Pastoral Care: Calvin’s Geneva and Lessons for Today

The word “pastor” contrary to popular opinion does not mean “preacher,” but “shepherd.” That’s partly why renaissance artists use the phrase, “pastoral” to describe a grassy meadow in a valley on a warm summer afternoon. That’s where shepherds do their work.

This may help explain why so many “pastors” are confused about their job description: we call them one thing, but expect something else from them. In my own experience, everything from corporate savvy to public speaking skills make the list. Of course these things are not insignificant.

But it is also true that rarely do we find a church looking for a shepherd. Such a man is one who has a heart for the sheep of Christ’s pasture and who seeks to lead them, under the watchcare of the Chief Shepherd, and by His power and Spirit, to the waters of eternal life.

There was no such confusion in Calvin’s Geneva, however. This excellent book describes in detail the struggles and successes he and the other pastors in the city (called the Venerable Company of Pastors, which is quite the title!) had in attempting to do their work of pastoral care at the dawn of the protestant reformation.

I’m not the first one to notice the value of this book. Here is a list of some of the very skilled and insightful reviews that I found:

Thanks to Google Books, I was able to extract from the epilogue four major conclusions that the author came to. I list them below, in sum, but then quote a section of the epilogue in its entirety at the end of this essay.

My hope is that this will not only lead you to buy the book, but also implement some of Mr. Manetch’s godly conclusions.

Here are the four main conclusions from the epilogue:

  1. The vocation of Christian ministry is difficult.
  2. Accountability and collegiality are essential in pastoral work.
  3. The Scriptures played a crucial role in the early reformation, and likewise, will play a central role in the reformation needed in our day.
  4. The ministry of pastoral care was a high priority for Calvin and his fellow pastors.

Then the epilogue ends with this beautiful prayer by an elderly Theodore Beza:

“We are able to say, by the grace of God, that we have preached, and continue to preach, the pure truth of God’s holy Word,” he wrote. “But alas, at what price? Where is our zeal, our care, and our diligence as pastors? O Lord, support us therefore by your infinite goodness. Preserve in us a good and right conscience. Fill us with zeal for your glory. Increase in us the knowledge, the wisdom, the love, and the endurance required for such a calling. In sum, be pleased to bless our modest efforts.”


Here’s the excerpt in full.

First, this study of the Company of Pastors has shown that the vocation of Christian ministry is a difficult one. As we have seen, Geneva’s pastors faced heavy workloads and encountered many hardships in their pastoral careers, including financial deprivation, incessant public criticism, congregational apathy, and sometimes even physical danger. Far more than “agents of the state,” Calvin and his colleagues served as biblical interpreters, spiritual counselors, social prophets, and moral watchdogs that regularly challenged popular beliefs and social conventions, and sometimes thundered against Geneva’s political authorities. The ministers occupied a crucial, yet awkward, position in early modern society as they sought to translate the Gospel truths into a vernacular that provided hope, meaning, and forgiveness to men and women who sometimes struggled to believe—and frequently struggled to behave themselves. Too often, the ministers’ moral indignation and spiritual blind spots only increased the difficulties they encountered in applying Scripture to the needs of their parishioners. Pastoral effectiveness in Geneva required courage, a clear sense of vocation, thick skin, a generous dose of humility, and solid Christian faith. Pastoral virtues like these are still required of Christian workers today even if their congregational contexts are centuries removed from Calvin’s.

Second, my study of Calvin and the Company of pastors has highlighted the importance of accountability and collegiality in pastoral work. Woven into the DNA of Geneva’s reformed church were Calvin’s convictions that ministers of the Gospel stood beneath the authority of Christ, that no Christian minister should hold preeminence in the church, and that ministers must be accountable to the collective judgment of their colleagues. As we have seen, the Company of Pastors—to which each minister belonged as an equal partner—supervised the pastoral work and monitored the personal conduct of all of Geneva’s pastors. Likewise, in the weekly meetings of the Congregation, ministers studied Scripture together, evaluated one another’s sermons, and forged a common theological outlook. Christian understanding, Calvin believed, was achieved in community. The Ordinary Censure also promoted collegiality in providing a regular venue for Geneva’s ministers to air doctrinal disagreements and address interpersonal conflicts behind closed doors. Finally, when members of the company committed serious moral failure, they were subject to the judgment and correction of their peers on the Consistory. Though this 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, and forgave one another. Contemporary Protestantism, with its infatuation for robust individualism, celebrity preachers, and ministry empires, has much to learn from the example of Geneva’s church.

