Dangerous Calling - A Review

Dangerous Calling - A Review

Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling:Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Leadership. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015, PB, 240pp.

I have been the Pastor of the same congregation for 12 years. I enjoy it. I mean, I really enjoy it. There is no other job I would want to do. It has been a privilege. My eldest brother Dave works in the manufacturing industry. He's a better preacher than myself and my other brother Steve, who is a Baptist minister. He's certainly more pastoral and gentle than I am. Dave leaves the house each day just before 7am and he's rarely home before 7.30pm. He was made redundant 10 years ago and, because of the nature of the industry, his work is nearly always precarious. For 3 years he had to work in Holland most weeks which meant being away from his family. By contrast I am paid to study the Bible, to read great books, to pray, to preach and care for people. I work long hours but I love it. Because of the nature of Christian ministry I'm able to have breakfast and dinner with my young family. I do not know another man in the church where I serve who is able to do this. I am protected from many of the stresses and strains of life. Being able to be a full time minister is an enormous privilege. There is no greater calling. Miserable, Moaning Ministers are a disgrace. Don't take my word for it. Geoff Thomas, who will have been at Alfred Place Baptist Church, Aberystwyth for 50 years this year, began his 2000 John Reed Miller Lectures at RTS Jackson in this way. 
The full-time gospel ministry is still a protected oasis. We are relieved of so many of the tensions and temptations that the men to whom we minister are meeting each day. They work with their minds and bodies in this evil world and give their hard - earned money to us so generously that we may spend our days - think of it - in the quiet of our studies, in the Bible, in evangelism, and in pastoring God's people. I hope you will never join with those ministers who sit around grumbling in their fraternals about all the alleged hardships of being preachers. What a marvellously privileged life we lead. I trust that you earnestly believe that if it be God's will for you to spend the rest of your life caring for this particular congregation you will happily do so and thank the Lord at the end of each day for such blessings.
Paul Tripp, in his book Dangerous Calling, takes a look at Christian ministry from another angle. His contention is that there is something desperately wrong with ministers and ministry culture. The book is really trying to expose the danger of hypocrisy in the life of the Pastor. Many have found this book hugely helpful and it has made it on to a variety of top 10 lists of Christian books. I've not read one critical review. I have been given two copies by various people which probably tells you a lot of what they think about me! The book is written 'to help you take an honest look at yourself in the heart and life exposing mirror of the Word of God - to see things that are wrong and need correcting and to help you place yourself once again under the healing and transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ' (p11). Paul Tripp comes out of the CCEF stable and speaks of himself 
loving to give the rather proud pastor eyes to see himself with greater clarity, and I love helping the defeated pastor see himself in the light of the grace of the gospel. So I listen carefully. I watch with ministry intent. I draw out stories and probe for their meaning in the heart of the Pastor. I try to access the character of the local pastoral/staff culture. I do all of this with one question in mind: how is the gospel of Jesus Christ forming and transforming the heart of this Pastor and his local ministry culture? (p30)
Tripp encourages us in his introduction as follows: 'I would simply ask you as you read that you de-activate your inner lawyer and consider with an open heart'. This last quote makes it quite difficult to engage with the book in a critical way; I want to agree with much of what Paul Tripp writes and yet there are a number of concerns about how he does so and how he details some of his targets. 

Paul Tripp is the President of Paul Tripp ministries. He has a Doctor of Ministry Degree from Westminster Seminary Philadelphia. At present he is a counsellor, serves on the faculty of various seminaries and runs his own ministry speaking at conferences and retreats. He was for 10 years a Baptist pastor and then served for 9 years as a staff elder at an evangelical church in the 1980s. He also served for 4 years on the Staff of Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia. One of the reasons I've given you this info in a review, which I admit is slightly odd, is that throughout the book Paul Tripp gives the impression that he knows what pastors are going through. He knows how deceptive we really are. There's very much the impression given that we might have been able to kid everyone else but we can't kid Paul Tripp. So, for example, on numerous occasions he asks a barrage of questions which can only have one answer. Sometimes up to 25 questions one after the other, piled up like a machine gun rattling through us. Many of the questions are the ministry equivalent to ''When did you stop beating your wife?'' It is hard to imagine a book on ministry more guilt-inducing than this. Much of what Paul Tripp writes is fair, insightful and helpful, but the majority of the book feels somewhat like you are being beaten up. 

Let me briefly outline the book, which proceeds in 3 parts:
Part 1 Examining Pastoral Culture: This section sees Tripp taking a scalpel to much of what goes on in the leadership of churches. He's tough on churches but not half as tough as he is on seminaries. He makes the oft made point about head and heart and how seminaries are only interested in getting theology right. Paul Tripp paints in very broad brush strokes regarding theological colleges, and at points, it feels slightly like a case of 'biting the hand that feeds him'. There are some helpful points on how we can treasure the wrong things in ministry and how they can then become an idol. There follows a chapter on conflict where he looks at the pressure points that occur when there are differences in ministry. I think there should have been more consideration given to the role of the devil in discouragement in this chapter. The devil is absent from the book right until the very end. 

