Pastoral Collegiality and Accountability in Calvin's Geneva

Scott Manetsch
In a New York Times' article from August 2010, Paul Vitello described the serious difficulties faced by many Christian ministers in America 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."[1] In recent years, researchers have attempted to isolate causes for pastoral dissatisfaction and poor-health, and identify primary reasons why so many Christian workers leave parish ministry each year. One such endeavor was the Pulpit & Pew research project of Duke Divinity School--a quantitative study conducted a decade ago that examined 500 ministers, from five different Protestant denominations that had recently left pastoral ministry. Although a variety of factors were listed, the three most common reasons given by Christian workers who had left local church ministry were as follows: "I felt drained by the demands on me." "I felt lonely or isolated." "I felt bored or constrained in the position."[2] The role that loneliness and isolation play in ministerial dissatisfaction and burn-out has been documented by other studies as well.[3]

One important resource for pastoral health and well-being that is sometimes overlooked in contemporary discussions is the history of the pastoral office--the practices, convictions, and institutions in the Church's past that have been important in supporting and sustaining Christian ministers. The Protestant reformer John Calvin's pastoral theology and practice in Geneva from 1536-1564 can serve as an example.[4] Recognizing the hardships and dangers caused by isolation in ministry, Calvin constructed a variety of church institutions in Geneva to promote pastoral collegiality, accountability, and gospel-faithfulness among the city's pastoral company. Calvin's model of ministry remains instructive for contemporary Christian leaders who seek to flourish and remain faithful in their ministry callings.

Shortly before his death, Calvin looked back on the dismal condition of Geneva's church in the summer of 1536:  "When I first arrived in this church there was almost nothing.  They were preaching and that's all. They were good at seeking out idols and burning them, but there was no Reformation. Everything was in turmoil."[5] Accordingly, during the decade that followed, Calvin played a primary role in building a city church from the ground up:  he restructured Geneva's religious life to include three urban churches (St. Pierre's, the Madeleine, St. Gervais) and a dozen rural parishes; he recruited a pastoral team ranging from 15-20 ministers to serve these churches; he drafted a new church constitution to govern church ministry and daily Christian life; he wrote liturgies and catechisms to structure worship and enhance Christian instruction. In addition, Calvin established a number of church institutions to promote pastoral unity, accountability and collegiality, including the Company of Pastors, the Congrégation, the Quarterly Censure, and the Consistory.

The Company of Pastors had primary responsibility for overseeing the day to day ministry of Geneva's churches. With Calvin serving as its moderator, the Company consisted of all the pastors from city and countryside who met for several hours every Friday morning. The Company was built on the conviction that all Christian ministers possess equal authority by virtue of their common vocation to proclaim the Word of God and administer the sacraments; consequently, in their deliberations, Geneva's ministers were equal gospel partners, with each man possessing a single vote. The pastoral company addressed every aspect of church life: it assured that right doctrine was taught in the city's pulpits; it recruited and examined ministerial candidates; it supervised theological education at Geneva's Academy; it offered godly advice and correction to the city's magistrates; it oversaw the work of deacons and public benevolence. In addition the Company of Pastors regularly monitored the spiritual and physical well-being of the city's pastors, and sometimes petitioned the civil magistrates to provide special assistance for beleaguered colleagues who lived in poverty or sub-standard housing. Over time, the Company of Pastors also emerged as a kind of nerve-center of international Calvinism as foreign reformed churches looked to it for theological advice, pastoral candidates, and financial and political support. Hence, from 1555-1564, Calvin's Company secretly recruited, trained, and deployed more than one hundred men as pastoral missionaries to France.[6] This shared labor of the Company undoubtedly contributed to the collegiality and unity of Geneva's ministers, even as it provided encouragement and accountability to individual pastors.

The Congrégation was a second ministerial institution established by Calvin. Patterned after Huldrych Zwingli's Prophezei in Zurich, the Congrégation was a weekly conference in which ministers, professors, theological students, and interested laypeople studied the Scripture for several hours together. According to the Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1561), the primary purpose of the Congrégation was to preserve the purity and unity of doctrine within the church, and to assure that all Geneva's ministers were diligent in study and capable expositors of the Word of God.[7]  Accordingly, every Friday morning, Geneva's pastors took turns leading the Congrégation, providing a detailed commentary and discussion of the biblical text of the day, after which those in attendance would offer feedback and discuss various theological and practical entailments of the passage. During the final years of Calvin's life, the Congrégation worked successively through the Psalms (1555-59), Exodus-Deuteronomy (1559-62), Galatians (1562-63), and Joshua (1564).  For Calvin, this collegial approach to Scripture study and interpretation was essential for the competence of the pastoral office and the well-being of Christ's church. "The fewer discussions of doctrine we have together, the greater the danger of pernicious opinions," Calvin once observed.  Indeed, "solitude leads to great abuse."[8]

Another institution that insured pastoral accountability and solidarity was the Quarterly Censure. Once every three months--shortly before Geneva's quarterly celebration of the Lord's Supper--all of Geneva's pastors met behind closed doors for a time of communal examination and fraternal correction. This was an opportunity for the ministers to air their grievances against one another and offer reproofs on matters of doctrine and personal conduct. At the end of the examination, the pastors shared a meal of soup as a visible sign of their unity in Christ. In the Quarterly Censure, Calvin and his colleagues confronted a variety of sinful actions and attitudes: ministers were censured for arrogance, slander, negligence in study, and harboring resentment toward their colleagues. The company also sometimes raised questions about the theological content of a fellow-minister's sermon or book. On one notable occasion, the ministers confronted and reprimanded a colleague named Jean Ferron for propositioning a servant girl in his home while his wife was absent. (Ferron was subsequently deposed from his pastoral office.)[9] Though conflicts, disagreement, and moral failings were inevitable, the Quarterly Censure was one important way in which Geneva's ministers sought to preserve the unity, moral integrity, and theological purity of the pastoral office.  

