Many pastors are in the midst of an identity crisis. As the importance of religion in the American psyche wanes, along with the unique experience of a global pandemic, churches are experiencing a corresponding decrease in attendance, baptisms, and budgets. Too many pastors find themselves scrambling to apply the secrets of secular business to the local church. Christian publishers have responded by publishing innumerable books each promising a “silver bullet,” multipoint plan that will fix all the issues in the local church. While there is indeed value in strategic planning and discipleship models, many pastors, myself included, have bought the book and tried the plan only to learn that ministry is not reducible to a multistep process. In this setting, Herold Senkbeil’s The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart is a breath of fresh air.
Developing a pastoral habitus
In The Care of Souls, Senkbeil (M.Div. and STM, Concordia Theological Seminary) combines lessons he learned watching his father work on the family farm with over three decades of pastoral experience to provide practical advice to pastors. Senkbeil argues that pastors need to develop a pastoral habitus. Senkbeil defines a habitus as “a pastoral temperament or character worked by the Holy Spirit through his means” (17). Seminaries cannot teach a habitus, nor can a pastor develop a habitus by reading the newest book on pastoral ministry. Pastors refine a pastoral habitus through years spent patiently walking with the church in faithful ministry. Through the failures and successes of his ministry, the pastor slowly develops his habitus.
Senkbeil’s concept of a pastoral habitus is promising. The rigidity of silver-bullet solutions to local church woes is why most multistep plans fall far short of their lofty goals. What works in my church in the Cajun country of Louisiana would almost certainly be an abject failure in a large urban church. Senkbeil’s habitus has much more flexibility. Instead of offering a one-size-fits-all approach, Senkbeil encourages pastors to be faithful to their calling while acknowledging that pastors fulfill their calling in countless ways. The ultimate goal is faithfulness; however, faithfulness can look different in different settings.
A pastoral habitus begins with understanding who a pastor is and what a pastor should be doing. The pastor is, first and foremost, a servant of Christ. As a servant, the pastor’s highest aspirations are faithfulness and obedience. Senkbeil uses the apt example of a sheepdog and shepherd to illustrate this point. Pastors are to God what sheepdogs are to shepherds. The sheepdog does not know everything that the shepherd is planning. The sheepdog merely does what the shepherd has taught it to do. Likewise, as pastors, we are not privy to all of God’s plans. Indeed, his ways are often inscrutable. He is truly a God of surprises. Our highest goal is to be faithful servants of God our King.
God’s command to pastors is simple and yet complex. God has called pastors to lead Christians closer to himself. On one hand, this charge simplifies ministry greatly. Pastors and congregations have seemingly illimitable ideas of what a pastor ought to be doing. At times, serving as a pastor can feel like being the CEO of a small corporation! In this setting, having the single goal of leading people to know and love Christ is refreshingly simple.
On the other hand, the call to lead people closer to God is incredibly complex. As Senkbeil recognizes, pastors lead people closer to God in many different ways. Pastors will find Senkbeil’s view of Scripture refreshing. Senkbeil argues that one of the ways pastors lead people closer to God is by rightly applying the Word of God to everyday experience. When sitting by a hospital bed, a pastor can lead a person closer to God by comforting them with Scripture. Likewise, pastors can lead people closer to God by helping people understand their identity in light of Christ. In Christ, they are a new creation and have been given victory over sin, and pastors can help people embrace this view of themselves.
Senkbeil also stresses the importance of the pastor’s spiritual standing. Indeed, pastors ignore their spiritual standing at their own peril. Senkbeil argues that too often pastors focus on the external problems in their church without realizing that most external problems have an internal, spiritual root. As God’s missionaries, pastors and their families are the target of demonic attention and hatred. To lead people closer to God, pastors must have a healthy devotional life full of Scripture and prayer. Indeed, Senkbeil argues that all pastors need a pastor to hold them accountable.
Leading people closer to God while remaining personally devoted to the faith is a multifaceted undertaking that cannot be succinctly described in a single book. The complexity of God’s simple call on the pastor’s life is why pastors need a pastoral habitus. Senkbeil’s book is refreshingly different from most books on pastoral ministry precisely because he never provides a blueprint for how to establish a pastoral habitus. Such blueprints are simply too rigid to withstand the demands of the pastorate. Instead, Senkbeil provides the basic building blocks. By being faithful to God and their church, any pastor can develop a pastoral habitus tailored to their specific context, and Senkbeil’s book is a welcome companion along the way.