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Podcast: The Church's Leadership Crisis (Paul David Tripp)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Guarding against Failure in Leadership

In this episode, Paul Tripp discusses what he calls “the leadership crisis” in the church today. He explains what he has seen and heard from pastors that indicates there indeed is a crisis, why healthy leadership in the church depends on the leadership community—not just the lead pastor, and what it looks like to make progress in and through the gospel.

Lead

Paul David Tripp

Best-selling author Paul David Tripp offers 12 gospel-centered leadership principles for both aspiring leaders and weathered pastors as they navigate the challenging waters of pastoral ministry. This resource shows the vital role that the leadership community plays in molding leaders.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview

Broadening the Conversation

1:27

Matt Tully
Paul, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Paul David Tripp
It's so good to be with you.

Matt Tully
You're often referred to as “a pastor to pastors.” In that role you've walked alongside many, many different pastors and ministry leaders in the midst of some very difficult situations, some of them quite high profile. If you had to guess, how many phone calls or in-person meetings would you say that you've had over the last few years related to some kind of serious leadership failure?

Paul David Tripp
I don't know if I could give you a number—it's countless. When I wrote the book Dangerous Calling, I knew my life would change. I knew that if the book got out there and was well-received, I'd be the guy who would get the call. And I knew that would mean I would probably spend a lot of my time just being sad for the condition of leadership and the struggles of pastors of the church. Dangerous Calling focuses on the pastor himself and the unique temptations that a pastor will face. But as pastor after pastor told me his story or an elder would call and say, This is what has happened to our pastor, I began to be increasingly concerned about the leadership community that surrounded the pastor. After many of those calls, I thought, There needs to be another book that addresses the leadership community. It is almost always the case that behind a fallen leader is a dysfunctional leadership community. Something has taken place that allowed them to be blind to what was going on. There's something there that allowed that protective community not to be protective for him anymore, and so when it breaks, they're shocked, they're unprepared. It begs the question, How could it be that you would live in this intimate ministry—almost daily contact with a person—and not know him? And not know significant things that were going on inside him?

Matt Tully
Do you think it's more common today than it was in the past, or is it just that because of social media and the Internet that we hear about it more often?

Paul David Tripp
I don't know. My thought is that whatever is new and whatever is old doesn't make as much difference to me than my calling to deal with the spiritual condition of the church right here, right now. I love the church of Jesus Christ. I wouldn't know how to live without it. Sunday morning, for me, I love Sunday morning. I love hearing the gospel being preached. I love pastors. I've been a pastor, I know the struggles. I care deeply about these things. And so I think my calling is not so much to do a historical analysis, but to say, These things are afloat right now, and the gospel speaks to them.

Matt Tully
One of the things you've already hit on, but it's really key to what you're trying to do in this new book, is to focus not just on the individual pastor or the individual leader—those are often the things that make the news, obviously—but you really want to broaden the conversation to focus also on the team surrounding that person—the team within the church. Can you unpack that a little bit? Why do you feel like that's something that we have been so prone to maybe ignore or downplay?

Paul David Tripp
Let me start by giving you what I think is the summary thesis of the book. It's this: The key to ministry fruitfulness is longevity. Fruit doesn't happen overnight. The key to longevity is spiritual health. If you're not spiritually healthy, the push and pull and struggle and suffering and criticism and hardship of ministry will burn you out and you'll leave. So, the key to fruitfulness is longevity. The key to longevity is spiritual health. Now here's the kicker of the book: The key to spiritual health is gospel community. There's no evidence in the New Testament for this individualized, self-sufficient, Jesus-and-me Christianity that has become way too much the norm in evangelicalism. You could not read the New Testament without concluding that our faith is deeply relational. First, a dependent relationship with God; and secondly, an interdependent relationship with one another. Secondly, there's no indication anywhere in the New Testament that it's safe for a pastor to live up above or outside of that gospel community. So I would propose that our fundamental model of leadership is, in many places, defective because we're looking for sort of an independently capable, self-starting, strong personality leader. I would argue that's a recipe for disaster. Think about this—the inertia of grace is not from dependence to independence. The inertia of grace is from independence to dependence. The more mature you are, the more godly you are, the more holiness is your goal, the more dependent you are because that's what you're created for. So what we've actually ended up producing then are arrogant, self-focused bullies. How many more experiences are we going to have to hear of people who feel bullied by Christian leaders? That itself is a scandal. We've got to look back and say, What is the missing ingredient in this definition? I would argue it's humble, Christ-centered, grace-driven, redemptive community. And I want to know, if we're seeking to call a pastor to a church, whether or not he's a man who is humbly committed to be part of that kind of community. I want to say one other thing. We've tended to look for leaders who are good planners, strategizers, and vision casters. I would not say that those things are unimportant, but if you look at the qualifications for elder—this is radical—other than the ability to teach, they're all character qualities. Now, it appears that God is saying leadership capability—leadership fruitfulness—is all character-driven. So we've tended to weight things toward giftedness and not toward character.

