December 2, 2020

Pastoral Care Week: Curing Souls or Running Churches?


Pastoral Care Week
Renewing Our Calling to the Cure of Souls

This week I will be re-posting some of the material from the past six years that I’ve written on pastoral/chaplain ministry. I have been looking through it lately and reworking some of it for other purposes, and I thought it might be a good time to take another look at a few of these articles.

If you’ve been reading Internet Monk during these years, then you know that this is a primary interest of mine. And, as I’ve been wont to do, I’ve grounded my perspectives not only in my reading of the Scriptures and my understanding of tradition, but in the contemporary pastoral writings of people like Eugene Peterson.

Until about a century ago, what pastors did between Sundays was a piece with what they did on Sundays. The context changed: instead of an assembled congregation, the pastor was with one other person or with small gatherings of persons, or alone in study and prayer. The manner changed: instead of proclamation, there was conversation. But the work was the same: discovering the meaning of Scripture, developing a life of prayer, guiding growth into maturity.

This is the pastoral work that is historically termed the cure of souls. The primary sense of cura in Latin is “care,” with undertones of “cure.” The soul is the essence of the human personality. The cure of souls, then, is the Scripture-directed, prayer-shaped care that is devoted to persons singly or in groups, in settings sacred and profane. It is a determination to work at the center, to concentrate on the essential.

The between-Sundays work of American pastors in this century, though, is running a church.

One of the first series I did here (May 2010) discussed issues I had with evangelicalism. Pastoral care was among those issues. The remainder of this post reflects that early piece.

First, some background. I have been in pastoral ministry since 1978, when I graduated from Bible college.

  • I served as an assistant pastor in my home church (Southern Baptist) the summer after I graduated from Bible college.
  • For five years, I was the pastor of a small (75-100) church in Vermont. It was an American Baptist Church that became independent of that association.
  • While in seminary, I pastored an IFCA Bible Church in the Chicago area.
  • We moved to Indianapolis, where I was an associate pastor, responsible for worship and music and other ministries for nine years in a non-denominational, evangelical “community” church.
  • I then became the senior pastor in a smaller sister church south of Indy.
  • Now, I serve in a community-based pastoral ministry as a hospice chaplain.
  • I now practice my faith in an ELCA Lutheran church, and for a time pursued ordination in that body. I am no longer seeking that, but still preach and preside occasionally in Lutheran and other congregations.

At times, I was a good pastor. At other times, I was awful. But through all the years, a few things have remained constant, at least in my understanding of what a pastor should do: (1) leading God’s people in worship, (2) teaching and encouraging people to live in the Story of the Scriptures, (3) working with people personally to encourage their spiritual formation, (4) providing pastoral care to those in need, and (5) helping people participate in God’s worldwide mission of loving our neighbors here and around the world.

Eugene Peterson has persuaded me that we fulfill this calling best when we pay attention to the “angles” of pastoral ministry. He sees the shape of true pastoral work as a triangle, and with a triangle, it is important to get the angles right. The precision of the angles determines the shape of the triangle and the length of each line. If the angles are all constructed equally, the result is a triangle with matching sides, perfectly balanced.

In pastoral ministry, Peterson says there are three angles that form the shape of our work: (1) Prayer, (2) Scripture, and (3) Spiritual Direction. If we properly understand and give attention to these angles, we fulfill our ministerial calling, and the “lines,” which represent the activities in which we engage, will fall into place.

By his definition, then, a pastor is called to be a person who attends to God through:

  • Prayer: living in a responsive, conversational relationship with God,
  • Scripture: living a contemplative life that is immersed in the words of the Bible,
  • Spiritual direction: being with people in community and individually for the care and cure of their souls

If we “work these angles” and let them shape us, the result will be a pastoral ministry that has integrity, depth, and appropriate balance.

In my years as a pastor in local congregations, I saw and lived out some very different incarnations of ministry, pastoral caricatures which would lead one to suspect some poorly drawn angles. Here are a few I have witnessed and experienced:

Faster than Mr. Answer Man! More powerful than a German theologian! Able to parse Greek verbs with a single glance! I have been the professor. I have attempted to turn small churches into seminaries. Many pastors love to teach. We were trained to teach. We got the idea, somehow, mistakenly, that what it really takes to help people follow Christ is for pastors to teach them Bible stories and Bible facts and Bible passages and Bible themes until their cranial cavities are bursting with sound doctrine. So, sanctuaries become lecture halls.

