The Missing Link in Pastoral Ministry

by Harold Senkbeil May 7, 2020

Who among us can claim to have what it takes for ministry in these tumultuous times? Time-honored traditions have been discarded in the church, and that’s not all bad. We don’t do ministry out of human custom, after all, but out of divine truth revealed in the living and abiding Word of God.

Yet foundational cultural structures are also in flux. Sexual norms are up for grabs, marriage has been redefined, and gender for some is now a matter of personal choice rather than anatomy/biology. Ideology trumps rational discussion in the Public Square, and time-honored Christian teachings frequently are rejected as bigoted expressions of an oppressive patriarchy.

Do you have what it takes to be a pastor amid such social upheaval and cultural chaos? I know I don’t. But then neither did the apostle Paul, who wrote to young pastor Timothy: “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service.” (1 Tim 1:12) That’s the secret to vibrant ministry in every succeeding generation: we can only pass on to others what we ourselves have received from God.

Endurance in Pastoral Ministry

As I look back on nearly five decades of pastoral work I can see that ministry these days demands a whole new set of skills than the tools I was handed back in the 60’s and early 70’s. And having spent six years on a seminary faculty in more recent decades, I have a general idea of what it takes to stay ahead of the curve in equipping pastors for the challenges of each new era. The simple truth is that ministry isn’t for sissies—never has been and never will be.

Yet the more things change, the more they stay the same. Timothy’s ministry in the first century isn’t all that different than ministry in the twenty-first: the heart and center of pastoral work is to proclaim Jesus Christ and him crucified not just from the pulpit but in day to day interaction with the men, women, and children for whom he died and rose. And as much as we need to stay abreast of developments in culture and technology, the longer heritage of our collective craft informs everything we do in ministry: the art of the care and cure of souls.

This, I’m convinced, is the missing link that too often escapes notice in the mad scramble to stay on top of the latest trends and tactics for ministry. Whatever we do in service of the gospel is of one piece with those who have gone before us in the holy calling to serve as shepherds in Christ’s flock.

A Living Heritage

That’s why I wrote The Care of Souls (Lexham Press, 2019). My intent was to outline not a dead tradition, but a living heritage for this our generation and our posterity yet to come. Knowing who you are as a pastor will inform and enliven what you do as a pastor. 

My book therefore focuses on pastoral identity and purpose, highlighting the gifts God the Holy Spirit provides by means of his Word as tools for compassionate and intentional ministry in Jesus’ name. What we truly need most of all is a “habitus” (disposition) for ministry that God himself provides while we serve his people in his name:

A “practical habitus” for ministry is never completely mastered. This “practical disposition” is acquired through a lifelong process by which the pastor as Christian goes on receiving what he brings to others. So for as long as he lives the pastor, like other children of God, treads the path of continual repentance and faith on his own personal pilgrimage back home to the Father’s house. Daily he confesses his sins and daily he receives the Holy Spirit and everything that Jesus died to bring him: forgiveness of sins, life, and eternal salvation. This daily dying to sin and rising to new life through faith in Christ is the pivotal hinge in every Christian’s life, and it’s an essential ingredient in faithful and consistent care of souls. No pastor can give to others what he himself has not received. Turn that around and you have the very core of what pastoring is all about: giving out the gifts of God in Christ that you yourself receive by faith. The essence of pastoral work is to bring the gifts of the Good Shepherd to his sheep and lambs. And here’s the well from which you can draw inexhaustible grace every day as a pastor: In the church the Holy Spirit daily and richly forgives all your sins along with the sins of all believers.1

Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and is used with permission.