A reminder of the privilege of being a messenger and minister of Jesus
BookThe Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor's Heart, by Harold L. Senkbeil (Lexham Press, 2019)
By Paul Barker
April 5 2020
This is one of the best books I have read on pastoral ministry. I think it is important for pastors today for several reasons.
I am anxious that many of us clergy do not love people enough. We are engaged in what Senkbeil calls simply, “a ministry of love” (p120). Many of us love preaching, and devote significant time to the study and reading. I sometimes hear language of “them and me”, vicar and congregation, which may betray a lack of identification, belonging, even love. How many of us pray for all those under our care systematically and regularly, day by day? Part of loving people is to train ourselves to be good listeners, slow to speak. Chapter 3 addresses this eloquently, but loving people is a deep current throughout this book. “If pastoral ministry is anything, it is a love for people” (p196).
I am concerned that there is less pastoral visiting done these days. While work schedules, gated properties and increasing security anxiety can hinder visiting, spending time with congregational members to know them deeply, love them and thus care for their souls is a focus of ministry sadly eroding in modern times. We are spiritual physicians, after all. The return to this older language by Senkbeil was endearing and encouraging for me.
I fear sometimes the professionalization and corporatisation of ministry. We spend time on slick advertising and technology, professional song-leading, and the lead (or unleaded) pastor can become an upfront CEO type of figure. At the heart of pastoral ministry is loving and caring for souls.
I worry that we clergy do not engage God’s word sufficiently into people’s lives pastorally. We preach it, but sometimes there is a great divide then to actual pastoral ministry. We fear, perhaps, intervening in people’s lives or bringing God’s word to bear in confronting or challenging situations.
I suspect at times that clergy are personable, friendly, enjoy social chit-chat and are generally kind. But I wonder if we are diagnostic enough and sufficiently applicatory of divine medicine for souls. It takes effort, and vulnerability, to be deeper than society’s usual social shallowness.
This book comes from an evangelical and conservative background. Unfortunately, it uses only male pronouns for pastors though it doesn’t argue for complementarianism. But, from its Lutheran context, it has a refreshing and high view of sacraments.
I wonder if evangelicals dismiss too lightly the sacraments pastorally, both baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Senkbeil several times gives pastoral examples and principles of drawing people to communion, or using “baptismal therapy” in pastoral ministry, applying a strong ministry of grace, forgiveness and sanctification (for example, p90). On each occasion I found myself moved by the gentleness and beauty of his ministry. His language at times seemed redolent of Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s great novel.
I worry that we clergy do insufficient to tend our own souls. Many of us struggle with regular and deep prayer for ourselves (see chapter 11). Many of us overwork, do not feed ourselves in Bible reading, spiritual reading, peer fellowship and in prayer. Senkbeil warns and cautions us on these matters.
Related to this care of self is the deliberate remembrance that ministry is both a privilege and a ministry of love (p120). As messengers of Jesus, we ought to be humble, though often we are proud, even narcissistic. As messengers we need to tend our own souls first if we are to be useful to others (p94). This will counter the great risk for pastors of what he calls spiritual boredom (p210) where familiarity with the gospel breeds boredom, if not contempt. “Whenever we grow numb to Christ’s saving work and the Father’s gracious gifts by which he makes us and preserves us, spiritual boredom takes hold, followed by apathy and subsequent despair” (p210). Then the flock suffers greatly. How crucial for every pastor and minister to keep being refreshed in the deep wells of gospel grace, the living water of Jesus himself.
From his rural farming background, Senkbeil uses many powerful images to relate to the ministry. He oozes patience in ministry – a hard lesson for me – as a farmer needs patience as crops are planted and grow to harvest. He focuses on developing habitus, habits and patterns learned from senior ministers to train us in pastoral ministry, learning by observing and doing and being “habituated – shaped and formed into a shepherd of souls – by being actively engaged in the work of shepherding” (p20).
I am refreshed and nourished from reading this book. I am drawn back to the glorious privilege of being bearers of the powerful gospel of grace and love for people under my care. I am encouraged to keep persevering in this gospel ministry. I am humbled again to rely on God and not my own experience, eloquence or ingenuity. I am directed again to find satisfaction not in my ministry itself but in the privilege of being a messenger and minister of Jesus.
I’d urge all clergy to consider reading this valuable book, whatever our theological persuasion or ministerial experience.
Bishop Paul Barker is Bishop of Jumbunna Episcopate. He is on TMA’s book review committee.