Of all the institutions established by Calvin, the Genevan Consistory remains the best-known and the most controversial. For Calvin, church discipline was essential for a healthy church: "all who desire to remove discipline or to hinder its restoration," he stated, "are surely contributing to the ultimate dissolution of the church."[10]  When properly administered by pastors and elders, Calvin believed, discipline served as spiritual medicine that God used to hasten the repentance of the sinner, protect the congregation from wicked example, and preserve the purity of Christ's church. During Calvin's lifetime, the Genevan Consistory - consisting of the city's pastors and twelve lay elders - met every Thursday at noon to address a sizeable case load of moral infractions that included quarrels, fornication, gambling, swearing, blasphemy, popular religion, Catholic behavior, and drunkenness. On several occasions, Geneva's ministers themselves were called before the Consistory as defendants.  From 1542-1609, the Consistory summoned and examined no fewer than eighteen members of the Company of Pastors, nine of whom were suspended from the Lord's Supper. In 1572, for example, a minister named Jean de Serres was suspended from the Lord's Supper (and deposed from the ministry) for abandoning his post and attempting (secretly) to return to France in search of a more comfortable and lucrative pastoral position.[11] Several years later, a young minister named Georges Druson was suspended and deposed for pledging marriage to no fewer than twenty-five different women in the span of a couple of months--in search, no doubt, of wealth and familial connections.[12] These examples illustrate that the Consistory was committed to confronting sinful conduct among the city's ministers as well as Geneva's townspeople. At the same time, consistorial discipline helped define norms of acceptable clerical behavior and sought to protect the dignity of the pastoral office. Woven into the DNA of Geneva's reformed church were Calvin's convictions that ministers of the gospel must stand beneath the authority of Christ and his Word, that no Christian minister should hold preeminence in the church, and that ministers must be accountable to the collective judgment of their colleagues. 

Calvin's model of a collegial ministry, founded upon institutions such as the Company of Pastors, the Congrégation, the Quarterly Censure, and the Consistory, is instructive for contemporary churches in several ways. First, and most obviously, God frequently uses institutions to preserve Christian truth and promote pastoral wellbeing. For modern evangelicals who sometimes disparage institutional forms, the words of James K. A. Smith are most timely: "Institutions are durable concrete structures that--when functioning well--cultivate all of creation's potential towards what God desires:  shalom, peace, goodness, justice, flourishing, delight."[13]  Second, ministers flourish as they experience healthy relationships with other Christian leaders. Recent studies on pastoral longevity sponsored by the Lilly Foundation have demonstrated the wisdom of Calvin's model of ministry: collegial ministry and interpersonal support are essential for pastoral success.[14] Third, pastors flourish in the context of mutual accountability. Neither Calvin nor his ministerial colleagues were treated as celebrities removed from criticism; instead, they regularly "sharpened each other" through formal sessions of examination, censure, and fraternal correction. Finally, pastors flourish as they experience continued spiritual and professional growth. In Calvin's Geneva, ministers were expected and equipped through the course of their ministries to mature as expositors of Scripture and leaders of Christ's Church. In these four ways, then, Calvin's ministry model appears to be a particularly effective antidote for the robust individualism, persistent isolation, and deep-seated disappointment that haunts many pastors in the Western Church today.

Scott M. Manetsch is Professor of Church History at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is the author of Calvin's Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 (OUP, 2013). He is the associate general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture (InterVarsity Press)


[1]  Paul Vitello, "Taking a Break from the Lord's Work," New York Times, August 1, 2010.

[2] See Dean R. Hoge and Jacqueline Wenger, Pastors in Transition. Why Clergy Leave Local Church Ministry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 37.

[3] See Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, and Donald Guthrie, Resilient Ministry. What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2013).

[4] See Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin's Company of Pastors. Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[5] Calvin, "Discours d'adieu aux ministres," Ioannis Calvini opera omnia quae supersunt, eds. G. Baum, E. Cunitz, E. Reuss, vol. 9 (Brunsvigae: C. A. Schwetschke, 1863-1900), 891-894.  Hereafter cited as CO.

[6] See Robert M. Kingdon, Geneva and the Coming of the Wars of Religion in France, 1555-1563 (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1956).

[7] CO 10.1:96.

[8] Calvin to Wolfgang Musculus, October 22, 1549, CO 13:434.

[9] Manetsch, Calvin's Company of Pastors, 62-63.

[10] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religions, ed. John McNeill, trans. Ford Battles, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 1230.

[11] Manetsch, Calvin's Company of Pastors, 71-72.

[12] Manetsch, Calvin's Company of Pastors, 101.
[13] James K. A. Smith, "We Believe in Institutions," Comment Magazine (Fall 2013): 2.

[14] See Lilly Endowment for Clergy Renewal,