Karen Scheib: Modeling Care through Compassion, Challenge, and Creativity


Claire Asbury Lennox
May 8, 2020

Karen ScheibIn a recent Facebook post, several members of Candler’s Class of 2020 brainstormed what their virtual graduation might look like in light of the coronavirus pandemic. One of the most liked hypothetical suggestions in the comments was “Dr. Karen Scheib leading the Wobble.”

The hip-hop dance is popular at weddings and other big gatherings that have been put on hold due to COVID-19. Perhaps unexpectedly, it has also made its way into Professor of Pastoral Care and Pastoral Theology Karen D. Scheib’s Candler classroom as an outlet to relieve students’ stress and boost their energy. It’s one of many reasons why Scheib is a beloved and important figure for two decades’ worth of students.

Scheib came to Candler in 1998. An ordained elder in The United Methodist Church, she pastored congregations in California and Tennessee for 13 years before earning her PhD and entering higher theological education. Since then, she has been a leader across Candler and Emory University: director of Candler’s Women, Theology, and Ministry program; faculty advisor to Candler’s Emory Korean Graduate Student Association (EKGSA); a catalyst behind Emory’s interdisciplinary work in religion and health; a faculty member in Emory’s Graduate Division of Religion; and a teacher in the Atlanta Theological Association’s former Doctor of Theology degree program.

Amid these many roles, Scheib says, “I’ve been blessed with wonderful colleagues at Candler, including excellent colleagues in pastoral care. And I’ve had the privilege of working with exceptional students over the years. What I will most miss is my work as a teacher and mentor.”

Students and faculty alike will certainly miss her in return. Through the years, Scheib has earned mentoring awards from Candler’s Black Student Caucus and Korean Graduate Student Association. She has also won the Emory Williams Distinguished Teaching Award, the highest teaching honor granted by Emory University.

WEB-Scheib-Award-300px.jpgHer subject matter holds a unique position in Candler’s curriculum that has enabled her to engage with each entering MDiv class. “Because I teach Pastoral Care 501 every fall, I encounter first-year students when they are adjusting to seminary and Contextual Education. I see them struggle and grow at their sites, and get to watch them mature over their remaining years at Candler.” A first-semester course with Scheib has been just what students need to kickstart their seminary experience.

Daniel Reffner 20T was a student of Scheib’s in his first year and went on to be her teaching assistant. He notes her natural ability to balance compassion with challenge. “Her innately pastoral demeanor cared deeply for us as students in transition, while also challenging us to critically evaluate our theological assumptions for the sake of being better caregivers. Her generous encouragement, pragmatic advice, and theological depth undeniably helped countless students step boldly into their pastoral identity.”

One such student was Noah Herren 17T. Like most first-year students, he took Scheib’s course while settling into his Con Ed I placement. “Most of us were assigned to prison contexts, so grasping the internal and external nuances of pastoral care was extremely important. Dr. Scheib’s gift to our class was helping us learn the importance of becoming acquainted with our own unique story. She was able to weave together theory, creative exploration, and pastoral care practice in a way that showed me how to navigate my internal landscape throughout the challenges of seminary and ministry.”

Now the pastor of Atlanta’s St. Luke Lutheran Church, Herren says, “I can say without a doubt that her integrative approach and immersive commitment to her field has had a profound effect on my growth as an individual and a spiritual leader.”

WEB-ScheibDancing-300px.jpgAllison Henderson-Brooks 19T speaks for many when she credits Scheib with setting the trajectory for her fruitful Candler experience. “She welcomed us into her classroom with the affirmation that all of our stories mattered. She showed us the power of active listening, the necessity for laughter, and the levity gained by dancing away stress.” (Remember the Wobble?)

For David Cho 15T 20G, everything about Scheib’s classroom experience—from the atmosphere of cultural awareness and respect to her curriculum and assignment choices—shows her care for students of all backgrounds, particularly those on the margins. “Dr. Scheib’s deep commitment to creating an inclusive learning environment has defined her teaching. In equipping future faith leaders, she has created sacred space where all students have equal access to learning and feel valued and supported in pursuing their vocational goals.”

Scheib hasn’t limited this approach to the classroom. John Barnes 17T 18T praises her prophetic preaching and ministry of presence that enrich her commitment to inclusivity. “Dr. Scheib’s unwavering commitment to students of color gave me the assurance that my voice and experience were witnesses to the faithfulness of God and that I should be proud to share them with the world,” he says.

And Scheib is, first and foremost, a pastor herself. Mona Pineda 16T experienced this firsthand when her father died during her time at Candler. “At the funeral home, Dr. Scheib showed up early and stayed late. She sought me out every few minutes, making sure that I was not overwhelmed. I felt protected and encouraged by her presence. She offered neither advice nor platitudes; she was just with me. I am grateful for the theories and methods that she taught me, but the most long-lasting lessons sprung from the example she set when she came to grieve my father with me.”

