The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart

Harold L. Senkbeil, The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019, xxvi+ 296, $15.85, hardcover.

The COVID pandemic has interrupted our face-to-face relationships. Recently a friend mentioned that his choir scheduled a Zoom meeting so everyone could see and hear each other. The goal was to maintain contact and encourage; but he said it had the opposite effect on him. The online gathering left him even more pained, reinforcing what has been lost and intensifying the pain of separation.

True pastoral ministry must be face-to-face. There is no substitute for it. Too often books on pastoral ministry focus on technique, offering skills that pastors must have to manage people, in this case the church. They frequently pass over the ongoing personal encounters that are vital to pastoral ministry – encounters undertaken by Christ’s undershepherds and grounded in the word of God. As the word is preached and taught, the church is gathered, fed, nourished, and protected. Whether in the pulpit, visiting in the home, or counseling in the study, pastoral care is the ministry of the word.

I discovered Harold L. Senkbeil’s The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart perusing a book table at a theology conference, and my interest was piqued. The Care of Souls is traditional language used to describe the work of the pastor. The subtitle – Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart – indicates a view of ministry that emphasizes the disposition of the pastor.

First let me mention aspects of the book that fall outside the practice of Reformed pastoral care. The author is a Lutheran minister with five decades of pastoral experience. As expected, his Lutheran tradition shapes his ministry. Private confession and absolution, the use of crucifixes, and the signing of the cross are not part of mainstream Reformed pastoral tradition. The sacraments take on a prominence in his pastoral care that would be uncommon in Reformed quarters. The relationship between law and gospel is in keeping with the author’s spiritual heritage.

That said, I would be disappointed if the writer had ignored his own tradition. One of the purposes of reading widely is to develop a charitable understanding of the practices of fellow Christians, and to reexamine our own particular understanding of ministry in the light of God’s word.

Reservations out of the way, I will explain why I found this book so appealing and recommend it to pastors.

The author begins with what should be an incontestable truth: if a man is to do the work of a pastor, he must understand who a pastor is. The author is clear: “the premise of this book is that action flows from being; identity defines activity. Thus a clearer vision of what the pastoral ministry is will lead to a clearer understanding of what a pastor does day by day” (16).

A fundamental work of any seminary is to impress upon men who a pastor is. From the moment he sets his feet on the ground in his first church, he must be fully persuaded of who he is, an undershepherd of Jesus Christ. If he does not grasp this, he will labor in vain – no matter how hard he works.

Two recurring terms in this book are habitus and the care and cure of souls.

Habitus refers to the character of the pastor. Habitus is “a pastoral temperament or character worked by the Holy Spirit through his means” (17), or, put in another way, the “disposition of the pastor’s soul by which he acquires the skills of a spiritual physician, to discern accurately and then sensitively treat the ailments of Christ’s sheep and lambs” (60). Acquiring this temperament takes time, laboring long and hard in using the God-appointed means of pastoral care.

The care and cure of souls refers to the work of the pastor. In his labors, the pastor brings the “the gifts of the Good Shepherd to his sheep and lambs” (19).

The work of the pastor is nothing if it is not word-based. “The text of sacred Scripture is at the heart of all pastoral work” (45). The cure for the soul is the proper application of God’s word (40). At a time when the word contextualization is bandied about, the author offers a refreshing perspective: “The challenge for pastors in every generation is to link the person and work of Jesus to every shifting era by means of his unchanging word – not to contextualize the message, but to textualize people into the text of Scripture” (17).

The pastor’s work is both public and private. Week-by-week, he cares for God’s flock as he leads them in corporate worship. But sheep are often injured – by the acts of others or by self-inflicted wounds. Through individual attention, the pastor strives to apply biblical cures to injured souls.

The cure of souls has two components: attentive diagnosis and intentional treatment.

Attentive diagnosis demands careful listening. “The pastor must first listen to the soul before he can minister to the soul” (69).

One of my colleagues at RTS Jackson teaches an entire course for counseling students on listening.  I have asked him to speak to my MDIV students, because good pastors are good listeners. The pastor who fails to listen attentively will frequently misdiagnose; his applications of the word will be faulty.

Pastoral work has as its aim “delivering a good conscience before God” (127). Discernment is required, for frequently those who come to the pastor seek “God’s approval apart from faith and repentance; and so feeling good takes precedent over being good” (119).

Senkbeil helps pastors to listen well. He argues that he must especially listen to his sheep and what their words reveal about them in four critical areas – faith, providence, holiness, and repentance. Does this person have faith in Jesus Christ?  Is there trust in difficult circumstances that God is for him and confidence in God’s sovereign goodness? Is there a fear of God and an understanding of his holiness? Does this person believe he is a sinner who must turn away from sin to God for forgiveness and restoration?

Although the author’s counsel for the intentional treatment of souls incorporates a number of the distinctively Lutheran practices mentioned above, the Reformed pastor still finds much that will prove helpful in ministry. The cure of souls is the work of the Triune God through the ministry of word and sacraments and the pastor is but the instrument that God uses in his work; for the cure to be effective, the ministry of word and sacrament must be received by faith; and the threats of the devil, world, and flesh are real, and must be repelled with the word of God.

An essential element of pastoral care is to teach the distressed “how to pray confidently and regularly as a beloved child of the Father in heaven through faith in the Lord Jesus” (106-107).

A follow-up email, designed as a pastoral letter, can reinforce the care that was given.

As a minister with a number of years of experience, I especially benefited from the author’s reminder of the threat of acedia, which he defines as “a lack or absence of care” for pastoral work 209-210). The inevitable disappointments in ministry have led to apathy and despair. The author describes the warning signs of acedia and its treatment. His counsel is frank, honest, and personal. A pastoral habitus must include caring for one’s own soul and welcoming the pastoral care of other ministers.

I seek to instill in my seminary students Senkbeil’s enthusiasm for traditional pastoral ministry. He argues that “there’s a framework for pastoral work that translates well over the centuries; it’s both transcultural and timely in that it connects with people groups no matter where or when they live.” (9). I agree wholeheartedly. The environments in which we minister constantly change, but the fundamentals of pastoral ministry remain the same.

Much more unites Lutheran and Reformed pastors committed to traditional pastoral ministry than divides. For two millennia, Christian pastors have reflected on what it means to be a faithful shepherd, true to God’s word. The well of wisdom is deep. The Care of Souls leads us there and invites us to drink.

Charles Malcolm Wingard
Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson