Great Stuff — What of Seelsorge?

Found on Pastor Peters blog, Pastoral Meanderings:


A million years ago when I was in seminary (beware of any sentence that begins thusly), there was much talk about seelsorge (care of the souls).  Indeed, the primary role and function of the Pastor is as seelsorger (carer of the souls).  It was all good stuff, mind you.  Lofty sounding.  Idealistic.  Theoretical.  I marveled at the discussion of the work of the Pastor characterized by seelsorge.  It was impressive to an impressionable young man.  But I have to admit, the glow was tarnished by the realities of church administration.

As I worked the ancient mimeograph with more ink on my fingers than on the paper, I began to wonder what or if this seelsorge actually takes place.  As I emptied giant garbage cans collecting water from a terrible roof leak, I felt growing anger between the presumed spiritual duties to the soul and the practical stuff of making sure the furnace did not drown.  As I stood on the roof assisting an 80 something old man installing plexiglass over leaking translucent fiberglass panels designed to bathe the chancel in indirect light, I knew I was there to care for his soul but it was his life that I felt needed to be guarded most of all at that moment.

Every Pastor has those moments of awakening when the grand theory of seelsorge meets the dirty reality of parish administration.  It is not pretty and we try to hide the truth of it from aspiring candidates for the Office of the Ministry but it cannot be hidden for long.  There are those who have other paid staff to handle such things and the rare congregation where the lay have taken full ownership of this part of the parish life but most, dare I say nearly all Pastors find themselves in the thick of it more than they feel appropriate or salutary.

In the midst of all of this, we find ourselves now charged not merely with the care of the souls or the administration of the parish, we are also responsible for making sure marriages are happy and healthy, lives are full and rewarding, people are happy, satisfied and achieve their dreams/success, and children reach their full potential without too many screw ups.  At least that is how it sounds by what passes for preaching in so many non-denominational settings (clue in Joel Osteen) and not a few Lutheran look alikes.

I just listened to one such sermon critiqued on one Lutheran radio channel.  The title was something about how to have an affair (in this case with your spouse).  According to the opening banter, it was preceded by a PG-13 sermon on lighting the sexual fire with your spouse.  Glad I missed that one.  After the sermon the band played on about how important it was to lift the lid on the toilet seat — nothing says love like bathroom manners, now does it.  But it is true that many marriages end it divorce (half, they say) and this guy said a third of those divorces were caused by extra-marital relationships.  Lord knows, the need is urgent.  His words were not terrible — not Gospel but not terrible – but the folks could have just read the recommended book (The Five Loves) and gotten all they needed there.  And the snark would say, “But would they have read it?”  Probably not.

Seelsorge is not primarily concerned with better marriages.  Neither is it so concerned with achieving earthly success or happiness.  It is not a quick fix for wayward kids, either.  Seelsorege is about the soul.  I wonder if we have not forgotten about that.  We don’t hear much talk about the soul.  We hear some talk about salvation (or being saved) but we Lutherans don’t feel comfortable with that American vocabulary (well, most of us don’t).  We do like to talk about justification but even that gets old when the same outline is preached week after week after week.  We could talk about santificataion but that offends with its expectation of repentance and new life.  Yet the care of the soul is the first mission of the sermon (the Word — both verbal and visible).

It is not that we ignore marriage, family, the individual, and such.  But, as I was taught by a wise Pastor, we do not do counseling — we give adivce from the Word of God, we hear confession, we absolve, we comfort the afflicted, and we afflict the comfortable.  It will surely result in improvements in life and relationships but these are fruits and not the goal of the means of grace.  We pray but no parish expects to pay a man to pray for them.  They expect real work and since most of the Pastoral duties are not “real work” we tend to busy ourselves more with those things that people consider “work” and worth compensation (running the parish like a finely oiled machine).

This I do as I must but this is not what I became a Pastor ro do.  The call documents still list the primary duties of the Pastor in terms of seelsorge.  Preach, teach, administer the sacraments and the keys, admonish the erring, bury the dead, comfort the grieving, offer supplications and petitions on behalf of the peope, etc… You know what these documents say.  They say less words than the typical pastoral job description but they say more weight and truth than these modern nods to good business practice.

