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Flying High over Boston
Flying High over Boston

A Whirlwind Tour:
Boston and the Association for Practical Theology

For the last three days I’ve been in Bean Town taking in some thoughts about bridging academy and church. To be sure there is some distance between seminaries and divinity schools and the churches for whom they train ministers.

That distance is appropriate and necessary in many regards. As Dan Aleshire told me about the seminary in first semester as a student (and his last on the faculty): This may look, feel and smell like a church, but it is not. And cannot be your church, so go find one and sink your roots in there.

Churches and theological schools are different kinds of religious institutions, and they need to be different. They also need each other. However, the distance between them has sometimes become too great. The story of why this is the case has a long and contested history. (I can say more about that some time soon. If you  are especially interested in that back story, leave a comment.)

For now I want offer to you some much more recent history . . . from this weekend. Here are a few highlights of things we experienced and thought about at the APT meeting. I’m just going to post some provocative tidbits here. If you would like to know more, leave a comment. I’m likely to blog on most any of these topics.


Boston is a place of many bridges . . . and tunnels . . . rail yards . . . and roundabouts. It is a place of land and water, and all sorts of ways to navigate the landscape. Practical theology has used the language of bridging gaps for many years and many of us who understand ourselves as practical theologians imagine ourselves connecting or bridging academy and church, theory and practice, parts and wholes, and action and reflection, to name a few. Our work is mostly interdisciplinary and we draw on a wide variety of resources and languages to talk about the Christian faith and the people and communities that try to practice that faith.


One of the panel discussions this weekend consisted of a group of very talented and articulate practical theologians who addressed a group of questions about their work in Roman Catholic contexts. Here are a couple of provocative quotes:

“Our pedagogy is constituitive of practical theology.” – Thomas Groome

“Practical theology for catholics is everywhere and nowhere.” – Kathleen Cahalan

Tricky waters and undertow

We heard a number of fine paper presentations on topics ranging from church conflict (Leanna Fuller) to classroom conflict (Leah Gunning Francis) to tent cities (Sharon Thornton) to constructive practical theology (Jim Poling).

The most powerful set of presentations came from a panel of women who talked about their studies of women in various contexts. The following are my brief summaries of what they presented. I was not interested mainly because their work overlaps with my own research and writing (although they do), but also because the stories they told were provocative. As one respondent put it, their work is that of “Heralds of Danger.”

Nancy Pineda-Madrid (Boston College) told the story of feminicide (intentional killing of women that marks territory and demonstrates power) in Juarez Mexico since 1993. More than 600 girls and young women have been brutally attacked, raped and killed, or gone missing during this time in the city of two million. She also told the stories of resistance and protest by other women, girls and families of the disappeared girls. In 2001 they marched through the city on El Día de los Muerto (Day of the Dead) in “exoda por la vida” (exodus for life). On the boarder between Juarez and El Paso, Texas, protesters built a shrine to memorialize the disappeared and dead girls. They use an empty pink cross for each young woman. Pineda-Madrid calls those crosses political and theological statements embracing a theology of the empty tomb. The young women were in fact murdered, but it is not the end of the story.

Jo Ann Deasy, recent graduate and lecturer at North Park Theological Seminary, presented her research with young women (ages 18-30) in the Evangelical Covenant Church who live in an ambiguous space of seeing themselves as liberated, yet still unconcerned that women cannot and do not lead with shared authority in their church. They define their identities almost exclusively in terms of motherhood, no matter what other work or relationships they have. Some will be mothers. Others won’t. But either way they describe themselves predominately in those terms. One woman in her study said in effect, I’m a feminist, but I think a male pastor is a necessity.

Phillis Sheppard, North Park Theological Seminary, presented her ethnographic research with African American women (ages 18-70) and their churches. She found herself in worship astounded and frustrated at that despite the presence and history of womanist ideals and leaders in those communities of faith, the worship of the congregations continued to embody sexist language and imagery that is detrimental to the souls of women.

Shelly Rambo, Boston University, responded to the three papers. She said that often after she traces four decades of feminist theology and its three waves of influence, she gets the question, what will the next wave of feminist theology be? Her hypothesis is that we ought not look for another wave. Instead consider ways feminist theology can examine the “insidious pull of the past” including the ways that past is embedded in us. The work of each of these presentations, she said, was that of “tracking the undertow.” Some currents of sexism and racism run so deep and silently that up on the surface they are hard to notice, but they remain powerful forces in both churches and schools. They are the forces that shape human desires. And we must counter those shaping forces with new counter-practices of desire.

To be continued . . . .

In the next post, I’ll write a bit of my experience in worship this morning at the International Community Church in Boston and conversations we shared about sabbath practices.