DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Critical Thinking: Pragmatism, Answers and Irony

Written by: on November 3, 2017

This week marks the 500th year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation of the church. The Reformation was initiated by Martin Luther and his 95 Theses or grievances against the church he loved. Luther longed for pragmatic change to the ways the church interpreted and lived the bible. He thought critically, not negatively but rationally, about the state of the church.

This week our lead mentor, Dr. Clark, assigned us a practical guide to thinking in The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools. This book could help anyone better learn ‘the art of analyzing and evaluating thinking with a view to improving it.’[1] And there is a bonus: it is brief at only twenty-four pages in length. This mini-guide, if internalized, can help solve any critical thinking hang-ups through succinct sections on question asking, analyzing logic and sixteen other basic tools.[2] I was grateful and quickly devoured the guide.

Situated as an educational workbook for students, the most important aspects of Elder and Paul’s guide are their problem, definition and outcomes pages in the first section which explain the need for critical thinking. The sections following the introduction apply the methods to help students think critically. Each section can be taken individually or together to enhance the depth of the reader’s critical thinking, that is, if they are willing to employ the first two pages of the booklet to think critically about critical thinking methods.

When applying analysis and evaluation of Elder’s text, I began reading an article by Howard Doughty that specifically spoke to the limitations of critical thinking as he reviewed multiple of Elder and Paul’s works. Ironically, Doughty was the only article I found in my search that questioned Elder’s content. According to Doughty, Elder’s text “is a one-size-fits-all guide to thinking, and it simply doesn’t fit.”[3] He goes on to critique the idea of ‘official critical thinking’, as he classifies Elder’s work based on their Critical Thinking Institute, stating “official critical thinking, of course, does not deny that there are controversial issues to be discussed, but it insists that they be discussed in an unbiased or, at least, a balanced manner within a framework of depoliticized discourse. Every exercise in critical thinking is knowingly or unknowingly infused with commitments to particular human interests, and that those who cry the loudest that they are bias-free, unprejudiced and, above all, non-ideological are the ones that must bear the closest critical inspection.[4]

From Doughty’s perspective, I had to take another look at Elder’s work and assess for myself if his claim seemed to have basis in what I knew to be true. In fact, what I found to be helpful in Doughty’s writing was the critique of critical thinking itself. His questioning made me consider class, inherent biases we carry and power. In addition, I began to critique aspects of Elder’s guide I had let pass, such as the felt disorganization of the table of contents and the lack of case studies or guides to actually show the methods at work. As much as my initial read was comprehensive, it was not critical. I was taking in an author at face value and attempting to soak up their content because I could read it in one sitting. The reality is, in attempting to apply the text one must employ the first few pages and then deviate some from the content to read around the text and cross-examine what it is saying.

Elder’s critical thinking guide, while short and workbook focused, has been a practical help toward aiding my thinking on my dissertation topic. The focus of my research is currently settling around the definition and nature of discipleship and its effects on the American church and culture. Throughout my reading of Elder’s guide, I paused to consider how often in my own discipleship and mentoring was I given the opportunity or tools to ask questions for clarification or consider assumption and their implications. The reality is I have had many mentors in my life who have shared much information with me but do not help me think critically for myself. They are answer givers. As much as I have appreciated this in the short term, I realize it is a disservice over time. Why? Because it has hindered my own ability to think critically and has caused me to simply take on other’s thinking without knowing exactly why I believe it. In addition, this discourages thinking very deeply or allowing questions to stir in me that might be uncomfortable. Finally, I realize this ‘answer giving’ produces answer giving from me to those I disciple. When people come to me, instead of helping them discover for themselves, especially if I believe I have wisdom on the topic, I give them answers. I then make a disciple in the form of the disciple I have been made to be. I have seen this same answer-giving non-critical thinking discipleship be replicated by many pastors and leaders who do not choose to take the time to help people engage with their questions well or are ignorant of the fact that they too have been discipled as answer givers.

When considering biblical texts surrounding discipleship, Jesus is the key figure who spoke the great commission to make disciples and led in the example of how to make disciples. Jesus would be the model student for both Elder and Doughty as a critical thinker who challenged his disciples to be so as well. He allowed them to ask questions, he challenged their assumptions, and he was not an idealist but an unprejudiced realist. Jesus often answered questions with questions or gave cryptic answers or spoke in parables. These non-answers created gateways for the disciples to seek out the truth and find it.

Martin Luther sought, tormented as he was, to live an authentic life as a disciple of Jesus, seeking truth and challenging injustice.  He was making disciples in close and distant proximity. I am of the opinion that all people are making disciples in one way or another. The question is, do we know what type of disciples are we making and how this is effecting our churches and communities? My research aims at actively assessing and evaluating problematic systems toward helping the church reconnect Jesus’ discipleship by methodical, question asking, and sincere means.



