Continued Conversations

and Transformative Knowledge

Practicing what we profess

Karen D. Scheib, Associate Professor of Pastoral Care and Pastoral Theology


For Its Own Sake
When knowledge isn't for sale

December 04/January 05

Vol. 7 No. 4
February/March 2005

Anatomy of a Lullaby
In Emory's growing sleep research program, scholars encounter mystery and paradox

Stealing breath and life
Sleep Apnea

We do have some very good people [in sleep research], and we’re gaining a critical mass to do this kind of work.
Donald L. Bliwise, Professor of Neurology, Program Director, Sleep, Aging and Chronobiology

I think there are valuable things we can learn about how plastic or mutable the circadian system is by looking at people who travel abroad and contend with jet lag, or people from different cultures.
Hillary Rodman, Associate Professor of Psychology

The Power of Sleep
Exploring disorder and disturbance
Kathy P. Parker, Edith F. Honeycutt Professor of Nursing

What’s A Few Drinks Between Friends?
Exploring the ancient drinking party with students
Peter Bing, Associate Professor of Classics

and Transformative Knowledge

Practicing what we profess
Karen D. Scheib, Associate Professor of Pastoral Care and Pastoral Theology

Further reading


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Is the goal of knowledge to shape practice? The answer depends on who you ask. In the last issue of The Academic Exchange, accounting professor Gregory Waymire states, “My work isn’t intended to affect practice; it is research for the sake of understanding.” Other scholars, however, note that the line between knowledge production and practice often blurs. This is particularly true when the source of knowledge is the study of practices. It may be difficult to avoid transforming practices—or at least to avoid thinking of their transformation as an outcome of studying practices.

As a “practicing” Christian pastoral theologian, I have grown increasingly curious about the relationship between what we proclaim in our worship and our lived practices of the church. While practices can be defined in a number of ways, I use the term “practice” to refer to patterns of human behavior that cohere over time and through which communities transmit meaning. My research is turning toward the examination of the practices of the Christian community. For example, I am interested in the concrete ways the Christian church lives out what and who it says it is. Do the lived practices of a congregation reflect its professed theology? To what extent do
larger cultural assumptions and beliefs shape these practices?

These questions first arose for me in the midst of an interview study with women aged sixty-five and older, the results of which were published in Challenging Invisibility: Practices of Care with Older Women (2004). The initial purpose of this study was to examine women’s lived experiences of aging in the larger culture as well as in Christian congregations. The interview questions touched on general life review as well as specific cultural perceptions of older women. Since all fifteen women were or had been active in Christian congregations of various denominations, I also asked specifically about their experiences of aging within these congregations. The impact of sexism and ageism in our culture on older women is well documented in the gerontological literature. Given this, I wondered, are churches good places for women to grow old?

For a few of the women in my study this was indeed the case. More than half of the women, however, all of whom had been active in church all their lives, felt overlooked, forgotten, or marginalized by these same congregations as they aged. This discovery raised the possibility of the disjunction between the beliefs members of a congregation might profess and beliefs it actually enacts through practices such as visitation and leadership recruitment.

The following stories of Jane and Sarah illustrate the ways they experienced marginalization through interactions and practices in congregations. In both cases, these acts of exclusion occurred not through publicly professed messages but through personal interactions and unexamined practices. These experiences were surprising and disturbing for these women.

At the age of ninety, Jane moved to an assisted living facility, having determined that living on her own was no longer the best option for her. At the same time, she also gave up her driver’s license. These decisions meant she was no longer able to attend the congregation to which she had belonged for some time. Yet she still considered herself a part of this congregation and continued to support its ministries through her financial contribution, which was sent automatically every month from her checking account. While she had not forgotten the church, she felt it had forgotten her.

Well, I have gotten depressed about that a few times. I told my minister one time when he came here. They don’t come much, just once in a while. The first time he came I said, “You know, I sure am glad you came because I had just about decided that with our church it was out of sight out of mind.” I told him that. I felt like as long as I was there everything was fine, but when you are not there, you are forgotten.

Sarah retired from full-time teaching in a middle school at the age of sixty-two. She looked forward to increased involvement in her local church, where she had enjoyed church leadership positions in the past. Unfortunately, Sarah did not find the church eager to utilize her gifts in leadership following her retirement.

This might sound strange, but I saw within a six-month period that I’d aged at least ten years from sixty-two to sixty-two and a half, because when I retired I was seen as whole new person—they just programmed me and put me over here. Leadership roles I had when I was fifty, I was still quite capable of handling. And I was seldom asked in comparison to those times. I’m not a great big deal different, but I know that at times I would be the first or second person called upon to do something that I could do and had done. It was as though I was stereotyped right up that stair step (of age).

I think congregations of which these women were a part might be quite surprised to hear of these experiences. As an active member in a congregation since 1972 and an ordained United Methodist minister since 1982, I assume it was not the explicit intent of these congregations to exclude these women through their practices of visitation and leadership recruitment. Since I did not interview church leaders or study the congregations of which these women were a part, however, I cannot determine what the congregations intended through their practices. My study did not examine the relationship between the professed beliefs of the congregation and its actual practices.

Practices, including religious practices, have theories or beliefs embedded in them. We often do not question the theories behind our practices, so we often do not look critically at what these practices actually communicate that might conflict with what we intend. Cultural beliefs and assumptions that may be at odds with Christian beliefs are also embedded in our religious practices. I believe that when older women experience exclusion of various forms, a conflict between professed theological assumptions and embedded, unexamined cultural assumptions is at work in congregations. Negative cultural attitudes about older women weave themselves into our practices.

Though we may profess values of inclusion within our congregations or affirm the theological conviction that all people are made in the image of God and thus are of worth, at the same time cultural stereotypes of older women as less competent and no longer relevant often infiltrate our practices. Without critical reflection on our practices, the church may unconsciously acquiesce to negative cultural attitudes about aging without subjecting these assumptions to Christian theological claims.

Research on practice has become of increasing interest not only to theologians, but to anthropologists as well. I am embarking on an empirical study of the practices of specific congregations to determine whether the embedded meanings and beliefs are consistent with the congregation’s publicly pronounced theological claims in preaching, church mission statements, and other documents. The purpose of this work is not simply to explore practices, but to transform both theory and practice. Critical reflection in lived practices of faith can expose what we really believe and lead to more adequate theories as well as transformed practices. Indeed, the line between theory and practice is often blurred. When we begin with the study of practice, it may lead not only to the generation of new theories, but to the regeneration of practice, as well.