Book Review: The Care of Souls, by Harold Senkbeil
Harold L. Senkbeil, The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart. Lexham Press, 2019. 290 pages.
The Care of Souls is a gripping reflection on pastoral ministry that commends an older and far richer vision of pastoring than what is typically touted in modern evangelical circles. While certainly not the first to aim at the recovery of this ancient tradition of soul care (he mentions his debt to Thomas Oden and Eugene Peterson in the preface), Senkbeil has provided an eloquent articulation in our day of the pastor as “physician of the soul.”
CULTIVATING A PASTORAL HABITUS
One of the central tenets of The Care of Souls is that a pastor’s identity decisively shapes his work. Amid the many competing visions of ministry offered today, the pastor must take his cues from Scripture and the accumulated wisdom of the church. As Senkbeil notes, “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). This dynamic is even evident in the relationship between the book’s title and subtitle: the pastor’s activity (the care of souls) must flow out of his identity (as he cultivates a pastor’s heart). In a particularly striking passage, Senkbeil sums up this approach by saying,
Effective and faithful pastoral ministry in each succeeding era must remain intimately connected with its essential core—the divinely given presence of Christ Jesus and the truth of his word by which alone we live. 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, you could say. Thus the only really effective way to prepare for ministry in a meaningful way is to get a good grip on pastoral identity. (17)
In order to cultivate a heart for shepherding God’s people—to acquire the requisite skills and instincts and habits necessary for soul care—the pastor must develop what Senkbeil calls a “pastoral habitus” (17-23). This habitus is “a pastoral temperament or character worked by the Holy Spirit through his means” (17). While the concept might initially seem a little nebulous, Senkbeil is essentially getting at the intricate and often slow process that God uses to shape a man into a pastor. This includes, of course, the actual doing of pastoral ministry: “There’s no substitute for practice when it comes to developing pastoral skills and aptitudes. As a pastor is actively engaged in visiting the sick, consoling the troubled, warning the hardened, and comforting the conscience-stricken, he learns to use the tools of his trade all the more skillfully and intelligently” (20).
Importantly, this pastoral habitus is not simply acquired through practice or repetition. It is also worked in the pastor by the Holy Spirit through a daily process of mortification and vivification—dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ by faith. As Senkbeil reiterates at several points throughout the book, “We have nothing to give to others that we ourselves have not first received” (e.g., 124).
THE WORK OF SOUL CARE
After providing the big picture in the opening chapter, Senkbeil spends the bulk of The Care of Souls unpacking various topics related to soul care, such as applying Scripture to the lives of people, diagnosing various spiritual ills, distinguishing feelings of guilt and shame in congregants so as to apply the proper remedy, remaining vigilant in matters of spiritual warfare, doing the work of an evangelist, and more. On the whole, these chapters leave the reader with a compelling portrait of what pastoral ministry should look like. Because the wisdom contained in these pages is so broad and wide-ranging, I will not attempt to treat it all but will merely offer a few brief glimpses.
Chapter three, for instance, deals with “attentive diagnosis,” by which Senkbeil means the patient and intentional listening on the part of the pastor to the person in front of him. To do this well, the pastor must view the person holistically, as one consisting of spiritual and physical aspects and always living out their existence before the face of God (64–65). Senkbeil explains, “As symptoms arise in that person’s life—be they fear, anxiety, distrust, misery, joy or sorrow—I’m always keen on interpreting them in terms of what they disclose about the soul’s relationship with God” (66). After providing some very helpful pointers for listening well, Senkbeil closes the chapter by offering four theological categories to be especially mindful of when listening: faith, providence, holiness, and repentance (79–91).
