Doctoral Studies pastoral leadership

Leader, Preacher, or Curate of Souls?

My thesis flows out of the sobering realization that sermon-centric pastoral ministry is inadequate to the task of bandaging hearts, healing wounds, and forming souls at the deeper levels. Dynamic preaching may grow a church, but alone it will not grow disciples.


Here’s another excerpt from the introduction to my thesis on the pastoral vocation. 

The Jericho Inn Church

For years the church I lead has dubbed ourselves The Jericho Inn church after the place the Good Samaritan brought the battered man to be bandaged and nursed back to health. We were finding many emotionally broken and battered people coming through our doors, and we were doing our best to help them get back on their feet and find a fresh start. The difficulty of this kind of a church is that an inn is a temporary stop and nobody becomes a permanent “member” of an inn. Many of the people we invested time and resources in left after a short time.

We are proud of this hospital-for-sinners culture and calling, for we believe it attracts the kinds of people Jesus attracted. We have been happy to count the cost and pay the price for it as well. Unfortunately, there is one big problem with our Jericho Inn ministry model: We’ve been a hospital where many have been loved, but few have really gotten well! We celebrate that we can lick our wounds together without fear of judgment, but eventually we need to start bandaging wounds and dealing with the infection. We have offered small groups, Bible Studies, Alpha, the best Sunday sermons I can muster, and much more. People are getting loved and accepted, but not getting well. This leads to a second motto and mantra MainStreet has rallied around.

A Carwash or Repair Shop?

In a sermon that people grabbed onto and remembered, I suggested that many churchgoers are merely looking for a spiritual carwash each week to give their life a little exterior sparkle and shine. The worship band sprays some multi-colored soapy inspiration over us, and the sermon massages our weary hearts and makes us feel clean again—at least for the next six days. Many churches are happy to provide just that and pump people through like a carwash on the first dry day of spring. Our goal at MainStreet, however, is to become a full-service spiritual repair shop where we courageously open the hood of our hearts, take a serious look inside and get an honest diagnosis, and get our hands greasy as we partner with the Great Mechanic in making us new from the inside out. “That’ll preach!” But will preaching alone get the job done?

This project flows out of the sobering realization that sermon-centric pastoral ministry is inadequate to the task of bandaging hearts, healing wounds, and forming souls at the deeper levels. Dynamic preaching may grow a church, but alone it will not grow disciples. The weekly 30-minute sermon was merely putting a band-aid on people who need spiritual open-heart surgery. So, around my 40th birthday I hit a wall and spiraled into a midlife reevaluation. I faced the fact that the past 10 years and hundreds of hours of sermon prep had not got the job done. 

A Leader, Preacher or Curate of Souls?

Whereas some pastors faced with a midlife crisis might quit ministry, buy a Harley, or, God forbid, have an extramarital affair, I started reading the wisdom of the rabbis, 12 the early Church Fathers,13 classical Greco- Roman writers,14 Desert Fathers and mystics new and old. 15 I started rummaging through the writings in the Spiritual Formation movement.16 I ransacked the wisdom of Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic monastic writers.17 And I began probing the insights of psychology and therapeutic oriented ministries — especially the wisdom of the Enneagram for understanding the human personality.18 This journey led to my own experience of inner healing and soul growth.

I wrote this watershed entry in my journal on August 1, 2019:

I’ve spent the past 20 years studying the landscape of the Bible, God, Jesus and His kingdom in its historical context. I want to spend the next 20 years exploring the landscape of the human soul by studying psychology, spiritual direction, the contemplative tradition, and the field of spiritual counseling while sitting at the feet of spiritual masters. I want to exegete the human heart as well as the biblical text. I want to be not only a preacher but a ‘curer of souls,’ not just a church leader but a wise counselor and soul companion.

