Last month, twelve students and six faculty members came together on the campus of Duke University to participate in an exciting weekend of generative dialogue. Sponsored by the generous support of Valparaiso University, a group from Duke, Emory, and Vanderbilt Universities participated in an intentional time of sharing and discourse on religious practices and practical theology. Each university volunteered four doctoral students and two faculty members. Though the participants work in a variety of areas within the theological academy, their work overlaps at the intersection of religious practices and practical theology. This year’s gathering is the third of its kind, meeting every other year first at Vanderbilt and then at Emory. Like the previous gatherings, this conversation helped its participants articulate how each institution tends to approach the study of religious practices and practical theology. Below we offer, in each student’s own words, some of the key takeaways from that meeting. Each of these doctoral students served as the student liaison from his or her respective institution and assisted in the design of the weekend.
Liz DeGaynor (Th.D. Student, Duke Divinity School)
When I attended the gathering in 2010 as a first-year doctoral student, I was hoping for a sense of place. It was helpful for me to be exposed to three programs with similar goals (e.g., cultivating the exploration of embodied lives of religious faith), but accomplished through distinctive curricula and unique visions. Along with getting the lay of the land, however, I was also given the gift of community with a collegial group of scholars at various stages of academic progress. Both of these were deepened in 2012. I now understand more fully the breadth and depth of practical theology, and the myriad ways its methodology is implemented in different fields of work and across disciplinary lines. Furthermore, friendships marked by honesty, transparency, and willingness to be challenged in order to be transformed are a rare gift. I am hopeful that many of the relationships fostered during these gatherings will continue as we follow our vocational paths into the job market, the tenure-review process, and the publishing world, but also into the midst of any learning community in which we live and serve.
Jake Myers (Ph.D. Candidate, Emory University)
This was my second opportunity to enter into intentional conversation with my colleagues at Duke and Vanderbilt Universities on religious practices and practical theology. The most profound takeaway from the 2010 gathering was a heightened appreciate for the range and diversity of the field. Having been exposed to the breadth of work being done at the intersection of religious practices and practical theology, I left that meeting better aware of the different approaches to the academic study of religious practices, in particular. At the 2012 gathering at Duke University, I left with a deeper appreciation for the role of the academic with regard to his or her work in religious practices and practical theology. This was largely facilitated by the transparency the faculty participants exhibited this year. Each scholar, in his or her own way, displayed a level of vulnerability in discussing his or her scholarship and teaching. I was thus able to sense the ways in which my own personal and scholarly formation are ingredient in my future work in religious practices and practical theology. I greatly appreciate the support we have received from Valparaiso and hope that meetings such as these will continue in the future.
Daryl Ellis (Ph.D. Candidate, Vanderbilt University)
My primary takeaway from the weekend was just how rare the kind of academic collegial setting is that we were able to participate in all weekend. The quality of conversations were more honest and transparent, while simultaneously being marked by far less competitiveness, than the vast majority of academic contexts in which I normally find myself. The result was that we were freed much more fully to engage the subject matter itself—practical theology and theological education—and the quality of the results of our work/conversations were of such a high quality that directly corresponded to this sustained attention. Upon further reflection, I have concluded that the uniqueness of this space likely stems from at least two characteristics of the participants in our gathering: (1) our interdisciplinary nature freed us from many of idiosyncratic and competitive distractions that can mark intradisciplinary gatherings that are often designed with ends akin to this one; and (2) despite all of our different accents on the missions of our programs, I also tend to think that the productivity of our time together is also a direct result of the reality that even though we continue to wrestle towards an authoritative statement of our shared mission, we do in practice genuinely share in something of a common mission in practical theology that propels our work and our conversations forward with an unusual creativity and innovation.