Dangerous Calling

In his latest book, biblical counselor Paul David Tripp addresses the challenges and temptations that are unique to or intensified by pastoral ministry. In his counseling ministry, Tripp has seen all too much evidence of a real breakdown in how pastoral ministry is both viewed and practiced.

Many pastors operate above or outside of the sanctifying ministry of the Body of Christ, as if they don’t need the same accountability, admonishment, and encouragement that the rest of us do. This is a result of both our natural sin nature and the propensity of seminaries to reduce the faith to a set of theological rules while neglecting the students’ ongoing need to be pastored.

Tripp starts by telling his own story: how he, as a young pastor, fell into all the various traps of arrival, pride, spiritual blindness, secretiveness, and a refusal to receive ministry as just another member of the Body of Christ. There was a big disconnect between Tripp’s private life and his public ministry persona, and he didn’t see its severity or the danger it brought to his ministry. He had learned to live with the discrepancy.

When, by God’s grace, he finally saw his sin for what it was, he was utterly broken. It was a long process to change, but God, who is faithful to reveal our sin, is also faithful to sanctify us as we realize our perpetual need for moment-by-moment grace.

Tripp talks about how our seminary culture unwittingly fosters the breakdown in pastoral ministry. During the busy years of seminary, many young men are working in addition to taking rigorous classes, and many also are married with family responsibilities. This leaves little time for meaningful involvement in a local church, and many students justify this lack by their coursework, which is of course centered on the Bible.

Seminary professors, far from approaching their students with a pastoral heart, tend to become embroiled in petty internal turf wars. So seminaries regularly turn out graduates who have been removed from the ministry of the Body for several years, and who are puffed up with all the knowledge they have mastered.

But it is extremely dangerous to equate biblical knowledge with spiritual maturity. Many young pastors have great grades and are bursting with knowledge, but are not actually all that spiritually mature in their own lives. Knowing something chapter and verse means little if you aren’t applying it in your own life.

Tripp also warns against the dangers of secrecy. He says an overweening desire for privacy should be a big red flag for pastors who are struggling with the discrepancies between their private and public lives. Often the wives of these men have very few and limited real friendships in the church because they are afraid to let anyone know what is really going on in their home. If a pastor is very secretive and skilled at deflecting personal questions, he is probably in deep waters. We can’t let these men just hide until they can’t take it anymore; we have to be lovingly invasive.

The feeling of arrival is another danger lurking for those in pastoral ministry. When we believe we have arrived spiritually, we become prideful and resistant to others in our church and life who would try to minister to us or even perhaps point out areas where we can improve. If we have arrived, we have nothing left to improve; we view ourselves as having it all together already. This breeds pride, as many pastors cut themselves off from the life of the Body because they don’t feel they need it anymore. Again and again, Tripp emphasizes our constant need for transforming grace. We never “arrive” this side of heaven, and that is why God has provided us with abundant grace.

Tripp does more than just analyze the problem (though he certainly does that very thoroughly): he offers the solution. It really boils down to two foundational truths pastors must live: they must recognize their ongoing need for empowering grace, and they must submit themselves to the ministry of the church. This means that they must let people into their lives and be transparent about their failings and need for help. They are in the same boat as the rest of the church, and need grace just as much as anyone else.

How can laypeople in the church help our pastors? We need to understand their temptations and work to engage them on a personal level. Invite them to our homes for dinner. Involve them in activities where they aren’t specifically functioning as the spiritual leader of the group. Get to know their family. Ask for accountability — and ask probing questions with an eye to how you can encourage them. Allow them regular time off, and insist they take it. Pray for them faithfully.

There are so many ways we can serve our pastors, and it’s more than just telling them we appreciate their ministry. If we want to guard our pastor and his family and ministry, we need to help them function as part of the Body of Christ, with all the accountability and exhortation and personal sharing that involves.

I have spoken in terms of “we” and “us” in this review, but I am not a pastor. I have used these terms because as I listened to this audiobook (read wonderfully by Maurice England), I often heard myself in Tripp’s words. This is because pastors and laypeople are not really different; we are all sinners in constant need of grace, and we are all tempted to cover our sin and shy away from transparency and the cost it entails. Though written for pastors, this book is also incredibly valuable to seminaries as well as laypeople in the church like myself.

I’m thankful for Tripp and the essential ministry he carries out in the life of the church. I’m also thankful to the friend who distributed these audiobooks throughout our church body; what a blessing that is! This richly biblical book is another immensely practical, theologically accurate source of help and encouragement, and one that I would purchase for my pastor if I didn’t know he’s already read it twice. Excellent! (*****)

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