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Dangerous Calling Review

November 9, 2012

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Why Ministry Failure?

We’ve all heard and read the stories of ministry failure—some due to moral or ethical failure; some by abandoning the faith; some simply so burnt out, disheartened, and lonely that they can’t do it anymore.

Whether looking at the weird rock-star culture that’s built up around certain mega-church pastors in North America (whether intentional or accidental) or in conversation with friends in pastoral ministry, I’m more than a little concerned.

What is it that makes pastoral ministry so dangerous for those who enter it? Why do so many who seemingly start well end poorly? Why is it so easy to create a division between the public persona and the private man—and how do we pull back from potential disaster?

Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry is Paul Tripp attempt to answer these questions. Based on his many years of ministry experience, Tripp’s insights may well be the most necessary corrective to ministry leaders written in recent years.

What Causes Our Spiritual Blindness?

Divided into three parts, Dangerous Calling opens with an examination of pastoral culture, followed by two critical dangers:

  • Forgetting who God is (the danger of losing your awe)
  • Forgetting who you are (the danger of arriving)

Tripp wastes no time cutting to the heart of the issue of the pastor’s spiritual blindness. Using his own experiences as an example, he identifies three key themes underlying the spiritual blindness of many pastors:

  • We let ministry define our identities
  • We let biblical literacy and theological knowledge define our maturity
  • We let ministry success become confused with God’s approval of our lifestyles

When these themes become predominant in the lives of leaders, it’s deadly. When ministry becomes who we are, how will we react if it’s taken away? If knowledge is the definition of maturity, what happens when our head knowledge is out of step with our character? If our churches are growing, should we automatically assume God’s pleased with our efforts, even if our home lives are a train wreck?

These are not questions to be taken lightly, especially in a time when concerns about someone’s fitness for ministry are ignored and the all-too-common assumption that growth in attendance necessarily equals faithfulness in ministry. Yet, as we’ve seen time and again, where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.

The Public/Personal Divide

Tripp unpacks these themes in greater detail and as he does so, it becomes evident that they lead to a disconnectedness not only between the public and personal life of the pastor, but between the pastor and the people he serves.

We can often assume that a pastor is working on creating agreement between the public and the private, he’s handling his finances well, and growing in grace… but is it safe to assume so? “Doesn’t every member of the body of Christ need the ministry of the body of Christ, including the pastor?” Tripp asks (p. 79).

Pastor, are you in a small group—one that you don’t lead? Do you let others minister to you? Do you have spiritual mentors? Does your church provide the means for care, refreshment, and counseling for you and your family? Tripp hammers this point again and again—pastors need to be in community. They need the ministry of the body just as much as they’re needed to minister to the rest of it.

The War of Ministry

Ministry is a war—it’s a war not just for the gospel, but for the pastor’s heart. It’s so easy to see faith become academic when a huge portion of your time is spent in study (something Tripp notes the modern seminary system doesn’t help with). Faith can become theoretical, people can become projects, and the wonder of God can lose a bit of luster if we’re not careful.

Equally dangerous is what happens when we forget that our successes are not the result of our own efforts, but all flow from the sovereign will of God. We buy into our own press far too easily and are far too much like the child in C.S. Lewis’ oft-quoted analogy, “who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

For Leaders and Laity Alike

Dangerous Calling is easily among the most important books I’ve read this year. Although written specifically for pastors, it will be a blessing to both leaders and laity alike as pastors are challenged to examine themselves for the good of their own souls (and the people they serve) and laypeople’s eyes are opened to the unique challenges of pastoral ministry.