Dangerous Calling

Paul Tripp’s new book, Dangerous Calling: Confronting the Unique Challenges of Pastoral Ministry, is a must-read for anyone who is serious about character development of church leaders.

Pat Bowler, Lead Pastor/Elder of Valley Life Church (Lebanon, OR) and a Certified Leader of an Antioch School program in his church, drew my attention to this book in an email.

“It is an extremely insightful book and one I thought would be of particular interest to you at the Antioch School; chapters 3 and 4 address an issue regarding the pastorate that directly relates to The Antioch Model (Chp. 3: “Big Theological Brains and Heart Disease;” Chp. 4: “More Than Knowledge and Skill”). Considering the paradigm of the school, I thought I would make you aware… Good stuff.”

I had already seen the book mentioned in a Christianity Today article, but Bowler’s email compelled me to order a Kindle copy even before I moved on to my next email.

Tripp’s deepest concern in the book is the peril faced by pastors with hazardous gaps in their character.  Pastors who try to do ministry apart from proper relationships with God, their spouses, and even their churches are pursuing a “dangerous calling.”  For example, Tripp asks hard questions, like “Does it seem best that most pastors are allowed to live outside of or up above the body of Christ?” (p. 68) and “Pastor, do you examine yourself daily by humbly placing yourself before the one mirror you can trust, the mirror of the Word of God?” (p. 157).

Some roots of the danger are traced by Tripp to the traditional form of theological education for church leaders.  “Over the years more and more professors came to the seminary classroom with little or no local church experience” (p.53).  “Academized Christianity, which is not constantly connected to the heart and puts its hope in knowledge and skill, can actually make students dangerous” (p.53).  “Their spiritual life became immediately more privatized when they left their home church to go to seminary in another city.  For many, the seminary became their primary spiritual community, a community that was neither personal nor pastoral in the way it handled Scripture and related to the student” (p. 84).

This non-pastoral approach to ministry training leads to a rather dangerous situation.  “Having graduated from an environment where, for three or more years, they were not pastored and had a rather casual relationship to a local church, they are now called by a church that doesn’t really know them” (p. 85).

Tripp longs for traditional seminaries to be different in terms of pastoral concern for its students.  “Shouldn’t every Christian institution of higher learning be a warm, nurturing, Christ-centered, gospel-driven community of faith?” (p. 49).  “What I am suggesting is that pastoral passion for the students shape the content of seminary education is delivered and applied” (p. 56).  “The goal of spiritual formation must dye the content of every area of study” (p. 56).

He illustrates this difference by describing the approach he uses to teach a pastoral counseling course for traditional M.Div. students.  He presents a “catalog of pastoral horror stories” and attempts to move students beyond their rather abstract biblical studies by helping them deal with some of the real issues in their own lives.  The complaint of one student highlights what he was trying to do.  “Professor Tripp, you’re preaching at us.  This is a seminary classroom, which means this is not your church, and we are not your congregation” (p. 46).

Think about that statement in relation to your Antioch School church-based theological education program.  Your “seminary classroom” is your church and you are a congregation.  Pastoral passion is a natural dimension of theological education when it is truly based in churches.  Rather than leaving home and church for seminary, ministry training is embedded in your pastoral communities.

On the last page of his book, Tripp issues a plea, “If you are a seminary, denominational, or ministry leader, work with others to address the places where your ministry training and culture are less than biblical” (p. 223).  We think this is what we have done with the Antioch School.  Some traditional theological education institutions are trying to make improvements in these areas, but we have recognized that the centrality of the church in the training process is itself a biblical concept.

Pat Bowler was right.  Dangerous Calling is an important book.  It helps pastors (and those who care for pastors) fulfill their calling.  And while Tripp focuses on improvement of traditional theological education, he also helps make the case for church-based theological education, particularly in terms of development of character and pastoral passion within the context of a church.