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

Dancing with Academic Theory

Written by: on March 15, 2015

I have always had an attraction to learn new things. To theorize the “what if’s” of life. To read highly academic writing and truly understand the nuggets of gold couched in the elaborate formulated vocabulary. It has become somewhat of a treasure hunt. I must decipher the code and find the treasure that the academic has hidden in plain sight. One must weave through the labyrinth of polysyllabic words, cut through the jungle of amalgamated and disseminated verbiage, and dig through the bedrock of deep thought and find both the meaning and the madness of the coded treasure. Then, and only then, can you begin the process of bringing that treasure into usefulness for the community. This process of extracting the wisdom from academic theory into practice is what Caroline Ramsey describes in her two academic papers.

Scholarship of practice is indeed very intentional and purposeful of both finding the treasures in the theoretical/academic realm and bringing them forth into the “real/practical” world where the “rubber meets the road.” It is this “dance” that the scholarly manager/leader must participate in to gain the benefits that are often hidden and therefore lost in the academic halls. But when done properly, the dance is oh so sweet and many are enriched with the benefits that the dance produces.

What I have learned and so appreciate about this scholarship of practice is the relational and contextual aspect that Ramsey brings out. As she states “a scholarship of practice recognizes the constitutive importance of ongoing relations with management practice.”[1]

It is in this dance that the manger/leader learns from academic theory but does not simply force his new found treasures on his followers but rather like a Maestro di Cappella the leader orchestrates his people into a relational co-constructive symphony where the best generative practices are brought forth. Ramsey address this as a contextual management theory that leads to emergent practices. It is not “simply applying a theory, but allowing a wide array of literature to provoke the leader into different lines of exploration.”[2] It is this “provocative use of theory that promotes practice-as-learning, for it brings into focus a generative conversation between symptoms, ideas, work context, and action in the creation of changed practice.”[3]

It is in this dance that the manager/leader engages with ideas found in academic theory then through his/her relational matrixes with his fellow workers brings forth a practice that benefits all of the players. This dance is occurring moment by moment in relationships that are creating and recreating ideas in the midst of practice.[4] It is this scholarship of learning that assists both leader and the followers in becoming the best team that they can be accomplish the best that they can accomplish.

This dance is not always easy, nor does it always work according to one’s plan. Theory seldom operates accordingly in the field of practice. Relationship are hard to maintain. Personalities rub. Egos bid for position and prominence. Deadlines add pressure. Superiors add stress. All of which, squelch the dance. However, dancing with theory on the moving floor of practice is where the best music is heard and the best moves are preformed. Shall we dance?

[1] Caroline Ramsey, “Management Learning: A Scholarship of Practice Centred on Attention?,” Management Learning, February 11, 2013, 17, doi:10.1177/1350507612473563.

[2] Caroline Ramsey, “Provocative Theory and a Scholarship of Practice,” Management Learning 42, no. 5 (November 1, 2011): 7.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] Ibid., 21.

About the Author


Mitch Arbelaez

International Mission Mobilizers with Go To Nations Living and traveling the world from Jacksonville Florida

7 responses to “Dancing with Academic Theory”

  1. Michael Badriaki says:

    Mitch, thanks for the thoughts you share in this blog post. You describe the process of the dance and it’s challenges well. The ability to dance sometimes depends of the mood and hopefully the availability of a timely tune. Academic writing is at times dry but when the topic is relevant and practical like Carol’s subject matter of management, I feel like dancing and going treasure hunting.

    Practice learning is good idea and leaders have got find a way to balance practice with the difficulties that might be. Your write, “Relationship are hard to maintain. Personalities rub. Egos bid for position and prominence. Deadlines add pressure.”

    Again thank you!

  2. Liz Linssen says:

    Hi Mitch
    What an eloquent piece of writing – poetic and academic. Well done! I knew from your time in Wales that you were a secret academic 🙂 a very smart guy!
    I appreciate where you wrote at the end: “This dance is not always easy, nor does it always work according to one’s plan. Theory seldom operates accordingly in the field of practice. Relationship are hard to maintain. Personalities rub. Egos bid for position and prominence. Deadlines add pressure. Superiors add stress. All of which, squelch the dance.” You know, the more time I spend in ministry, the more I think that this is where the hardest work happens. The actual doing of administrative things is comparatively easy. It’s the day-to-day shoulder rubbing with fellow brothers and sisters where the work and ministry really takes place. May God give us the wisdom and grace we need to make the dance happen!

