Minister Is Also a Verb

Participating in Theological Praxis. My understanding of this Mark is that it sets a ministerial standard for practice. Ordained ministers have a sense of ministerial identity–we know ourselves as ministers. We preach, teach, and are the face of the local congregation in the community. We are held to the standards and accountability and ethics in the Manual on Ministry and Ministerial Code. We honor ecumenicism and interfaith partnerships as we welcome a variety of theological perspectives. These indicators are the bones of our practice. Theology–how we think and speak of God–inspirits what we do. Together practice and theology represent the embodiment of our ministerial selves.

I see myself in this Mark in the concept of praxis. I learned this term when I was becoming a teacher. Praxis is reflective practice. Informed practice. The following email from a former student captures my educational praxis; Teo is struck by my ability to build a class of community. In some important ways, it translates into theological praxis for my ministry. Caring for and connecting people. Valuing everyone and wanting them to feel a home in my classroom, inviting them to feel safe in sharing their voices. Pastoral ministry has this same practice; the difference is that as an ordained minister, I am called to point out that God is present in the community to whom I minister.

Dr. Whitlock,

I hope you are doing well, and staying safe during this unusual holiday season.

When I was an undergraduate student at KSU, I went by my middle name, Stephen (now I go by my nickname “Teo”), and in the fall of 2005 I was your student in EDUC 2202, Adolescent and Young Adult Lifespan Development. I went on to become a Spanish teacher, then earned a master’s degree in Spanish, and now I am working toward an Ed.D. in Education Policy and Leadership at American University. Next semester, I’ll be an instructor for an American University Experience class, which is a type of freshman experience course focused on exploring self and society, with an emphasis on anti-racism.

I’m writing to you today because I am progressing through some online training materials for instructors of this course, and I’ve been reflecting on my own undergraduate experiences. Your course stands out in my memory for a number of reasons.

First of all, I don’t know if I’ve ever had a class where the instructor was so skilled at facilitating classroom community. You were purposeful in making sure we met other students and started getting to know one another. I think you also communicated empathy, humility, and enthusiasm in a way that also made the classroom environment feel safe, engaging, and welcoming. I realized it was something special then, but I recognize the uniqueness of that classroom environment even more now.

A life-changing experience I had in your class was related to an assignment that required me to do something that pushed me out of my comfort zone. I ended up talking to a muslim friend, and she arranged for me to attend a mosque with a male friend of hers. It was super eye-opening for me. I grew up in a conservative evangelical Christian home, and had all kinds of unconscious assumptions about muslim communities. The young man who accompanied me was so kind and gracious to me, and I found the mosque to be peaceful and reflective, much like I had experienced in some churches. It was an important moment in my own journey toward a more inclusive outlook, and an experience I have reflected on many times over the past 15 years. I think if I had had a professor that I didn’t trust and like, as I trusted and liked you, I may not have gone out of my way to have such a meaningful “out of the box” experience.

So, I share all of that to just say thank you for being a professor that I can look back to as a model. I’ve never taught a course like the one I’ll be teaching next semester. In the past I’ve taught Spanish and English to learners of those languages, and while I touched on social justice topics at times, it has never been as much of a focus as it will next semester. It’s going to be a challenge, and I know that I have to find a way to facilitate the kind of community you facilitated for us.

As part of our preparation materials for the AU Experience course, we read a couple of sections from bell hooks’ book, Teaching to Transgress. I found her ideas about classroom community compelling. In the introduction she says,

….excitement about ideas was not sufficient to create an exciting learning process. As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our inter­est in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recog­nizing one another’s presence. Since the vast majority of students learn through conservative, traditional educational practices and concern themselves only with the presence of the professor, any radical pedagogy must insist that everyone’s presence is acknowledged. That insistence cannot be simply stated. It has to be demonstrated through pedagogical prac­tices. To begin, the professor must genuinely value every­one’s presence. There must be an ongoing recognition that everyone influences the classroom dynamic, that everyone contributes. These contributions are resources. Used construc­tively they enhance the capacity of any class to create an open learning community.

