Harold Senkbeil has the secret of sustainable pastoral work, before or during a global pandemic: “You need to realize that you’ve got nothing to give to others that you yourself did not receive.”
That’s his main message in a recent book called The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart [read TGC’s review], published by Lexham Press and winner of a TGC Book Award. Senkbeil is an executive director of DOXOLOGY: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care, and a veteran of nearly 50 years in parish ministry, seminary teaching, and parachurch leadership.
Senkbeil argues that we’ve focused so much on winning souls that we’ve neglected to keep them. Just look at the attrition rates for people who grew up in the church but drifted away. He advocates for a priority, then, on pastoral care against models of pastoral ministry as activity manager, CEO, or unlicensed therapist. How much more urgency does this priority take on in the midst of COVID-19 with our programs and activities on hiatus.
Nevertheless, he recognizes that many pastors lack spiritual depth and awareness to take up the challenge of pastoral care. We try to give ourselves, but we quickly run low on our own resources of empathy. He writes: “No matter how compassionate and empathetic a pastor is, there’s just no way he can come up with what it takes to feed the sheep of Christ effectively, much less tend to their spiritual heartaches, bruises, and injuries.” And especially when he’s battling his own fatigue during this pandemic.
Senkbeil joined me on Gospelbound to discuss how he learned these lessons the hard way, why Christian living is more caught than taught, and what he’s seen as the biggest change in pastoral ministry over the last half-century.
This episode of Gospelbound is sponsored by Southeastern Seminary, equipping today’s ministry leaders with the Word of God, a philosophical foundation, and care for the lost through their Masters program in Ethics, Theology, and Culture and the Ph.D. in Public Theology. Learn more at sebts.edu.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Collin: Harold Senkbeil has the secret of sustainable pastoral work: “You need to realize that you’ve got nothing to give to others that you yourself did not receive.” That’s his main message in a new book called The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart published by Lexham Press. Senkbeil is an executive director of DOXOLOGY: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and a veteran of nearly 50 years in parish ministry, seminary teaching, and parachurch leadership.
Collin: Senkbeil argues that we’ve focused so much on winning souls that we’ve neglected to keep them. Just look at the attrition rates for people who grew up in the church but drifted away. He advocates for a priority, then, on pastoral care against the models of pastoral ministry as activity manager, CEO, or unlicensed therapist.
Collin: Nevertheless, he recognizes that many pastors lack spiritual depth and awareness to take up the challenge of pastoral care. We try to give ourselves, but we quickly run low on our own resources of empathy. He writes, “No matter how compassionate and empathetic a pastor is, there’s just no way he can come up with what it takes to feed the sheep of Christ effectively, much less tend to their spiritual heartaches, bruises, and injuries.”
Collin: Senkbeil joins Gospelbound to discuss how he learned these lessons the hard way, why Christian living is more caught than taught, and what he’s seen as the biggest change in pastoral ministry over the last half century. Thank you for joining me on Gospelbound, Harold.
Harold Senkbeil: It’s great to be with you, Collin.
Collin: You write that you “Learned the lessons of this book the hard way.” Tell us when you realized something had gone wrong.
Harold Senkbeil: Well, as I recall, that happened my very first funeral, which wasn’t that many months into my ministry. It’s going on 50 years now, not quite. We had a very large funeral in a little community and it was a tragic death. I was trying to minister to the grieving widow and surviving children out of the resources which I had within.
Harold Senkbeil: I thought at that point that it was my emotions that would sustain them and my compassion was pretty good at communicating that, but I found out very quickly that I was running dry of those emotions and that would only go so far. Of course, my main calling, which I knew intellectually was to provide Jesus, not to provide my own Christian compassion, which comes as a result of not, and I don’t lead with that.
Harold Senkbeil: Out of necessity, I decided that I was going to shift gears and learn a new way to approach the care of people. I’ve been working at it now for almost five decades. I’m a work in progress.
Collin: Well, I think even as much as we publish books and we publish podcasts and things like this, it still seems that a lot of these lessons need to be learned by us the hard way. One of the things you write about in the book is that, well, you write about how Christian living is more caught than taught in many ways. I wonder, as pastors, we’re always trying to balance all of the different responsibilities that we have. Are we spending too much time on our sermons, if that’s not how most people are supposed to be changing?
