“What does theology have to do with ministry?”

“What does theology have to do with ministry?”

Roberts, D Bruce

During the meeting of a theological field education group, a student was presenting an “Incident in Ministry” report involving the description of a conflict she was having with a member of the church. The church member was resisting the use of the church building for a program that the student wanted. The arguments were beginning to polarize and harden, and the student did not know what the problem was or what to do about it. At the point in the session when the other students are invited to help clarify the incident and to identify issues, the group began wondering about the psychology of the resisting church member. As the supervisor for the session, I intervened and asked the student to reflect upon her ecclesiology and the ecclesiology of the parishioner. Could it be, I asked, that the conflict is about two competing understandings of the nature of the church? The exasperated student responded by saying, “I want some help with this conflict, and you want to give me a lesson in systematic theology? What does theology have to do with ministry, anyway?”

The question is startling for theological faculty, but it is a real question for many students and deserves a response. The quick answer, of course, is that theology has everything to do with ministry and often is directly related to congregational conflicts. There are many reasons why pastors need to have a clear theological method, to have an acquaintance with theological movements, to understand historical issues that have affected the church, and to have at least begun to refine their own systematic theology. In order to limit the subject, this paper will suggest why theology is important for congregational analysis and leadership from the perspective of organizational systems thinking.


The idea and practice of examining organizations from the perspective of an ecological whole is not new and has had several names: philosophy of organism (Whitehead), general systems theory (Bertalanffy), synoptic method (Brightman), and genetic epistemology (Piaget). Systems thinking is, according to Peter Senge, “a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots.”‘1 Systems thinking is not a technique for management. It is, more than anything, a way of thinking about “any perceived whole whose elements `hang together’ because they continually affect each other over time and operate toward a common purpose.”2

Systems thinking does not look for linear cause and effect, it examines processes and relationships of components in a system. Each component in a system behaves in relationship to other surrounding components and will not behave the same way in different ecologies; therefore, an analysis of a person, an organization, a family, or even genes in a living organism must be thought of as part of an interdependent whole. Thinking holistically has been applied to an increasing number of fields of study and practice.

There are many ways to identify elements in a system. However, for the purposes of this paper, I want to identify five components of an organizational or congregational system that always function together as a whole: (1) entry or input, (2) internal transformational, (3) external impact, (4) context or environment, and (5) feedback or evaluation.

The entry or input subsystem identifies what and how a congregation takes in new energy from the environment in the form of members, money, technology, denominational affiliation, etc. The entry subsystem requires an intentional effort to identify ways energy is sought, invited, brought into, and utilized in a creative way on behalf of the whole.

The idea of utilizing energy from the entry subsystem brings us to the second systems component, the internal transformational subsystem. The transformational subsystem prepares energy for external impact in the environment in four ways. First is the central need for a purpose and mission. Everything else in the system depends for direction upon the sense of mission and purpose of the organization. If a strong sense of purpose is missing or vague, the system will falter and possibly fail. For a congregation, this will be an explicitly theological mission and purpose that is directly related to an analysis of the external environment or neighborhood that will be served.

I once heard Robert Payton from the Indiana University Center for Philanthropy make an interesting statement. He said that when an institution asks him to help raise funds, he asks the leaders to state the organization’s reason for being. If they cannot state the primary mission for the institution in clear, strong, and convincing ways, he suggests that the first step before fundraising is clarity of purpose. Such a mission/purpose will also indicate a direct relationship to the interests and concerns of the environment (I will return to the environment subsystem shortly).

The second part of the transformational subsystem is organizational structure. The question to be answered here is whether there are adequate structures to carry out the primary mission of the congregation. Is the way the congregation is structured coherent with the stated mission? And here I am not talking about the popular “mission statement” that gets produced and put on a shelf. I am talking about the real implicit and explicit reason the organization exists, the purpose that gives energy and direction to every other aspect of the congregation. If an energy-giving mission is not present, the organizational structures may become the primary reason for being! Fill all the committees and the job is completed! When this happens, there is usually little energy in the system. Mission is the key to building organizational structure irrespective of the practice in many congregations that organization seems to be the mission – a truly enervating practice (and possibly a reason for many declining churches).

