According to a new study, three-quarters of Americans–including Christians deeply involved with their churches–never consult with or seek advice from their pastor. Some of the people polled said their church is just too big for them to have a relationship with their pastor. The study cited experts who said that people today tend to look for help online, rather than asking an actual human being.
I suspect that another reason is that most pastors are not particularly equipped to give their parishioners the personal guidance they need. In seminary they probably took a “counseling” course that was largely a run-through of how to apply principles of secular psychology. Ironically, many of those psychological approaches are no longer used by actual psychologists. Most pastors have had little training in the “cure of souls,” even though the church has a rich heritage based on centuries of Scriptural reflection and experience in the art of pastoral–and spiritual–care.
To bring the church out of its current doldrums, we need to recover that heritage. Now there is a book to help us do that: Harold Senkbeil’s The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart.
Rev. Senkbeil, a long-time friend of mine, is a pastor with much experience in the parish and as a seminary professor. He is the head of the Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and Counsel and operates Doxology, a ministry to and for pastors, helping them deal with problems pastors face (discouragement, burnout, temptations) and teaching them the art of the cure of souls. This book makes all of that available more broadly.
Here is the endorsement I wrote for the book:
A pastor is not primarily a psychologist, an entrepreneur, or a C.E.O. According to classical Christianity, a pastor is a physician of souls. What physicians do for their patients—give them long-term care for their physical health and specific treatments when disease strikes—pastors do for their congregations, offering on-going spiritual care in their relationship with God and curing their souls in times of trial. This book recovers that dimension of the pastoral office, showing how to diagnose spiritual problems and how to treat them.
Drawing on vivid personal examples from his own ministry, Rev. Senkbeil covers the whole range of what pastors are called to do (from evangelism to ministry to the dying, from mundane administration to spiritual warfare) and the problems pastors must struggle with, both in their members and in themselves (sexual sin, spiritual boredom, burnout).
Rev. Senkbeil also takes the pressure off by reminding pastors that their ministry does not rest on their own doing, but that, by virtue of their office, Christ Himself is working through them.You don’t have to be a Lutheran to learn from this Lutheran pastor. And you don’t have to be a pastor to find this book inspiring. As a layman, I found that this book opens up what all of my pastors have done for me.
As evidence that this book’s advice is not just for Lutherans, consider some of the other endorsements. Timothy George, the well-regarded form Dean of the interdenominational Beeson Divinity School and a Baptist, says, “This book is not a manual on church strategy, metrics, or leadership theory. It is pastoral theology at its best.”
The evangelical Anglican Paul F. M. Zahl says, “I wish Pastor Harold were my local minister! But if he can’t be, at least I’ve got this book!”
Michael Haykin, professor at the Southern Baptist Seminary, says, “We live in challenging days for pastoral leadership, for many pastors are taking their cues in this vital area of the church’s life from models alien to the Scriptures and the good traditions of the church. Hence the need for solid works like this one from Harold Senkbeil that retrieve and crystallize what Scripture has to say about the ground of all true ministry leadership–the pastor’s own spiritual formation. An enormously helpful book.
The Foreword is written by Reformed theologian Michael Horton, who calls Rev. Senkbeil “one of the few real guides for how the gospel is applied in pastoral ministry.”
Seriously: If you are a pastor, you need to read this book. I guarantee that you will find it enormously helpful, both in your ministry and in your own spiritual life. Buy this book.
If you are not a pastor but have a pastor, buy this book and give it to him. He will be eternally grateful.
Photo: Rev. Harold L. Senkbeil, from Doxology.