“The Care of Souls by Harold L. Senkbeil” and “Pastoral Leadership by Harold L. Senkbeil and Lucas V. Woodford”

Every pastor who has served 50 years in ministry should be legally compelled to write a book. After so many years of faithful service to the Lord, they should be designated a national treasure. That’s my conclusion after reading today’s books.

Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review two books. The first book is “The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart” by Harold L. Senkbeil. 312 pages, published by Lexham Press in June 2019. This book has won:

  • 2020 Christianity Today Book Award Winner for Church/Pastoral Leadership
  • 2019 TGC Ministry Book of the Year Winner
  • 2020 ECPA Christian Book Award Winner for Ministry Resources.

This book was so good, it has a spin-off series: The Lexham Ministry Guides. This series includes published guides for:

  1. Pastoral Leadership
  2. Stewardship
  3. Funerals

And they have two more soon to be published titles:

  1. Pastoral Visitation
  2. Spiritual Warfare

All these books carry the subtitle “the care of souls”, tracing its roots to Senkbeil’s original book.

The second book I am reviewing is “Pastoral Leadership: For the Care of Souls” by Harold L. Senkbeil, the same author as the first, and Lucas V. Woodford. 208 pages, also by Lexham Press, published in August 2021, meaning this was published two years after the first.

Two books

Two books today. Whenever I review two books, it’s because I was forced to. I would rather just review one book for one episode.

Here is what happened. The Logos Free Book of the Month for April is the Pastoral Leadership book. I finished all 200 pages and found it dissatisfying. Not because it was a bad book, I’ll evaluate the book later in this episode, but because it seemed like I am joining in mid-conversation. The authors are using words which I think I know what they mean but not sure.

For example, in a church setting, a young Christian hears the word ‘justification’ in a sermon. He thinks: “Does the word justification in the passage mean the same thing as in the sentence: Russia has no justification for war.” And the answer is no. Justification as the Apostle Paul uses it is a technical term to describe a righteousness imputed on us necessary for our salvation.

Coming back to the Logos Free Book of the Month, in this book I frequently read the phrase “the care of souls”. You and I could guess the meaning. We would be kind of right. But the authors clearly mean something specific by it.

At one point in the book, the author asks:

Do these stated policies enhance or hamper the care of souls in this place?

Without knowing how he defines the care of souls, you cannot answer the question. And the care of souls is not peripheral to the book, it’s the subtitle of the book, spinning of from another book carrying the same name. Listen to what the authors wrote:

That’s why we wrote this book: we believe that the heart of all leadership and strategic planning is the care of souls. Pastors are not chief executive officers any more than churches are businesses. If pastors try to run a church and cultivate quality leaders without caring for their souls, that congregation is going to be spiritually dead in the water, no matter how impressive its outward metrics may be. Care for souls is love in action—the enactment of the word of God, to be precise.

If you were counting, the authors used the phrase “care of souls” three times. It is a weighty word, foundational to their ministry and writing.

Another word that appears just as often is habitus. In the preface to the series, the editor Harold Senkbeil writes:

… all pastoral work is rooted in a pastoral habitus, or disposition. What every pastor does day after day is an expression of who the pastor is as a servant of Christ and a steward of God’s mysteries (1 Cor 4:1).

While there are only five chapters in Pastoral Leadership, I finished it, seeing but not perceiving, reading but not understanding. What is this Care of Souls thing that has gripped these authors? And not just them but readers, reviewers, and book award givers, until it has spawned a mini-industry, of Care of Souls Ministry Guides?

So I felt that in order for me to do justice to this book review, I had to read the OG, the book “Care of Souls: Cultivating the Pastor’s heart” by Harold Senkbeil.

This episode will review the books in the order it’s supposed to be read. The Care of Souls first, then Pastoral Leadership that flows from it.

The Care of Souls Pastoral Leadership Harold Senkbeil

Care of Souls

The best place for you to read the Care of Souls is on a farm. Especially a dairy farm with a herd of cows moo-ing. The book offers so much earthy wisdom that it should come pre-packaged with dirt and hay so that you can smell the farm as you read it.