I find I do my best to make the administration stuff get done so that I can get to the seelsorge stuff.  For some Pastors, perhaps, it is the opposite.  And therein lies the discernment of the pastoral temperment that is part of the Church’s assessment and judgment of God’s call which is affirmed by the ordination and its conferral of the authority of the means of grace.  Even the Augustana and its article on the Ministry has at its core seelsorge:  To obtain such faith God instituted the office of preaching [predigamt in German — not merely preaching but the whole of the Pastoral Office and its authority of the means of grace], giving the Gospel and the sacraments.  Unfortunately, today we do not connect the life of the soul and its health with the means of grace.  We don’t even think of it much.  We are all about spiritual dimensions to earthly lives but few of us would really trade spiritual peace for earthly health, happiness, and success.  Maybe out of guilt for such earthly preoccupation and pursuits we talk the talk of spirituality, I do not know.  But this has certainly had an impact upon the role and life of the Pastor in the lives of his people and his parish.  That cannot be denied.

It strikes me that the institutional part of our life tends to see successful Pastors more in terms of earthly goals and criteria.  If a Pastor can make a congregation grow, has good numbers to show for his efforts, and the community identifies him as a genuine mover and shaker, he moves up the food chain.  Those Pastors who focus on seelsorge are often called good Pastors but at the very same time institutional voices whisper about their suitability more for small and largely rural congregattions where they still like that sort of thing.  I might be wrong about this but I doubt it.  Perhaps this is one of the biggest differences between the typical graduate of Ft. Wayne and St. Louis.  The CTS grads are both attracted to and seek out the seelsorge about which they have heard for years in school  the CS grads are both attracted to missional stuff that puts the congregation on the cutting edge of technology, church growth ideas, and social impact upon community and the unchurched.  I might be wrong about this but I doubt it.

Well, you have heard enough of my rambling for the moment… so I will end it there… in the middle of things… which is an apt description of the nature of my Pastoral work.  In medias res….

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


Great Stuff — What of Seelsorge? — 11 Comments

  1. Dear Norm,

    Thanks for posting this Great Stuff! I hope a lot of pastors, and even more lay church officers read it, think about it, and then read it again. There is a lot of wisdom and good Lutheran theology packed into one article.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  2. I am of 100 percent German descent and proud of my heritage. But why – oh why – must the LCMS continuously cling to the use of German words in an English speaking nation.

    Seelsorge…seelsorge….seelsorge….seelsorge!!!! Use ENGLISH for crying out loud. Even the Catholics speak English these days. Paul said it was not necessary for Gentiles to become Jewish first in order to be Christian. I think he would have the same opinion about becoming German.

  3. @Rich #2
    Use ENGLISH for crying out loud.

    It takes a whole sentence to say that word in English, and then you may not cover everything.
    [Besides that, a Pastor who’s acquainted with German and Latin, as well as Greek and Hebrew, is a whole lot more useful if you want to learn theology from him.]

    Quitcher “qvetchin” (Or is that your “schtick”) ? Think how many non English words you use in everyday conversation, or reading the paper.

    The world is getting more mixed up. Down here, you’d better at least recognize some Spanish because half the people on the streets are speaking it.
    Last time I visited my home town and school, they had finally gotten around to a foreign language requirement: Russian! (Nobody had ever met a Russian.)

    My mother used to joke about her friends who dropped German with the World War.
    Then their “English only” kids grew up and could afford a European trip. And everyone over there had to speak English to accommodate the tourists!
    Europeans know three languages, at least, by the time they are 12. Pity the dumb Americans!

  4. My point is, the German lingo is meaningless and detracts from true communication. It is not necessary and promotes a separateness that is unhealthy and unwarranted. If one’s goal is to communicate, it is to be done in the language to whom the information is being communicated. The reason for Lutheran Bible Translators. Clinging to the “good old days.”

    As far as the Europeans go, the three “known” languages essentially equate to three versiuons of “would you like fries with that?” You give them too much credit.

    Drop the “Gottendienst” and the other mumbo-jumbo too.

    Spanish is one thing in an area where Spanish is spoken. But, aside from Amish or Mennonites, I defy you to show me a German-speaking community in the US today.

    This may be my Grandpa’s church, but my Grandpas are both dead and buried, along with their German tongues.

    @helen #3

  5. This conversation reminds me of people who have
    stopped using the word “narthex.” People would
    rather hear the word “foyer” and be understood.

  6. @Rich #4
    This may be my Grandpa’s church, but my Grandpas are both dead and buried, along with their German tongues.

    I’m sorry about your grandparents!

