Lessons from Geneva: The Priority of Pastoral Care

Shepherd 2Here is the final lesson Scott Manetsch learned from his study of pastors in Geneva during the years of 1536-1609. The first was pastoring is hard work. The second was the need for pastors to learn from and be accountable to other pastors. The third was the centrality of the Bible.

Finally, this book has demonstrated the high priority Calvin, Beza, Goulart, and their colleagues placed on the ministry of pastoral care. For the reformers, the ministry of the Word involved more than the public exposition of Scripture; it also entailed the application of the divine message to people on every stage of life, from cradle to grave. Christian ministry needed to be Word-centered and people-centered. Geneva’s pastors fulfilled their calling when they baptized infants, taught children their catechism, welcomed young adults to Lord’s Table, conducted household visitations, comforted the sick, and consoled people preparing to die. At the same time, in weekly Consistory meetings, the ministers and elders confronted men and women suspected of moral failure or wrong belief, applying the “medicine” of church discipline in the hopes of achieving repentance, healed relationships, Christian understanding, and spiritual growth. Though dimensions of Calvin’s program of pastoral supervision and discipline strike our modern sensibilities as heavy-handed and unduly intrusive, the ministers’ sustained commitment to the spiritual well-being of adults and children in their parishes seems on the whole quite admirable. Indeed, in our modern world where men and women so often struggle with spiritual dislocation, fractured relationships, and deep-seated loneliness, Calvin’s vision for pastoral oversight that includes gospel proclamation and intense relational ministry appears relevant and important.

One of the great fissures between our fathers in the faith and us is that of pastoral visitation. Our fathers considered it the duties of pastors and elders to visit their parishioners. Today it is a rare pastor who regularly visits his people. Why is this the case? Here are a few reasons in no particular order.

  1. Pastors are busy with a lot of administrative duties, programs, etc. The private ministry of the Word is not a priority in practice, even if it is in theory.  It is pushed out by other things, which are less important.
  2. People do not want to be bothered. They view their lives as private matters where pastors have little say.
  3. Churches have become larger with little one to one action from the leadership. Most one to one interaction comes in small groups, which are not a good substitute for pastoral care.
  4. People are busy in the evenings when pastoral visitation often takes place.
  5. Church-hopping and the constant mobility of American people make it hard to develop long term relationships with members of a church.
  6. The rise of counseling and psychology. It is interesting that when tragedy strikes a community it is often counselors and psychologists are called in and pastors are not. There is a place to outsource certain types of counseling situations, but too many pastors pass their people off to the professionals.

There are probably other reasons as well. Our culture is far removed from the Reformation age. Yet pastors have a duty to care the flock of God, which includes meeting with them, praying with them, checking on their spiritual health, answering their questions, etc.  As Manetsch notes our age is particularly disconnected and lonely. Thus pastoral care takes on heightened importance at a time where the church, her members, and society at large work against it. Pastors and elders must be deliberate about their task of caring for the congregation.

In a future post I will describe how I do pastoral care. In the meantime, if you are looking for some good books on pastoral care, here are a few. If you know of other books put them in the comments.

  • Pastoral Care by Gregory the Great
  • Concerning the True Care of Souls by Martin Bucer
  • Taking Heed to the Flock by Peter De Jong
  • Counsel Your Flock by Paul Tautges
  • Pastoral Theology in the Classical Tradition by Andrew Purves
  • Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter
  • All Three of Eugene Peterson’s books on pastoring

 

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