Where Have All the Seelsorgers (Pastors) Gone?

Within the North America church, the role of pastor has morphed from the biblical and historic role of Seelsorger (one who gives care of souls) and giver of God’s gifts, to that of a CEO, administrator, and/or therapist.

Lutheran pastor and professor, Harold Senkbeil notes, “We must admit that something is missing in the life of the church as we know it. We have lost the art of the individual care of souls.  Over the generations, great treasures have been allowed to languish dust-covered and untouched in our ecclesiastical attics, while we have been busy using second-hand tools of our own devising.” (“Generation X and the Care of the Soul” in Mysteria Dei: Essays in Honor of Kurt Marquart. 2000).

It is alarming that within the North American church not only has the pastoral art for the care of souls seemingly been lost, but so has the teaching of the truth about the Gospel in and out of the worship service.

However, it is not the first time something like this has happened. In Luther’s day faithful seelsorgers were few and far between. In the preface to his Large Catechism, Luther gives a scathing criticism of the pastors of his day regarding what he perceived to be their lack of biblical knowledge and propriety for their role as pastors among a worshipping community. His assessment was bolstered by their unwillingness to learn the Catechism, let alone the Scriptures and prayers of the church, and put such learning into practice for the benefit and care of the people they served:

It is not for trivial reasons that we constantly treat the catechism and exhort and implore others to do the same, for we see that unfortunately many preachers and pastors are very negligent in doing so and thus despise both their office and this teaching…Oh these shameful gluttons and servants of their bellies are better suited to be swineherds and keepers of dogs than guardians of souls and pastors.

It would seem Luther’s criticism is warranted for any present day North American pastor, Lutheran or otherwise. In fact, echoes of his near five hundred year-old criticism can be heard today. And what is fascinating, is that those leading the criticisms over the abandonment of the church’s historic practices and pastoral care of souls are many prominent mainstream evangelicals themselves.

One notable critic is Congregationalist minister and distinguished Professor David F. Wells, who has written about the good intentions of the North American church, but still remains an ardent critic:

This new experiment in “doing church” is rooted, I am confident, in the desire, even the passion, to see the Church grow.  What has not been grasped, however, is that in the modern world, the means that are available for this task are so effective that we need very little truth in order to have success.  Marketing the faith works.  At least, it works to the extent that churches can be filled very quickly if the mix between humor, fun, friendliness, music, entertainment, and inspiration is right.  But Os Guinness is right to ask what the “decisive authority” is in each church.  The church is only the church, he says, when it lives by God’s truth, and if anything substitutes for this authority, “Christians risk living unauthorized lives of faith, exercising unauthorized ministries, and proclaiming an unauthorized gospel.” (Above All Earthly Powers: Christ in a Postmodern World, 2005, p. 307)

John MacArthur, a well known evangelical community church pastor and teacher, as well as a seminary president, sharply criticizes the church and her pastors in one of his recent books, The Truth War: “The church has grown lazy, worldly, and self-satisfied. Church leaders are obsessed with style and methodology, losing interest in the glory of God and becoming grossly apathetic about truth and sound doctrine.” (The Truth War: Fighting for Certainty in an Age of Deception, 2007, xvii.)

Eugene H. Peterson, Presbyterian scholar and pastor for over 30 years, gives a scathing indictment against pastors, reminiscent even of Luther:

American Pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate.  They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries.  Their names remain on the church stationary and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the churches pastors have done for most of twenty centuries…It is bitterly disappointing to enter a room full of people whom you have every reason to expect share the quest and commitments of pastoral work and find within ten minutes that they most definitely do not. They talk of images and statistics.  They drop names. They discuss influence and status, matters of God and the soul and Scripture are not grist for the mills.

The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shop they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns—how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money…The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in town and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them.  In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community.  It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades. (Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, 1987, p. 2)

William H. Willimon, a bishop in the United Methodist Church in the USA, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, and considered by some to be one of America’s best known preachers, also has profound insights as well as criticism for the church and her pastors to heed:

The gospel is not simply about meeting people’s needs. The gospel is also a critique of our needs, an attempt to give us needs worth having.  The Bible appears to have little interest in so many of the needs and desires that consume present-day North Americans.  Therefore, Christian pastoral care will be about much more than meeting people’s needs.  It will also be about indoctrination, inculturation, which is also—from the peculiar viewpoint of the gospel—care.  Our care must form people into the sort of people who have had their needs rearranged in light of Christ. (Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, 2002, 96.)