    As far as the Europeans go, the three “known” languages essentially equate to three versiuons [sic] of “would you like fries with that?” You give them too much credit.

    Son, you already announced your determination to remain ignorant. You don’t have to prove it to us! [If it’s as simple as that, why protest using one of the languages? Better yet, why can’t you converse it all three of them?]
    (Sikora, up there on another thread, wants to teach you a Hebrew word which he has either misused or not explained adequately. Both, I think, and I think that’s a bigger problem.)

    [You remind me of the American women in Bangkok who said their maids were “ignorant”. The maids understood/spoke English. The American women could be insulted to their faces because they didn’t understand a word of Thai.]

    It’s “Gottesdienst”, BTW, but if you are in a garage band church (which I suspect) you won’t need to bother with it much.

    I forgot that “German speaking community”: try Lee Co., Texas
    Or Fredericksburg, same state. 🙂

  7. @Dave Likeness #5
    This conversation reminds me of people who have
    stopped using the word “narthex.” People would
    rather hear the word “foyer” and be understood.

    LOL! I don’t think “foyer” would fly either, down here.
    (That’s “furrin” too, isn’t it!? 😉

  8. @Rich #4

    Dear Mr. Rich,

    I can’t speak for Pastor Peters as to why he gave his blog article that title. But I thought the reason that he used the term was pretty obvious.

    Pastor Peter’s article is a reflection on how the job title “Pastor” doesn’t match its reality. The pastor of a small congregation is more like a jack-of-all-trades-plus-religious-stuff-and-lots-of-stuff-not-in-yours-or-anyone-else’s-job-description. In addition, the word “Pastor” has been so demeaned by the Evangelicals, in their use of it for everything under the sun, that it has no universally-accepted meaning anymore. There are dictionary definitions, to be sure, but no common parlance meanings in America.

    That leads reflective people and people who think about words, like Pastor Peters, to look for single words in the American-English language that still have something close to the Lutheran understanding of a pastor. And he finds, no surprise, that there aren’t any words left in American English language to describe what a Lutheran pastor is supposed to do. So he goes back to the original language for Lutherans, to help his audience explain how far we have departed from the Lutheran idea of pastor.

    Any LCMS pastor knows what that term Seelsorge means–well, I should say any pastor who has received an M.Div. degree. Our M.Div. pastors learn lots of Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and German words, because the words they learn are more precise than any English-compound equivalent. Some technical language is useful in any complex discipline. If you are going to talk about the pastoral office, or just about any theological subject, some use of technical terms is unavoidable. You just need to explain your terms, which Peters does very well, I think.

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

  9. @Martin R. Noland #8

    Believe me, I understand the usefulness of profession-specific language. And I knew what Seelsorge meant before I read this post. But if a pastor cannot explain his role in the language of his hearers and must rely on “foreign” words to do so, all that education was quite useless.

    @helen #6

    Interesting how you can make an assumption about my entire congregation based on my preference for English over German. Typical. You don’t know anything about me, my education, my age, how I worship etc., but you are certain that I like “garage bands.” It’s interesting how everything on this site eventually reverts to that subject.

  10. @Rich #9
    Interesting how you can make an assumption about my entire congregation based on my preference for English over German.

    Rich, it is not your “preference for English” but your scorn for anyone who expresses himself in another language that led me to my assumptions. I have read a pastor on this list who excused himself from following Lutheran liturgy “because of all those Latin phrases”! He has evidently not looked at the Lutheran Service Book, where “all those phrases” are set beside their English equivalents. He wants an excuse for doing his own thing, however feeble the excuse is.
    And “his own thing” is “CoWo”, (which acronym I find rather ridiculous if not abominable). But that’s his special language, which (he thinks) we must all learn and approve of.

    “garage bands” is a shorthand term for a lot of practices that are less than Lutheran. One of my “special words” … which you can understand, as it is in English?

    It’s never too late to learn a new thing, Rich, even if it’s a German or Latin word to express a Lutheran concept. (It’s no problem, if you are Lutheran.)
    I appreciate my seminary educated ordained Pastors because they can widen my horizons, whether with theological language, or good English explanations… preferably both.

  11. @helen #10
    “garage bands” is a shorthand term for a lot of practices that are less than Lutheran. One of my “special words” … which you can understand, as it is in English?

    “Garage bands” has a certain je ne c’est quoi…

    But, hey — C’est la vie!

    (And the French get all bent out of shape when their citizens borrow English words…)

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