Orientation. Disorientation. Reorientation.
This week is orientation for many people going back to school… including me! I’m starting a new teaching appointment for the coming year. And orientation begins this morning. The week has hardly begun and already I have been pulled up short several times.
With every orientation to something new in our lives and in our practices of teaching and ministry comes what Hebrew Bible scholar, Walter Bruggemann calls disorientation. That is, we find ourselves put off balance, confused or unsure of what to do, or stopped in our tracks. Rather than going along with life, we are suddenly pulled up short.
This week I start my work as a visiting associate professor of pastoral theology and care at Union Theological Seminary (New York City, NY). Last night I arrived in time for the end of a picnic especially for new students and their partners and families.
I literally parked my suitcase and walked to the food table. And then I sat down with a table full of strangers and started meeting them gradually and began learning who they are and sharing who I am. The weather was perfect and the food was quite good (I would definitely call it advanced picnic).
Because I arrived late into the dinner time, the picnic was all too soon over. But I had no idea how to reach the place where I would stay. The buildings are something of a maze. I asked for some guidance from the students. They are also new, but soon they connected me with someone who could help.
We walked through a tunnel under the city streets. I heard stories about Martin Luther King, Jr. walking here. Wow.
Then we arrived at a small lobby in the residence area, and a group of students was all arriving at once in the same place. We introduced ourselves all around and they asked what I would be teaching. I told them pastoral theology.
A second year student said, “What is that?”
I was momentarily pulled up short. Nothing like starting a new endeavor and hearing first thing a question about what it even is.
Philosopher of educuation, Deborah Kerdeman, in her article “Self-Understanding as a Focus of Teaching and Learning,” observes that being “pulled up short” is a “deep recognition [which] confronts the fundamental limits of what human beings know and can do.” (1) Kerdeman says of these limits bring about pain that we must learn to live through if we are to learn from the moment.
I’ve lived through many such moments in my work. Being asked to explain who I am and what I do comes with the territory of being a woman called to ministry, a professor of practical/pastoral theology, an academic entrepreneur.
After a split second of disorientation, I simply shared with the students how pastoral theology starts with where people live, the suffering of their lives, and how we care for one another. This is an important way to step onto the pathway to understand and construct theology.
Systematic or doctrinal theology begins with doctrine, scripture and/or history and proceeds in how to understand the sacred and to live. Pastoral theology begins with lived experience, including pain suffering, and proceeds from there to theological reflection and constructive meaning.
Kerdeman elaborates: “pain is not exclusively an injustice to uproot, a disorder to cure, or a wrong to set right. Pain is also an inevitable part of being alive. I call this kind of pain ‘being pulled up short.’ When we are pulled up short, events we neither want nor foresee and to which we may believe we are immune interrupt our lives and challenge our self-understanding in ways we cannot imagine in advance of living through them.”
You can read more about what Kerdeman has to say about being “pulled up short,” a phrase she borrows and elaborates from Hans-Georg Gadamer.
This week’s episode of Three Minute Ministry Mentor holds more about what this kind of learning moment looks like for a minister in practice. How do we go through the pain of discovering our limits? How do we recover? Is there hope of re-orientation to life on the other side of the experience of being pulled up short?
Watch to see how new pastor Keith recovers from hearing that his sermon was the most hurtful thing a person had ever heard.(2)
When it goes well, we learn to practice ministry with improvisation. Even when it does not go well, we can learn from our failures to grow in the practice and expand our repertoire of possible responses, try new modes of recovery, and learn how not to lose our balance entirely.
What has pulled YOU up short lately? How are you recovering and learning from the experience?
“pain is not exclusively an injustice to uproot, a disorder to cure, or a wrong to set right. Pain is also an inevitable part of being alive. I call this kind of pain “being pulled up short.” When we are pulled up short, events we neither want nor foresee and to which we may believe we are immune interrupt our lives and challenge our self-understanding in ways we cannot imagine in advance of living through them.”
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(1) Kerdeman, Deborah. “Pulled Up Short: Challenging Self-Understanding as a Focus of Teaching and Learning.” In Education and Practice: Upholding the Integrity of Teaching and Learning, edited by Joseph Dunne and Pádraig Hogan, 144-158. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.
(2) Pastor Keith, a pseudonym, is a participant in the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project. This story is shared with his permission.