Some of Senkbeil’s wisest counsel is easy to miss, since it often comes embedded within the flow of a larger discussion and might only show up briefly for a page or two. For instance, he cautions pastors about the temptation to minister out of one’s own reserves of compassion and sympathy (e.g., 93–94). As he explains, our human empathy “might relieve the symptoms for a while, but genuine healing comes from God by means of his word” (106). Or consider his discussion of the role of the conscience in soul care (127–129). Senkbeil rather provocatively claims, “The simple fact is that all pastoral work, be it for those outside or inside the community of faith, has to do with the conscience” (127). Does that sound overstated to you? I doubt Luther or Calvin would have thought so—or the apostle Paul for that matter.
In the final chapters, Senkbeil turns his attention to the pastor’s care of his own soul. Given the common phenomenon of pastoral burnout, his counsel in this section is salutary, particularly his encouragement for each pastor to find a pastor who can act as a shepherd for his soul (239). Moreover, he also recommends practices such as physical exercise and prayer. Rest and spiritual refreshment are, for Senkbeil, necessary components for the health of one’s life and ministry.
PREACHING AND THE CARE OF SOULS
While the strengths of Senkbeil’s book are many, it is worth pausing to consider a potential weakness: the ill-defined role that preaching plays in Senkbeil’s vision. Senkbeil certainly operates from a classic Protestant understanding of the pastor as minister of Word and sacrament. He spends all of chapter two (“The Word of God: Ministry’s Source and Norm”) unpacking a theology of God’s Word and how God acts efficaciously through his Word. So far, so good. That said, preaching receives scant attention in The Care of Souls. Senkbeil’s theology of preaching seems to be mostly implicit, though you do catch glimpses of it if you squint hard enough (e.g., 269). Though pastors are certainly called to minister God’s Word to his sheep in a variety of contexts, Senkbeil’s treatment would be enhanced by highlighting the primacy of preaching as the fountainhead of all other Word ministry.
On a related note, there are some ecclesiological assumptions in The Care of Souls that require tweaking or modification, depending on your convictions and context. For instance, Senkbeil presents a rather strong view of sacramental efficacy (e.g., 42-43) and commends the practice of holy absolution (102–103). Moreover, his vision of the pastorate seems to assume a solo pastor shepherding a fairly small congregation. It is not immediately clear how Senkbeil’s model might be applied to a plurality of elders and a larger church. Also, I discerned a fairly pronounced distinction between clergy and laity in The Care of Souls. Though not necessarily a bad thing (the pastorate is a high and holy calling!), emphasizing the distinction can unwittingly undermine the priesthood of all believers and the responsibilities of the congregation.
FOR SEMINARIANS AND FOR SEASONED PASTORS
Overall, The Care of Souls is a stirring work of pastoral theology. Senkbeil has done a great service in helping to retrieve the classical model of pastoral care. The book is beautifully written, possessing a contemplative feel and sprinkled with stories drawn from Senkbeil’s decades of ministry experience. Though the work certainly has a Lutheran accent, it’s also thoroughly biblical. And not in a ‘proof-text’ sort of way, but in a deep, theological sense that can only come from serious reflection and meditation upon the scriptural text.
If, like me, you find yourself somewhere along the path to being a pastor, read The Care of Souls to orient you on your journey. If you are in seminary or perhaps just beginning to aspire to the office, let Senkbeil’s work shape your understanding of the pastorate. Though it may take years to cultivate a pastor’s heart as Senkbeil describes it, there is joy to be found along the way and God will certainly be present to bless and sustain you.
For those with years of pastoral experience, read The Care of Souls to be reminded of your core identity so that you can recommit yourself to it: namely, to act as a servant of Christ and a steward of God’s mysteries. Also, use Senkbeil’s book as a diagnostic tool for your ministry. Ask yourself if the hustle and bustle of the pastorate has shifted you away from this central task of caring for the souls of your people.
It seems only fitting to let the author have the last word: “Ours is not just a job; it is a holy calling. Jesus has personally commissioned us to feed his sheep and tend his lambs. He bought those sheep with his own blood, and he’s given his flock to us to tend and nourish in his name and stead. What a humbling honor; what a noble task this our ministry is!” (142)