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Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Even Calvin Had a Team: Lessons from His Company of Pastors

Even Calvin Had a Team

ABSTRACT: Many who know John Calvin as a brilliant Reformed theologian do not yet know him as a model of pastoral collegiality and accountability. Under his leadership, ministry in sixteenth-century Geneva often happened in plurality and community. In particular, four regular meetings fostered Calvin’s vision of collegial ministry: the weekly Company of Pastors, Congrégation, and Consistory, and the quarterly Ordinary Censure. Through these institutions, the city’s pastors prayed together, studied together, encouraged and exhorted one another, and labored for the advance of the gospel together. Their model of ministry offers an enduring case study for pastoral practice, especially in a day when many pastors feel discouraged, isolated, and perhaps on the verge of burnout.

In a New York Times article from August 2010, Paul Vitello describes the serious difficulties faced by many Christian ministers in the United States today.

Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could. Public health experts . . . caution that there is no simple explanation of why so many members of a profession once associated with rosy-cheeked longevity have become so unhealthy and unhappy.1

During the past decade, researchers have probed various factors contributing to the poor mental and physical health of America’s professional clergy.2 Some factors commonly identified include poor pastor-church alignment, lack of resilience, lack of self-awareness, unresolved conflicts, heavy workloads, unreasonable expectations, financial pressure, and loneliness or isolation. Though no single aspect is usually decisive, the cumulative effect of these tensions and troubles frequently produces high levels of stress that force pastors to question their vocation, or cause them to leave the ministry altogether. Pastoral work often becomes “death by a thousand paper cuts.”3

Thankfully, a variety of helpful resources are now available to support and encourage pastors who are burned out, bummed out, or burdened with congregational ministry.4 One important resource for pastoral health and flourishing that is frequently overlooked in contemporary discussions, however, is the history of the pastoral office — the practices, convictions, and institutions that Christians in the past have adopted to nourish and strengthen gospel ministers. As we shall see, a historical awareness of the pastoral office can provide a broader perspective and a refreshing draught of wisdom as modern-day Christian ministers live out their vocations in ways that are pleasing to God and sustainable for a lifetime of faithful and fruitful ministry. This present essay offers a case study of the model of ministry created by John Calvin in Geneva from 1536–1564. As we’ll see, Calvin recognized the unique challenges faced by faithful gospel ministers and created practices and institutions to promote pastoral collegiality, accountability, and spiritual vitality.5

Proclamation of the Word

When John Calvin (1509–1564) first arrived in Geneva in the summer of 1536, the city republic had been Protestant for barely two months and faced an uncertain future. As Calvin later recalled, “When I first arrived in this church there was almost nothing. They were preaching and that is all. They were good at seeking out idols and burning them, but there was no Reformation. Everything was in turmoil.”6 Over the next 28 years (with a three-year hiatus from 1538–1541), Calvin emerged as the chief human architect responsible for building a new religious order in Geneva that prioritized the preaching of God’s word, the fourfold ministry (pastor, elder, deacon, professor), church discipline, and intensive pastoral care and visitation. Calvin’s vision for a church reformed in doctrine and practice was articulated in Geneva’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541), in the city’s catechism and liturgy (1542), and in Calvin’s expansive biblical commentaries and sermons. For the Genevan Reformer, the faithful exposition and proclamation of God’s word was one of the marks of a true church, standing at the center of gospel ministry. As he once noted, the word is the “means of our salvation, it is all our life, it is all our riches, it is the seed whereby we are begotten as God’s children; it is the nourishment of our souls.”7

One of the first steps Calvin took upon arriving in Geneva was to restructure parish boundaries in order to give priority to the preaching of the word of God. He and his colleague Guillaume Farel consolidated nearly a dozen Catholic churches and chapels into three parish churches within the city’s walls — St. Pierre, la Madeleine, and St. Gervais — and recruited six or seven Reformed ministers to serve these three urban congregations. Calvin also consolidated Geneva’s countryside parishes and appointed around a dozen pastors to serve these rural churches.