Harold Senkbeil: Right. Of course, in our profession, there’s so many things that need attention, that cry out for attention, that are worthy in and of themselves, but to get the proper balance is a very difficult task. If you’re always doing whatever is the pressing necessity before you, you’re going to be running in all directions at once. At all times, nothing except Christ and him crucified is a governing principle, but what does that mean in each instance?
Harold Senkbeil: I think that sermon preparation is really, really crucial because let’s face it, that’s the greatest intersection with the greatest number of people on any given week. That together with, of course, the public worship, the congregation, that deserves a very, very high priority.
Harold Senkbeil: In terms of time concerned and dedicated, that’s a little trickier. I would put it right up there, but if we invest all of our eggs in that basket, we’re not going to have anything left to really intersect with people where they live and work and in the nitty-gritty of life.
Harold Senkbeil: I think it was Eugene Peterson that said in one of his many wonderful books that “Being a minister or a pastor is directing prayer in the traffic of life.” That is really our calling, so we have to be with people, you have to be out among them, visitation is so important. At every instance, to be having an eye turned to their spiritual needs, to have a heart that’s empathetic to their relationship with Christ or lack thereof.
Harold Senkbeil: I might add that you mentioned in the introduction that if we are so interested in gaining souls for Christ, we need to be keeping souls for Christ, I would hastily add that if we’re interested in the spiritual life of people, that also impels and informs our mission and evangelism.
Harold Senkbeil: The very first step in gaining souls for Christ is to comprehend and understand them as souls for whom Christ died and to have that diagnostic spiritual physician approach, even in our evangelism, really helps us. The care of souls is equally applicable to gaining souls as it is to keeping souls.
Collin: This next question is a little bit related to the previous one: You write that “We’re drowning in information, but starved for genuine community.” I wonder how you’ve seen that change perhaps over the course of the last five decades in ministry, but again, to bring back to pastors, it seems that we’re often focusing on the information part and not on the community part. I’m wondering how have you seen that change and what do we need to change now?
Harold Senkbeil: Well, I was surprised to read not too long ago that one of the greatest threats to public health these days is loneliness and that has all kinds of manifestations in people’s physiology. It leads to heart attacks, all kinds of things, which people are leading increasingly isolated lives. Paradoxically, because they’re so more connected with technology, they are less and less connected personally. We’re not designed to live that way. We’re designed to live in genuine community as we live in the image and likeness of God Himself, who in the Holy Trinity, is a community.
Harold Senkbeil: How have I seen that? I think it’s true that we become busier and busier with labor-saving devices so that we no longer have time for the one thing needful, so our relationship with God suffers, but also, I’ve seen certainly that people’s relationships with one another have suffered, too. We see that in marriages and families and a friendship, that could be the real crisis in friendship that happens because we don’t have time, we don’t take the time to cultivate meaningful friendships and connections with other people more and more isolates us from genuine community.
Harold Senkbeil: How does this impact our ministry? I think as the world becomes increasingly isolated, the church needs to be more deliberately communal. We need to spend more a concentrated effort at deliberately connecting human beings with one another within the body of Christ so that we can rejoice with one another over our joys and we also can weep with one another over our sorrows. That’s the way God has designed the church and that’s, I think, a real fulfilling ministry for pastors these days.
Collin: Harold, I like how you distinguished between contextualizing for the culture and textualizing people into the text of Scripture. Why don’t you go ahead and tell people more of what you mean by that?
Harold Senkbeil: Well, obviously, there’s such a thing as common sense contextualization in every era, every generation, every century, for that matter, even a millennia of the history of the church. We have to speak the language of the people. We have to know of their customs, what makes them tic sociologically, and so forth.
Harold Senkbeil: I think these days there’s been an overemphasis in my mind on contextualizing the message to fit the nuances of the subcultures of our society. The longer wisdom, I think, of the church is to be able to usher people into the transcendent culture of the church where there is this one common faith, one common Lord, and we can indeed worship him in different languages and different ways.
