Yesterday I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Scott Manetsch, Professor of Church History at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (and one of my former profs), give a lecture on “Pastoral Collegiality and Accountability in Calvin’s Geneva.” This lecture is part of the “Scripture and Ministry” lecture series at the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding.
In the lecture, Manetsch made good on years of painstaking research on John Calvin and his associates and successors by discussing some of the takeaways for the church today. Avoiding both antiquarianism and presentism, he first gave listeners a rich description of pastoral ministry in Geneva as molded by Calvin and his fellow pastors and then discussed ways we can learn from them—positively and negatively—for today.
To set the stage, he described the Word-saturated ministry of Calvin, who desperately longed for God’s people to be able to hear God speaking through his Word and to learn from his teaching. Calvin thus infused Geneva with the Word, from daily sermons throughout the week and three sermons on Sundays to the singing of the Psalter and the catechism, in which Christians memorized the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer. Geneva was even a center for Bible production in the sixteenth century. Why was Scripture so central? Calvin and his fellow pastors were convinced that the Bible was God’s Word and that through the Word God reforms his church, nourishes his children, and expands his kingdom.
Building on this Word-centered ministry, Calvin developed a number of institutions to sustain the church for the long term, institutions that indeed did contribute to the longevity of pastors in their posts in Geneva. Manetsch discussed four of the institutions Calvin established.
Calvin’s Company of Pastors required pastors in Geneva to come together on Fridays to encourage each other and provide accountability. This Company brought an equality to the pastors and nurtured collegiality. Ministers were not to be lone rangers, but to work in partnership.
The Congregation, which Calvin developed from Ulrich Zwingli’s model, provided an intensive Bible study meeting for the city’s pastors. Each pastor would prepare a sermon on an assigned text as they together worked through a book of the Bible, and the Congregation would then discuss and critique the exposition together for the benefit of all pastors, helping them improve their exegetical skills. Calvin even wrote his biblical commentaries after discussing a book of the Bible in the Congregation. He believed pastors interpret Scripture best when they interpret it in community. This institution also helped to alleviate pastoral solitude—which Calvin believed makes the pastor a danger to himself and to his congregation—and offered a place for pastors to grow in biblical and theological learning.
The Quarterly Censure provided another means of pastoral accountability and collegiality. Four times per year the pastors would meet behind closed doors to correct each other. The moderator (Calvin, during his lifetime) began by confessing his own failings, followed by the confessions of other ministers. After airing their grievances with one another , the pastors sought reconciliation through confession and forgiveness, always concluding with a meal together.
Finally, the Consistory was the institution for conducting matters of church discipline—a fascinating element that reveals the very real lives of the people in Geneva. While some have imagined Calvin’s Geneva as a kind of “heaven on earth,” the town was inhabited by people who got into all kinds of problems, from fornication and adultery to spousal abuse, inflammatory speech, and drunkenness. The Consistory sought to provide biblical guidance in dealing with such problems, and they not only censured lay people but even, on occasion, other pastors.
Building on this history, Manetsch suggested a number of ways we can learn from Calvin and his fellow pastors for pastoral ministry in the contemporary context. On the one hand, Manetsch warned that the Genevan pastors could at times be overly heavy-handed in their dealings with misbehaving residents in Geneva. Some of their social reforms also met with resistance.
But several aspects of their efforts to reform the pastoral office provide glimmers of hope in our context, where more and more pastors are isolated and burned out. Manetsch specifically recommended five lessons for pastors today:
- The proclamation of the Word of God must be central to the ministry of the church, as it was for Calvin and his colleagues, for the Word of God is the thing that transforms lives, not all the niceties of sermon eloquence.
- God frequently uses institutions—such as the Company of Pastors and the Congregation—to preserve Christian truth and promote pastoral wellbeing. Evangelicals in particular should not shun institutions in and of themselves.
- For a pastor to maintain wellbeing, he must have healthy relationships with other Christian leaders.
- A pastor’s wellbeing also requires accountability to other Christian leaders, as we see in all four of these institutions in Calvin’s Geneva. In an evangelical world that is often beholden to building empires, we need to renew a commitment to accountability.
- As Calvin nurtured educational growth for pastors in the Congregation, so a pastor’s wellbeing today requires spiritual and professional growth.
I highly recommend this lecture, which can be viewed at http://client.stretchinternet.com/client/tiuadmin.portal (just search for “Manetsch”). For those who want more, Manetsch treats these and related topics in greater detail in his book Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536–1609 (Oxford University Press, 2012).
Manetsch’s lecture, “Pastoral Collegiality and Accountability in Calvin’s Geneva,” offers a helpful historical glimpse at what pastoral ministry looked like among Protestant reformers such as Calvin and Theodore Beza. I also believe pastors and church workers today can find much benefit and instruction from the careful way in which Manetsch both describes pastoral ministry in Geneva and proposes suggestions for very real challenges in pastoral ministry today.