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Students at commencement

Ministry in Context

On watching the teacher

One of the books I'm currently reading is a new publication from the Alban Institute entitled Welcome to Theological Field Education. It is edited by Matthew Floding, and has 11 helpful chapters from various practitioners in the area of practical/contextual theological education.

One chapter I found particularly evocative was written by Dr. Charlene Jin Lee of San Francisco Theological Seminary. Lee writes:

"For one year before beginning grammar school, my parents sent me to a piano conservatory every day. The first words I learned to read and write were terms from music theory. I practiced running my fingers through Hanon's scale exercises and checked off the boxes the teacher had drawn to indicate the number of times I was to practice the exercises. During lessons, the teacher would sit on a chair at one end of the piano and watch me. Many hours of my childhood were spent on the piano bench, often with a metronome ticking above, where I learned the techniques of maneuvering my fingers according to the printed music notes. Obediently following the dizzying array of black dots on paper, I matriculated over time from beginning level books to more technically challenging pieces.

"Many years later I realized that the formation of a piano virtuoso was about far more than training. One teacher, instead of simply watching me practice, allowed me to watch her practice. Before I learned a new piece, she would bring her own copy of the music, which was full of penciled notations, the edges of the sheets rolled and frayed. She would sit at the center of the piano bench and begin to play the piece. Sometimes her eyes were closed as if she were in a dream, sometimes her eyes focused intensely at the measures of the printed music. Her body would sway as if to dance, and her face expressed something inward she could not hide. I watched my teacher interact with the text of the music; she would then watch as I tried out my own interactions with the text. I discovered and rediscovered that the activity of pressing wooden keys with my fingers was more than merely this. It was remembering the composition, creating sound, and evoking interpretation."

Dr. Lee continues: "While good technique is valuable, ministry is about more than skills...."

One of my hopes for each of you on internship is that you are able to "watch the teacher interact with the ministry" as well as practice the skills, much as Dr. Lee did with her piano teacher. That is an essential part of the supervisor/mentor relationship with you as a student/learner/practitioner.

When that happens, delightful things tend to emerge. At the risk of mixing metaphors, Dr. Lee also uses poetry as an image for pastoral formation. Elsewhere in her chapter, she references a haiku by Bill Maroon, which she says "conveys the constructive activity of teaching and the experience of formation that a supervisor-mentor and intern encounter together during an internship year:

"We meet awkwardly
I invite you to walk.
I find you dancing."

In the midst of all that you are called on to do, may you experience the dance.

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