Imagine a doctor who greets you and offers to come fix your kitchen sink. “No thanks,” you say. “I have a plumber for that. I’m here because I’m sick.”
Then the doctor offers to tie your shoes or make you lunch. “Thank you,” you say, “but I can manage the shoes, and I have others who can help me with lunch. I’m here to see you because I’m sick, and you are a doctor.”
As the doctor offers to paint a portrait of you, frustration wells up. What good is a doctor who avoids a doctor’s work?!
In this book, Harold Senkbeil—executive director of Doxology: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care—uses a half-century of pastoral experience to help pastors better do their work. To begin, Senkbeil wants pastors to remember that “identity defines activity” (16). Who God calls us to be determines the kind of work God calls us to do. If a pastor is a coach, CEO, religious-activity director, conflict manager, or motivational speaker, his job description will morph accordingly. But what description of our work emerges when “carer of souls” forges our pastoral identity?
The passionate conviction of this book is to disarm bad things like pastoral neglect, spiritual misdiagnosis, and soul malpractice. “Two things are indispensable,” Senkbeil says, “for the job description of one who serves as a spiritual physician: being attentive and being intentional. Faithful diagnosis and cure include both” (99).
Pastoral attentiveness requires listening. As Senkbeil writes, “In the diagnosis phase, the pastor needs to be all ears, paying full attention to the person in every dimension: physically, emotionally, socially, and spiritually” (67). But such attentive listening requires patience. “In our hurry up world,” he explains, “patience is a short commodity. Especially among pastors” (4). Hasty diagnoses lead to prescribed treatments that damage those we’re meant to help. For what, then, are we patiently listening?
- Faith. “The first thing I’m listening for as a physician of souls is faith: Does this soul believe on the name of the Lord Jesus? . . . Even the most devout Christians can and do have idolatrous beliefs. So it will be extremely helpful to me as a spiritual physician to know what I’m up against. Which are the other gods this soul worships beside the true God?” (80–81).
- Providence. “The second area I’m listening for is a kind of barometer of faith. How well does this soul handle the reversals of life? Physical illness, family dysfunction, emotional distress, natural disaster, acts of terrorism—any number of tragedies can shake the hardiest of faiths” (82).
- Holiness. “We live in a highly secularized culture. . . . [I]t’s useful, then, to listen carefully for indications of how this person sees the holy things of God. Are they a threat or a comfort. . . . Just as faith or the lack thereof will inform the way I proceed to provide care for the soul, a person’s fear or consolation in regard to holiness will inform my approach” (87–88).
- Repentance. “In my initial conversations with any troubled soul, I’m going to be listening to detect whether the person I’m talking to acknowledges sin and accountability toward God. If this soul can name its sins, so much the better” (89).
To help us listen, we need the wise skill of good questions: “Proceed in your ministry in Jesus’s name not as an inquisitor, but just as any good physician would; exploring the symptoms. ‘Where does it hurt?’ your doctor might ask you” (78).
Who God calls us to be determines the kind of work God calls us to do.
Everything we do, every pastoral act—from teaching a Bible class, to visiting the sick and dying, to counseling the discouraged, to confronting the erring, to preaching, baptizing, and distributing the Lord’s Supper—zeroes in on this one vitally essential task: “delivering a good conscience to people who are constantly under spiritual bombardment from every side, being driven to a bad conscience by the devil, the sinful world around them, and the lusts of their own sinful heart” (128).
Consequently, wise skill as a soul physician will call for a habitus, a disposition, a way of being, “a pastoral temperament or character worked by the Holy Spirit” (17).
We all feel the tension with other ministry tasks constantly thrust on us. But prioritizing this kind of calling means actively and ruthlessly discerning the difference between ministry tasks and activities “that are bene esse (beneficial) and those things that are esse (essential)” (115).
Part of this sorting has to do with remembering that “we’ve got to pay closer attention to invisible things” (197). By invisible things, Senkbeil means this: our daily battle for the consciences of those we tend is not against flesh and blood. “For all the skirmishes we get involved in as pastors,” he observes, “I’ve come to believe that we make it harder on ourselves because we’re fighting the wrong enemy with the wrong tactics and the wrong weapons” (195).
How then can we tend the souls within our missional outposts, amid geographies hostile to the gospel, among a generation of anxious, addicted, and sexually broken souls?
We must become intentional again about the spiritual war to which soul physicians are called. We must recover time so that the centrality of Jesus, the provision of God’s Word, the necessity of the Holy Spirit, the labor of prayer, and the power of love aren’t pushed aside by beneficial-but-non-essential activities. In sum, pastoral work as soul-physician work causes us to look at “effective” uses of time differently than other vocations do.
Senkbeil unpacks these pieces of an attentive and intentional job description with the kind tone of a wise mentor. He provides a half-century of experience, full of gritty pastoral examples, rooted in biblical meaning, and written with autobiographical humility regarding his sorrows and joys, mistakes and graces.
I commend this book. This pastoral theology is worth reading and reading again.