Have you ever wondered what it would’ve been like to plant a church in 16th-century Geneva? Imagine starting a new church at the center of what’s come to be known as the Protestant Reformation. At the very least, it would’ve been nice to talk with John Calvin (and others) about life and pastoral ministry.
Even 500 years later, there’s still much we can learn from Calvin and his compatriots that’s applicable to our ministry today. This is why I’m thankful that a friend encouraged me to read Calvin’s Company of Pastors at the end of 2018.
Calvin’s legacy is due—in large part—not simply to his writings, but also his gathering a “company” of other ministers around him. As he did this, he established institutions, practices, and structures that would positively affect people for centuries.
Calvin’s Company of Pastors gives church planters a fascinating and insightful window into the practices of 16th-century Genevan church ministry. And as I’ve discovered, there’s surprising contemporary relevance for us as we seek to faithfully plant healthy churches.
Church-planting pastors will find Calvin’s work relevant in any ministry season. Here are four.
1. When we feel isolated
In modern-day Western culture, the self rules. And this reality no doubt shapes our understanding and experience of the Christian life and, therefore, pastoral ministry. This—among other things—can cause church planters to feel isolated, frustrated, and burned out. In the worst cases, it can lead to leaving the ministry altogether.
As I read about Calvin’s ministry, one thing that struck me is how he sought to actively foster a city-wide ministry mentality in Geneva. He consistently invested in the lives of other local pastors, often at great cost to himself and his ministry.
Calvin consistently invested in the lives of other local pastors, often at great cost to himself and his ministry.
For example, Calvin organized a weekly Friday-morning gathering where local pastors would listen to and critique an exegetical talk. They would then spend the remainder of the morning praying together and encouraging one another to press on in their respective ministries. It’s evident Calvin understood the deep need for mutual encouragement and support in pastoral ministry.
So I’ve had to ask myself: Am I more concerned with building my own ministry than I am about God being glorified through all the local churches in my city? Are there ways I could help to foster a generous city-wide vision in my context? I’ve tried to intentionally schedule time with other local pastors, get to know them, their churches, and actively look for ways to bless and encourage them.
2. When we’re distracted by the latest ministerial ‘silver-bullet’
Central to all that took place in the Protestant Reformation was an unwavering commitment to the Word of God. This was evident in the expositional preaching, public prayers, and numerous writings. Additionally, Genevan pastors—under Calvin’s influence—sought to visit every household under their care each year—with the aim of knowing their sheep well and privately opening up the Word with each of them.
So again, I’ve had to ask: Is there a danger—especially for those of us involved in church planting—that we’ve lost our confidence in the power of God’s Word? Do we too heavily rely on other (good) things such as leadership, personality, organizational skills, or even flashy websites and flyers?
3. When we’re feeling entitled and struggling with ministry hardship
Church planting, like any other Christian ministry, is not easy. But even a cursory read of Calvin’s work reveals that pastoral life in Geneva was certainly no walk in the park. And in Calvin’s Company of Pastors, readers will discover the messy truths of ministry life among a band of pastors who were fully integrated into the life of the city and countryside.
The reformers weren’t ivory-tower theologians who simply wrote from a place of theory. They were battle-weary pastors and church planters who knew what it was to suffer as they followed Jesus.
Personal struggles included substandard housing, a lack of finances, family and marital struggles, unpleasant and unkind church members, complicated church discipline issues, the reality of death and mortality (especially in childbirth), political strife, as well as persecution from unbelievers. In short, we can see that these brothers weren’t ivory-tower theologians who simply wrote from a place of theory. They were battle-weary pastors and church planters who knew what it was to suffer as they followed Jesus.
This has forced me to ask: In an entitled world that increasingly expects comfort, how can we better prepare ourselves for the reality of suffering as we follow in the footsteps of Christ? How can we grow in long-term personal resilience? How can we support and encourage each other to keep going past the initial three-year stint?
4. When we’re only putting out fires and not planning for the long-term
Our culture is increasingly frenetic and fast-paced. Of course, we know in theory that planting a church is more like a marathon than a sprint (though many of us are still sprinting!).
One of the helpful challenges from Calvin’s example is the importance of strategic forward-thinking. It’s clear that Calvin sought to establish firm foundations that would enable and catalyze long-term gospel progress. For example, Calvin and his team set up a seminary and employed modern technology (in the form of publishing) that enabled pastors to be trained long after Calvin was gone.
So I’ve had to consider: Do we have a long-term vision? Or are we too short-sighted and focused on the treadmill of week-by-week ministry that we can’t take a step back and plan projects or structures to help enable growth and long-term fruit? Partly as a result, I’ve reinstated a much needed retreat day—wherein, once every six weeks, I get away to pray and consider longer-term plans and priorities.
When it comes to facing the challenges of today, may we listen to and learn from the saints who have gone before us.