The proclamation of God’s word stood at the center of religious life in Calvin’s Geneva. In the city, preaching services included weekday sermons at 8:00 a.m., early morning sermons at 4:00 a.m. for domestic servants, Sunday sermons at 8:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., and a catechetical sermon on Sundays at noon for children. By 1561, there were 33 sermons preached within Geneva’s city walls each week. Calvin and his pastoral colleagues shared the preaching load and rotated between the city’s pulpits. “The preacher was not the proprietor of a pulpit or the captain of his congregation: it was Christ who presided over his Church through the Word.”8 Even so, a disproportionate responsibility for preaching fell on Calvin and his more gifted colleagues such as Theodore Beza and Michel Cop, who regularly preached more than 150 sermons per year.

Calvin and Geneva’s ministers prioritized God’s word in other ways as well. The Genevan liturgy, written by Calvin in 1542, was filled with scriptural allusions and rich biblical language. The singing of the Huguenot Psalter was a standard feature of both public and private worship in Geneva. Children were required to attend catechism classes where they learned the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer — a basic primer for Christian faith, conduct, and worship. In 1555, the ministers, along with the church’s elders, also began conducting annual household visitations to ensure that all of Geneva’s residents had a knowledge of basic biblical doctrine as articulated in the catechism and were living in accordance with God’s word. Finally, during the sixteenth century, Geneva became a center for Protestant publishing, with the city’s presses printing no fewer than eighty editions of the French Bible as well as translations of the Scripture into English, Italian, Spanish, and Latin. For Calvin and Geneva’s ministers, reading, hearing, and obeying God’s word was essential for the life of the church and the spiritual health of God’s people.

Pastoral Collegiality and Accountability

In addition to prioritizing the proclamation of God’s word, Calvin also created pastoral institutions in Geneva to encourage the collegiality, accountability, and spiritual health of the Protestant ministers who served the city’s churches. These institutions included the Company of Pastors, the Congrégation, the Ordinary Censure, and the Consistory — four pastoral bodies that profoundly shaped religious culture in Geneva and preserved Calvin’s theological legacy for generations to come.

Company of Pastors

In the mid-1540s, Calvin began to convene the ministers of the city and countryside every Friday morning to discuss the business of the church. This institution, known as the Company of Pastors, became a fixture of religious life in Geneva thereafter. The Company, whose membership consisted of around fifteen to eighteen pastors and several professors, was responsible to monitor public worship in the city, recruit and examine new pastors, supervise theological education at the Academy, oversee the work of the deacons and public benevolence, and offer godly advice to the city magistrates. Owing to the theological stature of Calvin and several of his colleagues, the Company of Pastors soon developed a vast correspondence with Reformed churches throughout Europe, becoming a kind of hub of international Calvinism. As such, the Company served as an advisory board to foreign churches on doctrinal and practical issues, solicited financial and political support for embattled Protestants, and supplied student-pastors to foreign churches. Moreover, the Company of Pastors began in 1555 a top-secret program where it recruited and trained Reformed ministers and sent them as missionary pastors to Catholic France.

Calvin constructed the Company of Pastors out of the primary conviction of the equality of the ministry: all Christian ministers possessed equal authority under the word of God to proclaim the gospel, administer the sacraments, and govern the church. Though Calvin, as the moderator of the Company, possessed special moral authority among his colleagues, he rejected any notion of spiritual hierarchy within the pastoral office — all of Geneva’s ministers were considered equal gospel partners. As such, the Company provided a regular space where Geneva’s ministers could meet with one another, discuss theology, learn from one another, and support one another in their common vocation. This kind of support was especially important for Geneva’s countryside pastors, who often faced special challenges and dangers. One such pastor, Jean Gervais, experienced the scourge of warfare, roaming vigilantes, and aggressive Catholic missionaries during eighteen years of ministry in his small parish of Bossy-Neydens. On one occasion, he was even kidnapped and held for ransom. In the midst of these persistent dangers, the Company supported Gervais and his family by providing regular prayer support, encouragement, and advice; the ministers also petitioned the city magistrates for better wages and physical protection for their beleaguered colleague.9

