Being a leader of a Christian mission organization with responsibility for mission staff and partnerships in Eastern Europe and social ministry outreaches throughout Europe – while living in “the sticks” of central Virginia – people often ask about what exactly it is that I do. In a nutshell, it’s this: building a community of reflective practitioners of integral mission. There is a multiplicity of threads coming out of each of these words, so we’ll be circling back here often. But let’s get started.
What do I mean by “reflective practitioner”? I didn’t make the term up, but it’s one that I’ve been using among those I lead and with whom I (net)work for a few years now. It sums up what I think are some of the most important qualities that I want to cultivate both in myself as a leader and in those whom I lead or over whom I exert influence.
When we hear “Leader” we often think of “ACTION”: getting things done, achieving the goal, moving things forward. When we talk about “Mission” we often move quickly to the TASKS of mission (however we envision them: evangelism or proclamation, service to others). Or if we go deeper and talk “Missiology” that shifts the focus to the “Expert”: the “Missiologist,” the “Theologian” who is able to give those who actually “walk the walk” a road map of the paths on which they travel.
I see a problem there: what we are doing is dividing the Body into bits… a brain which does all the thinking, a heart which does all the feeling, and the hands and feet that move forward and actually DO things. That neither paints an attractive picture of a church which in Scripture is spoken of as a radiant bride, nor does it do justice to the depths of resources that God has bestowed on all his children, who follow him into his mission.
The first reference of which I am aware to “reflective practitioner” comes from Donald Schön, a professor at MIT. Synthesizing observations from five different professions, he discovered that the best professionals, in essence, know far more than what can put into words. They rely more on a creativity which expresses that which has been learned through practical experience in simple, spontaneous ways than they do on formulas learned from formal or vocational training.
A while back, I had the benefit of attending a global mission convocation organized by the World Evangelical Association, who (at least as far as I know) were responsible for bringing “reflective practitioner” into the lexicon of Christian mission. There, Bill Taylor shared that reflective practitioners are “…women and men of both action and study; rooted in the word of God and the Church of Christ; passionately obedient to the fullness of the Great Commandment and Great Commission; globalized in their perspective; yet faithful citizens of their own cultures.”
This is not a new buzzword or innovation for its own sake. Taylor points out that we see a superb example of a reflective practitioner in the Apostle Paul: “evangelist, missionary, church planter, team leader, strategist, missiologist, theologian, and author.”
Even if we just want to be nothing but practical, there’s a hitch: the major problems or challenges that we face are quite unlikely to be solved at the same level of thinking in which they were created. Even if all we want to do is be “people of action” how do we know what action to take? Focusing solely on “getting things done” ensures that we will be thinking and acting incrementally: beginning from where we are and what we are doing and facing now, what comes next? However, what’s often required is a fresh perspective, something “out of the box,” something from outside our current reality that will enable us to see things we missed before, or at least to see them differently.
To be a reflective practitioner is to be well-integrated, weaving together action and study, local and global, being Christ-centered and biblical, and contextually relevant. While we have tended to divide our efforts (and ourselves) into tribes of “thinkers” or “doers,” “experts” and “workers,” academics and practitioners, I have become convinced that, both as a leader and a worker, our cause is best served by my being a reflective practitioner and developing others in the disciplines, values and practices needed to cultivate such an approach.
Leading in this manner means more than just engaging the big issues facing one’s ministry. That’s because our almost instinctive response is to jump in to solve problems, fix what is broken or optimize what works in our systems, structures, and processes. But we need so much more. Without the benefit of deep reflection, we will always be behind where we need to be as leaders, since problems and challenges don’t drop in front of us out of thin air… they often have extensive, if largely unnoticed, genealogies. If all our focus goes to the “problems at hand,” we will never be more than reactive and will never attain the measure of influence and impact that comes out of reflection on why things are the way they are… and where they will be tomorrow.
For example, in mission today there are many questions that demand reflection if, a generation from now, those whom we are raising up are to be meaningfully engaged in a world that will not be the one we live in today: What will global issues like energy and food prices or environmental challenges have on missions? Will the gap between affluent and less affluent countries continue to grow, and what would that mean to our ministries? What about the global shifts in Christianity? How will the changes in how the Bible is read and used around the world impact us?
In the areas in which we work – from the global cities of Europe to the rural South – we need neither more ivory-tower thinkers (whose hands are never dirtied by the labor in the trenches) nor unreflective “git-er-done” folks. We need people who are ready, willing and able to both serve with passion and also think carefully about what it is that they are doing… and why.
As a leader, I agree with T.J. Addington that “wise action comes out of a great deal of quiet reflection. To lead well, one must learn the discipline of reflecting well.” Having been a “ground-level” church planter and community worker, I have not ceased to be a practitioner upon becoming a leader of other practitioners. But the most valuable thing I can provide those whom I lead comes out of deep and careful reflection on our practice.
We don’t need any more geniuses, legislators, dictators, managers, lecturers, or problem-solvers. We need people who are active in the world and who know how to be not just doers but also learners. Those who know me know that, by temperament, I am a theologian/philosopher. But the sort of “theology” I most prize, and want to foster in others, is what Samuel Escobar describes from his experience in the Latin American church: “Theological reflection… has not taken place in the academic ivory tower, but in events where activists and theologians pause to look at the road traveled with a self-critical eye and proposals for doing better.”
So I have set my sights on developing, empowering and releasing others who will be, in their own spheres, effective “reflective practitioners.” In terms of “getting things done,” I’d take “reflective” over “reactive” or “instinctive” any day. And regardless of my passion for books, when it comes to “reflecting,” I’ll value the thought of one who knows what life in the trenches is all about above a library full of sterile book learnin’.