Mary Clark Moschella: Surprised by Joy

By Ray Waddle

Teaching an introductory pastoral care class some years ago, Mary Clark Moschella had covered a roster of important but grim themes—grief, trauma, poverty, substance abuse, racism, sexism, classism—when she saw the students were looking scared.

Moschella“The semester was nearly over when I walked into class one day and noticed their eyes—as if they were saying, ‘What is she going to hit us with next?’ ” recalls Moschella, who joined YDS in 2010 as professor of pastoral care and counseling.

“And I realized something was being neglected in this course: I wasn’t communicating the joy and privilege of pastoral ministry.”

Moschella decided to set aside serious time and thought to a central trait of Christian faith that somehow gets lost in life’s day-to-day drama and stress. She resolved to take a measure of joy—its meaning, its theological weight, its presence in communities of faith, its necessary place in practice, doctrine and seminary training.

“In pastoral care, we have to be prepared to face people’s difficulties, but it’s possible to become so crisis-oriented that we miss the joy in people’s lives, and we forget the power of God’s grace,” she says.

The neglect of joy, delight, wonder—the resistance to them—is a professional hazard in a pastoral vocation that is exposed to so much struggle and heartache in people’s lives. But that neglect brings its own hazards, she says. It stunts the range of responses that pastoral care can bring to a ministry of healing and presence.

“It is difficult for caring, sensitive people to fully relax and receive God’s gift of joy,” observes Moschella, “especially for those who are aware of the world’s great suffering and feel a duty to mitigate it. How can we be joyful when we know about the suffering that exists? But I’ve started to doubt that becoming miserable is going to improve the situation.”

In 2010, Moschella received a Henry Luce III Fellowship in Theology to study joy, examining it not as a distraction from grief but as an essential component in the full experience of life and faith. She gathered first-person accounts of religious leaders whose writings exhibit joy in this deep sense (one example is the Rev. Heidi Neumark at Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the Bronx, N.Y.). She drew on previous research in the psychology of religion, including Volney Gay’s Joy and the Objects of Psychoanalysis: Literature, Belief, and Neurosis and Peggy Way’s Created by God: Pastoral Care for All God’s People. She encountered the ideas of Henri Nouwen and his work with L’Arche communities, where disabled residents and their assistants live together guided by Gospel practices. Moschella visited the L’Arche outpost in France.

Her various research showed her that the capacity for joy can be nurtured and enlarged.

“It’s possible to establish more life-giving thoughts and make them habitual so that we don’t carry around extra burdens we don’t need,” she says.

From the writings of theologian Jürgen Moltmann she concluded that laughter, joy and play should be regarded as key elements in human liberation, so that “we are opened to more creative and life-giving responses to the needs that call out to us.”

“Creating space for joy is not a secondary matter or a frill, but a central pastoral practice, right at the heart of faithful and committed ministries, and right at the tender heart of God,” she wrote in her Luce address on the subject.

“As I understand it, joy comes down to this: to being awake and deeply alive, aware of the love and grace of God, and of the gift of life, both in and around us. Joy in pastoral ministry is the same thing, but magnified by the blessing of a high and holy calling that challenges one to step outside of one’s self into relationships of care and communion. The themes and practices that I have found that characterize joy in the settings I have studied include presence, attentiveness, gratitude, release, hope, creativity, liberation, and love.”

Moschella came to YDS after 10 years at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. Previously, for 13 years, she was a United Church of Christ pastor in congregations in Massachusetts. Her congregational and teaching experiences prepared her for research in another area of interest in recent years, which produced a groundbreaking book, Ethnography as a Pastoral Practice: An Introduction (Pilgrim Press, 2008).

“Pastoral ethnography,” as she defines it, is a congregational leadership tool, a strategy or process of attentive, systematic listening to church members. The goal of this partnership, usually over a period of months of structured sessions, is to build congregational trust and break down barriers in ways that can clarify the church’s mission or bring healthier communication and growth.

“It’s a way of offering pastoral care to a whole congregation,” she says. “It’s a way for the minister to hear the heartbeat of a congregation, learn their idiom, their favorite hymns, the Bible quotes they love, their history. If a congregation were a book, what would its title be? What would its themes be?”

In contemporary culture, old models of leadership—authority-centered, top-down, sometimes authoritarian—are yielding to expectations that leadership be shared and collaborative. People are less willing to defer. Pastoral ethnography reflects the shift.

“The way to make changes in a congregation is with and through people, not over against them,” she says. “That was my desire: to help make change possible, because people go into ministry not to keep the status quo but to see change. Pastoral ethnography is an attempt to lead with people. It assumes a leader is willing to learn as well as teach.” The listening sessions usually unearth deeper congregational textures and yearnings—sometimes-unexpected diversity or common threads despite appearances. The result can be a more honest relationship.

“People in the pew have theological insights and wisdom, though they sometimes don’t know they do or know how to talk about it. Both sides are changed by the process. The result is mutual respect.”

For her next writing project, Moschella turns to co-authoring with Elizabeth Walker a biography about African American pastoral-care pioneer Edward Wimberly, whose writings have focused new attention on pastoral dimensions of dignity and reconciliation.

Whatever her subject on the horizon of pastoral care, Mary Moschella aims to be alert to sources of God’s grace and the power of hope. “God is revealed in joy and beauty and wonder that sometimes emerge right in the middle of suffering and struggle,” she says. “I’m trying to give a little more prominence to experiences of God’s grace and not exclude them from pastoral theology and care.”

March 9, 2012
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