Harold Senkbeil: There is one central message that unites us and above all, there’s one governing text that defines us, so the Holy Scripture needs to be front and foremost. As missionaries and pastors, I think our responsibility and our privilege is to usher people into this transcendent culture of the church. Some Christians call this “catechesis,” accustoming them, if you will, to the rather unique heritage and culture of what it means to be the body of Christ transcendent and yet connected with every succeeding culture.
Collin: Harold, we’re trying to care for people who think of God as a cosmic butler who is aiming to make us happy. With what you just referenced there in terms of how we need to textualize people into the church, how do we get them from point A to point B, from God as cosmic Butler to God as He reveals himself to be in Holy Scripture?
Harold Senkbeil: Well, if you think of it as two polarities, you have people’s own experience and their own awareness of themselves and their surroundings and their needs, obviously.
Harold Senkbeil: The other polarity is God and what He wants to give and to bring to them because let’s face it, He knows their genuine needs, whereas they have only a whole series of wants. They’re going to ask for what they want, whereas God wants to bring them what they need.
Harold Senkbeil: As we come into this intersection, we are in many ways a facilitator of a meeting between God and these people, so our responsibility is to help them to see clearly what their genuine needs truly are, to see God for who He is and not a dim reflection of themselves. Then He becomes more than a cosmic butler, He becomes their great physician, or as I say in the book, “A great shepherd, our Lord Jesus is the one who first claims His lambs and sheep and then tenderly cares for them within the community of His church.”
Harold Senkbeil: In my experience, and I’ve seen this at work, it’s difficult but not impossible to help people to move from their wants to their genuine needs. Part of that is helping them, “ushering them,” as I say, into the text of Holy Scripture, on diligent study proclamation, and pastoral care that’s rooted and grounded in God’s Holy Word. By the power of His Spirit, they then come from their felt needs to their genuine needs and they find their fullness in Christ, who is their life.
Collin: To continue on that theme here, you write about the complementary doctrines of justification and sanctification. How do we deploy them properly in pastoral care without confusing their distinct roles?
Harold Senkbeil: Right. Well, that’s a big topic.
Collin: It’s a softball for a Lutheran. I mean, that’s what I’m trying to do here.
Harold Senkbeil: There you go, yeah. Okay, God’s word contains both law and gospel and the proper distinction of both and the right application of both is, as many would say, an art to be learned in the school of experience. It’s not something you learn just in a classroom, but if you look at the biblical themes, Christ in First Corinthians 1:30 is the sedes doctrinae for this very question:
Harold Senkbeil: “Christ himself is our righteousness and our holiness because he is our redemption. He is wisdom from God, our righteousness, our redemption, and our sanctification.”
Harold Senkbeil: For our relationship with God, we need the righteousness of Jesus, which covers us as an alien righteousness bequeathed to us, bestowed upon us by faith in Him as He takes our sin and gives us His righteousness. Luther would call this the “great exchange.”
Harold Senkbeil: At the same time, he is our holiness, that is our cleansing, our perfection. This is something that is so essential, I think, in our time because we live in a world that’s full of shame. People, they are not just sinners, but they are sin-ees, as I’ve put it. They’ve been sinned against. When people are sinned against, not only do they get hopping mad, but they actually have been contaminated or defiled by the sins of other people.
Harold Senkbeil: They need to be cleansed of this defilement, they need to have instead of this sense of incompleteness and pollution of the purity and the holiness of Jesus Himself bestowed upon them by means of the gospel. The very same word of God, the same word of gospel promise brings not just forgiveness for sins committed, but also brings holiness for sins suffered.
Harold Senkbeil: That two-prong approach of the application of the gospel of Christ, I think, is an important tool that’s given to pastors, extremely useful in the juncture of the times in which we live right now. I think that the law of gospel distinction is important, but also the righteousness holiness distinction is important.
Collin: I think you just implied this in your answer, but you observe that our culture, as we implode ethically and morally, that pastoral care, really, the whole emphasis of this book, The Care of Souls, becomes more urgent. Beyond how you answered there, how else can pastors prepare for this ongoing transition, this implosion that you’ve described?
