Calvin’s Theological Communitarian Approach to Pastoral Training


Some weeks ago in this blog, I looked at Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s approach to theological education in the Confessing Church. As we think about pastoral education in the 21st Century, we should also look at how John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed tradition, approached pastoral formation. This will give us a better notion of how we can advance Reformed pastoral education in the 21st Century in San Antonio. I hope to follow this blog up with another in the future that deals with the Church Fathers and their views on pastoral preparation for ministry.

Calvin’s life and ministry was centered around the Genevan Church. In other words, all that he did in leading the Reformed movement in Europe was “church based.” This included training pastors to serve the Genevan and other Reformed churches. In training pastors, Calvin’s basic intent was to train pastors with a Protestant view of scripture, sound theology, the ability to lead worship and engage in pastoral care, and good character. Calvin did not ignore the importance of community in pastoral formation. His famous “Company of Pastors” was a deliberate attempt to build collegiality in the Geneva pastoral community.

Pastors and others interested in pastoral education and preparation may want to keep Calvin’s Genevan model in mind by:

  1. Maintaining a church-based model for theological education;
  2. Maintaining a focus on curriculum that is Biblical and Theologically Sound;
  3. Focusing on building pastoral character through something like a “Community of Pastors” among the staff and others to provide mentoring, support, and guidance to all those who study or participate in the Center.

Calvin’s Ministry in Geneva

Calvin was educated as a lawyer. His first work was on the Roman jurist Seneca, not on theology. His father had been an official with the church in France. Originally, he was being trained for ordination in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but his father felt a career in law would be better for him and the family.  While in his academic years, he became active in the Protestant movement in a small way.  Unfortunately, France was not hospitable to Protestants at that time, so Calvin eventually fled to Basil, Switzerland, where he studied the Bible and theology in detail. During this time, he became an active Protestant. In 1536, he published the first edition of what became the Institutes of the Christian Religion as we know it today. [1] He began to be recognized as a brilliant scholar and became a leader in the Protestant movement.

Calvin eventually went to Geneva, where he was sought out by the leader of the Genevan Protestant movement, William Farel, who encouraged him to stay and work in Geneva. He did so, and spent the rest of his life in Geneva, except for a brief period of exile. In Geneva, he preached, taught, performed pastoral duties, and was active in public affairs. His commentaries, which extend to nearly every book of the Bible, were largely created through his teaching and preaching efforts.

Pastoral Formation in Geneva

During his years of ministry, Calvin maintained correspondence with many leaders of the Reformation all over Europe. His commentaries on various books of the Bible were published and widely read. Despite his devotion to scholarship, Calvin was active in the local community, particularly as an advisor to the consistory in Geneva.  Finally, he took a deep interest in the education of all Genevans. He taught regularly throughout his career.

His leadership in the Protestant Reformation made it inevitable that he would both engage in pastoral preparation and be consulted by others who desired to develop a Protestant clergy. His interest in education was to train citizens as well as pastors in both Christian faith and doctrine, but also with appreciation of classical and secular knowledge of his own day. It is because of this that Calvin is sometimes considered both a Reformation and Renaissance figure.

The historic commitment of Presbyterian and Reformed denominations to an educated clergy is a direct result of Calvin’s commitment to train well-educated leaders for the church with an understanding of the Bible and of Biblical principles, meaning Christian theology. If we believe, as I do, that Christianity in America is entering into a new phase, and that the historic ways Reformed pastors have been trained is becoming increasingly ill-adapted to the culture surrounding us, this commitment of Calvin and the Reformed churches to create new institutions and new ways to train pastors is an important inspiration to continue forward.