Matt Tully
In your book you rhetorically ask the question whether or not the church has become “enamored with corporate models of leadership.” Is that kind of what you're getting at here?

Paul David Tripp
Sure. And again, I believe in common grace. I don't think that there's nothing to be learned from those models. It's where we weight our emphasis. The emphasis, by God's description for leaders for his church, is weighted toward character.

Matt Tully
Going back a little bit to the idea that no Christian is designed to do the Christian life alone, we've heard that many times before. For some people listening it might almost be a cliché at this point. And yet, it does seem that when it comes to pastors and church leaders, even though probably no one would actually say it out loud, there is a little bit of a sense of, I have to be a lone ranger here. I have to keep track of myself, and I can't let anyone else in because if I do, and they know how much I'm struggling with this or that, that's going to invalidate my ministry. Have you encountered that mindset among leaders you've worked with?

Paul David Tripp
I just think it's bad theology to think that human weakness and remaining sin invalidate the gospel. Those things preach the gospel. Think about this: If you're sitting on a Sunday morning and your pastor is preaching a particular point and he stops and he says, I wish I could say I do this perfectly, but I don't. Would you pray for your pastor? That endears your heart to him. You don't sit there and think, Ha. Forget it. This man is imperfect. I'm not listening to him anymore. I just think that thought is not actually true. In fact, look at the self-disclosure in Scripture. Think of 2 Corinthians 1 where Paul, this great man of faith, said, We thought it was the end. In our hearts we felt the sentence of death. (2 Cor. 1:8–9) He's talking about fear, panic. I think it's wonderful that Paul bears an honest struggle and that he's not afraid to do that. The turn is all this caused us to rely more on God and on your prayers. (2 Cor. 1:11) So look, if weakness is our condition between the already of our conversion and the not yet of our home-going because we live in a broken world fraught with struggles and temptations and there's still remaining sin in us, then for a pastor to own weakness is very, very important.

Matt Tully
In your experience talking with pastors and leaders, what's been more common—particularly with pastors when there's been some significant failing—has it been an intentional isolating themselves from people and transparency and accountability, or is it just been that they haven't been intentional at all about cultivating that level of transparency?

Paul David Tripp
Both. I think often it's the business of the church as an institution that eats up so much time that true community doesn't take place. So I think that's one thing. I think you've got to have the same intentionality as you do for planning out the work of the church. You have to have that same intentionality for making sure that your leaders are spiritually healthy. Listen, that takes time. If it takes time, it's got to be on the schedule; if it's not on the schedule, it's not going to happen. So there's got to be that intentionality. But I think there's another thing that happens—it's one of the things that I write in the book about the danger of achievement. I think there are few men who, as young men going into the pastorate, say, I'm going to be closed off and unreachable. I think I can do this on my own. I think there are a few men that say that. But what happens is they begin with a community that has some kind of candor to it, but they begin to be successful. The more they achieve, the more people who get excited about the power of this man to achieve, and the people that were once his protectors begin to become his defenders. So they'll say, Yeah, I know he gets angry at times, but look what God has done through him. And, his defenders end up becoming advocates for a culture that is not what it should be. What happens then is this man is left without counsel, he's left without protection, and the community around him has sold their souls to the idol of success. I've heard with my own ears leaders say, But look what God has done, look at the people who have come to Christ! Listen, success in ministry is never God's validation of my character; it's God's revelation of his own. So I can never say, I must be okay, because look at what God is doing through me. I mean, come on! God speaks through rocks! If he can use inanimate objects, I can't be proud that he can use me!

The Mistake of Valuing Doing over Being

14:25

Matt Tully
That seems so obvious hearing you say it right now. Everyone listening is like, Of course! But it is so tricky the way that we often think about ministry and people in spiritual leadership over us and others. You talk about how we must not esteem doing over being. And yet, so much of our talk about pastoral ministry and leadership focuses on the doing part. So much of what we celebrate focuses on the doing part. How do we recalibrate our focus?

