Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling (The Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry), IVP

This review appears in the February 2012 issue of the Record of the Free Church of Scotland.

What is life like for a pastor? Called to what many regard as the most wonderful role possible, it is often assumed that each pastor will be a paragon of virtue while enjoying a life of dedicated service to Christ. Even if he does not rise to such a stature, the question must still be asked as to what kind of person he is. Because today, according to Tripp, many pastors are in trouble.

He writes out of the church scene in America, which may have different pressures than the church in Britain with its much smaller congregations. That is seen in some of the solutions that Tripp offers. Yet the roots of the problem are the same, even if their outworkings are different.

Usually a pastor will have three impressions: there is the image he presents to his congregation, which comes close to being a paragon; there is the image he reveals to his family because they see who he really is; and there is the understanding he has of himself, which may be the most inaccurate of the options.

This book has three sections. The first deals with the matter of pastoral culture. Through the use of personal experiences and the testimony of other pastors, Tripp discusses aspects of the worlds in which pastors live. Each will have received excellent doctrinal training, but often it becomes a source of trouble because it is not accompanied by maturity during or after finishing theological studies. Often a pastor becomes identified by his role as a church worker, his training for it, and any success he subsequently experiences, rather than what he is as a Christian.

Yet he should be able to see the warning signs. They include a failure to listen to constructive criticism because he assumes he is the expert. More dangerous is the absence of a meaningful devotional life. Recovery from, or even prevention of, this state of spiritual collapse could be attained if pastors and congregations recognised the ministry of mutual, straightforward, honest accountability and corrective advice.

Nevertheless the big battle in a pastor's life is fought in his heart and what he treasures there, and his treasure should be what he has been given in Christ. Sadly, according to Tripp, many pastors have other things that they treasure instead, connected in some way to self-importance. Therefore, it is not surprising that things go wrong. But it is possible to have a sinful heart that is devoted to Christ while serving him in a place that has problems, and to go to him for refuge continually.

The second section deals with the causes and consequences of a pastor losing a sense of awe of God. Tripp considers the dangers of familiarity with God, fears of the opinions of others, the mediocre preparation of sermons and the failure to assess oneself in the mirror of the Word. His illustration of using carnival mirrors, with their odd shapes and sizes, to depict wrongs means of assessment is very striking. They can include knowledge, experience, success and esteem by others. Yet each of them can provide distortions of who a pastor really is. A crucial issue for every pastor is the ongoing sense of awe in his heart towards the majesty of God.

Section three considers another major problem in pastoral life – the assumption that one has arrived. It shows itself in self-glory, in putting preparation for public requirements before developing a healthy devotional life, and in separating public and private aspects of one’s life (teaching others what to do and not doing it himself). Those who think they have arrived are often dictatorial, dismissive of helpful advice, and afraid of their defects being discovered. Instead they should also apply to themselves what they teach to others, admit publicly that they too have struggles in the life of faith, and listen to the admonitions of others. Above all they should preach the gospel to themselves and realise in the hearts who they are in Christ.
  
In each chapter, the author provides searching analysis of where pastors can go wrong and helpful suggestions as how they can recover. He deals with heart surgery. Even as surgery involving one’s physical heart is painful and yet can result in more energy for life, so spiritual surgery of one’s inner soul is painful and yet will result in more devoted service of Christ. 

This book is essential reading for pastors. It would be a real shame if those of us who are pastors fail to read this book, or having read it fail to heed its message. If presbyteries had a scheme where each pastor was given a book annually to review their performance, this book should be first on the list.  Because if it is read prayerfully, there will be repentance and rededication to the service of Jesus. If presbyteries want students for the ministry to appreciate what ministry is about, they should give a copy to each student under their care so that they will know how to avoid pitfalls. After all, it is a dangerous calling!

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