The Care of Souls

Title of Work:

The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor's Heart

Author of Work:

Harold L. Senkbeil


Pastor Nathanael Brenner

Page Number:


Format Availability:

Hardcover, Kindle


$22, $5

Oh, another book on pastoral ministry… Why another book? Because we pastors eat it up. How can we do ministry better? How do we minister to people better? There are so many books out there trying to tell you what a pastor is and what a pastor does, but this book is breath of fresh air as it is in harmony with what we Lutherans believe about the pastoral ministry and how God works. 

Senkbeil addresses many topics regarding pastoral ministry: What is a pastor? (ch. 1). What are the pastor’s tools? (ch. 2). What does a pastor do, and how does he serve? (ch. 3–8). Whom does the pastor serve? (especially ch. 10). What dangers and temptations do pastors face? (ch. 9, 11). Besides those topics, he has various other encouragements gleaned from Scripture and his experiences. 

While teaching the scriptural truths of the pastoral ministry, Senkbeil speaks to the heart of pastors. There is a different tone and feel to this book from other good pastoral ministry books which are meant mainly for pastoral instruction (e.g., Doctor of Souls). Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart is a good description for the feel and purpose of this book. This book is very conversational and moves the heart. As a farm boy, Senkbeil knows how to cultivate both the field and a pastor’s heart. 

We as pastors never fix souls; we care for them. “This book’s thrust regarding the care of souls means to care for people, realizing they are not disembodied spirits, but God’s own creatures with both fleshly and spiritual features. The terminology of soul care/cure (cura animarum/seelsorge) is merely the way the church has historically recalled pastors to their essential role—tending people created by God, redeemed by his Son, who need to be sanctified by his Spirit for both time and eternity” (64). 

This book will not blow your mind with new and improved ministry technics, but it will bring you back to the basics of pastoral ministry—Word and Sacrament ministry. I gleaned many different things from this book. Either I was reminded of something I had not thought about recently or Senkbeil explained something in a new light. Here are a handful of those things I was encouraged by. 

Pastoral ministry is a habitus. Many things can be taught at seminary, but many things you can only learn when you are out in the ministry. You continue to grow in the craft and your pastoral character develops with experience. Senkbeil takes you alongside him like a bishop takes a vicar and teaches you what he has learned in his years of experience. Yet the best teacher is your own pastoral experience as you grow in your habitus and yet never completely master it. Read this book, but then go serve people, growing in your craft. 

Senkbeil encourages every pastor to not get caught up in the fads of ministry visions and programs, but to remember the main purpose of the church and the tools God has given us, the means of grace. He encourages us not to treat church like a business to please the people but to use the Word of God to care for souls. What is old is new again; Senkbeil gives the important reminder for pastors of all ages that we are not God’s gift to the church, blessed with so many talents and influencing people by our own charisma: “The best we pastors have to give Christ’s sheep and lambs doesn’t come from within, it comes from [Christ]” (xxi). We are Christ’s errand boys delivering Christ’s goods in Word and Sacrament. We are Christ’s sheepdogs, doing the will of the Shepherd. We cannot rely on our own empathy to serve our people. We will run dry. We need be filled with God’s Word and practice meditation and prayer. Filled up with Christ, we will be able to give what Christ gives as his “errand boys” (ch. 4). 

Yet before we can deliver the goods, we need to know how to deliver the goods. That’s when listening is so important. In chapter 3, “Cure of Souls: Attentive Diagnosis,” Senkbeil helps us think about pastoral listening in a different way. Senkbeil would listen for four things in a conversation: faith, providence, holiness, and repentance. Faith—does this soul believe on the name of the Lord Jesus? Providence—does this soul believe that all things work together for good to those who love God? Holiness—does this soul have a category for the sacred? Is there respect and awe for God as separate and distinct from the daily routines of life? Repentance—does this soul believe that is it a sinner before God? 

We often think of guilt and shame as being the same thing, yet Senkbeil explains that, while having some overlap, guilt and shame are different. This distinction helps a pastor properly apply law and gospel. “Guilt has to do with behavior, while shame is a matter of identity” (138). 

Senkbeil highlights two major temptations pastors face: sexual temptation and spiritual boredom (something the ancients called acedia). While sexual temptation is a well-known temptation, I found his insights on spiritual boredom especially helpful. Spiritual boredom is a lack or absence of care. It is followed by apathy and then despair. Senkbeil lists various warning signs to help pastors see if they have fallen into this spiritual boredom (211–212). 

In a culture that emphasizes church growth, Senkbeil reminds us that mission work and caring of souls (outreach and inreach) go hand in hand. We as pastors don’t choose between the two but serve in both areas. “The called servants of Christ are not advertising agents or salesmen, but spokesmen for Jesus. When you open your mouth to speak the gospel you’ve been given to proclaim, people receive the words of Jesus. In a very real way, they hear Jesus himself” (226). This echoes Luther’s statement that a pastor is God’s “mouthpiece.” Yet we would also agree that anytime someone proclaims the gospel, God is speaking through them. A great point to remember: don’t just preach about Jesus, preach Jesus. We are not called to preach about the forgiveness of sins, but to preach forgiveness of sins. 

Chapter 11 was a great encouragement for pastors to care for their own souls. Senkbeil encourages us to find our own personal pastor and place ourselves under his care. We can’t do ministry alone and shouldn’t rely on our own resources. We have spiritual needs too. Go to circuit meetings. Go to conference/convention. Yet even better, confide in a fellow brother pastor so he can administer the means of grace to you. 

I have very little criticism of this book. Senkbeil is an LCMS pastor, and you will observe this in some of the ways he speaks about church and ministry. Senkbeil also unfortunately takes John 6 as a reference to the Lord’s Supper (42), which is a trend that I’ve seen throughout the LCMS. Yet Senkbeil still has valuable thoughts about the Lord’s Supper. 

I would highly recommend this book to all pastors in the ministry, especially younger pastors and graduates fresh out of seminary. We try to be cutting edge with our ministry and with ministry styles, but this book brings us back to the traditional care of souls. “The church’s tradition is the way she delivers to her own contemporaries what she has received from faithful generations past” (62). Every pastor will glean something from this book that will refocus and rejuvenate him for ministry. This book will be one on my shelf that I will continue to go back to and reread for encouragement and guidance.