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

The Wise, the Learned, and the Intentionally Reflective

Written by: on March 14, 2015

Did you ever know anyone who was “so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good?” I am not sure who coined this phrase, but I am sure they had someone in mind who had simply lost touch with the physical, earthly world around them. They could not relate what they knew, or thought they knew, to be true to the context in which they lived.

“Where is the wise man?  Where is the scholar?  Where is the philosopher of this age?” So often we think that we have the answers – the knowledge …  “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20)

Johnny Cash expressed the distinction of knowing and doing in the words of his song, “No Earthly Good:

“The gospel ain’t gospel until it is spread,

But how can you share it where you’ve got your head?

There are hands that reach out for a hand if you would,

So heavenly minded, you’re no earthly good.”

So, if our knowledge is imperfect and our wisdom is tainted and flawed as being “foolishness,” what are we to do? We might think about practice as the principle means by which be both learn and teach. Paul gives us a possible answer. He tells the Corinthian church he did not come to them with wisdom, with eloquence, or knowledge. In fact, he came in weakness, fear and trembling while speaking with an unpersuasive speech. He only had one thing going for him … “demonstration” (vs 2:4) “of the Spirit’s power.” Paul’s head was not in the clouds; he practiced what he believed.

I have an adult Sunday school teacher in my congregation that has a phenomenal knowledge of scripture. Typically, a pastoral leader is hesitant when an adult class decides not to use any curriculum materials, rather, they simply read scripture. The learning opportunity can deteriorate rapidly when people are pooling their own interpretative wisdom on a verse of scripture. Marie, however, arrives to class with pages of scripture texts ready to answer all controversies. We also have Brother “K” attending one of the adult classes; he was ordained in the Pentecostal church in Nigeria and has worshipped with us for almost a year. He had to take his family and flee the country over twenty years ago; it was somehow related to his Christian faith. We really have no idea how he wound up in Youngstown, OH, except God sent him. “K” has memorized more scripture than anyone I know and once given the floor, he has no problem using the balance of time left in the class session.

Is it possible that in our pursuit of knowledge that we miss the application? I expect that this is an obvious diversion in engaging in a DMin course of learning. Tim Sensing in Qualitative Research: A Multi-Methods Approach to Projects for the Doctor of Ministry Theses makes the observation, “At the heart of DMin programs is the intent that projects serve the church, develop ministerial practice, and be applicable to other practitioners in the field.”[1] I have always thought the key to acquiring a DMin degree is that the required project must address a “ministry practice.” The ministry project guidelines for a GFES DMin degree are clear:

The Dissertation should be of sufficient quality that it contributes to the practice of ministry as judged by professional standards and has the potential for application in other contexts of ministry. The goal … is not to offer a unique contribution to ministry in general, but to apply theological research skills to a significant real-world ministry problem …[2]

The value of knowledge acquisition and the management of knowledge, according to Caroline Ramsey, has three distinct applications: 1) Develop appropriate practices, 2) Provide a process of reflection that leads to action, and 3) A process where application results in changing practices thereby promoting learning.[3] From these concepts, it seems that the management of learning is best understood by reflection on the context in which learning leads to action or, what I understand as application. Sensing supports the concept of context related action; he notes “what education theorists have long advocated about praxis and contextual education; namely, personal and professional development is enhanced through an action-reflection model.”[4]

Ramsey contends for a “scholarship of practice”[5] that is, practice as a means to learning and knowledge development or enhancement rather than typically seeing practice as the application of knowledge. This concept has revolutionary implications. How better can we contextualize what we learn than to learn from our context? Practice might not make perfect, but it does enhance learning.  Ramsey notes that D. Beckett  “has argued that an epistemology of practice would highlight not just know how but also ‘know why’ and pointed out that it would attach importance to questions of intentionality and purposefulness.”[6] Being attentive, according to Ramsey, provides for apprehending the context properly thus allowing one to center their reflections (mindfulness) on the immediate learning opportunity.[7] “Best practices are not simply a set of effective actions, but a comprehensive and coherent set of practices that are steeped in context specific theory. Best practices in practical theology are the result of intentional reflective actions accomplished by excellent performers.”[8]

Local congregations are confronted with the significant challenge to apply the “practice” of being Christ’s ambassadors; models of reconciliation. According to Branson and Martínez in Churches, Culture & Leadership, “If a church is to live in responsiveness to and dependence on God, reflective discernment is a continuous practice, rooted in the current environment and experiences of the church.”[9] They go on to define praxis as a full “cycle of reflection and study on one hand and engagement and action on the other.”[10]

Unfortunately, Marie and Brother “K” have not practiced their knowledge beyond the contextual setting of their classroom. They are safe in the confined context where everyone knows Marie is prepared and “K” can quote any scripture needed for the moment. Their knowledge and learning is a great example of studious application; in praxis, their learning has made them so heavenly that, well, they are not doing much in their neighborhood.

[1] Tim Sensing, Qualitative Research: A Multi-Methods Approach to Projects for Doctor of Ministry These, (Eugene, OH: Wipf and Stock, 2011),  xv.

[2] George Fox Evangelical Seminary, “Dissertation Guidelines” The Dissertation (accessed March 12, 2015) GFES Dissertation index.htm

[3] Caroline Ramsey, “Provocative Theory and a Scholarship of Practice” Management Learning, 42 no.5 (2011), 470.

[4] Sensing, xii.

[5] Caroline Ramsey, “Management Learning: A Scholarship of Practice Centered on Attention?” Management Learning 45 no. 1 (2014), 2.

[6] B. Becket, “Making workplace learning explicit: an epistemology of practice for

the whole person,” Westminster Studies in Education, 23, 41-53, quoted in Ramsey, “Management Learning,” 3.