I believe in deep, sound, faithful teaching, but pastors are not simply professors, and churches are not classrooms. How dull would that be?

This guy knows how to work a room. With Osteenesque brilliance, this genial host makes everyone feel welcome. Praying in public, he warms each one’s heart. As Master of Ceremonies, he makes certain that the presentation is impeccable, his stage manner flawless. His stories make you feel good. He speaks in sayings that are consistently clever and witty. Did I mention that smile? His sermons may not have depth, but they are eminently listenable. He is always positive, always affirming, always patting little children on the head, always making sure that people leave feeling better than when they came in. He never forgets a name. He could sell sand in the Sahara.

We all appreciate positive, affirming people, and we should. However, being a pastor is not to be equated with being Mr. Personality.

First one in the door, last one to leave. Responsible for each detail of the operation. Familiar with every inch of the property and every last piece of inventory. Takes his work home and burns the midnight oil pouring over the books. Never takes a vacation; in fact, rarely takes a lunch! Eats, drinks, sleeps, and breathes the business. Always working on new ideas to make things better and more profitable. Keeps one eye on the competition at all times. “Workaholic” is an insult; he is more dedicated than that. The answer to every problem is simply to roll up his sleeves and hit it a little harder.

I admire dedicated pastors who work hard. Slothfulness is a sin, and diligence a virtue. But even God stopped working at one point. It doesn’t all depend on you, Mr. Shopkeeper. And will you ever be still enough for God to get your attention or for you to hear the silent cries of the suffering?

This pastor, on the other hand, calls others to burn out for Jesus and subjects them to a steady diet of Wretched Urgency. Christians have been saved to serve! He issues constant, fervent appeals for folks to get busy for the Lord by getting involved in the church program. His counsel to anyone who has a spiritual problem is to stop focusing on self and start working for Christ. He has no time for spiritual navel-gazing or people who want to waste time. When the house is on fire, you don’t sit around sharing your feelings.

Yes, pastors are called to assist people in using their spiritual gifts for the Body’s benefit and the world’s blessing. However, pastors are shepherds, not sheep dogs.

Natural born leader, remarkably gifted, entrepreneurial, expert in his field, with great capacity for understanding large organizations, an uncanny knack for administrating them, and endless energy to keep it all going, this is the “rancher” that the church growth movement used to talk about. The guy’s ambitious and knows how to build. He could run a Fortune 500 company; instead he runs the incredibly complex megachurch. He is high profile, thrives on new challenges, and earns the respect of the business folks who used to thumb their noses at the church. Finally, they say, a minister we can respect! A guy who can duke it out with the bankers and politicians! He does it the American way and does it right.

Thank God for this pastor’s amazing gifts. The problem comes when he is lifted up as THE model for pastoral success. Then the whole enterprise for all of us becomes about being big and excellent, about having more, and about leading  a “great” church.

The pastor who has regular visions may or may not become a CEO-type. He may not have the stuff to build big, but he sure dreams and talks big. There is always something great on the horizon and his job is to see it and rally the troops in hot pursuit. He is continually challenging his congregation to new heights, ever the cheerleader to spur them on, always ladling out the hot sauce to keep the enthusiasm high. After all, God is in the business of doing new things… today… tomorrow… all the time… everywhere… for everyone! His sermons are rife with military metaphors: conquest, triumph, and victory. He knows how to raise the flag and get the patriots to cheer.

Nothing wrong with enthusiasm or being on the outlook for new direction from the Spirit. However, having my eyes fixed on the horizon may mean missing something right beside me, something not so exciting or dazzling but perhaps even more important. Why not lead the flock beside quiet waters once in awhile?

Have I got a program for you! Take this discipleship course, and in thirteen weeks, guaranteed or your money back, you will be a mature follower of Christ! Memorize this packet of Bible verses and your mind will be renewed! Follow these nine steps and you will be financially free! Here are some Christian diet suggestions to keep you healthy, a Christian exercise video to keep you fit, Christian clothing so you can be a public witness, Christian music for your CD player to keep you holy while you drive, a Christian Yellow Pages so that you never have to hire someone who doesn’t work “as unto the Lord,” Christian child-raising tips so your kids will turn out just right, a Christian sex video to keep your marriage smoking hot, and our latest church newsletter so you can find something to do at the church building every day of the week. By such means, pastoral ministry morphs into programmatic activity.

