Three Levels of Soul Care

The WHY of soul care is pastoral theology that attends to existential questions of life and faith, such as God, belief and unbelief, suffering and hope, guilt and forgiveness, sin and holiness, good and evil, and temporal and eternal time.

Do we have a clear vision of why we do what we do in soul care?

Flickr image: Sébastien Barré. “Pont du Gard” – 06, Sep – 01

Sometimes it’s even difficult to articulate what we do – so often we feel what is important and explain it by telling emotionally laden stories of what worked well and what didn’t. We see parallels within scripture that provide us with guiding narratives such as the Good Samaritan, or the welcoming father, or the shepherd who searches for the lost sheep, or a generous hospitality that welcomes lost ones in Jesus’s name.

Intuitively, we can explain that we love because God first loved us, we offer comfort as we ourselves have been comforted, and we do this through nurturing the fruit of the spirit – love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

At practical levels we are involved in setting up programmes for the pastoral care of people, but how do we align what we do when there are conflicting elements? For example, if we are to provide pastoral care in incidents of domestic violence, how does care of a victim differ from care of an abuser? This begs the question ‘What is the basis of our pastoral care, and how do we determine what love looks like in a specific situation?’

When Eduard Thurneysen wrote his ‘Theology of Pastoral Care’, he broke the book into three sections: I. The Basis of Pastoral Care; II. The Nature and Practise of Pastoral Care; III. The Implementation of Pastoral Care.

More recently, Greg E Gifford, writing in the biblical counselling tradition, draws his readers’ attention to a similar need for three conversations when talking about biblical soul care:

‘To advance scholarship for the biblical care of souls within higher education we recognize that there are three conversations that must be understood and articulated.’

Gifford helpfully names these conversations the ‘Three Counseling Conversations’: upstream, midstream and downstream, stating:

‘Upstream conversations are those that are not as focused on the “how” of the counselling process but on the “why.” These conversations do not always produce an immediate fruit but often produce long-term fruit.’

Upstream conversations are biblical and theological in focus and address the ‘why’ of soul care, midstream conversations are in influenced by the ‘why’ but address the methodological ‘how’ of the pastoral session. The downstream conversation is the ‘what’ of an actual pastoral encounter with a real person, focused on their situation or circumstances but not the theology or method.

Gifford observed that the counsellee is rarely interested in either the ‘why’ or ‘how’, but rather with things related to the counsellee, most particularly ‘the what of now’. Yet, from a soul care perspective, all counselling-room conversations flow out of both the upstream and midstream conversations. All downstream conversations will depend directly upon the upstream tributaries of theory and midstream confluences of method and practice flowing into the downstream conversation.

Gifford’s proposal is like Simon Sinek’s belief that:

‘every organization – and every person’s career – operates on three levels. What we do, how we do it, and why we do it. We all know what we do: the products we sell, the services we offer or the jobs we do. Some of us know how we do it: the things that we think make us different or stand out from the crowd. But very few of us can clearly articulate why we do what we do.’

Sinek thinks of ‘the WHY as a tool that can bring clarity to that which is fuzzy and make tangible that which is abstract’. And when used well, it allows for intention to be communicated clearly and to shape strategies and practice. Sinek represents his model as concentric circles with the WHY at the centre moving outward to the HOW of methods and strategies and then to WHAT you do.

Soul care, like any other activity, has a WHY, a HOW and a WHAT.Screenshot 2018-08-14 19.30.20

The WHY of soul care is pastoral theology that attends to existential questions of life and faith, such as God, belief and unbelief, suffering and hope, guilt and forgiveness, sin and holiness, good and evil, and temporal and eternal time.

The HOW of pastoral care is a pastoral ministry and all that entails: training of ministers, programmes for the care of people, professional standards and familiarity with good biblical, psychological and sociological resources.

The WHAT of soul care is the pastoral care encounters with the recipients of the care or ministry. It is assumed that the pastoral minister is equipped and able to function as a minister providing pastoral care to a person in his or her situation.

The care of souls is an integration of theology, ministry and care beginning with God, in whom all theology, ministry and care have their being.


I am grateful to Barry McGrath who first drew my attention to the work of Simon Sinek and it’s application to theology and ministry.

Author: Pastoral Thinking

This web-page is a place where chaplains, pastoral and spiritual carers are encouraged to think both deeply and laterally about the world we live in, and the pastoral care we provide.

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