Three Important Pastoral Lessons

This past summer Scott Manetsch, professor of church history at TEDS, taught at our EFCA One Conference on the lessons we can learn from Calvin’s pastoral ministry in Geneva. His lectures came from his magnificent work, Calvin’s Company of Pastors, and were given under the title, “The Reformation of the Pastoral Office.” It was an excellent seminar.

In a recent article Manetsch addressed this important work again. Setting the context, he acknowledge that we must “not glamorize the past, assuming that ‘older is better’ and thus seek uncritically to transplant ancient ideas or practices into our modern contexts.” But neither should we have a mindset that “equates the ‘modern’ with the ‘good,’ and thus turns a blind eye to wisdom gleaned from the lives and lessons of people in the past.” Since the world is the “theater of God’s glory” (as spoken by Calvin), there are things to be learned from everything.

The past is not necessarily better. They had problems like we do. But the key that enables us to glean and gain from a study of the past is that it allows us to understand the present better. If we only focus on the present, we become blind to our own problems. This is why C. S. Lewis recommended reading an old book for every contemporary book you read. Though the old had problems, they were different problems from our own.

Manetsch focused on “three important pastoral lessons from Calvin’s Geneva” that are important and helpful for us as we consider pastoral ministry today. I include excepts only.

In Calvin’s Geneva, ministry was profoundly Word-centered. At the heart of Calvin’s sense of vocation was the conviction that Christians “needed to hear their God speaking and learn from his teaching.” . . . Calvin and his reformed colleagues believed that where God’s Word was faithfully proclaimed and gladly received, there the Holy Spirit was at work in power to effect moral transformation in the lives of men and women. The case of Calvin’s Geneva reminds us today that spiritual reformation and scriptural proclamation go hand in hand.

For Calvin, pastoral ministry involved intensive personal care. . . . Calvin once stated:  “the office of a true and faithful minister is not only to teach the people in public, which he is appointed to do as pastor, but also, as much as he is able, to admonish, exhort, warn, and console each person individually.” . . . In our modern world where men and women so often struggle with spiritual dislocation, fractured relationships, and deep-seated loneliness, Calvin’s vision for pastoral oversight that includes gospel proclamation and intense relational ministry appears especially relevant and important.

Calvin was committed to accountability and collegiality in pastoral work. . . . though pastors’ roles might vary from parish to parish, the pastoral office was a single office, and all pastors were equally servants of Christ and ministers of the Word of God. Calvin formalized this commitment by creating a number of institutions that constituted the DNA of pastoral ministry in Geneva. All of the city’s ministers belonged to the Company of Pastors, a church council that met every Friday morning to address concerns of the church. . . . A second institution was the weekly Congregation, a body created by Calvin (patterned after Zurich’s Prophetzei) where the city’s pastors met to study Scripture together and evaluate one another’s exposition of biblical texts. Calvin insisted that the formation of ministers and the preservation of right doctrine depended on the pastors studying Scripture in community. . . . One additional church institution that reflected Calvin’s commitment to accountability and collegiality was the Quarterly Censure. Four times a year, before the quarterly celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Geneva’s ministers met behind closed doors to air their differences, to address colleagues suspected of immorality or teaching wrong doctrine, and to promote mutual trust and common vision. . . . Though Calvin’s collegial model of ministry did not foster bold innovation, nor allow for strong dissent, it did create a pastoral culture in Geneva where ministers depended on one another, learned from one another, were accountable to one another, and sometimes forgave one another. One suspects that contemporary Protestantism, with its infatuation for robust individualism, celebrity preachers, and ministry empires, has much to learn from the example of Geneva’s church.

These are great lessons, models and exhortations for us. May we be profoundly Word-centered in all of our ministries, not just the pulpit ministry; may we be pastoral in the sense of applying the truths we preach in our own lives and the lives of others in the context of relationships; and may we commit to and accountable to doing and living theology in the context of community.

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