The technician pastor believes in a lot of this stuff. He probably has testimonials to back up the claims. It’s simple. It’s easy. It works. Where’s God?

• • •

I’ve seen and known all these types, even been some of them myself. Though they are not unique to evangelical church culture, they seem to thrive there. In the entrepreneurial, anti-tradition, historically ignorant, low-accountability world of evangelicalism, pastors are pretty much free to choose their identity and many end up like the caricatures above.

But the angles are all wrong. “Caring” and “curing” are noticeably absent from the job description.


  1. Salvation is one of those religious words I try to avoid because most people think it’s about going to heaven when you die by showing your Get Out of Hell Free card you got when you joined the club. If I have to use it, the word, not the card, I think of the word “salvation” as being kissing cousins with the word “salve”, which is what you apply when you’ve got a condition needs curing. A week and a day ago, I had some actual, literal salve applied to me by a man acting as an elder who also prayed for me effectively, just like James talks about, this in of all places an Episcopal Church with no priest in attendance that day. I was impressed. In olden days, some priests in the Anglican Church were referred to as “curates”, which came to be sort of a bureaucratic title but started out being the guy whose business it was to help cure your soul.

    This is what I have come to look for in a church and in a pastor, and this only makes sense in a liturgical setting with open communion, which is the only thing that makes sense for me anyway. When the officiant passes out the bread, does he or she understand what is taking place or is this a religious ritual using wafers you got out of the box of 10,000 in the basement. When the Peace of Christ is passed, does the presider understand that this is sharing the actual peace that Jesus gives or is it a meet and greet session. These things are discerned spiritually and the same words spoken can be bereft of spirit.

    A SMALL church of 75-100? There are many churches around me that would be jumping up and down to have that many people. It’s pretty much the break even point if you want to have a professional pastor and meet in a dedicated building. Not that this is necessary in order to gather together in the name of Jesus, but in a denominational liturgical setting it’s pretty much required, with some work-arounds available for emergency situations. That’s a problem to solve another day, but more and more that day is today.

  2. OT. Mom found a box of my old school and personal stuff from pre 7th grade. Bunch of AWANA awards, ribbons and medals for Bible participation, and an old church bulletin, Jan 1995, when I got baptized.

    (Side topic – I have a friend who’s been a believer since he was a kid, active in his church…never been baptized, doesn’t feel like it. Any thoughts on believers who refuse baptism?)

    It’s an interesting piece of history. Worthless accomplishments I remember spending hours hoping to achieve, next to action figures of Picard and Worf, lol. I can clearly see how life was different/better back then for me, before I woke up to the problems of the IFB and the KJV-Only movement. Tho even then, all my school work projects are proudly labeled A Beka. One of my first NT/Psalms/Proverbs was in there too. More than likely I’ll end up throwing out the box and all it’s contents, but feel like it’s something I need to work up to.

    • Step one: If, by chance, the bulletin is your best documentation of the baptism, squirrel it away. There are situations where you may want it.

      Step two: Rescue poor Picard and Worf.

    • –> “Any thoughts on believers who refuse baptism?”

      Been there, done that. When I became a Christian I had a long-time Christian begin pestering me about the need for baptism. Almost said as a “you aren’t really saved until you are.” I just told him I didn’t feel the need, it didn’t make sense that it was some sort of requirement, and that I would do it if/when I felt led to do so by the Holy Spirit.

      I certainly wouldn’t push it. The guy must have his reasons, and my guess is they’re similar to mine.

      BTW…I did get full immersed just a few years ago, after over 20 years as a Christian. Felt led to do so, just to acknowledge His total grace in my life.

  3. CM, it was interesting and enlightening to read your take on “pastoral caricatures.” Thanks. Good article.

    It leaves me wondering just how many pastors wonder, “Am I doing this right?” and just how many do any self-reflection or talk to others about what they could be going better.

    • “…doing better.”

    • I’d like to see pastoral care that’s nothing more than bringing over a six pack and sitting in silence.

      You don’t need to be titled to do pastoral care.

      Which is why we have neuthic counseling, I guess. Competition.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Neuthetic Counseling (now called Biblical Counseling(TM)) fills exactly the same niche as Scientology’s Dianetic Auditing, with exactly the same rabid hostility to the competiton (mainstream psychology).

