One of the heartbreaking facts of church life is that clergy leave ministry every year. Most are badly wounded—broken from years of functioning poorly in the vocation given to them by the Lord. Why does this happen? Did not these clergy receive good training for what they thought was their life’s work?
It’s fair to say that no one enters ministry with an intent or desire to flame out, or to be miserable. It’s also fair to say three years of seminary training can’t cover every issue that a minister may face. But it is important to make sure that men and women are formed in their relationship with God so that they are able to be informed.
For those in the field doing God’s work, what can be done to care for them and to help them care for each other? We need only look back in Reformed Protestant history to find a model that can be adapted for the encouragement and edification of clergy.
When the citizens of Geneva decided to embrace the Protestant Reformation, civic leaders invited John Calvin to give leadership to the church. Aside from a three-year period of exile, Calvin remained in Geneva for the rest of his life. Along with the city magistrates, he developed a system of church government that would work, culturally and theologically, for the young church. This polity 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.
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; it met weekly to oversee the civil and spiritual lives of the people of Geneva. A key subset 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 of pastors was crafted by Calvin to accomplish four purposes for the church in Geneva. The first three—ordination, education and missionary work—are easily seen to be carried out by presbyteries today, with the help of the national church. The fourth, however, is noticeably absent: mutual and self criticism.
One of Calvin’s goals was that the pastors be open and honest enough with each other to allow them to offer criticism to each other and to themselves. This meant they had to be willing to be vulnerable and accountable to their colleagues. In Calvin’s day, the company never numbered more than 22 men (and they were all men, in those days). Often the group was smaller, creating a greater possibility for intimate friendship. (Contrary to popular belief, Calvin had close friends among the pastors with whom he served and the account of the last gathering Calvin shared with the company suggests he and his colleagues showed great emotion as they prepared to say goodbye.)
If you attend a meeting of a presbytery today it is unlikely you will find a forum for mutual and self criticism as Calvin envisioned. 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 government did not translate into the political milieu of John Knox’s Scotland and was not handed down to us.
Further, 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 spouses to whom they can turn for pastoral care.) While it is possible that denominational initiatives such as the Employee Assistance Program 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.
A company of pastors can exist within a presbytery today, and they do in a few places. (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 (since some pastors may not be comfortable talking about certain issues with people of the opposite sex).
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. This gathering should be something for which pastors willingly set aside time because they make a difference in each other’s lives. Engaging in mutually caring clergy relationships can only help the church be what God has called it to be.
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 and lectio divina; cultivating emotional and spiritual health (and referring members to qualified counsellors when necessary); studying scripture together; praying for and with each other; studying classic Christian literature; engaging in culturally relevant issues in light of scripture; examining issues before the General Assembly in light of scripture and the historic Reformed tradition; and holding one another accountable for deepening Christian faith, improving ministry skills and responding to sins with which individual pastors may struggle.