That’s a question that my colleague Dr. Lee Ramsey and I have been engaged with over the past year. Lee and I serve on the faculty together at Memphis Theological Seminary. He teaches pastoral care & preaching, and I teach church history & Wesleyan studies. We’re both also ministers in the United Methodist Church—Lee currently serves as pastor of Elm Grove United Methodist Church in Burlison, Tennessee, and I am on the staff of Marion United Methodist Church in Marion, Arkansas.
About a year ago, Lee approached me about the possibility of a project to investigate the understanding of pastoral care embedded in the theology and practices of early Methodism. His idea was naturally interesting to me, and it immediately suggested the intersection of a number of topics: the history of early Methodism, John Wesley’s theology, the contemporary discipline of pastoral care, and the practice of Christian discipleship. I’ve long been convinced that Wesley’s account of the significance of Christian community for faithful discipleship is one of his signal contributions to Christian theology. So my initial impulse was to go into our joint investigation with an eye for how that aspect of Wesley’s thought might bear on a Wesleyan understanding of pastoral care.
Lee and I share a belief in the value of the “communal-contextual” model of pastoral care articulated by Dr. John Patton in his book, Pastoral Care in Context. That paradigm for pastoral care emphasizes the role of the caring community within pastoral care—with “caring community” being a congregation or some subset of it. The communal-contextual paradigm also sees as significant the role that various contextual factors play in the giving and receiving of care. By “context,” we would mean considerations such as: social factors like gender, race, and power dynamics; the need to recognize that theological commitments always play a role in the giving and receiving of care (and hence there is always an underlying theological context at play, whether recognized or not); or the concern to care for whole persons in all their particularity (as opposed to treating isolated diseases or dysfunctions). Much has been written about communal and contextual considerations within pastoral care in the last 30 years or so, even if the clinical-therapeutic paradigm that was so dominant throughout most of the 20th century still has a lot of influence as well.
When we set about to investigate pastoral care in the Wesleyan tradition, we had a number of interests. One was an historical interest in discerning where pastoral care was occurring in early Methodism itself—the forms it took, the counsel offered by Wesley and others about it, and the theology that underlay it. Another interest was in exploring the secondary literature written in the past few decades on topics ranging from Wesleyan pastoral care & counseling to health & medicine in Methodist history. (We were surprised early on to find that little has been written at anything longer than the length of a journal article. There are exceptions, but not many.) Finally we were interested in what kind of benefit a “traditioned” look at pastoral care might offer for the practice of pastoral care in the present. In other words, what might a specifically Wesleyan approach to pastoral care provide in terms of resources and possibilities for the church today? I see our project as falling within Dr. Patton’s account of the communal-contextual paradigm, but I also think our focus on a particular theological tradition gives what we are doing a unique flavor.
In the past year, the work in which Lee and I have engaged has developed (or is in the process of developing) a number of outcomes. One of these is some joint writing we’ve been doing that has been both enjoyable and enlightening. (I’ll likely post about this angle in more detail at a later date.) The outcome that is taking up most of our time at present is a course we are co-teaching at Memphis Theological Seminary this Spring semester entitled, “Pastoral Care in the Wesleyan Tradition.” In the course, we are inviting students to consider historical and contemporary expressions of pastoral care through a Wesleyan framework. You can see the syllabus for the course at this link.
We’re only three weeks into our Spring semester, so it’s probably too early to tell how well our course will go. But the early returns look good. Beyond that, we’ve also got a lot more reading and writing to do before we’ll feel like we’ve done justice to the topic itself. It’s been wonderfully fruitful, though, and this project has shown me how enjoyable cross-disciplinary work can be. My hope is that we’ll have something concrete to offer for pastors and laity by the time it’s all said and done.