Church Based Nature of Genevan Academy

Calvin created the Genevan Academy to train students in Christian and humanist learning in preparation for both ministry and secular occupations. In particular, because of the antipathy between Protestants and Catholics, it was necessary for Protestants to form new institutions to train up a new generation of pastors. In areas under the control of Protestant leadership, properly educated Reformed ministers were often in short supply. Under these circumstances, church leaders came to believe that new ways were needed to educate clergy in the doctrines and practices of the Reformed faith. In particular, centers of the Protestant movement were encouraged to create places where pastors could be trained. Before Calvin created the Genevan Academy, he was aware than centers existed elsewhere, for example in Strasbourg and Wittenberg. [2]

The nature of the Genevan Academy was practical. Students were expected to preach and perform pastoral duties in addition to academic studies. This is a significant difference between the Genevan Academy and much contemporary pastoral training, where the seminary feels responsible only for intellectual formation, not for pastoral formation. This is a departure from Calvin’s vision, which involved the formation of the character of his students, not just imparting information. In contemporary language, Calvin’s approach was on the creation of a wholistic training experience for pastors.

Biblical and Theological Soundness

Calvin, like many of his Protestant contemporaries, was concerned about the perceived low quality of the clergy of his day. In the Institutes, he spends a good deal of time on the issues of pastoral character and formation. One of his primary critiques of the Roman Catholic clergy concerned quality. Decay in the teaching office of the church, characterized by “new doctrines” and “turning away from pure doctrine,” resulted in poor leadership and an inadequate church lacking in the first mark of the church: doctrine purely preached. Thus, Calvin concentrated on the creation of a clergy with sound doctrinal views necessary for a vibrant church:

“[O]nly those are to be chosen who are of sound doctrine and of holy life, not notorious in any fault which might both deprive them of authority and disgrace the ministry. The very same requirements apply to deacons and presbyters. We must always see to it that they be adequate and fit to bear the burden imposed on them, that is that they be instructed in the skills necessary for the discharge of their office” (4.3.12).

Calvin believed that the Roman Catholic Church of his day had failed in a central task training and providing good leadership for the church. Therefore, renewal of the church required first and foremost a renewed and restored leadership characterized by sound doctrine, good character, and with the skills and capacities needed to bear the burden of ministry.

Calvin understood that what he was doing in the Genevan Academy was nothing new.  From the earliest times, the church leaders took under care youths to be prepared for the pastoral office (4.4.9). This care can be traced as far back as the relationship between Paul and Timothy (See, Acts, and I and II Timothy). The purpose of this training was that “from early youth under sacred instruction and strict training they took on an exemplary life of gravity and holiness; and separated from worldly cares they became accustomed to spiritual cares and studies” (4.4.9).

Before such young people were admitted into the office of pastor, they were weighed as to their “merits and morals” in common council with the lay people of the church (4.4.10). Calvin realized that, in the initial life of the church, it was the local church that trained its pastors, and early church leaders considered it their responsibility to also train such leaders.

The first quality of those leaders was an understanding of the content of Christian faith and doctrine so that the “faith once delivered” was maintained. This meant that students at the Genevan Academy had to have an understanding of the Bible and Biblical theology. This is why he spent so much time and effort teaching students, writing commentaries, and revising the Institutes. If the church were to be well-led, it needed Biblically and theologically sound pastors.

Formation of Pastoral Character

As mentioned above, Calvin believed that there were both characterological and doctrinal requirements for church leadership. One of Calvin’ s most trenchant critiques of the Roman Church involved the growing characterological deficiencies of the clergy. In one passage he says:

This is certain, that for a hundred years scarcely one man in a hundred has been elected who has comprehended anything of sacred learning. I spare the previous centuries not because they were much better, but because our question concerns only the current church. If their morals are appraised, we shall find few or almost none whom the ancient canons would not have judged unworthy (4.5.1, emphasis added).

Calvin was a pretty harsh intellectual combatant, and he may have overstated the situation; however, his point is important: character is as important as learning when it comes to pastoral training and preparation for ministry.

Company of Pastors

In Geneva, before students were admitted into the office of pastor, not only their biblical and theological understanding was to be judged but also their character (4.4.10).

One practical way in which Calvin was able to encourage pastoral character was through his so-called, “Venerable Company of Pastors” formed as a part of the adoption of his Ecclesiastical Ordinances. [3] In 1559, pastors being trained in the Geneva Academy were included in membership. This Company of Pastors consisted of the ministers of Geneva’s three city churches and a dozen countryside parishes together with the students. Some estimates put the number of such members at over 100. [4] The Company of Pastors met weekly to examine candidates for ministry and discuss the theological and practical business of the church. Thus the pastors of the congregations for which Calvin was directly responsible and the students he was training had weekly meetings during which community was built among them, consistency was achieved in doctrine and morals, problems were solved, and character could be formed.