And the late, internationally renowned, Catholic theologian and priest, beloved professor and pastor, Henri Nouwen, offers a powerful and piercing lament:

Few ministers and priests think theologically. Most of us have been educated in a climate in which the behavioral sciences, such as psychology and sociology, so dominated the educational milieu that little true theology was being learned. Most Christian leaders today raise psychological or sociological questions even though they frame them in scriptural terms. Real theological thinking, which is thinking with the mind of Christ, is hard to find in the practice and the ministry. Without solid theological reflection, future leaders will be little more than pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, pseudo-social workers. They will think of themselves as enablers, facilitators, role models, father or mother figures, big brothers or big sisters, and so on, and thus join the countless men and women who make a living by trying to help their fellow human beings cope with the stresses and strains of everyday life. (In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, 1989, 85-87. 

Unique to each critique is the reliance upon not only the Scriptures, but the historic practices of the church. They set out to intentionally demonstrate (some more in depth than others) how the historical heritage of the church and her pastors’ caring for souls is integral and exemplary for the contemporary care of souls, the witness of Christ, and the growth of His kingdom.

Willimon sums it up well when he says, “There is much to be said for the pastor being educated in the classic forms of Christian ministry. The Church has much experience as a minority movement. We need to draw from that experience today. In that regard, I predict a recovery of the classical shape of ministry: to teach, to preach, and to evangelize through the ministries of Word, sacrament, and order. I sense the end of a proliferation of ministerial duties and a reclamation of the essential classical tasks of Christian ministry.” (Pastor, 70-71.) May this prediction come true!

As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).


Rev. Woodford


4 responses to “Where Have All the Seelsorgers (Pastors) Gone?

  1. Hey Luke –

    Very interesting article. I have a question though about the opening statement. You write this…”It is alarming that within the North American church not only has the pastoral art for the care of souls seemingly been lost, but so has the teaching of the truth about the Gospel in and out of the worship service.” What exactly is the basis for this statement? Is it observation? Is there some empirical evidence behind it? Is it simply just a rehash of what others have said? Or is it your personal thoughts on the general state of the church?

    I’m not necessarily disagreeing with the statement, but I just would like to know where it comes from. And I ask that because I see a bit of resurgence over the last five years of not only preaching the Gospel but also an emphasis on doctrine. Both in the LCMS world and outside. For example you spend a little time listening to guys like Mark Driscoll, Matt Chandler, Andy Stanley, Dan Kimball, Timothy Keller and even a bit of Perry Noble who is a bit out there. These guys really have moved away from the self-help preaching of the 90’s and really are engaging the Scriptures. Just take Driscoll for example he has spent 90+ weeks preaching through the Gospel of Luke.

    Even the quote from David Wells is somewhat difficult to support when you
    try to put a congregation to his description. It seems to me the churches that have really abandon the truth of the Gospel and the authority of the scriptures are those in the mainline denominations like the ELCA, Episcopal Church, UCC, and others and their decline is well-documented.

    Just one last thought to leave you with. I heard Andy Stanley (who would be personified as the CEO type pastor which you almost have to with 30,000 members). While Andy wouldn’t be your typical “caretaker of souls”, he hasn’t abandoned that role of Pastor. He however works from a principal of stewardship. Andy’s philosophy is simple, “Do for one what you wish you could do for all.” And we all know this to be true. We can’t visit everyone. We can’t care for everyone. We can’t counsel everyone. But we can do for one what we wish we could do for all.

    • Hey Dave!

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree with you that in the last five years in some circles there has been a resurgence of preaching the Gospel and even doctrine, particularly among the Reformed, and of course, in varying Lutherans circles. However, the empirical evidence for a loss of the Gospel comes certainly in the mainlines that you note, as well as in varying contingents of the Emergent Church (Dan Kimball and Mark Driscoll are a different breed than Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt) and the various elements of the evangelical missional emphasis that is infiltrating Lutheran circles. This is coupled with not only worship practices but the messages being (or not being) proclaimed. The challenge I see, at least for confessional Lutherans, is to be honest and candid about our doctrine and practice, particularly as it relates to worship practices and the way our worship life informs, shapes, and frees us to live our daily vocational life. (I chronicle all of this in much greater detail in my forth coming book “Great Commission, Great Confusion, or Great Confession? The Mission of the Holy Christian Church” from Wipf & Stock).

  2. Nice plug for your book! (Still waiting to see it)

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