Senkbeil takes readers to a rustic time of the past, his past. I quote the first sentences from his introduction:

My childhood and youth were spent on a farm in western Minnesota—my father’s farm and his father’s before him. It wasn’t much by modern standards, just a tiny patch of ground. But it was my whole world, and what a wonderful world it was.

Any preacher can preach the Parable of the Sower and sound like an agricultural expert but only those who live that life can fill it with detail and surprise. For example, I was reading a section titled, “Spiritual Physicians” and Senkbeil includes this story. As you listen, I want you to know that he is describing the pastoral habitus, the disposition of the pastor towards the flock:

In the old days back on the farm, farmers learned the necessity of animal husbandry the hard way. Many of them like my dad were pretty good diagnosticians even though they’d never been to veterinary school. They learned from generations before them and gained significant practical skill by focused observation of the animals they tended, watching carefully for the peculiarities of each animal to learn how they behaved in a variety of different situations. So when they saw something out of the ordinary, they knew they had to act quickly.

Here’s one notable example. In springtime when our cows were first let out to pasture, they tended to gorge themselves on succulent new grasses and overeat. Their voluminous bellies could consume quite a quantity of legumes, and on occasion my father needed to take drastic action. When a cow’s flanks began to swell abnormally and she began to pant with increasingly shallow breaths, she was experiencing the bovine equivalent of acid indigestion. The results could be fatal if those gases in her stomachs expanded to the point of stopping her respiration. More than once I saw my dad take out a knife and plunge it into a bloated cow’s side and let out the accumulated gas to save her life. He needed to know exactly where the knife could be inserted without slicing into an artery and killing her. It was radical treatment, that’s for sure, but it was necessary for healing.

I shared this story and captioned it the lesson: “Do not overeat lest your pastor has to stick you with a knife.”

Before you think this is the memoir of a Christian farmer, let me now tell you who is Harold L. Senkbeil. According to the author profile in Lexham Press:

Harold L. Senkbeil is executive director emeritus of Doxology: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care. His pastoral experience of nearly five decades includes parish ministry, the seminary classroom, and parachurch leadership. He is author of numerous books, including Dying to Live: The Power of Forgiveness and Sanctification: Christ in Action.

Senkbeil is a pastor’s pastor. And if you are a pastor and you don’t have a pastor or don’t know what a pastor’s pastor means, then you should read this book. While a big part of the book is the care of other people’s soul, Senkbeil is just as invested in the care of your soul, the pastor’s soul.

Movie Pitch

If this book was to be turned into a movie – and why not? Since it’s already spawn a spin-off series of books – the setting would be on a farm.

It’s like City Slickers but better. You don’t know the Billy Crystal movie? You are an impoverished soul. Anyways…

A city pastor arrives at the farm to get some much needed rest. Not many people know this but he is thinking of quitting. Half the congregation is upset for all he has done, the other half is upset for all he has not yet done. He has read all the books, joined all the conferences and tried all the foolproof church growth techniques. He is the fool that proved all those foolproof techniques wrong. He is here to get some time and space to plot his next chapter of his life. He just didn’t know how that next chapter was going to look like.

This movie is not in The Care of Souls book, I’m just conveying as part of my review how the book could be adapted into a movie that captures the book’s essence.

The pastor meets an old man. The old man draws him in with tales of farm life. Before long, the pastor realises that the stories have a point. A pastoral point.

The pastor begins to open up in a way he never did before. Remarkably, the old man listens as if he has heard it all before. The old man gently asks, “What is a pastor?”

That’s actually the title of chapter one in this book. “What is a Pastor? The Classical Model.” I quote:

The premise of this book is that action flows from being; identity defines activity. Thus a clearer vision of what the pastoral ministry is will lead to a clearer understanding of what a pastor does day by day.

Later Senkbeil writes:

The classical texts of pastoral care have always called the cure of souls a habitus, a pastoral temperament or character worked by the Holy Spirit through his means.