Congrégation

A second institution that Calvin created in Geneva to promote pastoral collegiality and accountability was the Congrégation — a weekly assembly modeled after Huldrych Zwingli’s Prophetzei in Zurich, where the city’s pastors, theological students, and interested laypeople met for intense study of Scripture. Each week, different pastors were appointed to lead the discussion as the Congrégation worked systematically through books of the Bible. After an opening prayer, the designated pastor read the chosen passage aloud in French, and then offered a careful explanation of the passage drawn from his knowledge of the original Greek or Hebrew texts. After this exposition, the rest of Geneva’s pastors added their insights and corrections, contributing to an extended discussion of the exegetical and theological issues relevant to the biblical pericope being studied. In this way, then, the Congrégation functioned as a preacher’s clinic, a training ground for young preachers, and a tutorial where laypeople learned basic principles of biblical interpretation. The Congrégation was also a place where Calvin and his colleagues tested out their exegesis as they prepared sermons or wrote biblical commentaries.

From Calvin’s perspective, the collegial study of the Scripture was of vital importance in preserving the doctrinal purity of the church, forging unity among the ministers, and spurring ministers on to continued growth as faithful interpreters of the word of God. Scripture needed to be studied and interpreted in community. Calvin articulated this conviction in a letter to a colleague in Bern: “The fewer discussions of doctrine we have together, the greater the danger of pernicious opinions,” he noted. Indeed, “solitude leads to great abuse.”10 The Congrégation helped Geneva’s ministers mature as interpreters of God’s word and remain submissive to its teaching.

Ordinary Censure

The Ordinary Censure was a third institution that Calvin established in Geneva to promote pastoral collegiality and accountability. Four times a year — on the Friday before Geneva’s quarterly communion service — the ministers from city and countryside met behind closed doors to address personal grievances against one another, exhort one another to godliness, and offer fraternal corrections. The goal of this censure was to preserve the spiritual purity of the pastoral office, correct public and private sins, and achieve reconciliation among members of the pastoral company. At the conclusion of these meetings, the ministers shared together a meal of hot soup as a visual display of their spiritual unity in Christ.

Although the proceedings of the Ordinary Censure were strictly confidential, anecdotal evidence indicates that these meetings could be tense and contentious. During the sixteenth century, ministers were censured for a variety of sins and moral failures such as arrogance, slander, negligence in personal study, conflict with pastoral colleagues, inflammatory preaching, and teaching questionable doctrine. In one notable case, a minister was censured by his colleagues for attacking and beating a member of his congregation who came late to the worship service. Even more explosive was the case of Jean Ferron, who appeared before the Ordinary Censure in 1549 under suspicion of having groped a servant girl in his household and spoken salacious words to her. Ferron admitted to having done so “in order to test if she was a good girl.”11 The ministers sternly reprimanded Ferron and ordered that he be transferred to a different parish. Outraged, Ferron launched a blistering attack against Calvin and his fellow ministers. In response, Geneva’s pastors met again behind closed doors, exonerated Calvin, and suspended Ferron permanently from the ministry.

As these examples suggest, Calvin believed that pastors needed not only collegial support and encouragement, but also formal structures that held them accountable to God’s word, promoted godliness, and addressed areas of weakness and recurring sin.

Consistory

This commitment to hold ministers accountable within the church was also seen in the Consistory, the most famous church institution that Calvin established in Geneva. Beginning in 1542, the city’s pastors and twelve lay elders met every Thursday at noon to address cases of misbehavior and wrong belief among Geneva’s residents. During the decades that followed, this disciplinary court addressed hundreds of moral infractions each year, ranging from adultery to public drunkenness, from gambling to blasphemy, from business fraud to spousal abuse. Frequently, the Consistory served as an informal “counseling service,” where the pastors and elders addressed the grievances of embattled family members or neighbors in hopes of encouraging repentance and reconciliation.