        I don’t know about you, but when the Christian Industrial Complex goes “Just like Scientology, Except CHRISTIAN(TM)!”, something is definitely fishy.

      • Stuart, c’mon over. I’ve got a few chilling in the fridge.

      • “….neuthetic counseling…”

        Which is just like your idea, only with no beer, and the counselor never stops talking.

  4. This seems like a helpful time to ask for some book recommendations & resources, from CM and others, about pastoral care. Bonus points if they address some of the above listed concerns, and speak to uniquely 21st century related issues.

    This associate pastor under the supervision of a well-intentioned CEO/Visionary Leader type needs some perspective.

    • Sean, I’d like to know more about your opinion of the state of pastoral care in the church. Pastors come in all shapes and sizes and some are more gifted in one area more than another, but is part of the “vision” to care for people, spend time with people, allow for “inefficient,” relational ministry to take place, and to give space for unrushed attention to spiritual practices? Are these part and parcel of the understanding of “pastor” in the church?

      • It’s hard to make an objective assessment right now. I’m still getting adjusted to a move far from home, a new culture, life in full-time ministry, etc. There’s a lot that can be said. I’ll narrow it down to the following:

        -I value pastoral care and spiritual formation more than some others

        -I am given space to practice ministry… so long as I am accomplishing the ‘task’ side of things.

        I’ve been reprimanded a few times already for a lack of efficiency/getting things done. Most of it is warranted… I have obvious areas of growth to pursue. I’m an INFP and relationally driven. I’m more of a “who we are” person than “what we do” person, and I see some of the limitations of this.

        -I tend to spend time with those that have been overlooked, and who obviously do not have much of a contribution to make for the life of the church. Nobody would outrightly criticize me for this… but there is an undercurrent of some who wish me to invest my time in those who would give a better return on my time.

        -The church is 200 years old, rural, and has a history of inwardness, navel-gazing, and not being a welcoming place. If some had it their way, we would remain insular, and only attend to each others’ needs. The pastor(s) would spend 75% of their time visiting members. So it is a good thing to cast vision for the Kingdom of God beyond ourselves, and accomplish things to that end so that we might become a welcoming people for the entire community. The church has been becoming healthier in terms of mission. But as you know, the pendulum swings from one end to the other…

        I actually oversee our care-giving & visitation ministry, made up of amazing volunteers. My role is leadership/delegation oriented, but I enjoy giving direct care when I am able. I’m still figuring out what it means to *be* a pastor, day in and day out, loving the people and honoring my supervisor. So, I suppose I’m just asking for resources to encourage me to do my best with what I am given.

        • “I’m more of a “who we are” person than “what we do” person” which must be tough in so many ‘sin management’ type churches. See that recent announcement about the anti-porn conference. No one seems to care about root causes like depression, anxiety, self-care, self-medication…no, the problem is your actions. If you stopped your actions, you’d be cured.

          Tough position, Sean.

        • Thanks, Sean. That helps me some. Check in throughout the week as I ponder what you’ve said and try to provide my perspectives. For now, a few observations.

          First, it sounds to me like you are realistic and trying to make the best of the situation. You are to be commended.

          Second, the background of the church is helpful to know, and you are correct that we tend to move forward with pendulum swings.

          Third, the fact that you have a caregiving and visitation ministry is a positive sign.

          Fourth, pastoral care need not always be part of the job description. It is also a matter of being attentive each day to those around you and looking for opportunities to love your neighbors through encouragement, a kind word, being available to give practical assistance, etc. Your volunteers are lucky to have you as their overseer, and you may find a fruitful ministry of attentiveness with them.

          Fifth, you may find some creative and winsome ways to be the “voice of pastoral care” in the church. I know a congregation here in Indy that has had a man on staff for decades, through all the pastoral and program changes the church has gone through, who has been as faithful as anyone I’ve ever seen in visiting people in the hospital, facilities, and at home when they had needs. They have other staff and a Stephen Ministry, but he is the “face” of pastoral care at that church and he’s stuck with it for a long time. Perhaps you could be a similar advocate.

          We’ll talk about resources as the week goes by.

    • Regarding book ideas, while it doesn’t specifically address pastoral care and such, Philip Keller’s “A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23” is a great book regarding how a shepherd takes care of his flock. Of particular interest might be his take on the rod and staff as tools of the shepherd.