Two other parts of the transformational subsystem have to do with fostering relationships among members and promoting spiritual development for and with individuals. How does a congregation foster or promote the development of friendships and relationships? How are new persons nurtured as they are brought into the system? How does the church help sponsor spiritual growth and prepare persons to explore and follow spiritual practices of prayer and meditation? How are persons assisted in learning and exploring the traditions and in discovering their personal gifts and individual callings to ministry within and on behalf of the whole congregation? A strong transformational system in a congregation will have answers to these questions in ways that are creatively appropriate to the congregation and to the neighborhood context. Promoting relationships and sponsoring spiritual growth are activities and processes that help prepare persons for the theological mission that forms the external impact intended in the mission. There is little lasting energy or motivation for spiritual and relational development without a clear sense of theological purpose.

The external impact subsystem is the active mission to the environment or neighborhood that the congregation hopes to influence. The impact subsystem is a direct result of a clear mission, effective organizational structures, and educational activities that help members identify appropriate ways they can participate in the theological mission of the congregation.

The primary question for the impact subsystem is whether or not the intended mission is having any effect. In order to find out, an evaluation or feedback subsystem must be in place. Data is intentionally gathered in order to determine how well the purpose is being fulfilled in the targeted context and how well the internal transformational process is preparing individuals and groups to carry out the mission. Evaluation works at a new understanding of the environmental context as well as at examining and determining how well the intended mission is doing. When there is a problem or when it becomes evident that the way the mission is being carried out is not producing the desired result, changes can be initiated. This kind of learning about the intended theological mission may result in rethinking the theological purposes as well as redirecting or reorganizing the mission itself. Learning from the practice of a theological mission may well lead to reexamination of a theological perspective as well as of a particular mission activity. Evaluative learning leads to changes in the whole system.

It will be evident at this point again that if the theological mission for the congregation is not clear, it will be impossible to do an adequate job of evaluation. Everything in the congregational system depends upon a clear, focused, and energizing theological mission.

It should also be clear by now that pastoral leadership requires competency in leading congregational processes that result in exciting, energizing, focused, and theologically appropriate missions. Pastors not only need knowledge of the Bible and of historic and contemporary theological movements, they need competencies in helping congregations and smaller groups analyze neighborhood contexts and develop appropriate shared theological missions, purposes, or visions for that context. Furthermore, when conflicts arise that are basically theological, pastors need knowledge and teaching skill in helping laypersons examine the alternative ways the biblical record and the historical church have dealt with and thought about these same issues.


Several conclusions may be drawn from an examination of systems thinking. First, all systems are complex. Multiple perspectives must be sought, because no single perspective is adequate. Not only may a single perspective be inaccurate, it may be wrong for the system or environment. Indeed, any solution to a problem in a system is both right and wrong at once. We have all experienced this in making decisions to solve one problem that inevitably creates one or more additional problems. In fact, a second conclusion and corollary to the idea of systems complexity is that no part of a system can be changed without affecting the whole.

Complexity requires a way of adjudicating between competing perspectives, truth claims, and assertions. The story at the beginning of this paper suggests that in most congregations there are usually multiple assertions about what is theologically true and about what is appropriate for the church to be doing. Leadership in such situations calls for a theological method for discerning God’s will and for determining what is theologically appropriate ministry in the given context.

It is important that pastors have in mind the way that they judge and weigh truth claims in their own thinking. A theological methodology, as a way of determining what is theologically true and what is appropriate ministry in a particular context, is a way of learning. Learning involves the same kind of weighing and judging, because persons want to learn only that which is thought to be appropriate or fitting. Of course, any conception of what is true is held with commitment as well as with a humble understanding that new information and research may render it obsolete. So it is in determining an appropriate action in a congregation; we must be constantly learning, judging, and evaluating our ministries for effectiveness and appropriateness. A clear theological methodology helps pastors lead congregations in clarifying theological missions and in critically exploring alternative actions for carrying out the mission.

Thirdly, since systems are complex and components are interrelated, we may safely conclude that systems thinking requires constant learning and experimentation. We need processes for ongoing learning within systems not only because we want to improve and refine the way we carry out our mission, but because all changes produce consequences in a system that were not anticipated; unanticipated consequences in the active mission and in the congregation itself are opportunities for critical reflection that may lead to adjustments or to changes in the way the theological mission is understood and formulated.

