Leah Thomas, PhD, blends an academic focus on pastoral care and Christian social ethics with professional experience in hospital chaplaincy, pastoring and nonprofit management. Her ministry and theological commitments inform her teaching and research, which carefully attends to and incorporates voices excluded by the dominant culture, asking how these voices inform and shift caregiving. Leah’s research interests include anti-racist and intercultural pastoral care, trauma, culture, and the role of embodiment in caregiving and Christian spiritual practices. Her desire to teach at AMBS is rooted in a commitment to peace, justice and anti-racism in a world that is reeling from disparity, injustice and divisiveness.
How does the Bible shape your vocation as a professor?
The sacred stories of the Bible speak to us about the ways our ancestors in the faith made meaning of their experience of a transcendent creator God who chose to come close enough to walk with them. We bring many lenses to biblical texts, and those whom we accompany as pastoral caregivers also bring their own history, lenses and interpretations. As a caregiver, it’s important to be able to recognize and converse with our own readings of the texts so that we can better appreciate how the Bible functions in the lives of those seeking care. At times, our reading of certain texts may reveal God as knowable and intimate. At other times, awareness of scholarly theological perspectives, culture and context informs and challenges our understanding. Many times we may be holding both of these! It is important to inquire about how our context shapes our readings of texts, and to put this into dialogue with the ways that the context of the care seeker/community informs their reading of texts. This practice enables us to offer care that integrates sensitive, culturally-informed perspectives on the Bible, while also recognizing Bible’s power to transform lives and communities toward peace and justice.
What can students expect in your classroom?
In the classroom, I value the rich and varied experiences of students’ lives. I encourage students to bring their own wisdom into the room to create a mutual, intersubjective learning environment in which we are all contributing to something “larger than ourselves.” The text (or other resource) becomes the thing around which we gather, each bringing his/her/their experience and unique history to enable the community to engage with this resource in new and complex ways. I draw on practical techniques such as roleplays, verbatims and embodied exercises, coupled with critical thinking and theological reflection, to help us approach caregiving from a holistic perspective.
Why is it important for you to integrate diverse voices into your teaching?
The field of pastoral care in particular has historically failed to address systemic racism and white privilege, which morally restricts and damages caregivers, care seekers and communities in numerous ways. As such, it is necessary to draw on the voices of more recent pastoral care scholars from a variety of social locations who are committed to undoing oppression. These resources enable students to explore the impact of intersections of culture, gender, race, sexuality, ability and class on both the individual pastoral encounter and pastoral care within the wider community. My approach to pastoral care also explores the structures, institutions and processes that surround an encounter and the ways they affect the situation. This approach invites us to recognize, however, that information about culture can never be a substitute for the uniqueness and sacredness of a particular encounter.
My goal for students
- My goal for students is to develop an approach to caregiving as a practice that honors both the full humanity of the individual person and the complexity and intricacy of the community of which that person is a part. I also want them to experience caregiving as integrally connected with larger systemic realities.
- I want students to leave AMBS with the ability to practice caregiving that inhabits and contributes to peace, anti-racism and intercultural awareness.
- I want students to be the kind of people who are attentive to the promptings of the Spirit as they embody the inclusive welcome of Christ for all people, accompanying individuals and communities through the joys, struggles and crises of their lives.
- In process: “Restitutio Divina: A Somatic Practice of Biblical Interpretation” (article), with Stephanie Day Powell.
- In process: Review of Teaching Sexuality and Religion in Higher Education: Embodied Learning, Trauma Sensitive Pedagogy, and Perspective Transformation, Darryl Stephens and Kate Ott, eds., Routledge Research in Religion and Education series (April 2020) in Theology and Sexuality.
- Just Care: Ethical Anti-Racist Pastoral Care with Women with Mental Illness (Lexington/Fortress, 2019).
- “Sex and Religion: Feminist Views,” Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion (Springer, 2012).
- “The Witness of the Early Church and the Question of Women’s Ordination,” New Woman, New Church 24.5 (2002).
- “Young Feminist Network Explores Witness of Women Working for Change,” New Woman, New Church 24.3 (2001).
- 2017, The Reverend Robert W. Edgar Dissertation Prize for Social Justice, Drew University
- 2013, Faculty Award for Most Outstanding Teaching Assistant, Drew University
- 2012, Bishop Edmund Award for Excellence in Coursework, Drew University
- Pastoral Care
- Anti-racist and intercultural pastoral care
- Trauma and trauma-informed caregiving
- Somatic practices for addressing trauma
- Embodiment in Christian spiritual practices and pastoral care