The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart
by Harold L. Senkbeil
Lexham Press, 2019
290 pages (hardback), $21.99
After nearly three and a half decades of parish ministry and two dozen more teaching and as the executive director for spiritual care for DOXOLOGY: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and Counsel, Harold Senkbeil, trusted author of Dying to Live: The Power of Forgiveness and Sanctification: Christ in Action, pens a real gem for pastors and seminarians with The Care of Souls. The readability, profound insights, and biblical truth permeating the pages signal that this work is destined to be a benchmark study and resource on pastoral care.
With scandals reverberating throughout news outlets due to unconscionable behavior within the Southern Baptist Church and Roman Catholicism, and the public repudiation of biblical theology by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the once unquestionably trusted office of holy ministry is now the object of suspicion and derision, which makes this book a timely resource. With the public feeling that they need to be protected from predator priests and heretical pastors, Senkbeil brings his readers—more pointedly, pastors and priests themselves—back to God’s purpose for the pastoral office (to manifest and distribute God’s love, care, and gifts), the heart of pastoral formation (proximity and devotion to Christ), and the source of all spiritual care—the gracious and merciful Triune God. Senkbeil accomplishes all this without a hint of angst or edginess, but rather with the heart of a loving and faithful pastor.
Senkbeil’s disobliging prose is warm and familiar—the sort of conversational tone one would expect from a seasoned minister and sage mentor, whose disposition exudes not a battle-wearied spirit but enduring humility and joy for the remarkable privilege of shepherding the people of God and serving as Christ’s “errand boy.” His warmth is felt through personal anecdotes, as he shares experiences (some quite tragic) from both his family life and decades of parish ministry. These stories illuminate and unfold the principles he delineates by inviting the reader into real-world experiences in the care of souls, even the souls of a pastor’s own children.
To considerable effect, Senkbeil opens by drawing correspondence between the vocation of husbandry (such that he observed in his childhood on the family farm) and the vocational responsibilities of pastoral ministry. The parallels are fitting and posit key principles, such as: “Frenetic busyness undermines careful pastoral work. . . . So pastors need to hunker down for the whole growing season [of those entrusted to your care].” Additionally, “Christ’s sheep are not all that easy to tend,” and “Work done for the right reason is its own reward.” These earthy observations find substantiation and fortification in creedal and confessional theology, true to the Bible’s teaching.
The opening chapter advocates for “the classical model” of holy ministry, as opposed to the pastor as CEO or life coach or anything else. Christ commissioned the office of holy ministry with specificity, the particularities of which have been preserved in “the classical model.” True, readers may have heard this before, but Senkbeil goes further and halts the dichotomy between pastors and missionaries, and between shepherding and evangelizing, by situating all of the aforementioned in the manifold duties of Christlike care for human souls. This brings home the author’s central point in the book that pastoral “action flows from being; identity defines activity.” A clear vision of what the pastoral ministry is, Senkbeil writes, leads to a clearer understanding of what a pastor does day by day. What a pastor does is practically and devotionally habituated (extoling the notion of habitus), so that Christlike care becomes second nature or, more to the point, the basic identity of the minister or priest as Seelsorge—a person who provides care for the soul, a physician for souls.
Following an introduction to the pastoral craft, succeeding chapters unfold the classical model of pastoral care through the word of God, ministry’s source and norm. Chapters 3 and 4 explain how the pastor proceeds toward the cure of souls through attentive diagnosis and intentional treatment. The fifth chapter depicts sheep-dogging and shepherding as the noble task and calling of the pastor, followed by a helpful look at guilt and shame. Chapter 8 extends the seventh chapter on holiness by articulating it through the idea of proximity to the Lord: that is, drawing near to God in Christ so that God’s own self-giving through the Son and Spirit can bring holiness, healing, and constitute our sanctification. In chapter 9, the invisible powers of spiritual warfare find fresh nuance, and missions, the care of souls as Christ’s ambassadors pursue the lost, and fostering steadiness in ministry round out the twelve chapters.
The Care of Souls isn’t psychobabble but rich biblical fare, replete with theological fortification. It’s entirely Christocentric, christological, and Christotelic in content, outlook, and application. Christ is the answer, and the care and cure of souls can be found only in bringing people to Jesus and bringing Jesus to people.
Even though The Care of Souls was cast to an audience significantly wider than confessional Lutherans by way of its Lexham Press imprint, nevertheless Senkbeil commendably asserts the essential importance of the sacraments for pastoral care. Holy baptism, holy absolution, and Holy Communion are not muted or marginalized as availing instruments in the soul-physician’s medical kit. These, too, are the performative word of God—the word made visible and personally applied to heighten confidence in the Lord’s presence and self-giving. The charitable foreword from Michael Horton finds considerable common ground in the high value that Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans have placed on intentional pastoral care and the art of holy ministry to bring Jesus Christ to ever-needy, ever-symptomatic souls.
While this book should be required reading for all pastors and seminarians, rightly belonging on every pastoral theology course syllabus, The Care of Souls also should be read and its teaching absorbed by all who assist the pastor in the care of souls—elders, teachers, geo-missionaries, deacons, deaconesses, Stephen Ministers, directors of Christian Education, parochial school teachers, parish secretaries, and every church officer. Parishioners themselves would do well to sit under Senkbeil’s tutelage to understand the scope and challenges of the vocation of pastor—aiding and empowering the Seelsorge in their own lives, so that their ministers do not succumb to pastoral burnout or wane in their care of the flock.
John J. Bombaro (PhD, King’s College, University of London) is the associate director of Theological Education for Eurasia, based at the Rīga Luther Academy in Latvia.