[7] Ramsey, Management Learning, 6.

[8] Sensing, xviii, emphasis mine.

[9] Mark Lau Branson and Juan F. Martinez, Churches, Cultures and Leadership: A Practical Theology of Congregations and Ethnicities Kindle ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 369-370.

[10] Ibid., 380.

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9 responses to “The Wise, the Learned, and the Intentionally Reflective”

  1. Ron,
    I so appreciate your interpretive skill interfacing with your experience in your church with our reading this week. You have drawn upon the stated learning but also (perhaps more importantly) have picked up on the nuance necessary so that we might apply what we have read (and in a broader sense including our DMin :)). Thank you for your good work!

    As I read about your example I recognize that we are often containers of what we have been presented with — contextually and theologically interfaced with our learning styles (strengths and weaknesses). To change often takes time to move from heavenly minded to being both heavenly minded and of earthly good. Your post has reminded me that time takes an investment – deliberate, intentional, and a welcoming space. It is just flat out challenging. One that we often either shy away from or move on and leave behind.

    Any further words of wisdom?

  2. Michael Badriaki says:

    Ron, thank for this thoughtful post about current situations you are faced with. You are right in tackling the issue of heaven mindedness. It is a real subculture and a set of mind and heart that can easily lead to self righteousness. There search great need among believer to practice a healthy integration of knowledge and action. You provide direction when you quote Branson and Martínez statement: “If a church is to live in responsiveness to and dependence on God, reflective discernment is a continuous practice, rooted in the current environment and experiences of the church.” Additionally you write, “They go on to define praxis as a full cycle of reflection and study on one hand and engagement and action on the other.”

    Great stuff!

  3. mm Deve Persad says:

    Well done, Ron. I very much appreciate your application of this weeks reading. This statement in particular caught my attention: “How better can we contextualize what we learn than to learn from our context? Practice might not make perfect, but it does enhance learning.” – As I reflect on my own journey, I know that it was incredibly beneficial for me to do my Masters degree while being involved in a full time role at our church. The real time application of my studies provided both challenge and insight. And that has now carried over into these Dmin studies, with the added benefit of learning from one another. As you bring these two people as examples – I wonder what your thoughts are on how to help move people from the “heavenly minded” to “earthly good”?

    • mm rhbaker275 says:

      I really believe there ought to be “intentional” effort by Sunday school classes and small group studies to participate in the type of learning practice that Ramsey writes about. In my undergraduate studies in homiletics we all practiced preaching – but the best learning experiences I had were at the mission in downtown Portland. Although some aspects of this are difficult and often our members do not want to “go,” we need to be persistent.

      Part of the problem with my generation is “going” meant making an appointment and entering a home with a flip-chart. I did that, I did not like it and I won’t do it again – at least the way we set-up the program and imposed on our neighbors and friends. I like the missional way of being present in the every day ways we engage people for just who they are and when there are needs we reach out to the need first – and evangelism occurs when possibly we do bring out the four spiritual laws but more often through just telling our story.

  4. Richard Volzke says:

    I enjoyed reading you post and the insight you bring to this weeks readings. Your story about K is similar to others I have seen in my ministry. You said, “Is it possible that in our pursuit of knowledge that we miss the application?” I have found this statement to be very true in the church. Many Christian leaders pursue knowledge “for knowledge sake” and never seem to put it into action. I believe the Scriptures not only command us to study and learn, but also to put what we learn into practice.

    • mm rhbaker275 says:

      Agreed, Richard.
      I think we miss much of potential when we fail to consciously implement learning practices. Sunday school class and small group studies are great places to teach but where practice is something only talked about. A small group that is willing to “engage” outside the classroom in ministry will create a better learning environment.

  5. Ron, great post. Your interaction with, not only the current reading, but outside reading is exemplary. Your ability to synthesize your educational reading from the different sources it’s quite evident. You did a phenomenal job digesting the scholarship of practice and provocative learning essays from Ramsey. But more than just the ability to understand academic rite you’re able to bring you’re learning into a practical basis and be able to have the academic theory influence your praxis.

    I appreciate your statement that you say, “How better can we contextualize what we learn than to learn from our context?” As I study culture intelligence and how to best contextualize the gospel it is interesting to me that so many Christian workers do not take the time to give “attention” to the context around them in order to best apply the gospel or their academic learning to their current context. May we as academic practitioners always understand our context and give attention to the best possible way we can apply are learning to the practice that we are trying to give attention to.

    On a side note, I leave you with this quote from CS Lewis that I just shared in my Sunday sermon. I spoke about how some people have been accused of being so heavenly minded and therefore no earthly good.

    C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity “The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this [world].”

    • mm rhbaker275 says:

      I suppose, Mitch, a very good scriptural example is Paul’s writing to the church in Philippi.

      He is in chains in Rome and does not know the outcome of the capital charge against him. He writes, “I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for yo that I remain in the body … I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith.” The key thought in the context of this text is “To live is Christ.”

  6. mm John Woodward says:

    Ron, a wonderful and insightful post. I especially like your approach of “not being any earthly good.” That states it so well. It seems to be a running theme this semester, that we are being drawn to understand that whatever we do as evangelicals should in someway consider how it affects our present context. If it isn’t, then we are missing the whole point of it. Your Sunday school class as you describe I think represents a large part of the church, that is so fond of arguing points of doctrine and issues, that they don’t have anytime to be salt and light to those around them. In their defense of the truth, they have become like the Pharisees that were more concerned with the letter of the law then being ministers of God’s grace. I don’t think we can ever be reminded enough of keeping the main point the main point, drawing us back to a faith that touches the lives of those around us! Now matter how learned we are, it doesn’t allow us license to be ambassadors of Jesus’s love and hope. Thanks for bringing that to mind, Ron!

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