Wednesday, February 29, 2012


The "F" Word in Theological Field Education Supervision



"I don't have time*!"  "I can't find the time!"  "They** won't give me time!"  How many times have we heard – and said - the same thing?  As mid-term approaches, I hear this Greek chorus in the halls of the academy.   In my recent conversations, this mysteriously missing time is time for attention to life of/with/in Spirit – time for the "F" word, formation, spiritual formation - life forming of/with/in Spirit.  I call this missing time the tyranny of "when" – "when I finish the semester" – "when I turn in my senior project" -  "when I graduate" – "when I develop this new course" – "when I finish this book" – "when I get through Advent" – "when Easter is over" – you get the idea.  We all do it.  Futurity will provide the elusive missing time.  Except that it won't, can't. defines the "F" word as "the act or process of forming or the state of being formed." (  This tidy definition points to tensions inherent in "practicing spiritual formation."  Is formation the "act or process of forming?  Or is formation the "state of being formed"?   Well, yes – and no – and it depends.  Look closely at the definitions.  Remember active and passive voices from old school English grammar?  "The act or process of forming" situates agency within.  "The state of being formed" locates agency externally.


Theories of the social construction of self suggest that we are continually participating in the forming of our larger culture, as we are simultaneously being formed by that culture.  Formation is dynamic.  It is neither exclusively active nor passive but an integration that refuses binary definitions.  It is process; it happens in self in community. Spiritual formation happens whether we attend to it or not.  Without attention this formation can become malformation that leaves us still searching for that mysterious missing time.


What does this mean for supervision in theological field education?  Well, as the movie title goes, "It's complicated."  Intentional spiritual formation is not a set of practices or disciplines that we can give to a student to enact.  It is not direction that we can give another to follow. Neither is intentional spiritual formation something best unmentioned and left to the student's own devises (It seems that culturally we have tried that with human sexuality to less than salutary results.)  I suggest that spiritual formation is relational, intentional, mutual engagement of/with/in Spirit.  Intentional spiritual formation requires the courage to risk engaging that which "blows where it will."   Intentional spiritual formation requires self-aware vulnerability.  It requires transparency and honesty – with ourselves and with one another.  Intentional spiritual formation has no hierarchy of "experts" but is a democracy of journeyers.  It is not just students who are challenged by Rilke's advice to:


Be patient with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language.  Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.  And the point is, to live everything.  Live the questions now.  Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.                   Rainer Maria Rilke



Intentional spiritual formation invites us to "STOP in the name of love" (a nod to Diana Ross and the Supremes), to listen for Spirit in and among us.  To stop "buying, finding, saving, spending, giving, losing" time, to refuse time – and life – as a commodity and to engage it as gift, a gift of love from a God who is Love.


This understanding of "spiritual formation" may well open itself to charges of not being rigorous enough, demanding enough, even sacrificial enough.  My experience is (yes, I am appealing to a particular epistemology) that life provides plenty of rigor, opportunities for sacrifice, and demands.   Only in learning the practices of loving are we equipped to live into the fullness of our creatureliness within creation, to be life-giving.


So, what are we to do about spiritual formation as supervisors of students of practicing theology?  STOP, breathe, listen, risk transparency, live our questions, love every day with intention.  Practice these actions in relationship with our students.  Sleep.  Begin again.


Trudy Hawkins Stringer




*Time - noun) Middle English; Old English tīma;  cognate with Old Norse tīmi;  (v.) Middle English timen  to arrange a time, derivative of the noun; akin to tide1 


**My high school English teacher, Corrine St. Clair King Guild, referred to this usage as "the old, indefinite 'they'."

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