  3. Mitch…
    Ah the dance … My son and I did the “McLaughlin shuffle” at his wedding. We both laughed, a lot. However I have a very good friend that dances competitively. She is an elegant dancer. She describes coming alive when she is dancing. She and her partner have done quite well together, qualifying for nationals several different times, winning more than their share of competitions. They have had to learn to adapt. Her partner is learning to relax. He tries too often (as their coach affirms) to over think what he is supposed to do instead of relaxing into the dance.

    In your post you have reminded me that we make the commitment to develop our skill levels, utilize knowledge and wisdom in application as well as in seeking knowledge. As I think about my friend’s dancing I realize afresh that we never stop being learners and that mentorship (or coaching is essential). My friend has a new coach this year. They have even had several coaches at one time, each bringing their skill and expertise to address both strengths and weaknesses. It’s fascinating really as they work together to bring an overall improvement. It is intentional and deliberate.

    Applying your insights we do not stop learning even when we have the skills “down.” Dancing is as much about leading as it is about following. To dance successfully the dancers cannot compete against one another.

    Thank you for this reminder and for your good work.

  4. mm Julie Dodge says:

    Excellent, Mitch! And I love that you love the quest for learning. You interacted with Ramsey’s work eloquently and engagingly, pulling out a plethora of your own polysyllabic words. I like your description of these nuggets of truth in the theory as treasures, but you recognize that not everyone values the same thing,. Not everyone is as excited about your new treasure as you are. And so through relationship we share its usefulness, co-create its value. Nicely done, my friend.

  5. mm rhbaker275 says:

    Thanks, loved reading your post…

    Finding the nuggets in theory is indeed a necessary task if theory is to become “both the meaning and the madness of the coded treasure” that will unlock the everyday practice of life. The application of theory is where most of us live and it is theory that must ground the practices that we undertake. I suppose I find the search for the real nuggets more difficult and laborious than the eloquence articulated as an “oh, so sweet” dance. Navigating through the “labyrinth of polysyllabic words” and “the jungle of amalgamated and disseminated verbiage” is an intense chore for me.

    It is interesting to me that earlier today I was thinking this very thought concerning academic wiring. I was wondering about those who write in an academic genre; do they write realizing that through the labor of digging the thrill of discovery and application will be accentuated? I also, seriously wondered, since I find it productively necessary to have a dictionary close at hand, if the academic writer’s prolific vocabulary necessitated for them to have a good thesaurus lying on the night stand?

    Then, I arrived home from church and read your post! I realized how much I appreciated Caroline Ramsey’s writing. Oh, there is still some digging and it still remains to design a specific model that implements learning management in my context. Today we talked about spiritual formation … there is plenty of space here to design a learning practice. The nuggets need only be hauled away.

  6. mm John Woodward says:

    Oh, Mitch, really? “One must weave through the labyrinth of polysyllabic words, cut through the jungle of amalgamated and disseminated verbiage…” Wow, now there is a sentence for the record book! I love it…well done! In fact, I am with you completely on this idea. I am drawn to highly complicated philosophical books that I wade through and maybe understand 15 percent, but hope I can glean something out all the complicated verbiage! It is a treasure hunt. So, I understand your fascination.

    I also concur with your view on the messiness of opening leadership to others through relationships. With my work in campus ministry, it was vital to allow the students to feel ownership to be excited and committed to the ministry, but that meant allowing untrained and untested people responsibility…but it was an adventure (a dance, yes?) of seeing where God would take all of us. It doesn’t allow for long term goal setting, but it does allow for a lot of personal growth that pays big dividends. Our church leadership structure seems to denude and stifle this wonderful process and the possibilities it creates. Do you think it is out of fear of leaderships losing control or just because leaders don’t want to do the hard work of developing and growing relationship? It is the hard way to go, but I believe it is the better way! Thanks for your well stated (less complicated verbiaged) post this week! Great insights, Mitch!

    • mm rhbaker275 says:

      Very good response to Mitch’s post.

      I like your thoughts on opening up leadership; It is an adventure to walk along side and allow others to express their ideas and step forward to lead. I have found that I must intentionally set aside my preconceptions as to how things should be done. It is easy to allow culture, especially generational cultures, to be in conflict and to throttle back the excitement and potential of those who want to own the ministry.

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