Cruising through Bruce Gordon’s masterful biography on Calvin, I’ve been struck to see that pastors aren’t born but formed. It’s easy when reading the final edition of the Institutes or the later commentaries, at such a historical remove, to forget the development and the formative influences involved in turning the proud young legal scholar into a mature churchman and theologian.
As a young pastor myself, one theme that caught my attention was the formative influence of mentors and friends. In what follows I’d like to highlight three lessons on mentorship for both younger and older pastors drawn from Calvin’s early years.
Choose Your Mentors Wisely
First, choose your mentors wisely, with an eye to their weaknesses and strengths. Early on Calvin came under the mentorship of the fiery reformer William Farel. Farel was a strong voice for reform with solid theological credentials and a gospel heart, but he was overaggressive, and, at times, downright rowdy. In fact, Farel initially drafted the young Calvin into the work of reform in Geneva by threatening him with divine judgment on his studies and life if he refused to stay and help.
While in many ways Farel helped him find his feet and theological voice, under Farel’s influence, Calvin became increasingly stubborn, confrontational, and inflexible as evidenced in their initial conflict with the authorities in Geneva that led to their expulsion. In later months, as other senior Reformers looked to place Calvin and develop this promising young man, many actually made their support conditional on him no longer working with Farel.
Young types entering the ministry, keep a watch on your theological influences. When I was just starting out in college, I loved podcasting some of the louder, more aggressive preachers. As I began to get a little older, though, I started to realize that I really didn’t need help being loud, arrogant, argumentative, and hotheaded—these were blessings I’d always possessed. I needed older, cooler, and wiser heads speaking into my life.
For some who tend to the timid side, you might need a little bit more of the firebrand to push you to be bold for the gospel. In either case, we need to be wise about whom we choose as models. Find someone who can encourage your strengths and temper your weaknesses.
Listen to the Correction of Elder Statesmen
Be slow to speak and quick to listen to those older, wiser, possibly grayer, heads in the ministry. Calvin also learned this lesson through failure. Early on in his first Geneva ministry, Calvin fired off an angry, rather impudent message to his future mentor, the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer. He condemned Bucer for his perceived meddling in the conflicts in Berne with the deposal of another minister, as well as his theological drift toward Luther.
Calvin later recalled Bucer’s response to him as wise, gentle, and yet firm—befitting the older statesman in the faith. According to Calvin, upon reading Bucer’s reply, he was struck with the weight of his own impatience, folly, and arrogance. Seeing Bucer’s pastoral heart laid him low for a few days and taught him a valuable lesson in humility.
Younger pastors are often tempted in their enthusiasm, self-assurance, and simple pride to doubt or ignore the example or correction of their spiritual elders. I know I have, and this is usually a recipe for spiritual disaster. Those in pastoral ministry and church leadership, in charge of the cure of souls, ought to be all the more ready to receive the loving instruction of those who have walked before them. Only a pastor who submits to being pastored will be able to pastor others with the requisite humility and grace.
Look After the Young Up And Comers
Bucer’s initial pastoral reply foreshadowed the crucial role he would play in Calvin’s development as a pastor and theologian of the church. Sensing Calvin’s promise early on, despite his headstrong character and early mistakes, Bucer took Calvin under his wing in Strasbourg in order to teach him how to pastor and be a blessing to the broader church.
Bucer provided work in the city, gave him space to study, arranged housing nearby his own so that they might easily converse over theology and the serious matters in the church, and in many ways became a spiritual father to him. Indeed, he even took it upon himself to seek out a wife for the young bachelor. It is hard to estimate Bucer’s positive influence on Calvin, whether through his direct counsel, continued mentorship, or in the opportunities he afforded him in his three years in Strasbourg.
While you may not be in the position to provide all that Bucer did for Calvin, be assured that you are capable of providing some care and attention to the next generation of pastors. One of the most significant yet sadly neglected calls of pastoral ministry is the discipleship of other pastors. I know it’s easy to get caught up in the everyday cares of your own congregation, sermon preparation, elder meetings, and so forth. Still, if you’re looking to build up the health of the church as whole, both present and future, you will set aside time to make pastoral discipleship a priority.
I’m blessed to have the oversight of my direct pastor, as well as other senior pastoral staff who have taken the time to invest in me and my ministry. I don’t know what this process looks like in your church. It could be a senior pastor taking time to actually get to know the new youth pastor. Or the retired pastor who keeps tab on new pastors coming into town and makes a point of taking them out to coffee. Maybe it’s creating and overseeing internships that are more than glorified stints of indentured servitude but educative paideia that create opportunities for real service in the church.
Yes, some of this mentoring will be difficult and time-consuming. It will require sacrificial service. All the same, these young ministers are desperate for the wisdom and counsel you’ve been blessed with through years of tears, prayer, and faithful ministry. What’s more, the health of their future churches may just hang in the balance.
In short, “Calvins” don’t just happen to the church. They are the result of a church culture that values the wise cultivation of leaders, both through the submission and humility of the youngsters, and also the patient, faithful oversight of the elders.