Thursday, September 5, 2013

Conversations Around Case Studies: Making Space for Theological Reflection

At a recent training session for new supervisors, someone asked a very provocative question about reflecting on case studies with our students.  She asked, “I’ve read the case study, the student is meeting me in a few minutes to talk about the case study, how do I open up conversation?”

Writing a thoughtful case requires a certain amount of transparency and vulnerability on the part of the writer.  Honesty about one’s emotional landscape, one’s (dis)comfort with various aspects of the pastoral role, as well as one’s most cherished beliefs and values is key to gaining insight. 
Therefore, an important dimension in reflecting on a case together is to comment (at some point in the conversation) about the degree to which the student was successful in doing this.  If the case study reflected a high degree of self-awareness and transparency, affirm this.  If the case study felt thin, or guarded, or trivial, it is important to find ways to say that, as well.  It is sometimes necessary to remind the student that this kind of learning does not always feel safe, and maybe even ask them if there are things we need to put in place during this Field Ed experience that can increase their sense of safety.  (The importance of this spans far beyond the Field Ed experience.  Religious leadership of any sort requires the capacity to be honest about one’s inner life.)

One of the primary agendas of these supervisory sessions around case studies is to begin to tease out the theological questions that the student is encountering and to help them begin to clarify their own values and beliefs around the question.  Some supervisors open up these kinds of conversations by having the pair (student and supervisor) brainstorm together about all of the theological issues that are present in this case.  This list-making, in itself, can be a teaching moment as students come to see how the ordinary dilemmas that are the stuff of ministry can be richly layered and nuanced with theological questions and intersections.  Once a good list is established, the supervisor might ask the student to name one or two of the items on the list that are most pressing for them.  Then jump in.  “How has your mind changed?”  “Where are you stuck?”  “What claims can you make?”  “What do you have difficulty claiming?”

Another supervisor suggested that in order to make these conversations more mutual, they have started a practice of each person (student and supervisor) choosing one theological issue raised by the case to explore in deeper discussion.  This way the student can see that the work of reflecting theologically is a lifelong process, one that continues long after Divinity School.  In this model we become theologians together, trying to make faith sense of the dilemma the student has presented.

I also think it’s helpful to let the conversation extend beyond the supervisory hour.  As we come across things (articles, blogs, poetry, books) that address the questions we talked about when we were together, we would do well to share them generously.  Invite students to do the same.  Put lots of stuff in the pot and let it simmer.  Return to it every now and then to see how it’s shaping up.

The more we can enter into the theological streams in which our students live and move, the more this process itself will remind us that theology is never really a finished product, but more an organic and vibrant process, requiring the best of our intellect and imagination.

What wisdom would you add?

--Viki Matson

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