Theological reflection is simply wondering about God’s activity in our lives. Where is God present? What is God calling us to do? By taking time to ask questions about what happens to us—seeing our experiences through the lens of faith—we become clearer about our connection to God. We all ask questions about relationships, our work, our children, our government, and our situation in life. We all reflect, wonder, analyze, think, assess, and discuss with friends as ways of trying to understand our life. Theological reflection simply refocuses all that thinking to encourage a stronger sense of relationship with God, asking, “Where does God fit into the picture?”
I have outlined seven steps for theological reflection, six done as a personal reflection and the seventh in a group setting:
Step 1: Identify an event or situation on which to reflect. While this event can come from any part of our lives, it is more effective to deal with a situation that is current and still has some fresh feelings attached. Situations that are already resolved offer fewer possibilities for new insights. Also, deeper, unresolved issues from our past may need more intense debriefing from a spiritual director or counselor than is possible in a congregational small group.
Step 2: Name and describe your feelings about the situation. You may be feeling joy or frustration, sadness or anger, energy or boredom. All feelings are worth including in this process and sharing with God—the God who knows us intimately, the God from whom we cannot hide, who loves us and accepts all that we are. With God, we need not fear sharing whatever feelings are whirling around a particular event. And in a supportive group, sharing our feelings can be an affirming experience. Sometimes we find that other people have similar feelings, making us realize that we are not alone.
Identifying feelings is easy for some and more difficult for others. Asking ourselves what challenged, stimulated, or disturbed us is another way to get at the question of feelings. Try to keep “feeling” sentences simple, saying, “I feel sad” or “I feel angry” or “I feel joy.” As soon as you add other words, then you are moving into thinking rather than feeling. For example, “I feel that . . .” shifts away from what you are feeling into statements and opinions.
Knowing how we feel is an important part of the reflective process but not the only part. Sorting through feelings allows us to acknowledge and recognize what we feel but makes it distinct from what we think and how we behave. For instance, I feel frustrated and angry dealing with a toddler who is a having a temper tantrum. I am entitled to my feelings of frustration and anger, but I also need to think about the dynamics involved. As an adult and a parent, I am a responsible person and need to keep the toddler safe. I need also to be clear that my behavior is distinct from my feelings; otherwise, I might end up lashing out at the toddler and later regretting my actions.
Taking time to identify feelings helps us to sort out what is going on internally as we reflect on an event. In addition, being clear about my own feelings helps me to be aware of others’ feelings as distinct from my own. My feelings are not the only emotional activity in a situation, and reflecting on the sadness and joy of others helps to unpack what was going on. The fact that I feel sad does not mean that everyone feels sad about the same event. Understanding how others feel as distinct from how I feel may help me to see what motivates their behavior.
Step 3: Explore what you think about the situation and what dynamics are at play. Various factors are involved in any event, from office politics to personality traits to the history leading up to the event. Thinking through these various dynamics brings further clarity to the situation and helps us to see the complexity involved. You may want to bring analytical tools to the situation, such as power analysis. Who has power in this situation? Who does not? You may want to use economic analysis or social analysis as you think through social justice issues at play in this event. You may have other analytical tools you use in your work situation. Exploring what we think about a situation gives us some distance from the immediate feelings that arise so that we can move on to the next steps.
Step 4: Connect with God, and ask where God is present in your chosen situation. Begin by asking yourself where God is at work. Think about a biblical story or biblical text that has a connection to the event. You may have a faith stance that informs the situation. For instance, in dealing with my difficult toddler, my faith tells me that he is a dearly loved child of God. He may be less dear to me in this stressful moment, but God knows the number of hairs on his head, and I can draw strength from a sense of God’s presence and care. A Scripture passage that comes to mind is the account of Jesus’s welcoming the children and blessing them despite the protests of the disciples. As I watch my toddler screaming and beating his hands and feet on the floor, I feel like a protesting disciple, but Jesus’s action reminds me that each child is blessed and loved. In addition, when we think about our faith connection, we can draw on other resources such as hymns, creeds, liturgies, and writings of the church.
Step 5: Think about what you have learned from this reflection. We may have gained some insights. We may decide on some new action. Perhaps we will do something differently next time, or we may feel a deeper conviction about what we have done. Usually, I have a different perspective on the situation by step 5 than when I began at step 1.
Step 6: Pray. In one sense, the whole reflection process is prayer, because it is intentional quiet time when we are conscious of God’s presence in our lives. Yet concluding with an explicit prayer draws our whole reflection into an expression of our deepest hope. It takes all our hurts and joys, all insights and lingering questions into an intimate conversation with God. I have found that people using this process as a personal spiritual journey have deepened their prayer life or sometimes even discovered a prayer life if they had not experienced one before. It also takes the process of reflection from the posture of thinking about God to one of being with God.
Step 7: Present to the group. The situations that people choose are varied. Some events are relatively simple and easy to sort through: something happened, we worked through what took place using the reflective questions, and we feel a sense of resolution. In other situations, we might come back to a similar event again and again throughout our lives.
Theological reflection is not a problem-solving process. Reflection is an open-ended process, with no right or wrong answers. Clear answers may not emerge, and we may not find quick fixes to life’s problems; yet we will find deeper meaning through conversation with God about everyday issues. Theological reflection is an opportunity to deepen a sense of God’s presence in our lives, and an opportunity to discover what we believe and how our faith and life intersect. Typically, I find that many questions come to mind as I reflect on a situation. Rather than seeking answers, I try to “live the questions” as I discern where God is leading me, being attentive to God’s voice in my life and work.
Comments welcome on the Alban Roundtable blog
Adapted from Reflecting with God: Connecting Faith and Daily Life in Small Groups by Abigail Johnson, copyright © 2004 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
Reflecting with God: Connecting Faith and Daily Life in Small Groups
by Abigail Johnson
Abigail Johnson offers a structured process for engaging in theological reflection by looking at a situation or event through a series of questions designed to help individuals and small groups to think through situations with the eyes of faith. Johnson demonstrates how theological reflection will enrich the faith life of the individual and increase group members’ sense of belonging to God and to the whole people of God.
Know and Be Known: Small Groups That Nourish and Connect
by Brooke B. Collison
In Know and Be Known, Brooke Collison looks at the element missing in most group dynamics today: intentionality about relationships. Counselor, educator, and long-time leader and participant in small groups, Collison knows the power of small groups to create meaningful bonds of friendship and support.
Know Your Story and Lead with It: The Power of Narrative in Clergy Leadership
by Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones
Knowing your story is an essential component of effective leadership, but finding your story among the myriad narratives that fill your life isn’t a simple task. Richard L. Hester and Kelli Walker-Jones have offered a path to finding your own story amid the powerful family and cultural narratives that may be obscuring your vision. Know Your Story and Lead with It shows leaders how to explore their story of reality, tell it to other group members, and consider how it can be used as a resource for leadership.
Leadership and Listening: Spiritual Foundations for Church Governance
by Donald E. Zimmer
Church leaders must fundamentally change the way they view leadership, governance, and management in their organizations if they are to take seriously the need to listen to God’s desires before acting. In Leadership and Listening, readers will find encouragement and specific suggestions for re-imagining church governance and management.
Held captive by a “problem-saturated story?”
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The Resilient Power of Story to Transform Your Leadership
November 1–3, 2011, Franciscan Renewal Center, Scottsdale, AZ
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