There’s something about the art of pastoring souls that can’t be codified and taught in a classroom. Ministry is best learned in context. Just as medical doctors move through rotations during their hospital internships, so physicians of souls accumulate practical wisdom by serving the people of God patiently over the years. You don’t master this craft overnight; nor can you adequately sum it up in a how-to manual.
M. Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Theological Seminary, has done us all a favor, whether or not we are pastors. His book, Diary of a Pastor’s Soul: The Holy Moments in a Life of Ministry, provides a unique picture of what it means to pastor people with sensitivity and grace. No, this is not a how-to manual, but that is its saving grace. We don’t need any more how-to manuals on ministry. Nor do we need yet another book tracing the latest trends of the day and forecasting how pastors and churches will need to scramble to reinvent themselves in the image and likeness of an ever-shifting culture.
Instead, Barnes’s book takes the long view on ministry. It takes seriously the formative impact of sheep on their shepherds over time. It traces the grooves of God’s grace worn deep in a pastor’s soul as he invests himself in caring for people through good times and bad. Those grooves do not appear overnight; there is no shortcut to sensitive and effective ministry in Jesus’ name. This book is the personal legacy of an academic whose first love is clearly the parish. Here he bares his soul for all to see, and so enriches us all.
Barnes notes in his preface that the old-timers—old Pietists, to be exact—used to speak a great deal more than we do about the necessity of gravitas among clergy. Personally, I think those Pietists were on to something. We’re all quick to list the qualities we’d like our pastors to possess: friendliness, cheerfulness, passion, drive, ambition, leadership skills, and so on. But gravitas? Not so much. Maybe that’s because we think of it as a turn-off. Who wants a dour, ponderous personage in their church’s pulpit? But Barnes is quick to clarify what the Pietists had in mind: Gravitas “was their description of a soul that had gained enough weightiness to be attractive, like all things with a gravitational pull.”
That’s what we need, don’t we? Pastors who don’t merely proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom but tug us toward it by their own example and faith—their lived experience of the grace of God at work in the tangle of daily life. But gravitas is not synonymous with longevity, as Barnes points out. Speaking of pastors who possess it, he writes:
It really has less to do with their age than with their response to the way life unfolds. They have scars, which are strangely attractive, but not open wounds. They’ve settled into themselves, and into the people God has given them to love, without any irritating plans for improvement.
So what does pastoral gravitas actually look like? Barnes tries to capture it by composing a series of journal entries from a fictionalized senior pastor of a fictionalized church, St. Andrews Presbyterian. This pastor, who is wrapping up his final year of active ministry, writes one entry per week for each month leading up to his retirement, offering a window into both his own life and the lives of many parishioners.
From the journal, we learn that the pastor’s wife was named Ellie, and that they had a daughter named Mackenzie. We never learn the pastor’s name, though I suspect he is modeled after Barnes himself. As Barnes (the author) confides, when he began writing about the formation of a pastor’s soul, he found himself telling stories—stories from his own ministry. They are fictional stories, he writes, both because he wanted to preserve pastoral confidentiality and because “I found myself wanting to rewrite some of my own stories that I might have lived differently if I had known then what I know now.”
What Barnes gives us, then, as he looks back on his pastoral career, is a book somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. Whether his stories are real or imagined, they all depict the real lives lived by parishioners and pastors. That’s the best part of this book: We can all find ourselves somewhere within its pages. And when we do, we will discover how God goes to work forming pastors after his own heart. As Barnes observes, “The formation of the pastoral soul does not lend itself to being explained as much as revealed.” Amen to that.
I’ll admit that I found myself, on occasion, wanting to enter into theological debate with the pastor of St. Andrews, as I suspect many readers will. Not all of us will agree with his theology—or his pastoral decisions, for that matter. But that’s not the point. This book is not a systematic theology; nor is it exactly a pastoral theology. But in these pages you will find all the ingredients for a truly pastoral disposition. These matters don’t call for argument or disputation, but emulation.
