July 10, 2023
by David Woolverton, Kairos Affiliate Professor
Over the last several weeks, we have been looking at some of the tools, best practices, and creative and relevant skills that faculty mentors need in order to facilitate each student’s educational journey. Specifically, we focused on “The Art of Asking Questions,” and listening with “Three Ears,” each of which reflects what we are calling the main Indicators of Faculty Mentor Competence.
In today’s post, we’re going to look at the third Indicator—Observation—and what it means for us to “go to the balcony.”
The Indicator of Observation has a primary target. The best faculty mentor:
Over time, can identify and summarize the underlying and overarching themes and patterns that emerge in students.
For me, the major boost in my own spiritual formation occurred in college—specifically, through the campus ministries of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF). It was largely through IVCF, and their resources from the Navigators and NavPress, that I learned how to study and apply God’s Word. I still remember (and use often) their initial frame of “Observation–Interpretation–Application.”
Observation taught me to look at what’s going on in the passage, what do I see in the details, what do I see in the larger sections within which that passage occurs? Laying out the observation details then allowed me to begin the Interpretation phase—what might this passage have meant back in its original context, what might it mean for me today? Commentaries helped with doing the Interpretation phase, as did Bible dictionaries, and other reference books (the internet did not exist pervasively back in the early 1980s!). Interpretation then would lead to Application—what am I going to do with what I’ve learned, what impact is this passage having on my daily walk with the Lord?
Since then, I have applied the principles of Observation–Interpretation–Application to many other facets of life and ministry. I have modified them for use when I lead within conflict situations, when I do pastoral care and counseling, and when I engage in leadership and strategic planning. It’s really quite fascinating what I have been learning through these steps.
And it all begins with taking in the bigger picture of what’s going on.
The skills related to Observation link directly, but not exclusively, with active listening and asking great questions. Within our Kairos context, Observation helps us look at the larger story, the bigger picture behind each student’s discipleship journey. In relatively recent leadership language, it’s the story that’s best discerned by “going to the balcony.”
In their brilliant 2002 Harvard Business Review article, “A Survival Guide for Leaders,” Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky introduce the leadership concept of “moving from the dance floor to the balcony.” It’s a concept that would return with greater depth in their Adaptive Leadership Theory posed in their 2009 book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership —an intriguing concept designed to help leaders and organizations adapt to change, especially in seasons of conflict or significant transition.
In a nutshell, their theory suggests that it’s often best for leaders to “get above” the situation at hand, to sufficiently distance themselves from the reactive levels of their own anxiety within that situation, and to discern the “story behind the story.” Moving to the balcony, they suggest, alters a leader’s perspective on their situation, giving them a better vantage point to determine what’s going on and what is the most productive next step to take.
In other words, they suggest that leaders do the Observation and Interpretation steps before launching into Application to “fix” the problem.
In the context of their work with students, faculty mentors work hard at “going to the balcony.” They not only understand that each student has a life, a faith, a job, a ministry, a family (with all of its family dynamics), a history, and a calling beyond their studies, they also strive to “connect the dots” of all those contexts with their student’s studies. Competency-based theological education assumes that each student comes with a constellation of life experiences within which the Lord has been working already to prepare the student for the next phases of their life and ministry.
Faculty mentors, therefore, are challenged to “go to the balcony” with their students as they engage in conversations with them, or within their post-meeting reflections.
There are a few important parameters that faculty mentors engage when making Observations from the balcony:
1) Anxiety is often an invitation to curiosity. Not everything presented by a student or a mentor team is to be resolved by the faculty mentor. In fact, some conflicts, some questions, some doubts are all part of the student’s learning, discipleship, and leadership development. A student’s anxiety about a situation may provoke the necessary steps in their spiritual formation; to resolve it for them might inadvertently sabotage their opportunity for growth. Therefore, faculty mentors need to gauge the “barometric pressure” of the situation. Going to the balcony allows the faculty mentor to see the bigger picture of that student’s capacity—what should be the student’s responsibility in spite of their seeming unreadiness versus what level of anxiety may push the student toward emotional, spiritual, mental or existential paralysis.
2) Faculty Mentors may need to resist their own problem-solving skills. Jumping in to troubleshoot, teach, or solve problems is not only exciting, it’s also enticing for faculty mentors. Our faculty mentors are great people who are highly skilled in their own right. Yet, we must remember that rather than being problem solvers, our role is to create safe environments for students to rise to the occasion or to fail—and to learn from both.
3) Balcony Observations inform the questions that we ask and the reflections that we make. There is a reason that each student is asked to “define proficiency” early on in their development path. Doing so sets a direction for mentoring. One of the best ways a faculty mentor can guide students on their educational path is to help them gain and maintain a larger view of their journey:
From the assignment to the course objectives
From the course to the outcome’s targets
From the targets to the student’s definition of proficiency
From proficiency to the degree or certification
From the degree to their ministry, life, work context
From their context to Kingdom mission
And all of that in reverse as well!
Faculty mentors maintain a balcony view of the student’s larger journey and, over time, can identify and summarize the underlying and overarching themes and patterns that emerge.
4) Observations are best made:
With humility. We might be wrong. We might be right. We need to walk prayerfully, yet directly into the sacred space of each student’s discipleship. All Observations must be filtered through the sieve of love and grace as, mutually, we stand at the foot of the Cross of Christ.
In the form of a question. It’s not our life story, therefore our observations are one form of feedback that the student receives to facilitate their discernment, self-awareness, and growth. We ask so that we may respect the student’s readiness to receive, reflect, and respond.
With the intention of adding value to the student, not to ourselves. If our observations do not add value to the student, their educational process, or faith development, then perhaps they do not need to be shared.
The skills of Observation equip us for the next competency Indicator—Documentation. We turn our attention to that skill next week.
 Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, “A Survival Guide for Leaders” in Harvard Business Review, June 2002, accessed May 31, 2023, https://hbr.org/2002/06/a-survival-guide-for-leaders.
 See Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (Harvard Business Press, 2009).