Church discipline in Calvin’s Geneva took a number of forms, ranging from pastoral advice, personal admonition, public rebuke, temporary suspension from the Lord’s Supper, or (in rare cases) exclusion from the church. For Calvin, church discipline was a form of spiritual medicine, mandated by Scripture, to bring about the repentance of sinners, preserve the purity of Christ’s church, and protect Christians from the bad examples of the ungodly. As such, church discipline was indispensable for the health of any Christian community. “All who desire to remove discipline or to hinder its restoration . . . are surely contributing to the ultimate dissolution of the church,” Calvin stated.12 To be sure, the Consistory’s discipline could be intrusive, heavy-handed, and paternalistic; but at its best, it was an expression of pastoral care that God used to bring about repentance, reconciliation, and spiritual growth.

It is noteworthy that the ministers who staffed the Consistory sometimes also became objects of its discipline. During the sixteenth century, more than a dozen ministers were called to the Consistory’s chambers for various moral infractions, including fornication, greed, rebellion against the magistrates, usury, refusing to preach, and domestic quarrels. Some of these ministers were reprimanded; others were suspended from the Table; still others were deposed from their offices. In one memorable case, the Consistory confronted the rural minister Jean de Serres for abandoning his pastoral charge without notice due to family concerns and in hopes of securing a more lucrative church post in France. The Consistory sternly reprimanded Serres, temporarily suspended him from the Lord’s Supper, and recommended his demission from the ministry. The pastors and elders reminded Serres that the pastoral vocation was an “exceedingly sacred and honorable charge”; indeed, “his ministry should be one hundred times more precious to him than all of these things.”13

Contemporary Lessons and Suggestions

As we have seen, Calvin believed that ministers of the gospel needed collegial relationships of support and accountability if they were to flourish in their ministries. Modern studies regularly confirm this conclusion: “The isolation and loneliness of ministry often turns hardships into damaging experiences rather than ones of growth.” Indeed, “intimate relationships are necessary for spiritual growth.”14 In Geneva, Calvin addressed these concerns by creating four institutions, the Company of Pastors, the Congrégation, the Ordinary Censure, and the Consistory, which sought to facilitate pastoral relationships that were transparent, supportive, developmental, and collaborative. It would not be wise, of course, to import uncritically Calvin’s model of ministry into contemporary church life. (Ministry practices that are older are not necessarily better.) But even so, Calvin’s construction of the pastoral office in Geneva offers a valuable case study that can alert us to dangers, guide us in biblical wisdom, and spur our imaginations as we pursue the spiritual health of the church and her ministry leaders. Three points of application seem germane in this regard.

First, God can use institutions to preserve Christian truth and promote pastoral well-being. Evangelical Christians are frequently suspicious of building institutions for fear that they will become moribund and depart from their original gospel mission. Such concerns are not entirely without basis. Yet, at the same time, James K.A. Smith is correct in warning us against a cynical anti-institutionalism, for “institutions are ways to love our neighbors.” They are “durable, concrete structures that — when functioning well — cultivate all of creation’s potential toward what God desires: shalom, peace, goodness, justice, flourishing, delight.”15 As we have seen, Calvin recognized the importance of creating institutions to preserve his theological legacy and promote the well-being of the pastors who served Geneva’s church. What institutions might we create — or replicate — to contribute to the flourishing of Christian ministers?