Harold Senkbeil: Well, the first is to remember that we’re not called to a previous generation or previous era or a previous century but right now. I think we need to take heart and to have great courage because the simple fact is that God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures give us more than what we need for the times in which we live.
Harold Senkbeil: In fact, if you read carefully, especially in the light of the New Testament studies, what the early church was facing is very, very similar to what we have right now, a godless culture, they had a pre-Christian environment. We have, in many ways, a post-Christian environment. What that means is we are facing a world of overt paganism and that brings with it a host of challenges, but underlying it, you have human beings who are in need of a savior and we have a Savior who is big enough and broad enough to address these needs.
Harold Senkbeil: To be equipped for it, I think we need to explore more carefully the actual teachings of the Word of God, to unpack them, not just exegetically but also with an eye toward their application in terms of that careful distinction between shame and guilt and how we then navigate this to help people to live a life that has become really subhuman.
Harold Senkbeil: I think it was Tony Esolen who said that’s the challenge in missions today that wasn’t faced by any generation in living memory because they all had at least a common humanity to build on. We don’t live, obviously, in the city of God, but we don’t even live in the city of man, we live in the basement of the city of man. We have to bring people up to a basic level of their fundamental common humanity and their natural theology before we can even begin to speak to them regarding the truths of God in such a world.
Harold Senkbeil: There’s an opportunity, I think, for us, if we don’t panic. I think that oftentimes we despair because things are not the way they used to be, especially people of my generation, but-
Collin: That’s just what I was going to ask. If you’re looking back five generations ago, I mean, when you’ve got all of this ahead of you, you learn that lesson that you just identified, that this is the time that God has given us, this is the generation that he’s entrusted to us, we can’t exchange that.
Collin: For many pastors, especially as they get older, I find that it becomes difficult for them to reconcile the new challenges. They will sometimes want to fight the older battles. They become very discouraged. Thinking about this idea that we’re now we’re dealing with the basement of the city of man, that becomes despairing. How do you continue to push back against that despair and to learn to embrace the challenges that God has given us, even as you become more experienced in ministry?
Harold Senkbeil: Well, one of the key pictures, if you will, that I have in my book is that of the pastor as a sheepdog. If you’re thinking you’re in the ministry all by yourself trying to make things happen for Jesus and you have your eye only on the sheep that are around you, it does get despairing, but the sheepdog always keeps one eye on the shepherd, you see.
Harold Senkbeil: That’s important. We’re following his direction. He has things well in hand. As He looked at people, His heart went out to them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. His concern was to care for those, but also, He said there are other sheep, too, that he wants to bring so that there would be one flock and one shepherd.
Harold Senkbeil: This idea, I think, coves both evangelism and pastoral care if we recognize that we’re sent on a mission and the mission is at the impetus and direction of the Lord Jesus Christ who is God from God and light from light and true God from true God, certainly, He said, “In this world, you will have tribulation, but do not be dismayed because I have overcome the world.”
Harold Senkbeil: As I said, we’re sent with a transcendent mission that is not confined to any one generation. It’s sensitive to each succeeding generation, but its goal and direction is to bring the transcendent message of the Lord Jesus Christ and the reality of his body, the church into each and every circumstance.
Harold Senkbeil: We don’t have to try to recover the supposed glory days of the church and I’m old enough to tell you there really weren’t any. To be sure, there are unique challenges of that we’re going to face in our own lifetimes because we are constantly moving through time ourselves if we’re not getting locked into any one particular concept or mindset, other than I’m the Lord’s man, these are the Lord’s people, and I want to facilitate a meeting between the Lord Jesus Christ and His people at every instance.
Harold Senkbeil: That gives me, I think, joy, if I know I’m doing what He sent me to do. It also gives me confidence because I’m not doing my own work, but I’m doing His work.
Collin: My last question is one that I often will ask pastors because it seems to be a pretty, I guess, straightforward problem or challenge in ministry that we often take for granted because it’s so obvious, but there are many words of consolation we bring as pastors, but there are also, of course, many words of challenge that we bring. We’re often telling people what they don’t want to hear. These are the same people who pay our salary. How do we navigate that dynamic?
