“I am going to do it anyway…”
Not to put all the blame on God, but he did make me this way. That statement is not one I often recommend falling back on, but sometimes the process of Spiritual Formation isn’t about learning something new, but instead taking something that is already in us and using it for divine purpose. When we apply this to soul care, we are able to grow in endurance by correctly using the tools God has given us to run the race. If I am going to do it anyway, I might as well use it for good!
Let me give an example: I naturally reflect on everything. I deconstruct, analyze, debrief, hot wash and breakdown conversations, events, encounters, I-should-have-said-this moments (honesty most of those are shouldn’t have said moments), sermons, teachings… all of it. Sometimes, especially with the negative and hurtful episodes, I lay awake at night in this posture. I suspect I am not alone in this habit; perhaps it is a common thread that links pastors and ministry/mission leaders. If guided healthily, this reflection habit is a tool that is God-ordained and can be used for soul care, growth and support; if not managed well, it can be a demoralizing practice of psychological self mutilation that leads to hopelessness and despair.
Now that we understand the spectrum, lets move away from hopelessness and despair and focus on how we as leaders can use reflection and the spiritual discipline of Grand Examen to take something we already do and use it to bring peace, direction, insight, discernment and glory to God.
Reflection commonly comes at times of struggle, pain or confusion. We also can initiate reflection as an evaluation tool, which many are doing right now as we look back over the ministry during the school year and ask the question, “How did it go?” I would imagine that there is input to help with this reflection and some ideas of things to change and things to sustain for next year. This brings up an interesting point. Reflection, like anything in ministry, is better done with someone.
Most of this reflection is critical reflection. We evaluate something and look for meaning and points of integration for that meaning. Theological reflection remains the search for meaning but is done in the light of faith to link our experience and our faith. We ask the question, where was God in that? This ongoing process of making sense of experience looks for God’s presence and seeks to honor the insights gained from where he met us in that experience.
This is not very revolutionary in terms of wisdom and not very advanced as a concept, but it is critical in terms of determining if our theology drives our practice or does our practice drive our theology?
Grand Examen (or regular Examen if you aren’t feeling the grand) is a spiritual discipline I was introduced to at Fuller Seminary, and one that continues to bring me peace. Examen is a prayerful process, guided by the Holy Spirit, that helps us see where God was and what he was up to. A simple, evening discipline of Examen might look like this:
- Ask God to see the day through his eyes, with his light.
- Give Thanks for the day. Be grateful for what God has done during this day.
- Review the day. Be guided by the Holy Spirit and be led over the events, conversations and interactions of the day.
- Face what God puts in front of you. Good and bad, face what he identifies and own your junk. God brings correction to those he loves. Be loved. Celebrate the good that brings him glory.
- Look forward to tomorrow. What you learned today, apply.
This, while basic, takes something I will do anyway and allows God to use it to bring me peace. I can see the day in a new light, be held accountable and also rest knowing there was purpose and God met me.
Theological reflection is a process that helps us makes sense of the parts of ministry that just suck. While we do have the benefit and privilege to preach the word of God and introduce people to the Creator God, we also have to engage with people in various stages of brokenness. Loving people means meeting them in their place of pain, and we often get slimed in the process. I also tend to add to the slime a bit due to the jackass things I say, or rough experiences that have shaped my life that always find their way back to the table. Thus, I find myself in need of a reflection process that allows me to take an event, period of time, conversation, or broken relationship and ask, “God where were you in that?”
Examen can also be used for larger, big-ticket reflections, I recommend using four directions to look over what you are reflecting upon.
- Ask the Holy Spirit to lead, and start by first looking back. Look back over the events, conversations, the gifts and the hurt. Notice what events happened.
- Next, look through the experience. Look for my culpability, where God was, where He didn’t seem present, where this type of circumstance has happened before, where I need to offer and receive forgiveness.
- Following this, look forward and pray about the applications of what God has reveled.
- Finally, look around. This is simply identifying who and what God has strategically placed in life to help make changes moving forward, or who might help you apply your God-inspired path ahead.
These simple steps help me to do what I am going to anyway, but lead me to a place of healing, peace and formation (instead of hopelessness and despair). The most significant use of this process in my life was in healing and searching for understanding after finding myself as a jobless pastor with a wife three kids and no where to turn. God met me as I analyzed each piece of my history, and I am better for it. I pray He meets you as you reflect.