When Jesus wanted to drive a point home with his disciples, he often took them to the farm. In John 4, for example, the disciples preoccupied themselves with meeting Jesus’ human hunger. But Jesus used the moment to teach them about his divine hunger for the souls of those he came to save. “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (Jn. 4:34). I picture the disciples here offering Jesus blank stares in return, trying to wrap their minds around how exactly Jesus gets nourishment from this.
That’s when Jesus paints them a more clear picture that they can understand. “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.” (Jn. 4:35).
The care of crops and the care of God’s people turn out to have much in common. We hope to see both grow and mature. But to do so, they need much attention. They need to be treated with patience. They need watering. They need exposure to the light. They need to be tilled, weeded, protected, and carefully handled.
In The Care of Souls, Harold Senkbeil has powerfully used much of this imagery to point us to the realities of pastoral ministry and the work required to help God’s people grow. Son and grandson to farmers, Senkbeil was primed for the pastorate early on by lessons and life on the farm. But the wisdom driving this book rests not as much in Senkbeil’s farmhouse upbringing as much as it does in his five decades of experience pastoring the souls of men, women, and children.
What you find in The Care of Souls is not a handful of flashy, new leadership techniques to grow your influence and build your charm. Innovation did not drive Senkbeil to read this book. It is rather a call for pastors to return back to a “classical” model of pastoral care and leadership:
“I’m going to suggest a radical idea: Let’s get back to the root of the matter. “Radical” after all has to do with roots. And here’s the root of the matter: When ministry is rooted in Jesus and his gifts, then that ministry will be all the more fruitful.” (16)
One of the things I most appreciate about Senkbeil’s book is its emphasis on giving what we have received. He notes that “giving out the gifts of God in Christ that you yourself receive by faith” is “the very core of what pastoring is all about” (19). With such a ministry philosophy, two particular implications are important.
First, we as pastors will simply have nothing to offer our people if we have not first received for ourselves. Pastors need their souls cared for, too. “What we have been given to give to others we need to receive ourselves; the alternative isn’t pretty. It feeds robotic, perfunctory ministry and leads to spiritual shipwreck for ourselves and those we serve” (129-130). As we look around evangelicalism today and see so many pastors making shipwreck of their reputation and their ministries, we can easily surmise that in most (if not all) of these cases, these pastors were running on spiritual fumes. Eventually, their own souls ran out of fuel, and they had nothing left to give but their own broken, sinful selves. Pastors must see their work as dependent on their own spiritual health. We cannot properly give until we first receive for ourselves.
Second, this principle reminds us that the pastor is merely a steward, an emissary of the gospel. Senkbeil rightly calls pastors “errand boys for Jesus.” To pastor is not to sell yourself, or your church building, or your ministries. It is to invite souls to receive the gifts of God He has prepared for them. This affects how we preach, what ministry programs we prioritize, how we counsel members, and much more. Senkbeil reminds us that when we sit across the table from someone without hope, or grieving, or searching for answers, we have something better than human platitudes to offer them: “we have something solid and lasting to give. We are the sweet aroma of life amid the stench of death, for we speak a sure and lasting word when all other human speech falters and fails” (53).
Anyone who seeks to better understand the purpose and the outworking of pastoral ministry should read The Care of Souls. It is a re-centering and comforting word to those who have been entrusted with the care of God’s people. And as I read it, I felt pastorally cared for.
*Thanks to Lexham Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.