Barnes’s book brings to mind Eugene Peterson with its folksy whimsy blended with deep insight into the human heart. Through the shifting seasons of the church year and the changing weather of the passing months, I found myself captivated by the people of St. Andrews. I’ve met many of them myself over my own 49 years of ministry.
There’s Alice Matthews, matron of the church’s property committee. For 23 years she’s kept a vigilant eye on the parish’s aging edifice, ever prioritizing matters of structural soundness over spiritual mission. She was married in this building, as was her daughter. Her children were baptized there and her husband buried there. As Barnes notes: “Everything she knows about Jesus and his grace for us is lingering in the mortar that holds the stones of her church together.” Yet for all her limitations, Alice had a heart for service and a generous spirit.
In September we meet Esau, the family’s hairy sheepdog. The narrator notes that he’s learned a lot about ministry from his dog. Jesus is the true shepherd of the congregation, he writes: “It’s far more helpful to think of myself as a sheepdog that nudges sheep toward the only Savior of the flock.” Having run into that sheepdog analogy elsewhere, I was pleased to make Esau’s acquaintance while learning something else about pastoring. When chasing birds on the beach, Esau never runs straight at them. Rather, as a herding dog, he circles in on his targets. As Barnes observes, “Long ago I learned the value of not approaching problem parishioners with head-on confrontation, but by coming at them ‘slant’ as Eugene Peterson calls it.”
Another of my favorites at St. Andrews is Mrs. Thelma Parker—the “Queen of the congregation,” as Barnes calls her. From her key leadership position in the congregation, she saw to it that the wishes of the elders gained traction among church members. Smiling her way through the church fellowship hall, she smoothed ruffled feathers, calmed controversies, and answered questions about new staff members. “All the while,” Barnes writes, “she was sipping coffee and ‘just chatting.’” Every church could use a Thelma—someone who knows its inner politics and moves graciously and unassumingly within them, all in service of the kingdom. Blessed are the peacemakers.
Diary of a Pastor’s Soul contains none of the usual platitudes about pastoral ministry. Instead, it paints a clear picture of the raw horror into which pastors pour the healing balm of the gospel with some regularity. We meet Stan, an early widower whose wife had been killed in a traffic accident shortly after the narrator had baptized their little baby girl, Mary Jane. Years later Stan brings his beautiful teenage daughter into the pastor’s study to disclose impending tragedy. Mary Jane has contracted a debilitating disease that will quickly paralyze her, leaving her in a wheelchair by the time prom rolls around. Tears flowed freely all around, all three “taking turns at the tissue box.”
Pastors encounter such heartbreaking scenes often enough; that much most people assume. But not many grasp the impact of these situations on a pastor’s soul. Here’s how Barnes sums up what he learned by caring for Stan and Mary Jane:
I assured them of my own sorrow and that the congregation would do everything to surround them with compassion and any help we could provide, and that most importantly none of this was lost on the God who created Mary Jane and would never leave her. These are the things I was trained to say long ago. Then I prayed for her healing. I actually begged God, which is something I didn’t learn in seminary.
When they left, I needed a pastor of my own, which is something else they didn’t teach me in seminary.
Diary of a Pastor’s Soul opens a window into the pastoral soul that will enrich both pastors and those who love them. In this captivating book we discover anew the profound gift God has given us in compassionate shepherds for our souls. As honest pastors can attest, they themselves need shepherding for the very reason we do—to grow in the grace and the knowledge of Christ Jesus.
Ultimately, this book underscores what every pastor already knows—that in the end, all of us are nothing more than unworthy servants. We’ve got nothing to give that we have not first received. The Apostle Paul expressed it well: “Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given to me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8).
Harold L. Senkbeil is an executive director of Doxology: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and Counsel. He is the author of The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart (Lexham) and Christ and Calamity: Grace and Gratitude in the Darkest Valley (Lexham).