Skippping forward, I quote:

A pastor’s habituation, or character, is what counts most in ministry. This habitus can’t be instilled merely through pedagogy or acquisition of intellectual knowledge, though instruction and knowledge remain vital and indispensable components in pastoral education.

This book, the Care of Souls is a manifesto for a return to the pastor’s calling, the care of souls, by developing the pastor’s habitus. This manifesto is not like some trendy political idea that excites generations of people; an idea that sounds nice in theory but is just fantasy.

Instead this manifesto to return to the pastor’s calling, the care of soul, is an age old practice that is still being practiced and this book and author is proof.

Let me read one line from the book and let’s see what you think:

This is the heart of the cure of souls: In proximity to the sanctifying Spirit every soul finds its renewal and cleansing.

Let me repeat it because this is an important part of the book. Every word in this line is loaded with meaning that fills chapters in this book:

In proximity to the sanctifying Spirit every soul finds its renewal and cleansing.

The implications are enormous. It’s not just we have a more accurate theology. I love it when my theology gets challenged and hopefully closer to the biblical understanding.

This can help you in ministering to others. It clarifies what you do. What is ministering. It clarifies what you can and cannot do.

And thus save you from burnout. The pastor who feels the weight of the congregation on his shoulders finds relief in this pages as Senkbeil unpacks each word that I just read.

In proximity to the sanctifying Spirit every soul finds its renewal and cleansing.

Pastors, you have one job and only one job: Bring souls nearer and nearer to Jesus.

In that movie idea of mine – yes, I’m pitching a movie project in the middle of this book review – at the end of the movie, we see the city pastor waving good bye to the old man, renewed and invigorated for the next chapter of his life, the care of souls and the nurturing of the pastoral habitus.

So that’s the Care of Souls. I’ll now turn to the second book Pastoral Leadership. And I’ll offer my concluding thoughts on both books at the end.

Pastoral Leadership

After finishing The Care of Souls, the reader will naturally ask, “What’s next?” Having left the old man at the farm and having returned to the church, renewed and invigorated for the care of souls, what is pastor habitus maximus supposed to do at the church strategic meeting, or a budget meeting, or a funeral?

To find out, get the Lexham Ministry Guide on those topics! And that’s where this book comes in, Pastoral Leadership: For the Care of Souls written by Senkbeil and his protege(?), disciple(?), pastor-in-arms, Lucas V. Woodford.

I’ll now confess that the movie idea I pitched earlier is a artistic adaptation of Woodford’s story. There are five chapters in Pastoral Leadership and the first chapter is Woodford’s Coming of Habitus story, the story of before and after he met the old man, the real life Professor Harold Senkbeil.

Listen to what a wreck he was. Woodford writes:

Paranoia and uncertainty about the future of my ministry and the future of the congregation became my nightly obsession. Under the misbelief that if I worked more, tried harder, and was a better leader people would like me more, I began coming into the office at 3:00 a.m. to start my day and staying until late at night, after I had attended the last meeting of the day. Even so, landing on a common and uniting leadership emphasis for the congregation was ever elusive. Strife continued. Factions remained.

Later he writes:

I was trying to do absolutely everything by my own reason and strength. I knew the Great Commission, I embraced it, and I was trying to fulfill it, even if it killed me! But the growth wasn’t magically happening like all the church growth books said it was supposed to. Those same books said a leader looking to bring change and vibrancy to his ministry should expect all kinds of resistance and animosity and needs to be prepared to endure some misery in ministry and life. They said this was just the price you pay if you want to lead a change toward a passionate, vibrant, mission-oriented church.

Then he meets Professor Harold Senkbeil, marking the turning point in his life and ministry:

This loving professor and pastor gave me permission to see ministry in a fuller and more historic light, which included profound insight into the care of souls, not just the leading of members. Thus, I began to care more intentionally and classically for the individual souls of the congregation, giving them Jesus as I was called to do, rather than giving them myself, my ingenuity, or my next great idea. I learned that leadership and the care of souls go hand in glove when soul care leads the way.

