Soul Care: One-to-one Pastoral Ministry

In Scripture, pastoral care imagery most often connotes corporate care of the flock, whereas scriptural references to the soul to denote the innermost being of a person or a person’s relationship with the triune God.


Why are you cast down, O my soul?
And why are you in turmoil within me? (Ps 42:5a ESV)

Have you ever puzzled over why some people maintain that the primary form of pastoral ministry for a congregation is preaching and teaching? Or, that the task of pastoral ministry was related to admonition? Have you ever wondered how this conclusion was reached?

Abraham_Mignon_-_Interior_of_a_grotto_with_a_rock-pool,_frogs,_salamanders_and_a_bird's_nestThe term pastoral care has a rich heritage that traces its origins back to Church Father, Gregory the Great (540– 604) a bishop who wrote The Book of Pastoral Rule, as a guide for the ministry of bishops and clergy. Two later writers who wrote on pastoral ministry were the Reformer Martin Bucer (1491 – 1551), Concerning the Care of Soul and Puritan, Richard Baxter (1615 – 1691) The Reformed Pastor. Bucer and Baxters’ books became classic guides to pastoral ministry in the Protestant church and were manuals for clergy and elders visiting their congregational members in order to know them and perceive the states of their souls and to instruct and pray for these parishioners.

In addition to the traditional use of the term, the term pastoral care rose to prominence again in a new context. Various sectors of the progressive mid-C20th American protestant church reinvigorated the term pastoral care for a style of ministry based on language drawn from the Twenty-third Psalm combined with on non-directive counselling.  Since the mid-C20th the term pastoral care entered our vocabulary to refer to the various activities of ranging from church ministry, chaplaincy, Christian soul care, through to any form of multifaith and secular spiritual care. Following this broadening and inevitable shallowing of the term, pastoral care, became the accepted nomenclature for a large range of both Christian and secular roles that focus on the care of individuals with regard to individual well-being and issues of meaning and purpose.

So, for many of us, whose introduction to the term pastoral care was formed through contact with the C20th pastoral care movement, the idea that pastoral care as instruction may sound discordant. But if we were to trace back to the origins of the biblical pastoral imagery and its relation to shepherds and sheep, the pieces of the puzzle may become clearer. Scripture refers to shepherds and sheep hundreds of times within the Old and New Testaments. From the book of Psalm and the prophecies of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah and the other prophets, most references to shepherds are metaphors for God himself or the leaders of his people, who in turn are referred to as a flock, or as sheep.

Scripture certainly contains images of the tender shepherd scooping up his lost sheep, but many more references focus around the duties and responsibilities of the shepherd, and the dire consequences when shepherds neglect their sheep or even fleece and slaughter them for the shepherd’s own gain. The shepherds are instructed to guard the sheep and to teach them.

The image of a flock, or even sheep, are collective images that correspond closely to the corporate nature of a congregation. In the C16th, Martin Bucer chose another more fruitful term to refer to the individual state of a person’s faith, an intimate and richly textured image, the soul.  The concept of the soul provides a rich stream of thought that flows through the length of scripture from Genesis to Revelation.

Our soul is the part of us that loves God, rejoices at God’s goodness, pants for streams of water, grieves, is downcast, can be bitter or sweet. Our soul may be awake or asleep, alert or dull, at peace or in anguish, rejoicing or in deep sorrow, alive or destroyed. Our soul is our very being, it is embodied yet it is more than our physical body. In the final analysis, it can transcend death entering eternity, or yet may be destroyed, everlastingly.

In Scripture, pastoral care imagery most often connotes corporate care of the flock, whereas scriptural references to the soul to denote the innermost being of a person or a person’s relationship with the triune God.

Soul care is a particular concern for the soul of another. It is to take the time to attend to and enquire of another’s soul; to listen, to allow another’s soul to speak honestly, and also for our soul to respond to the words of that other soul. We weep and rejoice with them and share in their anguish and joy with prayer and hope of connecting them to a deeper well of wisdom found in Christ Jesus.   Finally, we connect their soul and its concern to Christ in prayer.

Image: Interior of a grotto with a rock-pool, frogs, salamanders and a bird’s nest by German-Dutch botanical illustrator and painter, Abraham Mignon 1640- 1679. In the Public Domain. 

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.

2 thoughts on “Soul Care: One-to-one Pastoral Ministry”

  1. Hi Kate,
    Thanks for your post. If shepherding is wide-angle, soul care seems to be a macro lens focusing in on the inner life of the individual sheep and their connectedness to God in the most intimate way. I wonder what implications the idea of soul care vis a vis shepherding might have for a scriptural view of the self in either dichotomistic or trichotomistic terms. Body and soul, or body, soul and spirit.


    1. Hi Stuart,
      Yes, soul care is a bit like that macro lens view of care of individual sheep. The words that are translated into the English soul, for the most part, could be translated being, it focuses more on the whole person, their totality rather than aspects. Perhaps following your lens analogy, it might be more accurate to think of body, soul and spirit as different lenses through which we might view a whole being. Kate


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