In terms of pastoral identity, the popular culture has conceptions that are at best caricatures, and at worst simply hateful (though there are actual examples of these stereotypes in actual ministry). In terms of true pastoral identity though, all the varied activities of the pastor have a single center: life in Christ. Pastoral theology seeks to point to that center in credible contemporary language and to see every single function in relation to that center. Unfortunately, there is no unitive center in terms of much of what passes for contemporary pastoral ministry—the disciplines serving the modern pastoral office have become segmented into wandering, at times prodigal, subspecializations, with very little sense of an integrated conception of the pastoral office.
Pastoral theology is theology. It proceeds by the same method as any well-formed theology, utilizing a well-known quadrilateral of sources for understanding God’s self-disclosure in history: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. The call to pastoral theology as a professional consideration involves first the call the ministry. Classical pastoral wisdom has thought that the call to ministry is testable (discernable) and if a thorough examination of the call is not undertaken, then things get dangerous quickly. Some of the traditional criteria for discerning the call to ministry have been:
- a candidate has reached the canonical age—30 years;
- a wrestling with the call that leaves the candidate convicted that ministry is the only response to God;
- a giftedness for ministry;
- good health, so that their ministry will not be encumbered;
- good character, affirmed by those who know the candidate best;
- a capacity to preach and teach Christian doctrine in good conscience.
These are all intended to safeguard the Christian community. "Care of souls" begins by defining those qualities that enable a person to be sufficiently trusted to give care. Pastoral work does not proceed out of impulsive emotional hunches or simple intuition without intelligent effort. Pastoral care has always been a distinctive and well-defined discipline of study. It is dangerous to the health of the church to enter ministry without preparing for it. A decisive starting point in preparing for the ministry is the capacity to empathize with human hurt and alienation, to see that someone is hurting and help is needed—urgently. Even perhaps more important, is the ability to personally identify with the hurting and the poor. The experience of social oppression, rejection, and hatred from controlling groups should galvanize the Christian minister to action in Christian solidarity and mercy.
We must discern what the authority for soul care is. The most frequently used Greek and Latin words for ministry suggest the notion of service. Pastoral care is essentially a service done for the good of the soul, not a coercive office that wields temporal power, external influence, or secular authority. Adequate authorization for ministry rests on a firm, explicit connection with the apostolic witness. Alleged pastoral authority that ignores or circumvents the apostolic witness is suspect. Christian soul care does not exist apart from the apostolic tradition that awakens, informs, and energizes it. Christian care of souls is diminished when viewed non-historically as if the pre-modern experience of God’s care had never occurred, or anti-traditionally as if there were no memory of that care, or individualistically as if it were concerned about one lone individual helping another lone individual apart from a community of prayer, praise, and celebration.