Paul David Tripp
Again, I think it's believing that the description of our need—particularly in the New Testament—between our conversion and our homegoing and the description of how the body of Christ is meant to meet that need—we take that seriously and we believe that. And we import that model into our leadership community. Let me just go specifically to some of the things that that will mean. We commit ourselves to humility. What humility means is I'm approachable. I know that I can't do this by myself; I know that I need others; so I'm not defensive. It means then—obviously, I've described this—I go in knowing I'm entering into an interdependent community. I don't look at these guys sitting around the table as just the managers of the church. I look at them as being placed in my life for my protection. And everybody looks at everybody in the leadership community that way. We know that we're going to have a culture of inspection. We're going to be willing to step over the normal, comfortable boundaries of relationship and ask one another hard questions that we need to ask. I know that if I've gotten angry in a meeting, one of my dear brothers is going to follow me to my office and say, Paul, you can't talk to people that way. You know that that's wrong. I'm going to call the guys together quickly, and I'm going to ask you to go in, confess your sin, and ask forgiveness from your brothers. Imagine being part of that community! I walk down the hallway—I don't feel condemned, I feel loved by that man. And I know I'm going to be loved by the men in the room. You do that five times, and you've changed your culture because you begin to live in the fruitfulness and the security of giving grace. We have a culture of protection. We're protecting one another. I'm looking out for you. When I ask you questions about your marriage, I'm doing that because I love you. I know that one of the ingredients of a spiritually healthy pastor is a spiritually healthy marriage (if he's married). That's important. So I'm not feeling put upon because the guys around me want to protect me. Love is protective. We know we're a community that's committed to restoration. The gospel is restorative. I write in the book, and it's one of my favorite moments in Scripture—I can't tell you how much this encourages me—after Jonah was running, after he had been swallowed up and vomited onto the shore. We know that moment, when he's spit up on the shore, is not judgment, it's grace. If you have a narrow definition of grace—hear what I'm about to say—sometimes grace looks like vomit. But what it says in the beginning of chapter 3 is—these words are so good—“Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time” (Jonah 3:1). Isn't that beautiful? Fresh starts and new beginnings. God's grace is restorative. I'll tell you what my attitude would have been—I would have thought, Jonah, you blew it! It's not like I'm short on prophets. You're done! That's the human reaction. Praise God that he's not like that! And so we want to have that fresh starts and new beginnings. We don't want to be a church that when a guy blows it, he's done—he's off the elder board, or as a pastor he's fired. Now, there are some times when it's so grievous and a man is resistant and recalcitrant that that kind of separation has to happen. But we want to have restorative grace live in our community. Wouldn't it be great that we've been through the experience of two or three of those restorations and we're not afraid when sin comes to the surface because we know how powerful God's grace is. Those are just a few ingredients of the kind of community that should be the norm wherever ministry is being done.

Matt Tully
How would you respond to the pastor who might respond to that and say, Yeah, I agree all that is important. I want that, and I see my need for that; but I have that in a pastor friend from another church, or a mentor who isn't part of the leadership community in the church that he's ministering in. Is that okay, or do you think there's something unique about the actual leadership team at a church?

Paul David Tripp
I love that the body of Christ is worldwide. I love that there are resources beyond my local church. Of course I do—I'm a Presbyterian, so that's baked into the way that I think about the church. But, I was part of an advisory board of a man at church that had a massive blow up. I ended up, before that blow up, resigning from that advisory board because it hit me that I was way too distant to actually have an intimate understanding of what was going on. If I had sat in those leadership meetings, I would have immediately picked up things that I would have felt it necessary to follow up on. It was too far away. Here's the problem: When I'm just your friend and I'm not part of your intimate leadership community, I only get my news on what's happening there from you. I'm not saying that men want to deceive, but it's my story. Look, if I'm telling the story, I'm telling it from my perspective. So it's very hard for that to get at some of the things that need to be gotten because the distance just doesn't allow it.

Matt Tully
By definition, we can't testify to our blind spots and have someone speak into that.

Paul David Tripp
That's right. Exactly right.

The Foundational Importance of Humility

21:22

Matt Tully
One of the things you've already mentioned a couple of times is just the foundational importance of humility in all of this. There was this one line in the book that really stood out to be that was, in some ways, just startling. You write, “Humility is about fearing the power of position rather than craving it.” Why do you use that word “fearing”?