      I found the book fascinating for many reasons, one of which is to consider how much a shepherd does to take care of their flock.

  5. Ronald Avra says

    Good food for thought. It’s helpful to be reminded of this occasionally.

  6. Oh, and I’ll let you know how poignant the title of this post is for me.

    Several times in the past few months I’ve made the comment “I love being a pastor. I hate helping to run a church.”


  7. Coming from a background where pastoral care is still (mostly) pastoral care, all I can see when I look at these “angles” is that they’re modeled on business franchises, not on actual pastoral work. Nor do I think that ministers who act in these ways deserve to be called “pastors.” (What’s with the trend in evangelicalism re. using “pastor” as a personal title, anyway?)

    I have seen most of these slants in my time in the evangelical world, and they were dismaying.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      (What’s with the trend in evangelicalism re. using “pastor” as a personal title, anyway?)

      Title of (Priestly) Nobility?
      (And in the IFB and mega world, the title IS hereditary, passed down from father to son.)

  8. Though I’m not necessarily a pastor, as a vocational church worker, I’ve been the shopkeeper for five years. I’m tired, and I just want to go home.

    I burnt out in the first year of this job, but just kept going. It’s going to take me some years to recover from it. The lessons I’ve learned the hard way were really hard.

    Fortunately, a new opportunity just fell out of the sky into my lap. I’m heading out to a corn field not too far from you, CM. It’s high time for a slower pace of life. I can’t help but think I’ll be of more spiritual good to people this way.

    • Good luck. I hope you manage to refresh, and refill.

    • Great news, Miguel! Drop me an email and fill me in on the details.


    • petrushka1611 says

      Miguel, I’d say “Godspeed,” but it seems “Godslow” might be more appropriate. 🙂

    • Miguel, while I’m sorry to hear about the toll this job has taken, I’m very relieved to hear that you’re moving on to something new. I pray that you find freedom and refreshment there!

    • Does burn out occur when you are ill fitted to the job you are in?

      I ask half selfishly, as I’m very burned out myself, and more and more realized I did and learned things just to survive, when I have hundreds of hours of experience and passion for things that aren’t a part of my job anymore.

      • After living that slower life for the past decade…turns out it was against my will, and I’m much more cut out for a higher speed pace of life. Looking into becoming a digital nomad doing all things digital marketing, media, advertising, strategy, and consulting.

        • Be careful, Stuart. That pace can cause burnout in anyone, suited for it or not. Perhsps especially in those who love it.

      • In some ways, I was a bit too well fitted for the job, at least, in terms of interest and potential.

        However, converting from an Evangelical worship leader/youth pastor to a Lutheran cantor/organist/music teacher was pretty much reinventing myself, though musical abilities helped smooth the transition. There was so much that had to be learned on the job. The music departments for the church and school were too poorly organized and technology too poorly implemented for one guy to keep up with everything while maintaining any semblance of balance.

        Doing what you love for a living can be tricky. It has the potential to make you hate it. But for some of us, there is nothing else we can see ourselves doing. It sounds like you have a path in your head. I’m never the “follow your dreams” type, but if it looks realistic, throw your labor behind it! Lots of great things only exist because people took the risks, but keep a backup plan anyways.

    • Thanks, everyone! I appreciate the encouragement.

    • I hope all turns out well for you and your family, Miguel.

    • Grats!

    • This sounds like a much-needed change, and some much-needed relief. Best wishes to you as you resettle.

      An important thing I learned moving the opposite direction (Indiana to East Coast):

      Let’s say you have too many books. Do you see that giant box in the corner, the one that can fit a whole bookcase? Right about now, you are out of boxes, the night crew at the grocery store are getting tired of your attempts to rescue boxes from their giant crushing machine, and there’s about 9 million books remaining. Do not, I repeat do not, stuff that box full of books.

  9. Renee Gamby says

    Today my mom and dad, Pam and Dominic Palmer, along with SNAP and others are protesting at the Together for the Gospel Conference in Louisville, KY, to have C.J. Mahaney removed as a speaker. He is facing serious allegations of allegedly covering up child sex abuse and having him in the spotlight as a speaker sends a very bad message to victims who are fighting for their voices to be heard. Stand in support with them as they protest by signing the petition below!