Jeff Loach is Lead Pastor of St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church, Nobleton, Ontario, and Clerk of the Presbytery of Oak Ridges. He is an adjunct instructor in spiritual theology at Tyndale Seminary, and is an Oblate of the Order of St. Benedict.

May 2012

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One of the heartbreaking facts of the church is that many hundreds of pastors leave ministry every year. Most are badly wounded – broken from years of functioning poorly, sometimes inappropriately, in the vocation given them by the Lord. Why does the poor or inappropriate functioning happen? Did not these clergy receive good training for what they thought was their life’s work?

It’s fair to say that no pastor enters ministry with an intent or desire to flame out, or to be miserable. It’s also fair to say that Lonely as a Pebble on the Beach, by Marlon Bundaythree years of seminary training can’t cover every possible issue that a minister may face over the course of life. Because there are certain course requirements that must be achieved, most theological education to prepare people for ministry focuses on information – teaching the students how to learn, how to study, how to care for others, how to draw people into a relationship with God. Less time is spent on formation – how to work on one’s own relationship with God, how to live in healthy relationship with others so that mutual care can be shared.

As the mission of God continues to be worked out in society, we are finding more and more emphasis in theological education on making sure that men and women are formed in their relationship with God so that they are able to inform, and be informed, from that already growing relationship with the Lord. (Witness Tyndale’s creation of a Spiritual Formation Centre, and an increasing number of courses in spiritual formation.)

For those who are already in the field, doing God’s work, what can be done to care for them, and to help them care for each other? Fortunately, we need only look back in Reformed Protestant history to find a model that can be adapted for the encouragement and edification of clergy.

Lessons from Geneva

On May 21, 1536, voters in the city of Geneva, Switzerland, decided to adopt the Protestant Reformation as part of their municipal culture. Up to that point, following the dismissal of the bishop who had overseen the governance of the city, Geneva had been, essentially, a secular city-state. Following the people’s vote, the city fathers invited John John CalvinCalvin to give leadership to the church. There was a period of turmoil and misunderstanding which resulted in Calvin’s exile to Strasbourg for about a three-year period. Upon his return, in 1541, Calvin worked with the city magistrates to create an ecclesiology that would work, culturally and theologically, for this young Protestant church. The end-result was a document entitled Ecclesiastical Ordinances, and a system of government that has, to a greater or lesser extent, survived to this day, in one branch or another of the Reformed tradition. There is one element, however, which is glaringly missing, and it is costing the church of our own day dearly.

As has been documented extensively by Robert Kingdon and others, Calvin’s Geneva, as a Christian city-state, was governed principally by a Consistory, along with three magisterial councils. The consistory was composed of all the elders and clergy of the city, and was led by a syndic, who was essentially a representative of the magistracy. The Consistory met weekly to oversee the civil and spiritual lives of the people of Geneva. A key sub-set of the Consistory was the Company of Pastors, instituted by and moderated by Calvin from its first days in the early 1540s until shortly before his death in 1564. The Company held a significant amount of authority, as the Consistory looked to the Company for advice on numerous matters.

Each Friday morning, there was a meeting called the congrégation, which was essentially a Bible study open to the public, led by one of the members of the Company of Pastors. Normally, another minister in the Company would provide some further input; often, one or the other of these roles was played by Calvin himself. Then, after the study was complete, the Company of Pastors would withdraw for its own meeting – one for which attendance by all clergy was mandatory. The only exceptions made were for significant illness or distance to travel in winter weather.

The Company of Pastors

The Company of Pastors was crafted by Calvin to accomplish four purposes for the church in Geneva. Each was important, and each played an important role in the development of the church. (These are ably discussed in Robert M. Kingdon’s article, “Calvin and Presbytery: The Geneva Company of Pastors.”)1

Ordination. The Company was responsible for examining candidates for ordination and ensuring that those who would be welcomed into its number would be suited, in faith and practice, to the rigors of ministry.

Education. The Company oversaw the education of both clergy and laity, since even under a Protestant, non-episcopal system, the church was the leader in the education of people of all ages. (Many people forget that the “secular” university is a modern phenomenon, and that “public” education was, for the longest time, led by the church.)

Missionary work. One would expect that the Company of Pastors would advocate for mission endeavour, and it did. Much of this work involved recruiting pastors from France, educating them, encouraging them, and sending them out as church planters, creating Reformed congregations where they did not already exist.

These three responsibilities are cared for today by the Presbytery (in Presbyterian terms) or the Classis (in Christian Reformed terms), sometimes in co-operation with the national governing body of the church. The fourth responsibility, however is noticeably absent from the polity of most Reformed bodies.

Mutual- and self-criticism. One of Calvin’s goals among his pastors was that they be open enough and honest enough with each other to allow for each to offer criticism to the others, and to oneself. This necessitated a willingness to be vulnerable, and accountable, to one’s colleagues. In Calvin’s day, the Company never numbered more than 22 men (and they were all men, in those days), so it was not impossible to imagine that this group could offer effective mutual- and self-criticism. Often, the group was smaller, creating a greater possibility for intimate friendship among the ministers of the Company. Contrary to popular belief, Calvin himself had close friends among the pastors with whom he served, and the account of the last gathering Calvin shared with the Company suggests great emotion was shown by the great reformer and his colleagues as they prepared to say good-bye.