Paul David Tripp
It's the biblical sense of fear—that heart-capturing, mind-capturing, awe-producing fear. When I sit and think that I've been called to be the ambassador of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, that I'm the look on his face, I'm the tone of his voice, I'm the touch of his hand, and I have been commissioned to carry his life and death gospel message, it scares me to death. I am neither worthy nor capable of doing that. If there are lists of capabilities, I fall short of it. I only am able to do that by the intervention of divine grace. Listen, if I am going to be a tool of rescue in the hands of my Redeemer, as his ambassador, the person who needs to be rescued first is Paul Tripp. I need to be rescued from me. I can be terribly impatient; I can be a theological know-it-all; I can be way too critical; I can want comfort more than I want to be part of God's transforming grace; I can be attracted to the physical things of this world, and at moments they become more important to me than the spiritual blessings that have been lavished on me by grace. I need rescue, and I need that rescue every day. There are times when—I don't know if I can get through talking about this—when I awake in the morning and I think about what I'm going to be doing that day—putting incredibly significant things down on the page—and I'm sitting in the place where I have devotions in tears, wishing I could be relieved of the burden. Not because I don't love what I'm doing; not because I don't feel deeply privileged; but I'm quaky at the responsibility of that. I think that's the heart of a gospel leader. This Where's the world? I'm ready, let me take it on! kind of view of leadership is deeply defective. Who would stand and say, I'm a perfect ambassador of the Redeemer? When I think of this, I always think of Isaiah's calling, captured for us in Isaiah 6. He stands before the Lord, he gets a vision of God. The cherubim are flying back and forth chanting, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isa. 6:3) What's Isaiah's response? Not, I'm ready, Lord! No. His response is, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5) He's overwhelmed with his inability. And that's right. That's what the gospel does—it strips me of myself. So, I'm very aware that I could never speak or write anything that I don't desperately need myself. Everything I've written in the leadership book, the first audience is Paul Tripp. I'm not writing as this expert who's arrived. I'm writing in the thick of it myself.

A Personal Journey of Humility

25:25

Matt Tully
You've said before, I think in a few different places, that God has used your pretty significant health struggles over the last few years to humble you and show you areas where you were trusting in your own power and your own ministry success rather than him. What has that process been like, and how does it continue today?

Paul David Tripp
I think what I would have called “faith in Christ” was just I was healthy, very fit for my age, I didn't require much sleep, and I had the ability to produce and produce quickly. There's a whole lot of pride in that, and God, at the moment of my greatest influence, rendered me weaker than I had ever been in my life. It was very, very hard. It was travail. It was very interesting—the people that were closest to me who came alongside of me didn't say, This, too, will pass. They gave me the gospel. I began to realize that there's two pieces to what God was doing. First, he was rendering me weak, but he was reminding me where real strength is found. It's not found in my health. It's found in my Redeemer. Weakness is a playground for grace. And that's changed me. I'm different. My enthusiasm, my passion for the gospel—I thought I had it before—there's just so much more there. And the tenderness of my heart—I'm a much more tender man than I was. I'm less afraid of weakness. My honest confession is—this will sound unreasonable, I'm sure, to people—is this what it takes? Then I'll never be healthy, truly, the rest of my life. If this is what it takes for God to do what he's done in me-and now through me—bring it on. I want to be where God has led me. But what he had to do—I call this in the book “the devastation of self-glory”—I had to go through that. I talk about Nebuchadnezzar and that the humiliation of devastation is not being given judgment, it's being given grace. God was capturing that man. God was restoring him. Nebuchadnezzar, at the end of that, writes a short hymn. It's one of the most beautiful statements of the sovereignty of God in all of Scripture. This from a self-oriented, self-glorifying king, this king that called himself a deity. So I think that God finds ways of putting leaders through that humiliation in some way. Maybe it's a failure of a program that you just thought was going to be “it.” Maybe it's a sin that's revealed. Maybe it's financial struggle. But somehow he wants to strip us of our pride and self because that's when we're usable in his hands.

Matt Tully
It seems like sometimes the response to some kind of trial like that—some kind of breaking us down lovingly, graciously breaking us down—the response can either be humility and a recognizing of our own weakness, or it could be the other side—bitterness or a digging in of our heels. As you think back even about your own experience, was there a moment when you had to consciously decide, I'm going to humble myself in this. That's the path I want to take here, rather than getting angry and getting frustrated?