The past ten years of pastoring MainStreet and the formative experiences described above have led me to this project—to rethinking the essence of the pastoral vocation by exploring spiritual formation in the ancient world and the pastor/disciple relational dynamics conducive to that task. My research has already led to a shift in our church’s ministry model and our 2020 Vision that is currently being implemented . 


In this study I address the central question: What interpersonal dynamics were at play between teacher/pastor and students/parishioner that helped facilitate spiritual growth and discipleship in the ancient world? My interest is not in the content or curriculum they used (what they taught); nor is it in the physical context or environment (where they were taught). I want to probe the nature of the relationship and interpersonal dynamics between sage and student, and its importance for moral formation then and Christian discipleship now.

I will address this question by looking at two key contexts. First, in chapter two, I will examine the Jewish context for spiritual formation by looking at Jesus among the rabbis. What was the rabbi/disciple relationship really like? Did Jesus style himself after the rabbis of his day? Did he set up his own school of sorts? Did he intend his disciples to follow a rabbinic model of education and spiritual formation in carrying on his ministry after he left the scene? If so, what is the best pedagogy for Christians today who want to “Go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19)?

Secondly, in chapter three, I will examine the Greco-Roman context for moral formation by looking at the Apostle Paul among the moral philosophers and their schools. We will ask many of the same question we asked of the Jewish context, but will focus especially on the nature of the interactions and relationship between the philosopher and his pupils. Are any of these dynamics and characteristics present in Paul’s apostolic teaching and pastoral ministry in his churches? How did Paul set about the task of making disciples and forming souls in Christ?

In chapter four, I will examine one particular pedagogical practice used by ancient sages where the teacher/student dynamics discussed in chapters two and three are powerfully on display. I refer to the art of Letter Writing popular among ancient ages across traditions and continued down through the centuries. After surveying ancient epistolary practice in the Greco- Roman world, the Jewish world, the New Testament world of Paul, and the early Church Fathers, I will make a case for why and how pastors can recover pastoral letter writing as a powerful and personal way to shepherd souls in the church today.


12 Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim (New York: Schocken Books Inc.,1947).

13 Christopher A. Hall, Living Wisely with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2017); Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel (Editors), Reading the Christian Classics: A Guide for Evangelicals (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2013); Alan Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2016); and the writings and esp. letters of the Church Fathers such as Origen, Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom, Gregory Nazianzus, Augustine, and Jerome.

14 Aristotle, Seneca, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Pliny the Younger to name a few.

15 Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Trappist, KY: Cistercian Publications, 1975); Frank C. Laubach, Letters by a Modern Mystic (Colorado Springs, CO: Purposeful Design Publications, 2007); St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle or Mansions (Oil City, PA: Baronius Press, 2006); Jon M. Sweeney and Mark S. Burrows, Meister Eckhart’s Book of Secrets (Black Stone Publishing, 2019); Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Publishing, 1972); Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See (Spring Valley, NY: CrossRoad Publishing, 2009); Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2003).

16 Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979); Henri J.M. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (New York: Crossroad, 1989); Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Direction (New York: HarperCollins, 2006); Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002); Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (New York: HarperCollins, 1988); Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (New York: HarperCollins, 1998); John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997); Keith Meyer, Whole Life Transformation: Becoming the Change Your Church Needs (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2010); Jean Stairs, Listening for the Soul: Pastoral Care and Spiritual Direction (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000);

17 Jaroslav Pelikan, The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974); Frederica Mathewes-Green, Welcome to the Orthodox Church (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2015); Ian Morgan Cron, Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006).

18 M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled (New York: Touchstone, 1978); Henri J. M. Nouwen, Intimacy: Essays in Pastoral Psychology (New York: HarperCollins, 1969); Christopher L. Heuertz, The Sacred Enneagram: Finding Your Unique Path to Spiritual Growth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017); Richard Rohr, The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective (New York: Crossroad, 2001); Don Richard Riso and Russ Hudson, Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self- Discovery (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996); Ian Morgan Cron, The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self- Discovery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016).

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