The purpose of the Company of Pastors was to create and maintain standards in ministry, to assist in maintaining the family life of its members, and to enhance and secure their personal piety. [5] It was a ministerial fellowship designed to create a better clergy than the Roman Catholic Church possessed and to give them love and support in the conduct of their affairs. One author put it this way:

The Venerable Company of Pastors was a disciplined community. Its meetings were more than conversation about abstractions, for their purpose was to encourage pastors to grow in faith and faithfulness. Once every three months the company engaged in a session of mutual support and correction. Among the faults that required correction were lack of zeal for study and an undisciplined life. All of this was for the sake of the gospel––its proclamation, reception, and fulfillment. [6]

One common critique of contemporary churches and their pastors has to do with the isolation of contemporary ministry and its lack of communal support, standards and spiritual protection for the local pastor. The problem was no less important in Calvin’s day, and he could see that there needed to be a mechanism to support, train, and hold accountable pastors, The Company of Pastors was his solution to the problem.

As we have analyzed the formation of a new program in San Antonio, one of the greatest issues we have faced has been how to create personal mentoring and communal learning in a world that is rapidly embracing digital learning. The Company of Pastors approach provides us with an authentic, Reformed alternative. Together with educational experiences in person and online, we should create a community of church leaders, a Company of Pastors, to provide the kind of intimate growth and accountability that is lacking nearly all contemporary pastoral education.

Interestingly, Reformed groups in both the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Presbyterian Church in America have recognized that need and formed such groups. [7] While in seminary and afterward for a time, I participated in such a group. My own experience is that it is difficult in our culture to create the kind of mentoring, accountability and discipline Calvin desired. On the other hand, one of the authors cited in this little review reminds readers that Calvin himself had difficulties. We will not create a perfect solution, perhaps it will be enough to create a workable one.


A study of the Genevan Academy and the work of John Calvin supports the creation of church-based, Biblically-centered, theologically-grounded, and pastorally-focused seminaries by congregations who feel the need for a new and different form of pastoral education. Almost every Reformed denomination has seminaries that teach a pretty sophisticated form of their essential doctrines. It will be a priority in the future for seminaries to  form alliances and in hiring staff to take time to ensure that candidates have appropriate pastoral character.

As I have visited with churches and seminaries, the most common deficiency I have found in the emerging model of seminary education is in the area of mentoring new pastors so that they develop the character and practical capacities needed to be successful in planting and leading local congregations. It is almost certain that this cannot be done online. It must be done personally. Calvin’s Company of Pastors gives us a model to follow in meeting this need.

Copyright 2021, G. Christoper Scruggs, All Rights Reserved 

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John T. Neill/Ford Lewis Battles, vol. II (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 4.4.1. hereinafter, “Institutes”. References will be to Book, Chapter and Section (i.e., “x/y/z”) using Arabic numerals to avoid confusion.

[2] Robert Vosloo, “Calvin, the Academy of Geneva and 150 years of theology at Stellenbosch: historical-theological contributions to the conversation on theological education” University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch, South Africa


(Downloaded, November 4, 2021).

[3] See, John Calvin, Theological Treatises, “Draft Ecclesiastical Ordinances,” John Baille, John P. McNeill, Henry P. Van Dusen, ed. J.K.S. Reid, tr. Vol. XXII (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1944).

[4] See, Scott M. Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church 536–1609. Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[5] Gospel Reformation Network, “Companies of Pastors” (downloaded November 4, 2021).

[6] The quote is form John Burgess, Jerry Andrews, Joseph D. Small A Pastoral Rule for Today (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2019) reprinted in Joseph D. Small, “All the Ministers Shall Gather Together,”  October 26, 2019. found at (downloaded November 4, 2021)

[7] See footnote 5 above for a PCA example. As to the PCUSA, it has a Company of Pastors for both pastors and seminary students. For more information, see