Part 2 The Danger of losing your awe (Forgetting Who God Is): I found chapter 8 on Familiarity helpful. While Tripp can sound slightly accusatory in his tone, there's much that is useful in this chapter as he unpacks Psalm 145. The following chapter is on dirty little secrets. You can imagine where he is going on that one. As he moves on to how a minister prepares, he rightly reminds us that we need to marinate in the truth. Again I felt there was an air of unreality in how he talks to ministers. Most of us are preparing 2 -3 things a week, there are times when we can get ahead in our preparation -  and our preaching is better for it - but a funeral, a family difficulty, an illness, a pastoral crisis, all these things throw us out of kilter. Paul Tripp recommends that we prepare 3-4 weeks ahead of time and in the week before preaching, he preaches it aloud to himself 15-20 times. One of the questions I want to ask is: Who has the time in pastoral ministry to preach a sermon through 15-20 times? Elders should be firing someone who has that amount of time on their hands. As I read it I realised that my preaching is way below par; but can anyone, even Paul Tripp, say his preaching is great? Surely when someone like Dr Lloyd Jones says he wouldn't cross the road to hear himself we have to wonder. I'm not excusing bad preaching but for the man who is preaching upwards of 40 sermons a year I think a little more compassion could be called for here. 

The final part of the book - The Danger of Arrival (Forgetting Who You Are) - deals with familiar themes such as self glory which includes the memorable if somewhat ironic statement 'The bottom line is this: proud people tend to talk about themselves a lot' (p175) in a book that has more personal illustrations than any other I've known. The book is very, very autobiographical and by that I mean I probably know more about Paul Tripp than I do about my Assistant Minister. There are very lengthy personal illustrations. When I say lengthy I mean 4-5 pages. I feel like I know Paul's long-suffering wife Luella very well. The third section continues to look at how ministers separate themselves from the flock and so become isolated and there are helpful practical tips on how these situations can be rectified. I do think in a Presbyterian Church there shouldn't be this separation and elders playing their role and praying together helps enormously with this issue of isolation. The last chapter has some helpful insights on the devil but, again, contains questions which are nearly impossible to answer for someone wanting to be honest. To the question 'Would the people you work with characterise you as a humble servant leader?' How do you answer that question without sounding incredibly proud? 

Quite a lot of the book is helpful. Having read a bit of the CCEF material much of what Dangerous Calling addresses is familiar. I think there are useful things that CCEF are producing. I'd rather they called their writing/ministry 'counsel' rather than 'counselling' as I think the term can be misleading, particularly in a UK context. I like much of what they write. At times it is intrusive but in general it is good, solid Christian-friendly advice and should be commended. I sometimes feel that they overplay their hand as to how profound their material is and the effect that it has but that does not negate the fact that much of it is useful. Dangerous Calling is much the same. 

Buried underneath the avalanche of personal illustrations and anecdotes Dangerous Calling is not a bad book. Paul Tripp is obviously very passionate about what he writes, especially protecting pastors -  that comes across again and again. However, as a model of counsel for pastors I'm not convinced Dangerous Calling is what they need. 

What do the ministers I know need the most? Encouragement to keep going, to be reminded of the privilege of the gospel, to look to Christ for strength and not themselves. To keep devoting themselves to the ministry of prayer and the word and sacraments. To keep preaching the word, keep believing in the power of the word to transform lives, pray for the work of the Spirit, keep reading and studying, love their people, to keep on going and going and going. I'm sure Paul Tripp would agree with much of this and yet in his book these priorities don't come across. The 3 great letters that are indispensable for Pastoral Ministry are 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus and yet many of the themes that are found in the pastorals are absent from this book. 

I am obviously a stranger to the culture which Paul Tripp is writing into and although he may well disagree with me I do think the book is a product of western, wealthy, suburban, corporate (dare I say it) American evangelical culture. I am no expert but it would seem to me that the minister as CEO which Tripp is addressing is gradually dying anyway as churches get smaller. The book doesn't deal with real persecution. I suspect my brothers who are pastors in northern Nigeria would not recognise many of the issues addressed here. 

From a Reformed standpoint I did want the sacraments to be addressed in the book. One of the most fruitful areas of study for any minister is to study the doctrine of the sacraments. They are entirely absent from the book. Although I am to administer the sacraments, I am as part of Christ's body 'to feed on Christ in your heart by faith with thanksgiving', and, in the words of the Westminster Larger Catechism, I am to 'improve my baptism.' Tripp has this wonderful line that 'If Christ is the head then all of the rest is just body'. I just wish he had applied it to this area. As ministers we need to sit under the preaching of the Word; we are no different to the flock in that respect and I think the role of Presbytery or conferences or holidays is that we sit with God's people under his Word and listen. Again I don't think Tripp stresses this necessity enough. 

Finally, part of Christian ministry is living with tension. I felt as if Tripp was wanting me to look into my heart and for me to seek to discern my motives, but my heart is deceitful above all things. I find it very difficult to discern why I am doing something but thankfully it seems to me scripture doesn't tell me I need to. We all know there is a very fine line between godly zeal and selfish ambition. I ask God to cleanse my motives but trying to work them out is a mug's game. Why do you want more people to come to your church? So people will come to know Christ but we all know there are other factors at work as well. Why do you want to preach well? Let's be honest there are all sorts of reasons but let's not pretend that it's ever been or ever will be any different. If you spend your time always trying to discern your heart you'll never do anything, or you might end up schizophrenic. 

Dangerous Calling is not a bad book; it's just not a great one. I think we need books on Pastoral Ministry written by seasoned pastors and preachers. There is an enormous amount of material written by giants of the past that I think are more worthy of your time. In the meantime let me give you the best advice I've found.... 

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfil your ministry.
2 Timothy 4:1-5