[1] Paul, Richard and Linda Elder. The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts & Tools. 7th ed. Thinker’s Guide Library. Tomales, CA, 2014, Locations 33-34.

[2] Paul & Elder, Location 13.

[3] Doughty, Howard, “Review Essay, The Limits of Critical Thinking”. The Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal, Volume 11(3), 2006, article 11, 5.

[4] Doughty, 7.

About the Author


Trisha Welstad

Trisha is passionate about investing in leaders to see them become all God has created them to be. As an ordained Free Methodist elder, Trisha has served with churches in LA and Oregon, leading as a pastor of youth and spiritual formation, a church planter, and as a co-pastor of a church restart. Trisha currently serves as leadership development pastor at Northside Community Church in Newberg, OR. Over the last five years Trisha has directed the Leadership Center, partnering with George Fox and the Free Methodist and Wesleyan Holiness churches. The Leadership Center is a network facilitating the development of new and current Wesleyan leaders, churches and disciples through internships, equipping, mentoring and scholarship. In collaboration with the Leadership Center, Trisha serves as the director of the Institute for Pastoral Thriving at Portland Seminary and with Theologia: George Fox Summer Theology Institute. She is also adjunct faculty at George Fox University. Trisha enjoys throwing parties, growing food, listening to the latest musical creations by Troy Welstad and laughing with her two children.

13 responses to “Critical Thinking: Pragmatism, Answers and Irony”

  1. Hi Trisha,

    It is a tragedy that people view discipleship as ‘answer-giving’. You say you have seen “this same answer-giving non-critical thinking discipleship be replicated by many pastors and leaders…” Maybe that’s why the church is so thin and brittle, powerless and ineffective?

    How would you propose moving away from cultures of answer-giving in Christian communities?

    Another thought: How would you define discipleship, and are there other words that could be used to communicate it? I find often we use Christian jargon but it means so many things to different people that we talk at cross-purposes.

    Thanks for your post! It’s great to see you narrowing in on a topic and I look forward to learning more!

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      I think the answer-giving technique is a way we avoid truly apprenticing others because it takes a lot less time to just tell someone than to help them discover answers for themselves (and besides, their answers may be different than the ones we already have).

      I think asking more questions is an important way to engage people to help them find the questions beneath the questions. In addition, leading them through practices to help them discover, whether it be showing them what you do or giving them space to ponder and wrestle while providing a framework for thought. I have a few examples where I have seen this done but more often than not it’s been with educators than in the church. In part, educators are held to a standard of production for their students where pastors are not.

      I am working on the definition of discipleship as my focus for my annotated bibliography this semester. I do think it’s a combination of being and doing that emulates your teacher/apprentice/mentor/coach. Most sources I am finding do not define discipleship well because there are assumptions around the term. It’s been fun to search through the content so far. I will definitely let you know what I find. You can also check out my working bibliography here.

  2. Dave Watermulder says:

    Thanks for this post, Trisha!
    I enjoyed reading what you included from Doughty, especially the comment that “Elder’s text ‘is a one-size-fits-all guide to thinking, and it simply doesn’t fit.'” There’s kind of an internal critique to the critique that Elder is trying to make, right? Interesting stuff.

  3. Trisha, your sleuthing of the review that questioned the idea and definition of critical thinking itself was interesting and very critical thinking of you I might say. I too thought the book was very helpful and practical and loved how you brought in Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the reformation movement. Those kinds of people inspire me to think more critically and question things that need to be questioned as did Jesus as well. I’m curious if you would disciple any different as a result of reading this book, not that Jesus isn’t already the best model for this 🙂

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Jake, as it happens, I had two meetings on Thursday in the middle of writing this post- one with a student who is trying to own her own faith and a church leader who is helping me implement small groups in our church. Because the text was so present in my mind I did tend to ask the student more questions and come to her own conclusions or point her toward ways to reflect rather than just tell her what to do. I also found myself affirming her where she was in her journey more than I normally would. I was also a better listener and question asker with the church leader as I wanted to learn from him as we discussed problem solving in our church. So, in the end, the book prompted my thinking more critically and I tried to lean into Jesus’ character as I did my work.

  4. mm Jason Turbeville says:

    I appreciate your finding the critique by Doughty. Then to look at your own reading and reevaluate what you saw, great example of critical thinking. Your discussion on being a disciple maker and the way in which we lead had good insight. In fact, the rabbinical way of teaching is to answer a question with a question. As a rabbi, Jesus was definitely adept in his ability to teach this way. Teaching one to think by getting them to think is a great way to disciple.

