It’s June—one of my favorite times of the year! Abilene has not yet hit the full blistering heat of August, and our Doctor of Ministry students were here this month for classes. These men and women are usually mid-career ministers and leaders from across the nation. They arrive with thoughtful questions, eager to engage with each other and with faculty to grow in the practice of mission-oriented leadership.
One word that speaks to the sort of leadership that congregational leaders seek is phronesis, or practical wisdom. This term, handed down from Greek philosophers and baptized by Paul in his Philippian letter, speaks to a way of being, thinking and feeling that leads to proper action. Phronesis is the wisdom drawn from experience, knowledge and insight to do the good and right thing in any particular context and moment.
Who doesn’t want to develop that capacity?
To be a person who possesses phronesis, or practical wisdom, may I suggest attending to the many sources that give life to practice? Practical wisdom is rooted in:
- Situated awareness—noticing and interpreting the particular context in which you are located at any given time.
- Emotional attunement—identifying and remaining aware of your emotions and the emotions of others.
- Critical thinking—developing the capacity to analyze and evaluate concepts, ideas and actions in a disinterested way to pursue what is true.
- Relational connectedness—nurturing a web of relationships as a mentor, as a mentee, with your peers and with trusted friends.
- Theological imagination—working with the narratives of Scripture to draw out God’s wisdom and empathy to shape Christian responses.
- Pastoral imagination—practicing a sometimes risky but always grace-filled engagement to partner with God’s redemptive purposes.
- Spiritual discernment—perceiving what is of God and what is not of God by spending time with him.
- Communal wisdom—recognizing that you’re not the first person to wrestle with this—you’re part of a community.
All of these ways to engage require practice and attention. Whether you are formally studying ministry and theology like the doctoral students on our campus earlier this month or whether you are deeply embedded in congregational life and leadership, the quest to be a person of practical wisdom is a real one. Perhaps one way to deepen the hunger for that quest is to suggest another look at the apostle Paul’s use of the word phronesis in the Philippian letter, when he encourages the Philippians to model their thinking, feeling and action on Jesus. The word isn’t obvious in English, but in Greek it is crystal clear. Paul says, “Let the same phronesis be in you as was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5). Wisdom, practical wisdom, indeed!
Dr. Carson Reed is Vice President for Church Relations at Abilene Christian University and Executive Director of the Siburt Institute for Church Ministry. He also serves as the Director for the Doctor of Ministry Program and holds the Frazer Endowed Chair for Church Enrichment in the Graduate School of Theology. Through the Siburt Institute, Carson does consulting work with congregations and church leaders across the country. His teaching and research centers on leadership, preaching, and issues surrounding faith and culture. Carson and his wife Vickie have been married for over 30 years and have four grown children.