Paul David Tripp. Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012. 240 pp. $22.99 USD.
Far too often we hear of pastors falling prey to the temptations and pressures of ministry. We hear of pastors who leave their wives for someone else, take advantage of an unsuspecting congregation for financial gain, or, for no apparent reason, simply walk away from the ministry. In his most important book to date, Paul Tripp, president of Paul Tripp Ministries and executive director of The Center for Pastoral Life and Care, seeks to warn of the dangers of a pastoral culture that permits pastors to live duplicitous lives: a public life that differs dramatically from the one lived in private.
In Dangerous Calling, Tripp exposes pastoral culture that enables a man to proceed in ministry without investigating and addressing his own heart. Tripp doesn’t speak as an outside observer, either; he shares examples of spiritual blindness that have led to disaster in his own life and ministry. His contact with other pastors, however, has led him to realize he’s far from alone (chapter 2). The root problem is not pastoral culture but the pastor’s heart. As Tripp puts it, “The heart is the inescapable X-factor in ministry” (68). Indeed, what we treasure will rule our hearts and orient our ministries (100-102).
In a pastoral tone, Tripp also exposes the real danger of being so familiar with the things of God that we lose our awe of God. When we no longer fear God, our ministry will be motivated by fear of other, false gods: failure, man, circumstances, or future. For some, a loss of awe leads to mediocrity in ministry. But Tripp reminds us that the neglect of personal devotions and spiritual disciplines reveals most obviously that a pastor has lost his awe of God. Perhaps nowhere is this neglect of private worship more obvious than in how we approach sermon preparation. All preparation should be devotional, but we must not allow preparation to “crush devotion” (184). “The commitment to a regular time of communion with your Lord,” Tripp writes, “stimulates the battle in your heart between the essentiality of private worship and the necessity of adequate preparation” (185).
Finally, Tripp warns of the dangers of ministry pride—the feeling that we have arrived. “Perhaps in ministry,” he warns, “there is no more potent intoxicant than the praise of men, and there is no more dangerous form of drunkenness than to be drunk with your own glory” (167). Tripp doesn’t leave us only with an exposé of our sinful hearts, however; he faithfully points us to Christ and his liberating gospel throughout. He concludes by reminding us how to preach the gospel to ourselves (204-208) and by offering helpful suggestions about how to close the lethal gap between our private and public lives (209-212).
Is Seminary the Problem?
Because of his personal background in the seminary setting, Tripp indicates that “the crisis of pastoral culture often begins in the seminary class” (52), with an emphasis on training for ministry in a formal academic context. It’s no surprise, then, that after reading the first 90 pages or so, one might get the idea that Tripp’s primary concern is with an academized and compartmentalized faith. Certainly there is a tendency to view seminary merely as graduate school. In such a context, students may be tempted to produce merely academic work from God’s Word instead of learning to approach God’s Word and ministerial preparation devotionally. Moreover, Tripp notes, in such a context students aren’t likely to be shepherded by their professors.
Yet I wonder whether seminary is “ground zero” for the crisis in pastoral ministry that ultimately leads to pastoral dysfunction. To be sure, seminary training can encourage the sort of academization of the faith that Tripp describes. However, there are many pastors, at least in my church tradition, who haven’t pursued formal graduate school training but who are still tempted to lead duplicitous lives. Though I’m seminary trained, I’ve learned that the root problem of pastoral dysfunction leading to a separation between my private and public life is twofold: my own duplicitous heart and church culture that doesn’t allow the pastor to be human. Tripp rightly acknowledges this twofold root (chapters 4-7), but I wonder if such a strong focus on the dangers of seminary education might limit the potential audience that needs to read this book.
Tripp is a masterful storyteller and highly gifted in his crafting of sentences and turns of phrase. A good counselor, Tripp walks us through potential blind spots in a pastor’s life, leaving virtually no stone unturned. I need that! However, there were times when, having already been convinced of my own heart failures and longing for gospel prescriptions, I labored through the stories and turns of phrase in order to arrive at the exhortations. When the exhortations finally came, usually in lists at the end of the chapters, I found myself wishing Tripp had spent as much developing these thoughts and applications as he had in the prior diagnostic sections.
Get It, Read It, Distribute It
Tripp is concerned that the pressures of ministry, along with unchecked hearts, will lead to a separation between a pastor’s private life and the life he must present in public. For Tripp, Dangerous Calling is a deeply personal book. He has witnessed firsthand, in his own life, the duplicitous nature of the human heart. He has witnessed firsthand, in others’ lives, the damaging effects of separating private and public lives. This is a book long overdue, and I am deeeply thankful to Tripp for writing it.
Every pastor must read Dangerous Calling. Read it slowly, meditatively. Read it with your wife, if married. Read it with your church leaders. Read it with your staff, if you serve alongside other pastors, or with other pastors if you don’t. We’ve already ordered enough copies for our staff. I hope you will do the same.
Juan Sanchez serves as preaching pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, Texas.