  5. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Great to see that you too stumbled across Doughty’s critique of the Elder text. It evidently helped you to revisit the text with a more critical eye. I think this is what Jason may be getting at when he has suggested that we not revere books too much. With a text like Elder’s, which is so highly regarded in educational settings, this is difficult to do. I think you have come to realize how egocentric critical thinking can be, even when we don’t mean it to be. It was also powerful for you to reveal your own tendency to be an answer giver yet now recognize the weaknesses in this tendency. I think the introspection you were able to accomplish through this text and the Doughty critique will serve you well going forward.

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Dan, yes, I did have to remember Jason’s words to us as I read and re-read. I tend to want to like a book when I read it. Yet, as I read Doughty’s critique it began to unlock things that were just below the surface for me. I also thought it was interesting there were no footnotes or references of any sort to their facts. If this is scientific, and from what I gathered Paul was a researcher, than I wonder why no end notes at least or a link to further research just to keep it short. I didn’t want to spend my whole blog getting so hyper critical especially when I could only find one critique which seems odd when it is a critical thinking text.

      Thanks for your insight on my insight as well. I am trying to be a learner as much as possible and did find I had more to chew on in my own discipleship methods.

  6. mm Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Trish,

    Loved your comment, “Jesus is the key figure who spoke the great commission to make disciples and led in the example of how to make disciples. Jesus would be the model student for both Elder and Doughty as a critical thinker who challenged his disciples to be so as well. He allowed them to ask questions…”

    Pondering what you wrote, I also noticed that Jesus several times answered a question with a question. I am sure this is a critical thinking strategy (not to mention a wise way to answer folks who are trying to trick you).

    Well done Trish. Your writing reveals you are a very smart person!

  7. Chris Pritchett says:

    Trisha- As a Presbyterian pastor of a church called “John Knox Presbyterian,” I would like to personally thank you for acknowledging the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (tongue and cheek). Every year we remember the Reformation and we grieve the division of the church (with Jesus) even as we give thanks for the beautiful doctrines and practices that followed. I just concluded a 5 week series on the 5 Solas called “Sola.” We took in art from the community to show around our atrium and in worship during the series. It was super fun.

    I’m realizing that I did not get the memo on reading Doughty’s critique. It seems it was a valuable read for many in our cohort. I think I’ll check it out.

    Your research sounds interesting. I appreciated how you brought that into conversation with critical thinking, and especially the idea of “non-answers” Jesus gave (or didn’t give?) as opposed to your experience of mentors who provided answers for you. Like you I’ve been blessed with many mentors in my life and I’m thankful that most of them were skilled at asking good questions – a critical skill for any mentor. I wonder how you understand the theory and practice of discipleship. How is “discipleship” as you understand it, similar or different than “mentoring?” Or were you using those terms interchangeably? (You don’t have to answer all these…but I do wonder) How is discipleship similar or different than “spiritual direction,” and how does it relate to “spiritual formation?” I’m very much interested in all of these things and believe that the church in N. America is in an urgent time of need for this work. Thanks for what you’re doing.

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Chris, I love that you just did that series and included art as part of it! Way to help the body function in unity as you remember a historic division. That’s beautiful reconciliation in action.

      Thanks so much on your thoughts around the discipleship questions. Sometimes I think this stuff is so elemental everyone already knows. And maybe it is which means we are not keeping with the basics. Anyway, I am spending this term working on defining discipleship. I have always thought of it as mentoring or apprenticing rather than a program of some sort. It is much more relational. I am finding some good content in my research on spiritual formation and am about to do some work with spiritual direction. Both I believe (at this point) to be part of the discipleship process but not encompassing, mainly because there needs to be action on the part of the disciple as well and these tend to focus much more on the internal spiritual life. I am always open to discussion and resources others want to throw my way. Trying to glean as much as possible.

  8. Shawn Hart says:

    Great thorough post! I appreciate how you incorporated Christ own ministry methods into the subject matter. Though I am not entirely certain I would agree that Christ was entirely non-prejudicial, I believe I understand the point you were trying to make. I have been thinking a lot about critical thinking methodology this week because of the reading and some of the responses in our posts, and Christ’s ministry has been part of my struggle. I have thought about His use of Old Testament scriptures and have considered (thanks to your post) the use of parables, but also the fact that when He talked cryptically to the masses, He would also reveal the meaning to His disciples; thus giving the “answers”. I suppose that has been my struggle with this text, so I will pass my question on to you:

    Do you think that there is a time when critical thinking could actually be non-beneficial in regards to ministry? I call upon your understanding of Christ ministry specifically; do you think there were points when Christ was not worried about using critical thinking?

    • mm Trisha Welstad says:

      Shawn, I did see your comment and have been pondering on your questions. I appreciate your inquisitive and thoughtful comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *