Monday, October 17, 2011

Methodist Ecclesiology and Pastoral Care

     The United Methodist Church is grounded in the belief that all followers of Jesus Christ are called to continue His ministry of service (diakonia) to the world (BOD ¶305). That service comes, in part, in the various forms and methods of pastoral care. Two key components set the Methodism apart, but not above, other faith traditions, the Wesleyan understanding of grace, and an emphasis on community. The purpose of this paper is to explore the history of pastoral care in Methodism, to highlight the United Methodist Church’s ecclesiology and beliefs on pastoral care, and to compare the Church’s history and beliefs with my understanding and practice of pastoral care.
     Pastoral care has been an important part of Methodist belief and practice since the days of John and Charles Wesley (ca.1725-91). The Wesley’s believed the Church of England was failing to live into its purpose as the body of Christ. They also felt the Church had distanced itself from the poor and marginalized, and had turned a blind eye to the societal sins of greed, human exploitation, and moral depravity (Carder 4). John Wesley and the early Methodist did not intend to break with the Church of England and form a new denomination when they began to organize the Methodist movement. Instead, they sought to reform a nation and to revive the spirit of God within the heart of the Anglican Church (Carder 96). Over time, that reform and revival resulted in several new denominations, one of which was the United Methodist Church.
     Given Wesley’s intent belief that it is the responsibility of the church to help people “experience and live the grace of God and to grow in their knowledge and love of God” (Carder 4), one could argue that pastoral care was at the center of the early Methodist movement. Wesley emphasized studying scripture, regular participation in Holy Communion, small group membership, Christian accountability, and ministry to the poor and to prisoners (Carder 69).

     These were Wesley’s methods for guiding, healing, sustaining, and reconciling individuals and groups both within in the church and outside of the church. Pastoral care in the Wesleyan tradition is the responsibility of both ordained clergy and lay members of the church (Carder 3). For Wesley, pastoral care could take place in worship, through the sacraments, or within the accountability groups. Each of these activities, along with prayer and acts of mercy, were seen by Wesley as opportunities for a person’s heart to be opened to the grace and love of God. Wesley labeled these moments of opportunity “means of grace” (Wesley).
     According to David L. Watson, in his article “Methodist Pastoral Care,” the two most noteworthy contributions John Wesley made to pastoral care were his theology of grace and his innovative use of Christian accountability groups (Watson). Watson refers to Wesley’s theology of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace as “The Path to Perfection” (Watson). Within this context, Christian discipleship develops through an individual’s response to God’s grace. Discipleship begins with justifying grace, described by Watson as a “critical point of surrender” (Watson). The give and take between the individual and God continues as the believer matures through sanctifying grace toward the goal of Christian perfection. This give and take is, at times, a struggle in which the believer both gains and looses ground. Pastoral care takes place in assisting the believer to discern God’s will and in guiding them on the way to Christian perfection (Watson).
      Wesley’s Christian accountability groups were critical in providing pastoral care to disciples on the “path to perfection” (Watson 722). Group meetings created opportunities for providing pastoral care. Disciples gathered together to share intimately in each other’s daily faith journey and to sustain and encourage each other. Through direct questioning, group members guided and corrected each other in living out their faith commitments. When a member failed to uphold the standards of discipleship, the group intervened, requiring correction, which brought on healing and reconciliation (Watson 721).
     The Methodist movement played a pivotal role in bringing about much needed social reform in England. This occurred because of the work the Methodist did in serving the poor and marginalized and also because of the work God did through the Methodist in reviving the church and setting people’s hearts afire with the Holy Spirit. That spiritual fire leapt across the Atlantic to America, where the Methodist movement became the Methodist Church (Carder 4).
     To understand pastoral care within the United Methodist Church, one must consider the ecclesiology of the Church. The ecclesiology of the United Methodist Church is not easily defined, not even by a presiding United Methodist Bishop, who once wrote “one of the least well-defined areas of United Methodist doctrine is ecclesiology” (Jones 246). However, the Preamble to the United Methodist Constitution gives some insight, stating:
     The church is the community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ. …in which the Word of God is preached by persons divinely called, and the sacraments are duly administered according to Christ’s own appointment. Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the church seeks to provide for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers, and the redemption of the world (BOD 21).
     This statement suggests the Church’s ecclesiology leans heavily toward the Institutional model, as understood from Avery Dulles’ Five Models of Church. However, Church doctrine also describes Christian ministry as “an expression of the mind and mission of Christ” which is a “ministry of servanthood…” (BOD ¶125).
     The church as instution is “marked by proper preaching of the word of God and where the sacrements are duly administered” (Collins 240). While at the same time the church is presented as a people set apart as holy because their “Savior is holy” (Collins 240). Ministering as servants because Christ did not come to be served, but to serve (Matt. 20:28).
     Based on that description, and using Avery Dulles’ Five Models of Church, I would say the United Methodist Church can be described as a “Servant Institution.” The church as servant strains against the institutional church in the quest to be relevant to a culture that changes faster than the church as institution can change.
     The United Methodist Church, as institution, makes many provisions for servant leadership. Clinging to the Wesleyan belief that the Sacrament of Holy Communion is a means of grace, the Church invites all to Christ’s Table (BOD ¶103; XVIII, XIX). Worship, rituals, and rites including services of marriage, death, and confirmation also provide opportunities for grace to enter into peoples lives. For this reason, pastors and worship leaders should attend faithfully to the traditions of the church and maintain the holy dignity of these events (Killen). The pastor represents both God and the church during these specail occasions, and should conduct the event in such a way as to allow room for the Holy Spirt to work. Pastoral care is extended to all of the participants in the event through the holy and loving acts of the pastor.
     John Wesley is often quoted as saying, “there is no religion but social religion, no holiness but social holiness” (GBOD). The church exists as a community of believers, gathered together through Christ, to be “a light to the world, a beacon of God’s coming kingdom brought near in Jesus Christ” (Carder 96-7). Individual members live out the truth of their salvation, by God’s grace, publicly, through good works and holy living (Carder 70). Membership in the body of Christ, the church, means more than just belonging. Members are accountable to the community and the community is accountable to individual members. These concepts were foundational to Methodism and are a part of the United Methodist Church’s history and present day doctrine.
     I believe the church is the body of Christ, alive and at work in the world today, and is called to continue the work begun by Christ until His triumphant return. To that end, the church is an instrument of God’s love meant to proclaim the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and to build up the body of Christ by making disciples of all people. I believe the best way to discern God’s will in living out this call is through scripture, tradition, experience, and reason (John Wesley’s famous quadrilateral) (Koehler 64).
     The beliefs I hold began as a desire for a certain type of relationship with God. Before I knew anything of John Wesley, I knew a lot about God’s grace. Before I knew anything of the “Connectional Mission” of the United Methodist Church, I knew a lot about the power of God to change lives by working in and through community. I am a United Methodist not because it is a better religion but because through Methodism I am a better Christian.
     My Methodist beliefs form the foundation for my practice of pastoral care. I believe that the institutional characteristics of tradition and order can create an atmosphere of stability that serves to guide and sustain believers in times of trouble and doubt. I also believe that service to others allows for reconciliation and healing to occur within a person’s spirit and certainly within families and communities.
     I believe the mysteries of faith experienced in Holy Communion, worship, and prayer serve to calm the fears brought about by the mysteries and uncertainties of human existence.
     God has allowed me to experience grace and has also called me to help connect others to God’s grace by leading the church in Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service as an Ordained Elder (BOD ¶332). The church does not exist for itself but is “to be present in the world on behalf of the God by whose grace it has been called into existance” (Carder 96). It is my hope that those who witness me providing pastoral care will themselves be cared for and then go on to care for others. It will be my responsibility to remind my churches of the history and importance of Wesleyan grace and church as community. Preaching grace and building community are not important because they will help insure the future of the churc. Grace and community are
important because they will help the church in doing God’s work here and now.

Works Cited

BOD. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. Ed. L. Fitzgerald Reist and et al.
     Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2008.

Carder, Kenneth L. Living our Beliefs: The United Methodist Way. Nashville: Disciple
     Resources, 1996.

Collins, Kenneth J. The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace.
     Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007.

GBOD. The United Methodist Church: Global Board of Discipleship; Our Wesleyan Theological
     Heritage. January 2011. October 2011 .

Jones, Scott J.United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center.Nashville:Abingdon Press, 2002.

Killen, James L. Jr. Pastoral Care in the Small Member Church. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005.

Koehler, George. United Methodist Members Handbook; Revised. Nashville: Decipleship Resources,2006.

Watson, David L. "Methodist Pastoral Care." The Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling.
   Ed. Rodney J. Hunter. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005.

Wesley, John. "Means of Grace; Sermon 16." January 2011. General Board of Global
     Ministries:The United Methodist Church; The Sermons of John Wesley. October 2011

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