I have spent the past four years studying practical theology, seeking to understand its scope and aim in a way that is particular to my ministry. My initial understanding of Practical Theology (which you can read below) mirrored my textbooks. True to the work of Practical Theology, when I came back to this initial understanding, I found that it didn’t quite contend with what I had experienced in my four years of seminary.
In the context of the predominately white, middle to upper-middle-class outdoor ministry in which I have been practicing, I started to notice a pattern of ministry taking the form of chasing “mountain top experiences.” I’m sure you’ve seen this as well: a youth group trip to one location or another that comes with side effects of white savior complex, a once in a lifetime trip through the Grand Canyon that does little to help folx contend with the realities of their daily lives, an annual trip to a congregation’s favorite “thin place” which accidentally suggests that God is somehow less present at home.
This happens just as frequently in my personal life: the desire to explore and enjoy Creation takes me to beautiful places and peaks where the rush of the summit carries me down the mountain in a rush, unintentionally teaching myself a dualism between my reality and the beautiful places to which I escape.
When privileged congregations put their energy into achieving Instagram-worthy ministry moments, the integration of these experiences into the monotony of everyday life tends to fall through the cracks. This isn’t the result of explicit teaching that is harmful, but a lack of explicit teaching at all. The void of explicit teaching is itself implicit teaching. When explicit encouragement during the climb and summit overshadows the same careful direction on the descent, we are left with the implicit white supremacy this teaches.
Too often, the summit feeling that comes with these mountain-top experiences leads us to believe that our brief presence in a beautiful place gives us some tiny claim to it, that in climbing the mountain, we have conquered it. White folx have been obsessed with conquering for far too long, and we have got to give this up. We forget that in every beautiful mountain-top experience we are guests, not hosts. We forget that the land we explore does not belong to us. No matter how much effort we expended to get there the true goal is to leave, with no trace of our brief presence there. To depart with intentionality that prepares us for the life to which we return and reminds us that we are one of many players in God’s cosmic narrative.
Now, in no way am I trying to suggest a binary in which ministries and congregations never partake in mountain-top experiences, but I do want to suggest that the work of Practical Theology plays out in the descent.
One of my own mountain-top experiences took place in Sedona, Arizona. I went with a close friend during the January Term break of our first year at Columbia. I love to hike; I am also desperately afraid of heights. This usually doesn’t prove too much of an issue in the Appalachian Mountains where I grew up. Sedona, however, is Red Rock with very little vegetation along the trails. The vegetation that is present is scrubby and short, short enough that it offers little sense of comfort to those of us who are convinced that at any moment we are going to roll down the mountainside. Luckily, the friend I traveled with is not afraid of heights, so every time we began our journey down from a summit, she would walk in front of me and dictate where I should put my feet and how to position my body as I made my way down.
Most often, Mary Kate reminded me to walk gently, with intentional footing, as she chanted “soft knees, soft knees, soft knees” back up at me. This directive became my descent mantra. Rather than pointing myself straight down, I took my time, zigging and zagging with soft knees until I was close enough to the ground that I trusted that I would get all the way down in one piece.
How would our ministries be different if we understood our work as not just to accompany folks through their moments of summit, but to walk with them back down the mountain, offering guidance and support until it is so ingrained in them that they trust themselves to make it back to ground-level? If we intentionally spent time during and after ministry trips, joyous life events, and other mountain-top experiences to ensure people have what they need on the long and slow journey back toward days that feel ordinary? If we spoke openly about the fact that our expeditions into unfamiliar areas of the natural world are also expeditions into someone’s or something’s home, often on land that was stolen from indigenous peoples? If we acknowledged that there is a cost for our curated experiences, and when we aren’t intentional about integration on the way down that cost is paid entirely by the native inhabitants of that area?
Practical Theology certainly happens during the metaphorical climb and summit, especially for communities who have been prohibited the same access to mountain-top experiences. In the white church context, I maintain that Practical Theology is at its best when it teaches people to descend well.
Sorry Miley, in this case, it’s not the climb.
Head Gardener – Farm Church
2017 UKirk Alum
2022 Columbia Theological Seminary Alum