Reflection and Resilience

by Jennie Hurd.

I realised recently that it is thirty years since I candidated for the ordained ministry of the Methodist Church. How did that happen? It’s more than half my lifetime ago, yet elements of the experience are as fresh to me as yesterday, if not fresher, given the effects of muddle (sorry – middle) age.

It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out that my initial ministerial training took place in the early 1990s. This was at what was then still Queen’s College, Birmingham.  I’m more than prepared to stand corrected, but I believe the cohort of which I was part was among the first to be intentionally trained as reflective practitioners. I think I’m also right in saying that such an approach was pretty much still in its infancy. Although South American liberation theologians such as Gustavo Gutiérez and Leonardo Boff had already introduced us to the hermeneutical or pastoral cycle as a reflective theological method, Duncan B Forrester ‘s edited collection of essays, Theology and Practice[1], had only just been published, as had Laurie Green’s Let’s Do Theology[2]. We were still years away from Graham, Walton and Ward’s Theological Reflection: Methods[3] and Theological Reflection: Sources[4], never mind the SCM Studyguide to Theological Reflection[5]. As students in the early 90s, we were assigned to Theological Reflection Groups and encouraged to reflect. I’ll be honest with you that there were some of us who were never really sure what we were being asked to do. However, something must have happened as I now can’t imagine any other approach to life, faith or ministry apart from a theologically reflective one. It’s part of who I am. I seek to make it my praxis.

I was reminded of this not long ago by chance in conversation with a contemporary from Queen’s. We were reflecting (yes!) on how one ‘r’ word – ‘reflection’ – seems to have been supplemented (or maybe even supplanted, we wondered?) in ministerial formation and practice by another ‘r’ word, namely ‘resilience’.  Has over-emphasis on reflection led to the need for a new focus on resilience, or is it lack of reflection on our practice that means we need to work on our resilience for ministry in the twenty first century?  I cannot believe it’s only the same first letter that links reflection and resilience in pastoral practice, and while these thoughts are only very tentative, I thought I’d share them in the hope of receiving some wisdom in return (or at risk of being told all the thinking’s been done already, and I need to “Get with it, Grandma”…)

Reflecting on experience, I now appreciate the value of those groups at Queen’s. Our reflection is most beneficial for our practice when it’s enfolded in prayer and carried out with others. Part of the genius of early Methodism was the Class Meeting, and you are fortunate indeed if you belong to such a group today. For ordained people, Ministerial Development Review and pastoral supervision offer the opportunity for sharing in reflection on practice. Spiritual direction or accompaniment offers the possibility of something similar for all. Often, books and their authors become our conversation partners in reflective practice, as well as conversations with colleagues, where that is possible. Good reflection which strengthens our resilience in life and ministry is for me, by definition, carried out in conjunction with others, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the context. The corollary to this, then, is that reflection can become detrimental to our resilience, undermining it or perhaps even damaging it, when it is carried out in isolation. I wonder if this tendency has sometimes been allowed to take hold. Reflection is not necessarily the enemy of resilience – it’s not an either/or (and I doubt anyone ever suggested it was) – but it follows that reflection which comes from too individualistic a focus may be more likely to lead to distorted thinking and harmful self-criticism. When carried out as a collaborative exercise, as through this website, theological reflection is intended to build resilience and strengthen our practice. It is a tool for our flourishing, and we need both, inextricably linked.

[1] Forrester, Duncan B (ed) 1990, Theology and Practice, London: Epworth Press

[2] Green, Laurie 1990, Let’s Do Theology: A Pastoral Cycle Resource Book, London: Mowbray

[3] Graham, Elaine, Walton, Heather and Ward, Frances 2005, Theological Reflection: Methods, London: SCM Press

[4] _______ 2007, Theological Reflection: Sources, London: SCM Press

[5] Thompson, Judith, Pattison, Stephen, Thompson, Ross 2008, SCM Studyguide to Theological Reflection, London: SCM Press

5 thoughts on “Reflection and Resilience”

  1. Thank you Jennie. Like reflection, resilience can come in many forms and I am increasingly concerned that British society seems to becoming less mentally resilient, which also brings threats to emotional and spiritual resilience. You have given me yet more to ponder!


  2. Thank you Jennie. It had never occurred to me that there was a time “before” theological reflection was a mainstream praxis. It seems to me as natural as breathing now – but presumably it is something I have been taught. I think I’d want to add online communities as places where we can reflect together. I realise this is a more risky exercise than reading a well chosen book or conversing with others face to face. Yet I find I do a good proportion of my reflection through Facebook and Twitter – and in interacting with the sites they connect me to. I haven’t thought it through well, but I think resilience has a lot to do with being integrated as a person, and reflection on your vocation (either lay or ordained) must be central to that.


  3. Perhaps there are to many distractions when we reflect? Even reflecting on a group can be a distraction in itself. We have been in vacancy for five months so our meetings as a team ceased. I miss those opportunities to reflect and pray and share they presented.

    While we have other meetings the business means that our mutual reflection operates in a wider context than purely pastoral and spiritual. This has made my relationship with my CD even more vital for me to retain a sense of balance and proportion when dealing with 2 or 3 urgent items at any time.

    I have others to help but as volunteers like me they might not be immediately available meaning reflection on isolation using the pastoral cycle at least means there is God alongside me as I pray on what next?

    I am reminded of my military training where a process similar to reflection and resilience in decision making is the basis for all planning. It consists of vital questions being asked with th e on going one being “So What”. A connection with the pastoral cycle as we continue to monitor the progress of outcome and the cycle continues.

    Ministry is always in the context of the moment and when quick or urgent decisions might be necessary the discipline of the pastoral cycle and prayer enable us through God’s grace to cope.


  4. Thank you, Jennie. Resilience has also been much in my thoughts in terms of what we mean by it, and why it is now being sought in the Church. Is this a search for the fittest because we’re desperate to survive (echoes of Darwin)? Are the resilient people who joyfully cruise through life, ignoring difficulties, or those who somehow keep going despite their fingernails scraping down the side of the cliff as they seek a hold and their calls for help find no answer? I believe your comment about collaborative reflecting – ‘in community?’ – is key. There is a far greater individualism in the Church as well as society than was once the case, and I suspect that this has further increased with the advent of technology and social media – which can leave those who are not connected in this way isolated. Something is missing when Christians do not meet in fellowship – including and perhaps especially Christian leaders. A resilient Church must be a connected Church, just as a healthy body is one which is not just fit but functioning well neurologically.


  5. Thanks Jennie, I spend a lot of my time encouraging reflection in an educational setting, but you also took me back to my time as an accompanied self-appraiser for Ministers in our District. I had one particularly fruitful relationship which I think improved the reflection and resilience of both parties.

    As others have said, plenty of things to reflect on!


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