As a student in your class, back in 2005, I think I just thought you were a great, kind person. Reflecting on it now, I think you were implementing pedagogical practices that challenged traditional classroom norms. Now I understand that you are an expert educator, and I recognize that the community I experienced in our classroom was not an accident resulting from your unique personality and disposition, but the result of applied professional experience and skill. Few other classrooms that I have been in, if any (and even my own), have created a space for the kind of learning in community that I experienced in your class.

All that to say, thank you so much for the way you have served me and so many other future teachers at KSU. The world is better because of the way you have impacted the students in your care. I’ll be reflecting on your example as I head into teaching this new course in the new year.

I wish you a lovely holiday season and the best 2021 possible.

Sincerely,

Teo Valdés

I have selected the following artifacts to demonstrate my engagement with this Mark:

  1. Leadership for Church & Community Mid-Term Paper
  2. Leadership for Church & Community Final Paper
  3. Global Essays
  4. Global Presentation
  5. CPE Theological Paper
  6. Pastor Parish Relations Committee Proposal

Autobiographical Moment:

I had to learn how to think theologically. I grew up in a faith tradition that believed in doctrine, not theology. Theology is human musings about God, and the Church of Christ believes that God speaks for Himself [sic] through the Bible. In fact, along my journey, I dealt with guilt at accepting this God-talk as I became more open to hear God’s still-speaking voice. I had a steep learning curve. I had not, for example, heard of the church year or Christology or theodicy. I knew nothing of Advent other than as a calendar often filled with chocolate behind each date. I did not know the names of particular items used in worship. Had not followed a liturgy or creeds. There was just so much I did not know about 2,000 years of theology, or about mainline denominations, for that matter. I had been a literalist, and when that no longer worked, I didn’t have much. Theologically, I had to learn ways to think about God in order to know—be assured of—God’s love for me and desire for me to love and serve God. Like Marcus Borg, I had to learn to find a way to be a non-literalist and be a Christian.        

During my last semester at seminary, I took a course in Leadership for Church and Community. Our professor focused on practical theology and asked us in every assignment to think theologically about a particular topic. At first, I wondered what in the world this had to do with the subject of leadership. Then I realized that one must think about leadership theologically. It helps to have some kind of training and experience in leadership to become a minister, but it is unlike leading at a public job. Central to church leadership is theological praxis. It was in leadership class that I saw my theological gap, when I was asked to respond to several “core questions,” questions I knew I needed good answers to as a minister. I include this assignment (Mid-term) as an artifact for this Mark. I worked hard on those responses, but I can talk with people about them now.

The second assignment was a talk we were to prepare for our congregation to explain the year 2020 as an Annus Horibilis. My approach was to frame the train wreck that was 2020 in a discussion of theodicy—where was God in any of it. How very different from the notion of God punishing humans for sin! Like the times when Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell blamed natural disasters on LGBT persons. I will say this about theological praxis as my theology has so drastically and wonderfully changed: There is a joy and intensity I feel to share it. Ministry is not saving souls for an afterlife through scare tactics. It is now truly a sharing of good news. I have the marvelous task of pointing people to a God who “permeates life so deeply that our humanity becomes the very means through which we experience the Divine Presence” (Spong, in Living the Questions, p. 22).

With theological praxis comes a vast responsibility. Ministry sets one apart. What do I mean? When I first started to PUCC, I asked the pastor what she thought about me joining the church council. I was so happy to be able to have some leadership role at my newfound faith community. “Good idea. That’s wonderful,” she smiled. “Just be careful. You’re going to see how the sausage is made. You can’t not know after that, and some people become find worship just isn’t the same for them afterwards .” At the end of the day, theological praxis allows me to remain in awe of the Great Mystery—and help others delight in it— knowing how the sausage is made.

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