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Shepherds are not Technicians

December 13th, 2023 | 9 min read

By Jake Meador

A few weeks ago I started reading Harold Senkbeil's The Care of Souls. The timing was fortuitous, as multiple stories would develop in November that illustrate some of the dangers in pastoral ministry when Senkbeil's wisdom is forgotten.

We're going to begin with reviewing Senkbeil before turning to the frequently grim news about pastoral care in the American church.

For Senkbeil, the pastor is a seelsorger, a carer for souls. The only tools available to him in his work are the Word of God and the sacraments. And the propulsive power standing behind him is God alone. At several points he uses the illustration of a shepherd and a sheep dog to explain the pastoral vocation: The dog works in sync with the shepherd, carrying out and enacting his will. He doesn't improvise or deviate from the shepherd's direction. Just so for pastors, according to Senkbeil. There are no techniques, no short cuts. The only way is a lifetime of attending to God's Word oneself, submitting one's life to it in all things, and then ministering out of that habitus to the souls entrusted to your care. Habitus is central for Senkbeil, by which he means a form of life organized around disciplines, habits, and rituals that over time form a person to care well for human souls in service to Christ.

Part of the background of Senkbeil's argument is structural, I suspect. His home communion, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, is still largely geographically defined, with pastors serving in "parishes" that are part of "districts," an older model of ecclesial organization that resembles the old mainline far more than it does the tacitly consumeristic, car-dependent model that defines evangelical ecclesiology.

For Senkbeil, the pastor's "parish" is his concern and his task is the care of the souls within his parish. All of this, as the traditional language of pastoral ministry suggests, is reminiscent of agrarian life—a metaphor that Senkbeil makes much of in the book. A pastor is like a shepherd, whose work is chiefly caring for sheep, which means it's the sort of work that is slow, requires patience, and seldom attracts much attention from the halls of power. It also requires a personal discipline that helps one to become skilled in caring for souls, disciplines that do not map terribly well onto an entertainment-obsessed, terminally online world.

The pastor and farmer are alike for Senkbeil in as much as they are both vocations in which a person is entrusted with the care of living creatures. Care means that you can't simply program your audience through the correct inputs in order to produce predictable outcomes. People don't work that way. You also cannot resolve problems with those under your care by simply ignoring them or alienating them in order to make room for people more amenable to one's entrepreneurial vision. The people in your parish are just there.

One Lutheran pastor I know shared a story with me of writing a handwritten note to every household in his parish during Lent one year. The purpose of the note was simply to thank them for being part of the parish and to comment on one evidence of grace he saw in their life. There was no criticism and no request for more from them. The note was purely intended to encourage them and assure them of his care and kindly attention. Such a model of pastoral life is beautiful, of course, but it also leaves little time for many of the things we now expect pastors to do.

Crucially, for Senkbeil, the work of caring for souls is not grounded in the individual genius of the pastor, his vision, his unique skills, his entrepreneurial mentality, or rhetorical genius. The work of soul care is given by God, defined by God, facilitated by God, and is accountable to God. The pastor is simply the vehicle for speaking and applying God's Word to the people in his parish; he is not authorized or equipped by God to do something else.

Ultimately, this means that the pastor's habitus shapes him to be like Jesus, pouring himself out for his flock. It is a calling to radical humility, an emptying of the self, and a wholesale dependence upon the grace of God to enable us to carry out the painful, hard, quiet work that God gives us to do.

At its greatest extremes, it looks like the work of saints like Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, who took the place of a condemned man in a Nazi concentration camp. To adopt the mantra of John Piper and slightly modify it: Brothers, you are not professionals. You are servants. Not only that, you are servants of a murdered shepherd, which means that risk lies before you as well. But here we should also remember this truth from Piper: Obedience to God is not, at the end, ultimately tedious, painful, or unpleasant; for the joy set before us we follow our king, even to death.

In contrast, for all the differences between the "anti-woke" wing of the reformed world and the "missional" wing, they seem to at least have this in common: Neither seem much interested in Senkbeil's vision of ministry. Their imagination for the pastoral task is fundamentally different. It is perhaps worth naming this difference, which flows out of a different imagining of religion, I think.

In the world of culture warring America, "religion" fills a specific role in the scripted dramas that occupy our attention, enrich the tech and media barons, and corrode the souls of all and sundry.

My friend Kirsten Sanders describes it this way:

  1. Religion is a marketplace where we choose from a selection of options that validate our preferences.
  2. Religion is a place where we work out our political concerns and navigate our social location.
  3. Religious commitment is publicly displayed and confirmed.
  4. We use religion to reenforce other commitments.
3. religion is a place where we work out our political concerns and navigate our social location
4. religious commitment is publicly displayed and confirmed (in this case, twitter)
5. we use religion to reinforce other commitments

This understanding of religious life excludes the possibility of a pastoral habitus from the start. The habitus understanding presupposes that God has spoken, that his Word is binding, even when politically or personally inconvenient, and that the greatest matter in this world is what we do when we hear his Word. This is "religion" in Senkbeil's imagination, I think, and it is utterly at odds with the culture war vision of religion, which chiefly renders the Word subservient to political agendas, marketing ambitions, and brand building.

Because of this understanding of religion, habitus will inevitably be set aside and replaced by technique. This culture war understanding of religion is largely responsible for the alternative models for the church assumed in many reformed circles.

