, Apr. 14-16, 2011.
Farley, Edward. "Theology in the Life of the Congregation" in Practicing the Gospel: Unconventional Thoughts on the Churches' Ministry. Westminster: John Knox Press, 2003.
Jones, David Lee. "Theological Reflection in Doctor of Ministry Education: Ten Helpful Lenses". Presented at the Annual Association of Doctor of Ministry Education Conference. Dallas TX, Apr. 16-18, 2009.
This position paper was drafted in 2011, with Jon Dybdahl serving as the primary author in collaboration with the Doctor of Ministry program.
Revision of August 1, 2011