Second, pastors who thrive in ministry have healthy relationships with other Christian leaders that are centered in the word of God. Calvin built into the DNA of the Genevan church weekly meetings where the city pastors met face to face, studied Scripture together, engaged in theological discussions, prayed for one another, and encouraged one another to persevere in their Christian vocations. They even occasionally shared meals together. For pastors today, collegial relationships of trust and support might be fostered among leaders of a multi-staff church, in a community ministerium, through denominational networks, or by regular gatherings of old seminary friends. Over the past decade, groups of pastors around the United States have even expressed this vision by forming their own versions of the Company of Pastors. These groups are most successful when they are attentive to God’s word, devoted to prayer, and committed to mutual sharing that is authentic and held in confidence. If we are presently isolated and lonely in Christian ministry, this question bears serious reflection: What collegial relationships might God be calling us to cultivate for our spiritual and emotional health?

Finally, pastors who thrive in ministry are accountable to others and open to advice and constructive criticism. Calvin recognized that collegiality and accountability were two sides of the same coin. Consequently, even as Geneva’s ministers were welcomed into a pastoral company that provided emotional and spiritual support, they were also held accountable by colleagues for their doctrine, their preaching, and their personal behavior. The Congrégation provided a venue where ministers could get honest feedback on their skills as interpreters and expositors of the word of God — with an eye toward personal growth and improvement. Likewise, the Ordinary Censure allowed ministers to address with their colleagues those habits, sins, and conflicts that undermined personal holiness and disrupted the unity of the church. In Geneva, no minister was a lone ranger, above correction. These questions bear asking, therefore: Who is asking us the hard questions that we need to hear? Do we have colleagues who regularly speak God’s truth to us? If not, how might we welcome such people into life and ministry?

For Calvin, the call to be a Christian pastor was a high and holy calling — but it was also a most challenging vocation, not to be lived in isolation. Ministers of the gospel flourished as they experienced communion with Christ through his word, were empowered by the Holy Spirit, and enjoyed the precious gift of godly colleagues in ministry.


  1. Paul Vitello, “Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work,” New York Times, August 1, 2010, http:www.nytimes.com/2010/08/02/nyregion/02burnout.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0. 

  2. Two studies of clerical health are especially noteworthy: the Flourishing in Ministry Project at the University of Notre Dame (based on ten thousand clergy from twenty denominations) and the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke University (focused primarily on clergy in the United Methodist Church). Findings from these two studies are reported in Matt Bloom, Flourishing in Ministry: How to Cultivate Clergy Wellbeing (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), and Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell and Jason Byassee, Faithful and Fragmented: Responding to the Clergy Health Crisis (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018). 

  3. Bloom, Flourishing in Ministry, 5. 

  4. See, for example, Bloom, Flourishing in Ministry; Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, and Donald Guthrie, Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us about Thriving and Surviving (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013); and Tom Nettles and Chris Brooks, The Flourishing Pastor: Recovering the Lost Art of Shepherd Leadership (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021). 

  5. For more on this topic, see Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536–1609 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). 

  6. “Discours d’adieu aux ministres,” in Ioannis Calvini Opera Omnia Quae Supersunt, ed. Johann-Wilhelm Baum, Edouard Cunitz, and Eduard Wilhelm Eugen Reuss (Brunsvigae: Schwetschke, 1863–1900), 9:891, 894. Hereafter abbreviated as CO. 

  7. John Calvin, Sermons on 1 Timothy, ed. Ray Van Neste and Brian Denker (Jackson, TN: Van Neste, 2016), 1:388–89. 

  8. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors, 150. 

  9. See Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors, 142–44. 

  10. CO 13:433–434. 

  11. Registres de la Compagnie des Pasteurs de Genève, ed. Jean-François Bergier and Robert Kingdon (Geneva: Droz, 1962–2001) 1:60. Hereafter cited as RCP. 

  12. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J.T. McNeill, trans. F.L. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1230. 

  13. RCP 3:84–85. 

  14. Burns, Chapman, Guthrie, Resilient Ministry, 47. 

  15. James K.A. Smith, “We Believe in Institutions,” Comment Magazine, Fall 2013, 2. 



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