Countless books on pastoral ministry flood the Christian market each year. My guess is only a few are worth reading—and perhaps even less worth remembering. Amid the torrent of this year’s releases, one came hot off the presses with much fanfare and many a recommendation—Harold Senkbeil’s The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart. Given his over fifty years of experience, I sank my teeth into this gem with verve.
Rather than providing readers with a traditional book review, I’ll simply offer four reasons I appreciated Senkbeil’s work and then round out the post with one quibble.
First, he rightly notes that all pastoral ministry is the application of God’s Word. Pastors shepherd people from the Word of God. Since God has provided everything we need to accomplish our task, we’re not charged to make things up as we go. Nevertheless, applying the Word skillfully requires a pastoral habitus—an important concept throughout the book (18). Habitus refers to intuition, a demeanor, or formed character. While contributing to this dimension of a pastor’s life, seminary training cannot impart pastoral piety and care into the fabric of a pastor’s heart and life: “This habitus can’t be instilled merely through pedagogy or acquisition of intellectual knowledge” (18). Ministers must swim in the realities of daily pastoral life to acquire this disposition.
Pastors are soul physicians. Soul physicians apply the balm of the gospel with precision. Precise application of the gospel involves attentive diagnosis and intentional treatment (67). As pastors treat souls, then, pastors must take note of four issues in particular. They must pay attention to a person’s faith—or lack thereof. They must prayerfully discern the shape of God’s providence in a parishioners’ life. Additionally, Senkbeil urges pastors to determine whether the person with whom their speaking understands God’s holiness and his call for saints to walk in holiness. Finally, in our sacred conversations with people, Senkbeil asks his ministerial colleagues to ensure that Christ followers comprehend genuine repentance: Does your conversation partner believe he or she is a sinner in need of God’s grace? Do they desire a clean conscience? Since our chief responsibility is a person’s relationship with God, these four guideposts can aid in conversations that echo into eternity.
Pastors give themselves to God and their people. Ministers live coram Deo (before the face of God) and pour themselves out in service to their people. Above all, this means a pastors life is taken up with prayer and meditation. In one sense, if pastors maintain good devotional habits, everything else will fall into place. They must be God besotted, Christ focused, Spirit empowered conduits of the gospel.
Pastors can prepare for spiritual attack. Satan will aim to discourage pastors in multiple ways, whether through overt attack, accusations (from Satan and/or people), or general rough patches of ministry. For this reason, pastors must fight against acedia—spiritual sloth. Acedia afflicts a pastor, according to Senkbeil, when he finds himself limping through his pastoral duties—performing them grudgingly rather than enthusiastically. While I might differ with Senkbeil’s definition of acedia, his overall point remains: Ministry demands resilience and perseverance.
My quibble centers on the form and not the content of the book.
First, unnecessary repetition. Oddly enough, the book’s overall strength becomes a major weakness. As I worked through the material, I got the feeling that when Senkbeil didn’t know what to say, he reverted to his emphasis on the importance of word and sacrament ministry. I frequently found myself saying, “We get your point, brother.”
Second, artless expression. The prose lack elegance and beauty.
But Still . . .
Eugene Peterson once remarked that the aim of his books was to recapture the pastoral imagination. I think he would be happy with Senkbeil’s contribution.