Third, this study has shown the leading role that the Scriptures played in Calvin’s reformation, suggesting the central importance of God’s Word for Christian Renewal in our own day. In one of his first Protestant writings, Calvin summarized his central religious purpose with this concise statement: “I demand only this, that faithful people be allowed to hear their God speaking and to learn from His teaching.” Calvin devoted most of his career to making this religious vision a reality. As we have seen, between 1536 and 1609 the language and message of the Bible was nearly omnipresent in Geneva’s religious life as it was proclaimed in sermons, recited in catechism, sung in the Psalter, studied in the Congregation, discussed in the marketplace, and read devotionally in households. At the same time, Geneva’s pastors produced a virtual tsunami of Bible translations, Psalters, commentaries, exegetical aids, and devotional writings that equipped preaches for their pulpit ministries and provided instruction and spiritual comfort for their parishioners. 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. Spiritual reformation and scriptural proclamation went hand in hand. It seems plausible that Geneva’s distinctive religious culture in the sixteenth century—described by one English visitor as “a model of true religion and true piety”—was in large part the result of this extensive engagement with the text of Scripture. So too, one suspects that the path to spiritual renewal for moribund churches and tired saints in the twenty-first century involves, at least in part, recovering the central place of Scripture in the Church’s Ministry.

Finally, this book has demonstrated the high priority that Calvin, Beza, Goulart, and their colleagues placed on the ministry of pastoral care. For the reformers, the ministry of the Word involved more than the public exposition of Scripture; it also entailed the application of the divine message to people in every stage of life, from cradle to grave. Christian ministry needed to be Word-centered and people centered. Geneva’s pastors fulfilled their calling when they baptized infants, taught children their catechism, welcomed young adults to the Lord’s Table, conducted household visitations, comforted the sick, and consoled people preparing to die. At the same time, in weekly Consistory meetings, the ministers confronted men and women suspected of moral failure or wrong belief, applying the “medicine” of church discipline in the hopes of achieving repentance, healed relationships, Christian understanding, and spiritual growth. Though dimensions of Calvin’s program of pastoral supervision and discipline strike our modern sensibilities as heavy-handed and unduly intrusive, the ministers’ sustained commitment to the spiritual well-being of adults and children in their parishes seems on the whole quite admirable. Indeed, 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.

In retrospect, this portrait of the Venerable Company has highlighted the virtues, the vices, and the sheer complexity of the men who served alongside Calvin between 1536 and 1609. In the face of plague, they were capable of great courage and utter cowardice. In their discipline, they could be supportive and compassionate or harsh and unforgiving. In their relationships with one another, the ministers often displayed a spirit of cooperation and mutual respect, but they were not immune from petty quarrels, backbiting, recriminations, and vainglory. In their sermons, Geneva’s pastors fed their sheep on the bread of the gospel, and yet regularly fulminated against the ills and excesses of their congregations. In their more reflective moments, ministers like Calvin, Beza, and Goulart sometimes acknowledged their limitations and failures in ministry, and expressed their need for divine help to overcome them. They recognized that ultimately, the success of Geneva’s reformation and the preservation of the church into the future depended, not on them, but on God’s sustaining grace. In a sermon delivered at the very end of his pastoral career, the elderly Theodore Beza beautifully articulated this attitude of dependence and trust. “We are able to say, by the grace of God, that we have preached, and continue to preach, the pure truth of God’s holy Word,” he wrote. “But alas, at what price? Where is our zeal, our care, and our diligence as pastors? O Lord, support us therefore by your infinite goodness. Preserve in us a good and right conscience. Fill us with zeal for your glory. Increase in us the knowledge, the wisdom, the love, and the endurance required for such a calling. In sum, be pleased to bless our modest efforts.”

Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church, 1536-1609 by Scott M. Manetsch, Epilogue, pp. 304 to 307. Oxford University Press, 2013. From Google Books,


2 thoughts on “Pastoral Care: Calvin’s Geneva and Lessons for Today

  1. Dear Phil, you’re right to commend this work. I’m almost done and I’ve marked or written on almost every page, and chomping at the bit to post on it. On vacation with Mary Lee just now and it’s sitting on the table next to me. A sample on the writing and publishing of Geneva’s pastors at the time of Calvin from this AM’s reading: “…most of the literary works penned by members of the Venerable Company had clearly defined *theological* (emphasis original) purposes, that is, to persuade doubters and defend true religion, to provide comfort for suffering Christians, and to guide the faithful to mature Christian discipleship. This point deserves special emphasis. Though neither Beza nor his colleagues ever wrote a theological text that rivaled Calvin’s “Institutes” in substance or popularity, and though they published only a modest number of biblical commentaries and sermon collections, they went well beyond Calvin in working out the implications of his religious program, applying it to the ethical concerns, the confessional challenges, and the spiriitual needs of new generations of reformed Christians in French speaking Europe and beyond. The substantial literary corpus of Geneva’s ministers indicates that the studia humanitatis were very much in the service of spiritual renewal and religious reformation. Or, to put it somewhat differently, for Beza and many of his colleagues, the writing of books was one important way that they fulfilled their spiritual calling as pastors of Christ’s church” (p. 240). Love,

    • Thanks for the confirmation, Tim. So grateful for the many deliberate and intentional efforts like this you’ve made now for more than twenty years: not only in pastoring, but in wantonly marking up books! PEH.

Comments are closed.