In recent years, several theological methods for ongoing learning within congregations have been developed. Some are referred to as practical theological methodologies. Don S. Browning suggests a “fundamental practical theology” which seeks a critical correlational dialogue of four theological movements: (1) descriptive theology, (2) historical theology, (3) systematic theology, and (4) strategic practical theology.3 Thomas H. Groome suggests a “Christian shared praxis” that is both an approach to Christian religious education and to general pastoral ministry.4 James D. and Evelyn E. Whitehead offer a model and method for discerning God’s will in pastoral situations demanding decisions about direction and ministry.5 Thomas E. Frank, more in the new literature of congregational studies than practical theology as such, proposes a way of helping a congregation develop an “ethnographic disposition”6 that involves similar “movements or rhythms”: observing, affirming and honoring traditions, theological and cultural contextualizing, analysis of competing cultures, and a generative creative movement that poses “words and images to evoke new energies and stir new hopes in the congregation.”7

Clark Williamson, writing as a systematic “post-Shoah” theologian, proposes a “conversational theology”8 that is an ongoing learning process within and for the church:

The purpose of [conversational] theology is to enter into conversation with such questions [about what we ought to do and why], to reinterpret the Christian faith in relation to the context in which we live, and to interpret that context in the light of the Christian faith, so that we can … have a conversation … about what God gives and calls us to be and do in this time and place.9

For Williamson, theology is a very practical discipline:

Theology thinks about practice and issues in new practice. It is a practical wisdom. As such it involves ontology … and ethics …. We are not finished with any theological point until we can talk about the difference it makes to how we see things and to what we intend to do. 10

These five works hold at least two points in common. First, they assume that theology is a practical process of discerning God’s will; it is community activity requiring conversation and interaction among and between persons. The methodologies all ground the examination of perspectives and truth claims and the adoption of particular missional activities in a public communal process. Second, the works all suggest processes through which appropriate responses in given contexts are determined, tried, evaluated, and changed. The steps range from three to six with sub-steps in between. They include: (1) describing an issue or problem; (2) contextualizing the issue with reference to Christian tradition and to cultural information; (3) critical analysis of the information and the issue; (4) constructive assertion of alternative actions; and (5) decision and strategy for action. Any action taken will be evaluated for further questions that lead back to the first step. Therefore, theology, as elaborated by these five theologians, is a way of learning similar to what Thomas Hawkins calls “knowing-in-action” that includes a circle of naming, analyzing, relating, deciding, planning, and back to name/analyze.11

The need for theological methods of learning and decision– making in complex congregational systems means that pastors will need skills in leading theological conversations and learning processes like the ones outlined above.


This brief paper has attempted to answer the question, “What does theology have to do with ministry?” from the limited perspective of organizational systems thinking. The conclusion is that creative and energizing ministry requires a clear theological method, knowledge of theological movements, an understanding of historical issues that have affected the church, and at least the beginning of a personal systematic theology.

Why is it, then, that at least some students continue to think that theology is impractical and irrelevant to ministry? Is it because of the way we have taught theology in theological schools and seminaries? Is this not a question that emerges from the practice of teaching in theological education? Is it a question that teachers in seminaries and theological schools could fruitfully explore by the application of the theological methods of learning outlined above? Our challenge as theological faculty will be to identify these kinds of questions in our teaching practices and, in Don Browning’s words, move “from present theory-laden practice to a retrieval of normative theory-laden practice to the creation of more critically held theory– laden practices”12 or, in Clark Williamson’s terms, have a theological conversation “about what God gives and calls us to do in this time and place” as theological educators.13

Let us resolve to accept that challenge!

1Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline (NY: Currency Doubleday, 1990), 68.

2Peter M. Senge, Charlotte Roberts, and Richard B. Ross, The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization (NY: Currency Doubleday, 1994), 90.

3Don S. Browning, A Fundamental Practical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 47-55.

4Thomas H. Groome, Sharing Faith: A Comprehensive Approach to Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), 146-154.

5James D. Whitehead and Evelyn E. Whitehead, Method in Ministry: Theological Reflection and Christian Ministry, rev. ed. (Kansas City, MO: Sheed and Ward, 1995), 3-19.

6Thomas E. Frank, The Soul of the Congregation: An Invitation to Congregational Reflection (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 169.


8Clark M. Williamson, Way of Blessing, Way of Life: A Christian Theology (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1999), 2-8.

9Ibid., 5.

10Ibid., 24.

11Thomas Hawkins, The Learning Congregation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 44.

12Browning, 7.

13Williamson, 5.

D. Bruce Roberts

Associate Professor of Christian Ministries Christian Theological Seminary

Copyright Christian Theological Seminary Winter 2002

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