Fish Bowl Theology

Yesterday afternoon I returned from our annual orientation retreat for the school where I work. It is an especially rich affair, with the opportunity to put face to the names we have seen on application forms.  Everyone is appropriately nervous and a particular kind of energy hangs in the air.  And as people get to know people you can feel bridges being built.  It is a kind of engineering of the personal and communal, I think.


One of the things we did for the retreat last year on the Saturday night, and replicated this year, was an event called the fish bowl.  I first encountered it some years ago at a clergy retreat.  In sum, it involves a group of three or four – or more, I suppose but would not recommend it – folks sitting in a circle discussing a topic.  The larger group sits around the smaller group, and listens in on the chat, rather like many of us look in on a fishbowl – without intervening but observing carefully what transpires.  Last year it was suggested by one of our newer faculty members.  She brought it forward as a way to allow student to catch faculty in motion in response to some fairly common questions around the role of theology in the curriculum of students aiming to be psychotherapists.  It involved a group of four of us, two biblical scholars, a professor in the area of spiritual care and psychotherapy, and myself – a systematic and historical theologian.


My experience this year was a little nerve wracking, rather like last year’s.  I entered the circle feeling like I was, well, a fish in a bowl.  The moderator got the questions going.  As we talked in response, I found myself glancing at fish bowl observers, wondering how this comment landed or if that quotation flew.  I found myself distracted – in a fashion – by the context but soon enough the content took over.  One of my colleagues posed a point I disagreed with, and so I intervened in service of clarification.  Another raised an issue I was inspired to riff on for a bit.  I got drawn into the conversation, and soon I discovered that I was utterly unaware of those observing us.  I was in the moment, and if felt glorious.


Eventually, though, the timer called us out of the bubble-bowl that had established itself and we began to entertain queries from the curious cats looking at and listening in on us.  These included both requests for clarification about challenging ideas as well as expansions on ideas expressed.  It was all rather invigorating and one of the students mentioned to a faculty member that she came to the event weary but found herself energized.


In retrospect, we noted that the students had an opportunity to catch a snapshot of a film, a sliver of a long conversation that has been going on between faculty in manner that I would describe as healthy, good-natured and yet marvellously taxing.  We have been at this for a time, and all of us have changed in varying ways, as is wont for those who listen and speak with a measure of charity and a double measure of self-critique.  A kind of grace attended the event – a grace that left us strangely invigorated and yet exhausted at the same time.  I can only hope and pray that those looking on experienced something of this, taking from the fish bowl what they needed.

6 thoughts on “Fish Bowl Theology

  1. dianerivers says:

    What a fascinating exercise! I’ve never heard of this but I can see where it would be both distracting and enlightening. “Marvelously taxing” – a very interesting description. I can see how this could be helpful in other settings, as well.

    • agjorgenson says:

      It is very insightful, and the first one I “saw” was one in which I was on the outside looking in. There is was also difficult – not to jump in with this point or that!

  2. shoreacres says:

    I don’t know — the fishbowl as metaphor for anything doesn’t sound very pleasant to me, and fishbowl as an experience? It would have been interesting, for sure. Part of the problem, I suppose, is that “living in a fishbowl” has become an almost purely negative expression. It may well be — as your post suggests — that the experience would be quite different. In any event, it sounds as though it was good for you, and for the students, and that’s what counts!

    • agjorgenson says:

      I think what struck me the most was reaching a point where I was unaware of much, except the conversation and my fellow partners to it. But my guess is that the method might not work for all in our faculty. But you are correct in noting that it was interesting, and thankfully it was seemingly informative for our students.

      • shoreacres says:

        And that level of forgetfulness of those around you might be the best take-away of all. If all of us could experience a little more of that forgetfulness, we might not find the fishbowl so anxiety-producing!

  3. This sounds like a fascinating exercise….would be fun to replicate it!

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