If you are have a hankering for more rustic wisdom, we have two chapters from Senkbeil here. In one chapter he offers an all too real description of Pastoral Depletion Syndrome. If you are not a pastor be careful when you read this. After reading this chapter, you might be compelled to ask for absolution from your pastor.

At the end of the book, we have a resource chapter which is an annotated bibliography arranged in five categories: Leadership and Coaching, Emotional Intelligence, Boundaries and Schedules, Team Building and Strategic Planning. Woodford has done the hard work of curating these books so that you don’t have to. This chapter alone could be worth the price of the book.

That’s the end of my review on Pastoral Leadership. Now let’s go to my concluding thoughts on both books.

Concluding Thoughts

I recommend both books to weary pastors, young pastors, pastors who are going to quit, pastors who are just starting. Both Senkbeil and Woodford tell it like it is. In a different era, what they both did here can be akin to airing out the church’s dirty laundry in public. So much is revealed.

In a chapter they both co-authored, they present their credentials and convictions:

The two of us have been involved in the full gamut of church leadership. We’ve been in the trenches of ministry right alongside other pastors. Each of us have counseled, mentored, and guided pastors one-on-one through the whole range of pastoral experiences—from the edge of disaster to exhilarating success. More pointedly, we’ve pastored these pastors. We have the same theology and share lots of convictions when it comes to ministry, but this one conviction rises to the very top: every pastor needs a pastor.

One tip I’ll give you here is you should read the Care of Souls book first before reading any of the other books in the Lexham Ministry Guide. Now I’m sure that those books can be read standalone but you will get so much more out of them if you read The Care of Souls first. Trust me on this.

With that tip, I have one warning for you: The Lutheran is very strong in these books. The way the books speak of the sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper) is very different from the way I as a Baptist understand them.

Another example: Baptismal Therapy. I’m not confident that I fully understand what Senkbeil means when he speaks of Baptismal Therapy. This is something that Senkbeil speaks often and strongly. If Baptismal Therapy means getting Christians to see Romans 6 at work in their lives, then I agree with him and I was doing something like that, but I just didn’t understand it in those terms. But if Senkbeil’s Baptismal Therapy means something else the way the Lord’s Supper means something else to the Lutherans, then I see it as a Baptist would see it, not as he means it.

The point I’m making is both books are very Lutheran which is perfect for Lutherans because even if you disagree, you know what you are disagreeing with. For those of us, like myself, who are not familiar with Lutheran theology, even when I agree, I’m not entirely sure I know what I am agreeing with. All this means is I need to make a Lutheran friend.

Clearly, Senkbeil and Woodford are Lutheran pastors who believe in what they write. I much prefer people to write their convictions clearly rather than water it down just to appeal to all peoples. Since I highlighted Lutheran so strongly, you might think that non-Lutherans should skip the book. I think that would be a mistake and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Michael Horton, who is a Reformed, not a Lutheran, wrote the foreword to the Care of Souls. After highlighting the close kinship between Lutheran and Reformed Confession, Horton writes:

… the two confessions are different. And it is precisely in this difference that I find encouragement as well as fraternal correction and admonition. Evangelicals rarely encounter confessional Lutheran sources and this is a pity. This book constitutes persuasive evidence of the richness of distinct Lutheran emphases in relation to pastoral ministry. All of us need this wisdom.

And on that note, I will wisely end this review. You should read these books because all of us need more wisdom and there is wisdom here for the taking.

This is a Reading and Readers review of The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart by Harold L. Senkbeil and Pastoral Leadership: For the Care of Souls by Harold L. Senkbeil and Lucas V. Woodford. The Amazon Kindle price for both books are USD8.49 and USD9.99 respectively.

But if you get them from Logos for this month and this month only, The Care of Souls is USD6.99 and Pastoral Leadership is free!

You really should get the books because what are the odds of you finding an old man with a farm to turn your life and ministry around? Pastors, return to your calling to care for souls. Habitus Maximus!

Book List

  • The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart by Harold L. Senkbeil. Amazon. Logos.
  • Pastoral Leadership: For the Care of Souls by Harold L. Senkbeil and Lucas V. Woodford. Amazon. Logos.