Following the lead of both the attractional and religious right movements, the Christian church is treated in one of two ways:

  • as being either a kind of spiritual NGO whose product is demographically tailored programs in a certain kind of lifestyle propagation 
  • as a kind of political superpac whose effectiveness is built on their capacity to entertain and seize attention and whose output is mobilized culture warriors that effect cultural change through voting and activism. 

Both alternatives tacitly presuppose and develop the older logic of the attractional and religious right movements in as much as both are built on the use of marketing techniques, like the attractional movement, and both are aimed at the goal of securing public relevance and influence, as with the religious right.

The NGO model generally codes as more moderate or progressive. It is a species of ministry-as-technique that usually plays well in more blue parts of America. It is interested in faith and work (but virtually always knowledge work or prestigious work, seldom the trades or blue collar work), in multi-racial churches (but seldom the Black church or immigrant churches), and in being missiologically sensible to well-off blue state progressives (but seldom having the same concern with working-class red state conservatives).

In this model, the pastor is a kind of project manager for the spiritual NGO that is the local church. He provides inspirational leadership, oversees programs and events intended to help church members navigate their social location, and ensures that these programs and services remain accessible to non-church members facing similar struggles. I say "he" but, of course, in this model of ministry the biblical prohibition against women's ordination loses its reason. All that remains to argue against the ordination of women is a fideistic appeal to a small number of biblical proof texts, often offered with reluctance and the wringing of hands.

The latter option, the pastor as media personality, entertainer, and activist, codes more conservatively. It is found more often within the SBC and CREC. Because of the central role that entertainment and attention occupies for this counter-vision, many of the foremost voices are plainly addicted to Twitter (in itself a habit that will corrode the pastoral habitus, to say nothing of taking away time and attention from one's local church), sometimes tweeting hundreds of times in a single week. Their behavior and value system has become rejiggered to make them more effective entertainers and to explain away passages of Scripture that would discipline or limit their social media use and behavior.

This, incidentally, is why attempts to critique this group's "mood" won't have the desired effect: To suggest that the culture warring entertainer would be better if he were less entertaining is to both ignore the significant moral and theological issues that often develop with this model and to completely misunderstand the appeal of the model in the first place. The entertaining culture warrior's appeal and effectiveness, pragmatically defined, is entirely wrapped up in his "mood." They gain an audience because their mood causes them to look like they are fun winners, as opposed to the dour losers over at the spiritual NGO who spend all their time placating progressives who will never actually be placated. When you assail the entertainer over "mood" and mood alone, you will lose every time. The point must be broader: That the actual practices incentivized by the mood are themselves corrosive of piety. The critique is not about tone. The critique is that using worldly tools is, in Senkbeil's image, an instance of the sheep dog ignoring the shepherd's voice and deciding that he knows better.

To return to the larger point, what unites the pastor-as-project-manager and pastor-as-entertainer models is that the ordinary ministry of Word and Sacrament more or less disappears from a pastor's public ministry. Indeed, if you adopt either of these models, no small part of one's public presence will become speech that either explains why that clear verse condemning your behavior doesn't mean what it says or offering a kind of angsty, hand-wringing apology for the text while technically still affirming its authority.

The former dismisses God's Word. The latter is apologetic for it. Neither submit to it.

Of course, it is not only Lutherans that have practiced pastoral ministry according to Senkbeil's model. Indeed, for all the criticism directed at both men, I actually think that both John Piper and Tim Keller have, in different ways, attempted to continue to be soul-carers, even as their profiles rose to far greater prominence than that of Senkbeil or other pastors that find this approach compelling.

Certainly, both did this imperfectly. Yet Keller and Piper both sought to put down roots in specific communities and places. Both lived in the same home for over three decades, and both lived in parts of their city that are neglected or even looked down upon by other residents of their cities. Piper made the radical decision to give copyright of all his books to a non-profit ministry he founded and to give away all of the royalties he received for his books. Keller, for his part, chose to paywall his sermons, which kept a lid on how much his profile could grow in the early days of Redeemer. He also did not write a book for the first 19 years of his pastorate at Redeemer, focusing narrowly on the ministry God gave him to do in Manhattan. Neither, of course, had access to social media in the formative days of their ministry—a fact which likely worked to their good in a number of ways.

It is likely that acquiring a large digital platform is simply going to be corrosive of the pastoral habitus in the vast majority of cases. It is not a coincidence that Senkbeil wrote his book at the end of his career after many decades of faithful quiet service. Yet what Piper and Keller's examples suggest is that it might be possible to maintain this habitus, even in the world of celebrity driven reformed evangelicalism. But to do that requires intentionality and making specific choices that will explicitly involve rejecting opportunities to gain greater wealth, power, or influence, and choosing instead to labor in the garden God has given you.

Given the ubiquity of the internet and social media and streaming video and all the rest, it is likely that the project manager and political entertainer models of pastoral ministry are here to stay. Indeed, it is even possible that the habitus model of seelsorge held out by Senkbeil will be ever more marginal in the life of the American church. But if that is indeed what happens the outcome will not be a healthier church, rooted and grounded in the eternal truths passed down to us in Scripture. It will, instead, be an impotent church whose relation to the Gospel grows ever more tenuous.

You can, after all, project manage, entertain, and lobby without the Gospel. Indeed, if anything one suspects that following the teachings of Christ would make all those tasks more difficult rather than less. We are, in short, seeing the second chapter of both the attractional and moral majority movements. The thread that ties them together is this: The medium has supplanted the message, making the Gospel extraneous to the mission.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).