Books are written for a variety of reasons- some good, some bad and some neutral. They can be written because of a great love for something. They can be written to sound a warning.
Paul Tripp wrote Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry to sound a warning. As he has traveled the world and visited with many churches and their staff, he has seen some disturbing trends.
Joshua Harris compared this book to heart surgery. The main point is the gospel, which challenges the sinful status quo in our lives. God is more concerned with our holiness (and His glory) than we are. So God’s grace is often disruptive. This, reflecting that, is a disruptive book.
The initial premise is that pastoral ministry presents some unique challenges. These challenges are destructive to ministry and ministers. The only solution is the gospel rigorously understood and applied on a consistent basis.
“You are constantly preaching to yourself some kind of gospel.”
As Tripp lays out some of the most common traps and snares, you will not recognize yourself in them all (I hope). But you should see some tendencies toward some of them. You should be able to identify with some of them (I’m always preparing, for instance). And when he ruthlessly goes after you, so to speak, it will be difficult to continue. Unless you keep sight of the gospel and recognize the goal is sanctification, and not condemnation.
He begins with the disturbing patterns he sees, and has experienced himself (for he writes as a fellow struggler instead of one who has figured it all out). One trend is confusing knowledge with maturity. It is an easy trap for seminarians and young pastors to fall into. Others often speak as if the accumulation was the same as maturity. Well-read is not the same as mature in Christ. I try to remind my congregation of this periodically.
“The success of a ministry is always more a picture of who God is than a statement about who the people are that he is using for his purpose.”
Sometimes seminaries can foster this mentality. To give the benefit of the doubt, it probably isn’t intentional. I am thankful that I did have some seminary professors that did care about our character. They were concerned about the type of men they were sending out into the church. And yet, the circumstances are such that not everything comes to light. For instance, they recognized a number of guys who graduated struggled with sexual issues. They sought to address that. But short of lie detectors or breaking into someone’s computer, you don’t know unless they offer that up.
He also laments the lack of community that allows us to be blinded by the sin in our lives. In addition to spiritual blindness, there are often disciplinary structures that keep guys from being honest about their sin. No one wants to have Presbytery descend upon them because they admit to a struggle (which means, to me, they are repentant not hard of heart).
“If you are not feeding your soul on the realities of the presence, promises, and provisions of Christ, you will ask the people, situations, and things around you to be the messiah they can never be.”
People are only comfortable with the theoretical reality of their pastor’s sin. They are not comfortable with their real sinfulness. They want a pastor who has arrived: not one who is also in the middle of their sanctification. I’ve lived this, and it means you learn to play a dangerous game.
“I am afraid that we have unwittingly concluded that the pastor is above a need of what the rest of the body needs and does.”
One of the dangers we experience is to think our preaching is for “them” and not us too. Tripp does a good job of reminding us that was we exegete the text we also have to exegete ourselves: how is my sin exposed, how am I lacking in the virtues in the text. We have to apply the gospel to our own lives as well as those we shepherd.
“It is only love for Christ that can defend the heart of the pastor against all the other loves that have the potential to kidnap his ministry.”
Another danger is confusing the kingdom of God with the kingdom of self. There is a war in our hearts that takes place in every ministry event, Session meeting, counseling session. We blur the lines and begin to build our kingdom instead of God’s kingdom. Often there are high prices paid for this by others, and sometimes ourselves. Tripp can look back and see how God has resisted his efforts to do this at times, and it has been painful.
“Faith doesn’t deny reality. No, it is a God-focused way of considering reality.”
Pride lurks in our hearts. It seeks to steal God’s glory. I often have an internal dialogue with myself- reminding myself that it’s not about me and how well I do. I know I am too quick to drink deep of another’s appreciation. Humility must be cultivated or we will be (mercifully) humiliated when our pride begins to bear visible fruit.
He traces some of the roots back to our loss of awe in God and the gospel. We cease worshiping God personally and privately. We just crank out lessons and sermons. It happens to all of us. Sometimes we recognize it quickly. Sometimes we just stay on the treadmill of ministry.
“Sin inserts me into the middle of my universe, the one place reserved for God and God alone. Sin reduces my field of concern down to my wants, my needs, and my feelings. Sin really does make it all about me.”
He pushes us to live in the already/not yet reality of our salvation. We must remember that we are justified by Christ’s perfect obedience and substitutionary death. Our own record can’t be what we rely on before God. We have not arrived, but are still being sanctified. If we forget this, we either lapse into despair or self-righteous pride. Both are disastrous.
So, Tripp gives us a necessary book but not a pleasant book. As I noted above, it would be easy to fall into despair while reading this book if you lose sight of the grace that he frequently talks about. Our hearts, in collusion with Satan, are prone to deceive us and condemn us. But we have to deal with the dangers of our calling. It requires a brutal honesty that is not for the faint of heart. But we can’t lead others there if we aren’t willing to go there ourselves. He writes because he is concerned with the spiritual health of pastors, and their flocks. He writes because he sees what often takes place as not glorifying to God because we are not seeking our satisfaction, security and standing in Christ as he is presented to us in the gospel. We are not living what we are preaching when we don’t.
“You and I must never approach grace only as instruments of that grace in the lives of others; we must also remember that there is no grace that we offer to others that we don’t at once need ourselves.”
There is also a DVD series available. Our Session will be using it for continuing education. I hope more Sessions do that together.