The cornerstone of Scheib’s legacy is arguably her 21 years as faculty advisor to Candler’s Emory Korean Graduate Student Association (EKGSA), where she has forged enduring connections with Korean students and alumni. Guhyun Kwon 06T says that for Korean students at Candler, Scheib was “our advisor, mentor, and mom. We could go to her classroom and cry like a baby.”

“Her committed and affectionate relationship with many generations of Korean students at Candler has been quite extraordinary,” says David Cho. “She has been the key leader who continues to strengthen Candler and Emory’s historic ties to South Korea, which include relationships established by former dean and Emory president, Dr. James T. Laney.”

WEB-Scheib_Sunlin-300px.jpgScheib has been involved in the lives of Candler’s Korean community on both sides of the world. She has traveled to Korea six times representing the school, including as the organizer of Dean Jan Love’s first trip there in 2011. She has lectured and taught at Methodist Theological University, Yonsei University, and Seoul Women’s University. And she has preached throughout South Korea, including multiple times at Seoul’s Sun-Lin Methodist Church, where Guhyun Kwon serves as senior pastor.

“Putting into words Dr. Scheib’s influence on my life is the hardest homework I’ve ever had to do,” says Kwon, a member of both Candler and Emory’s alumni boards. “Fourteen years after graduating from Candler, she is still deeply engaged in my life, reminding me what a true caregiver and practitioner of pastoral care and counseling looks like.”

Through the three books and numerous articles she’s penned during her Candler career, Scheib has made significant contributions to narrative pastoral care. David Cho, who also had Scheib as his PhD advisor, says, “Her prominence as a scholar has been well-demonstrated by her ability to conduct cross-disciplinary research and to integrate empirical and theological analysis of personhood and ecclesiology.”

As a colleague, Associate Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling Gregory C. Ellison II points to Scheib’s “careful research on narratives and her efforts to see, hear, and acknowledge the living wisdom of persons rendered invisible.” As a friend, he recalls her unwavering listening ear when he first joined the faculty. “I am most grateful for her mentorship and teaching on how I might retain wholeness and integrity as an ordained minister and scholar. Karen has impacted my life, career, and call, in more ways than she can ever imagine.”

Assistant Professor in the Practice of Practical Theology Ellen Shepard, who succeeded Scheib as director of Candler’s Women, Theology, and Ministry program, calls her one of Emory’s treasures. “Karen has a great sense of humor. She cares about causes that affect real change. She would do anything for someone she cares about. She is willing to risk. She loves Jesus.” And, Shepard adds, “Did you know that she writes poetry? Knits? Makes jewelry?”

Scheib’s creativity, specifically her love of writing, has taken her back to the classroom as a student in Seattle Pacific University’s low-residency MFA degree program in creative writing. As she concludes her career at Candler, she’s also completing her MFA manuscript of essays on birding—a hobby that she and her husband have moved to Skidaway Island on the Georgia coast to pursue. After she graduates this year, she plans to lead retreats on clergy well-being, and has several upcoming academic projects. This includes co-authoring a book on pastoral care in a Brazilian context with Dr. Blanches de Paula of the Methodist University of São Paulo, Brazil, a former Candler visiting professor.

But first she’ll say farewell to Candler, and not at all in the way she envisioned. Of the switch to remote learning due to COVID-19, Scheib says, “This is not exactly the end of my career as I had imagined. I had some sadness about it, but you adapt.”

Her Pastoral Care in Church and Community class has proven to be up for the challenge, and so has the coursework itself. “Because it’s a pastoral care class, we can practice caring for each other in the midst of this crisis and talk about how we’re doing that for ourselves and others.” Scheib does a regular check-in with students at the start of each class—a recent one involved sharing what song they were using to wash their hands for the recommended 20 seconds.

They’ve tackled heavier topics, too, discussing how they revise their life stories in light of grief and loss, and naming the losses they have experienced during the pandemic. Scheib also led a session on domestic violence, a topic she is committed to teaching “because I feel like the church does not speak on it enough. And again,” she adds, referencing the rise in domestic violence reports during the stay-at-home orders, “we can tie this to what is happening in our world.”

No matter the context, Scheib says, pastoral care involves the need for creative imagination. “When you walk into a pastoral care situation, you can’t know the right thing to do. You have to assess, think on your feet, and be creative. That’s what this [pandemic] is requiring of us. I hope we find a sense of kindness and compassion for ourselves and each other in this. I think if we are rooted in our faith, hopefully those are the things that will guide us.

“COVID-19 is not the pastoral care case study I would have chosen, but it’s the one we have. So how can we be faithful, creative, and compassionate in the midst of it?”

Think of it as one more caring challenge set forth by a beloved teacher and mentor whose own faith, creativity, and compassion have inspired a generation of students far beyond the classroom.