Self-Criticism and Pastoral Care

The Company of Pastors kept minutes, though what remains of them today unlikely comprises a complete account. Found in these records, however, are accounts of the discipline of clergy who were found to be errant in the doctrine they held or taught, so we know that the “mutual” part of mutual- and self-criticism took place. Doubtless, self-criticism was not minuted for a variety of reasons. Yet even the minuted criticism was at an escalated level: formal judicial process was being undertaken. The most obvious example of this is the case of Michael Servetus. Reading the accounts of the controversy around Servetus’ defrocking offers the reader a form of polemic writing that rivals that of Luther in his treatises against his Roman detractors.

It is unlikely, if you attend a meeting of almost any judicatory in a church of the Reformed tradition today, that you will find a forum for mutual- and self-criticism as Calvin envisioned it for his Company of Pastors. Why did this obviously important function of Reformed polity fall out of use? For North American Presbyterians, the most obvious answer is that this part of Calvin’s Reformed government did not translate into the political milieu of John Knox’s Scotland, handed down to us. Further, today, because we live in a highly litigious society, it would be very difficult to have mandated mutual- and self-criticism as part of an ecclesiastical judicatory without some sort of signed, formal covenant.

Yet, the need remains. Pastors, as caregivers, need care. Many are uncomfortable receiving that care from the very people for whom they care, and this is understandable: the vast majority of us are not able to separate what we know about an individual from his or her proclamation. (This is often why clergy spouses feel the need to have someone other than their pastor-spouses to whom they can turn for pastoral care.) While it is possible that denominational initiatives such as Employee Assistance Programs can provide a significant amount of professional care for clergy, Calvin’s idea remains attractive, simply because pastors understand the kind of care that their colleagues need.

Not Just Another Meeting

A Company of Pastors can exist within a regional judicatory body, such as a Presbytery or a Classis (or an Association or a Deanery), either as a voluntary organization or as a mandatory part of being in the judicatory body. (Some choose to make the gathering ecumenical, as the Geneva Company of Pastors is today, though doing so loses Calvin’s desire that doctrine be held in common among those who gather.) Those participating would need to choose a competent leader, and would need to decide whether to divide their Company into smaller groups, either based on the size of the group or gender demographics (some pastors may not be comfortable talking about certain issues with people of the opposite sex in the room).

Whichever way the Company is divided, if at all, its common goal should be to provide excellent care for one another in a safe environment where the truth can be spoken in love, preferably under a signed covenant. What it should not be is just another meeting. Pastors are busy enough that they don’t need just another meeting to attend. This gathering should be something for which they willingly set aside time, because those with whom they meet in the Company make a difference in their lives, and they in others’. Some exercises in which a Company of Pastors could engage are:


  • creating a rule of life for the pastor;
  • practising spiritual disciplines such as journaling, silence, lectio divina, etc.;
  • cultivating emotional and spiritual health, and being willing to refer members to qualified counsellors when necessary;
  • studying Scripture together;
  • group spiritual direction, including praying for and with each other;
  • studying classic Christian literature together;
  • engaging in culturally relevant issues in light of Scripture;
  • examining issues before the denomination in light of Scripture and the historic tenets of the tradition; and
  • holding one another accountable for deepening Christian faith, improved ministry skill, and responses to sins with which individual pastors may struggle.

I can say from personal experience that my own ministry may have looked different had I had a company of pastors with whom to meet, especially in my earlier years of ministry. If I had been willing to let a group of peers speak into my life in a caring way, some of the uglier things that have happened in my ministry might not have happened – or, at least, I might have learned from them sooner than I did. This is why I am seeking to implement a Company of Pastors in my own Presbytery. If, for my good and that of my colleagues, a group can be formed that will provide that caring element that is generally missing from most judicatory bodies, it will be worth every effort.

  • 1 Robert M. King­don, “Calvin and Pres­bytery: The Geneva Com­pany of Pas­tors” in Pacific Theological Review XVIII:2 (Winter 1985): 47-53.


  1. Dennis

    Hey Jeff – Good read and good on you for this initiative. Hope it succeeds.

  2. Barb

    Hi Jeff,
    Some excellent thinking and good initiative and totally in line with your personal training and engagement with spiritual direction (and even before that…with Pastors of Excellence.)

  3. Pr. Sunil M.A

    Dear Jeff,
    The article is fine and you could to point out the core issue. Christian ministry is resulting from the intimate relationship with God through experiencing the power of resurrection. If we pass information without being witness to the power of resurrection who will believe us?

  4. Mark Bezanson

    Hi Jeff,
    Excellent reflection on the need for a Community of Pastors for encouraging mutual support and challenge for growth. However, some of the more difficult and personal issues may be better handled with a trusted, spiritual mentor who may or may not be in the same company. Just a thought.

  5. avatar

    Hi Mark. This article is adapted from a thesis I wrote, in which I did explore the problems with sharing some of our personal issues with people who are in our own judicatory. Each Company of Pastors today would need to be set up with a mutually-agreed-upon covenant that would determine whether the “gloves are off” or not. I agree that each pastor should have a spiritual director, or at least a spiritual friend, with whom some of the more difficult issues could be explored, if the pastor is not comfortable doing so in the larger group. Thanks for your thoughts!

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