In the second session of DOXOLOGY’s “The Gathering,” the Rev. Dr. Harold Senkbeil spoke on the subject of “Shepherding Souls: The Classic Model for the Care of Souls in Contemporary Practice.” In this session Dr. Senkbeil focused our attention on the traditional term used by Lutherans for pastoral work: “seelsorge” – the “care/cure of souls.”
As the “spiritual physician,” the pastor’s primary work centers on the Latin phrase “cura animarum.” Dr. Senkbeil translated that phrase in two ways and then drew out the implications of both. First, “cura animarum” can be translated “cure of souls.” Dr. Senkbeil suggested that we view this as the intervention or “crisis care” of souls in acute distress because of sin and death. The phrase “cura animarum” can also be translated “care of souls.” This, Dr. Senkbeil said, we might consider the “specialized care” or, in my words, the “ongoing care” of the soul dealing with the chronic, long-term distress of sin and death.
Dr. Senkbeil wanted to start his presentation with “cura animarum,” or for the more German-minded, seelsorge, because in our contemporary context we are confronted with various and competing models for the office of the holy ministry. Dr. Senkbeil listed these models, and I give my handwritten notes and comments in italics:
- Pastor as CEO – The church is viewed as a corporation. It hires the pastor to “get things done.” Thus, the hire-fire mentality plaguing our churches.
- Pastor as Ringmaster – The pastor keeps the activities of the congregation going and keeps the organizational wheels well oiled.
- Pastor as Hand Holder – The pastor is the “go-to” guy when you’re feeling down. He may be able to help. And besides, the price is right.
- Pastor as Arbiter – Feuding brothers (congregation members) want the pastor to make peace, or at least tell each side that he/she is in the right and the other….
- Pastor as Advisor – Well, not really. Some people just want the pastor’s blessing for what they’ve already decided.
- Pastor as Seelsorger/Physician of Souls – (Already covered above.)
Having then set the stage for understanding the pastor’s task as the “care/cure of souls,” Dr. Senkbeil gave ten theses for “The Anatomy of the Care of Souls.” Again, my comments from notes and reflections appear in italics.
- Thesis One: All spiritual care is the care that God the Holy Trinity provides through His Word in both oral and visible form. We pastors only bring people into “proximity of God and His gifts”; He does the work of healing souls.
- Thesis Two: This care is received by faith. We pastors emphasize trust in Jesus.
- Thesis Three: Faith comes by hearing. That’s how we pastors operate—making sure there are no barriers to hearing God’s words. Dr. Senkbeil’s illustration: clearing out the under brush or the clutter of life in order that people may better hear God’s promises.
- Thesis Four: Devil, world, and flesh conspire against faith. (“misbelief, despair and other great shame and vice”) The greatest sins attack faith, that is, giving up on God.
- Thesis Five: Pastoral care focuses on enabling the soul to hear the Word it needs in the context of its distress.
- Thesis Six: Pastors attentively discern what threatens faith; then intentionally address that threat with the Word of God.
- Thesis Seven: Pastors baptize people into the death and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. Baptism is not just a one-time event; all of life is the living out of one’s Baptism.
- Thesis Eight: Pastors forgive the sins of penitent sinners and retain the sins of the impenitent so long as they do not repent. Absolution is the key. The sacraments are central to the pastor’s work—his primary “tools” in the “toolbox” of pastoral care. We want to use the “laser beam of the Gospel” in the “surgical process” of caring for the soul, much like lasers used in medical surgeries requiring precision.
- Thesis Nine: Pastors distribute the Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins and to strengthen and preserve baptized believers in both body and soul.
- Thesis Ten: Pastors teach souls to pray for what God promises in His Word and bless them in the Name of the Holy Trinity, applying the promises of His Word individually and specifically. If the disciples needed to say, “Lord, teach us to pray,” then so do our parishioners and we. And we pray for more than the pressing need of the moment; we pray for God to give and strengthen faith. We also do well to bless the soul for whom we are caring, placing a hand on the person’s head and speaking a blessing. To bless a person is to give the promises of God in His words.
Just in case the references to “souls” seems a bit odd, Dr. Senkbeil later explained what he meant by using the term to refer to the person. The soul, Dr. Senkbeil said, is not something you have, but who you are. It refers to the whole individual or person in relation to God (Latin: coram Deo). Remember the Psalm that says, “Bless the LORD, O my soul”? It refers to the whole person created, redeemed, and made holy by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
How do we pastors put this understanding of “care/cure of souls” into practice? We’ll cover that next time.