Harold Senkbeil: Very carefully. Humanly speaking, it really can’t be done, but we have to recognize that we’re not really on a human mission. We work for a Lord who is not part of the membership of this congregation, but He’s concerned about every member of the congregation.
Harold Senkbeil: I often say to the students that I’ve taught at seminary and now in the parachurch work I do and the training that I do for pastors, “Never take the blame for your ostensible or apparent failures, nor take the credit for your successes, provided that you’re faithful to the Lord Jesus,” because it’s like St. John the Baptizer: He must increase, I must decrease at every instance.
Harold Senkbeil: When you are forced to say something, you’re under compulsion, really, under oath, really, to say things, the hard things that people don’t want to hear and they don’t like it and they’ll tell you so. You say, “Well, don’t kill the messenger. I just work here.” You don’t say those exact words, but that’s the mentality: “Let’s back up. Let’s take another look. Now, what has the Lord given us to do here? Now, what has the Lord made us to be? What is his intent for you?” I’m here as his messenger for you and believe you me, my goal is not to make life miserable for you, but to make life joyful for you.
Harold Senkbeil: That’s the mentality. I guess from a pragmatic point of view, the answer to your question is: You can pray that people get deathly ill and so that they’re in desperate straights. At that time, I find them very, very open to the ministry, but nevertheless, they’re God’s sheep and lambs. He loves them a lot and we do, too, for his sake.
Collin: Yeah. Well, it just sounds like that reinforces the very message of this entire book: We’re not here to give ourselves, we’re here to give Christ as we receive Christ ourselves. I encourage people to… Oh, go ahead.
Harold Senkbeil: Yeah, I would say just one thing along those lines: It’s so important that pastors be pastored. That’s a theme throughout the book as well. If it’s true, and I believe that with all my heart that you can’t give to people what you haven’t received, that means you need to be in a receptive posture both for yourself in terms of your own care of your own soul by meditation and prayer as opposed to study, by the way, as important as study is, you need to actually contemplate the word of God to receive it as what it is, an instrument and tool of God’s Holy Spirit.
Harold Senkbeil: You yourself will find the life that is in Christ Jesus in application to whatever ails you at the moment, to cast all your cares upon Him because He cares for you to lament before Him for those things that seem to be almost impossible to bear and to seek His strength and peace. That’s self-care.
Harold Senkbeil: Then equally important is to receive pastoral care by another pastor. You don’t go to a barber if his hair is unkempt. You don’t go to a dentist if his teeth are falling out. We pastors need a pastor. I think in my experience, that’s all too rare. That’s one of the drums I’ve been beating for a long time now.
Collin: And yet I do know many pastors who have been forced to learn or have just fallen into that temptation that they need to fake it because their very busyness of ministry, trying to keep up with all of these demands erodes or just sucks away that joy in Christ.
Collin: That’s a great point. It doesn’t make sense in any other calling and vocation. It certainly should not be true of pastors.
Harold Senkbeil: I’m going to put in a good word there along those lines.
Collin: Yeah, yeah.
Harold Senkbeil: Faking it, that’s a symptom of a pastoral depletion syndrome that I described in a companion volume to this book, The Care of Souls. Lexham also published a little paperback called Lexham’s Guide to Ministry Leadership and Strategy for the Care of Souls, which I co-authored with my good friend, Lucas Woodford. In there, I address exactly that.
Collin: Well, that’s one of the things, I worked on a recent volume called Faithful Endurance. Tim Keller writes in there about how ministry will either make you a much better Christian or a much worse Christian because you’ll either be forced to confront Christ and to find Him faithful or you’ll be forced to fake it, which is going to just kill your soul.
Harold Senkbeil: Sadly, you’re right, yep.
Collin: Yeah. Well, much more godly wisdom for pastors to be pastored in this new book, The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart. I know it’s been a huge means of grace from God to the pastors of my own church, as well as myself and trust many others, an award-winner for 2019 in the Gospel Coalition in our Pastoral Ministry category.
Collin: Again, my guest and the author has been Harold Senkbeil. Thank you, Harold.
Harold Senkbeil: Thank you for having me, Collin. Blessings to you and all your listeners.