I’ve written in the past about how instructive John Wesley’s Journal can be for understanding ministry in the present. Reading Wesley’s Journal is a part of my daily spiritual discipline, which also includes Scripture reading and prayer. And not uncommonly I will come across a real gem.
Take the following passage for example, which is from the year 1774:
[Wednesday, November 16th.] In the evening, I returned to Norwich. Never was a poor society so neglected as this has been for the past year. The morning preaching was at an end, the bands suffered all to fall in pieces, and no care at all taken of the classes, so that whether they met or not, it was all one. Going to church and Sacrament were forgotten, and the people rambled hither and thither as they listed.
On Friday evening, I met the society and told them plain I was resolved to have a regular society or none. I then read the Rules and desired everyone to consider whether he was willing to walk by these Rules or no. Those in particular of meeting their class every week, unless hindered by distance or sickness (the only reasons for not meeting which I could allow), and being constant at church and Sacrament, I desired those who were so minded to meet me the next night, and the rest to stay away. The next night, we had far the greater part, on whom I strongly enforced the same thing. Sunday 20, I spoke to every leader concerning everyone under his care and put out every person whom they could not recommend to me. After this was done, out of 204 members 174 remained. And these points shall be carried if only fifty remain in the society.”
This entry is remarkable for a number of reasons. For one, you see so many components of what Wesley believed authentic discipleship to be about—even though here he is being critical because in the Norwich Society at the time they seem to be falling apart. He talks about the regular morning preaching in the local Society, and he refers to the dedication to go “to church and Sacrament.” He also mentions the General Rules as the foundation of common life within the Society, as well as the bedrock small groups in which most Methodists met: classes and bands. And he alludes to the crucially important role played by class leaders in maintaining discipline and providing regular pastoral guidance for the members of the Society.
I would argue that this Journal entry is really about pastoral care. It is a reflection by Wesley on the kind of pastoral work necessary to help guide and sustain a group of people in their discipleship, as they strive to love God and one another. As usual, Wesley does not mince words on what he thought such a process required. As he says, he was “resolved to have a regular society or none.” The logic behind such a view may seem harsh on the surface, but it is actually full of compassion.
You see, in Wesley’s mind, we actually do spiritual harm to people if we allow them to delude themselves into thinking they are pursuing the way of salvation when they are actually just treading water spiritually (or worse—sinking so subtly they don’t realize they are drowning!). So the proper pastoral approach is to discipline your people, but to do so pastorally. You display for them all the resources of ministry that your community has to offer. And then you allow them to decide if they really want to be a part of that. If they do, then there is a reason for rejoicing. If they don’t, then you allow them to do something else. But what you don’t do is waste everyone’s time and allow them to believe anything spiritually beneficial is occurring through their nominal connection to a form of discipleship that requires a full bodied commitment.
Read the Journal entry again, and then think about your own church. How do we practice truly Wesleyan pastoral care today?