Paul David Tripp
There was a moment in the hospital where I literally prayed and said, God, I'm not going to run away from you. I'm going to run to you. I'm not going to bring you into the court of my judgement and judge you as unloving and unfaithful. I'm going to run to you. I think that was a very, very important moment. And what I want to say about the Lead book is all the things that we've been talking about, we need to have a community around us that encourages that. So, I'm protected from being bitter because I'm surrounded by guys who say, God's not judging you. God hasn't forsaken you. This is God's grace. God's crafting you so that the best of ministry is in front of you. Don't you see it? I had guys sending me great old Irish hymns on YouTube and passages of Scripture and Luella, my dear wife, day after day after day preaching the gospel and saying to me, Don't say that! You can't say that! I'm thankful for that. I wasn't offended by that. I needed that because it's so easy in those moments to lose your way. I want to say, there are bitter pastors out there. They're still cranking it out, but the sweetness of their relationship with God is gone; the sweetness of their relationship to the body of Christ is gone, but they're still trying to do their thing as a pastor. I could tell you about the conversations when I've tried to get inside of a pastor's head so I can help him, and they get mad at me. I know that's not about me. I know it's a shell of self-protection that's built up over the years. You have no theology of nefarious hardship in the New Testament. The theology of hardship is all about God taking those things and producing good results out of it. Now, we know that's true because that's the cross. The cross teaches us that God can take the worst things ever, and out of them bring the best things ever. What could be worse than the murder of the Messiah? What could be better than the cross of Jesus Christ?

Practical Encouragement for Pastors

31:59

Matt Tully
Speak to the pastor or ministry leader listening right now who knows he is really struggling. Maybe he's dealing with some kind of unconfessed sin, maybe he's feeling cold to the things of God and he's felt that way for a very long time, maybe he's feeling totally burned out—what would you say to that person?

Paul David Tripp
Two words: Get help. Get help. Every pastor's walk with God is a community project. So you get help. Now, if you're surrounded by a leadership community that's more of a business management team and it's pretty impersonal, it may not be best just to go and throw your heart on the table. So find a man in that community who you think is the closest person that you can begin to say, I'm not doing well. I need help. Would you walk with me? Would you pray for me? Would you hold me accountable to continue to seek God for this? And then what I would say is as you've seen that bear fruit, then share that experience with your larger leadership community and begin to say, We need to reform the way we are relating to one another as leaders so that this kind of protection, rescue, helpfulness, dependency, candor, humility becomes normal for us. There are places where it would really be great for a leadership community to hear a pastor say, I was afraid to talk to you guys about this. I was afraid of what the reaction would be. I want to have relationships in our community where we need not be afraid anymore to confess those sin, weaknesses, failures, struggles.

Matt Tully
Speak to the pastor then, and maybe you've hit on this a little bit already, but the pastor or leader who would say that he's doing pretty good right now. He's excited about the ministry that God has placed him in. He feels like he's walking closely with the Lord. But, if he's honest, he would have to acknowledge that the leadership community around him is not marked by many of the characteristics that we've discussed today. So just practically speaking, how can he start to move them in that direction?

Paul David Tripp
I want to speak to his own estimation of himself. One of the things that the Bible teaches is that sin blinds. As long as sin is inside me, there will be pockets of spiritual blindness. So that means I have to accept that there will be ways in which my assessment of myself is inaccurate because sin blinds. You just can't say, No one knows me better than I know myself because there are going to be inaccuracies in my view of myself because of the blindness of sin. Sin blinds. Guess who it blinds? Me. I have no trouble seeing the sin in my wife and children and people around me. That's not my problem. But I can be blind to my own sin. So it may be that although that pastor thinks he's doing well, there are areas still in his life that he doesn't see that could warrant some examination, some confession, and some change. That's the first thing I would say. The second thing I would say is I think the way to initiate the beginning of change in the leadership community is candor and transparency. Talk out of your own experience. Talk of your own need for rich, gospel community. Talk about moments of struggle where you need people around you to encourage you, to give you courage. And then begin to talk about how the experience that you shared is not just unique to the person who shared it, it's everybody who needs these things. The New Testament says that. We grow in maturity as each part does his part. I'm not made to do this by myself. And then—there's a lot of practical helpfulness in the Lead book—begin to lead your leadership community in examining what the steps of change will look like. This will sound self-promoting, but I don't mean it that way: I think a great way to start would be to go through Lead with your leadership community. Every time you get together as a group of leaders you will have read another chapter and you will discuss it together. If it's warranted, you will confess areas that God has opened up in your own heart and life, you pray for one another, and you begin to use this tool to revitalize and reshape the way you work as a leadership community.

Matt Tully
Paul, thank you so much for taking the time today to talk with us about this really important, really timely issue, and really for, as you said all along, fundamentally just pointing us back to the gospel. The gospel is central in all of this.

Paul David Tripp
Can I just say this final thing? This is what concerns me about our enthusiasm with the corporate model: The corporate model shouldn't be a model to us. We should take corporate insights, but we shouldn't take the corporate model as a model. We have our model—it's the gospel. The way that the Pastoral Epistles depict what it looks like to live as a community—to live out of the gospel as a community—that's a model. We don't need a model. Sure, there will be some leadership insights that we can take from the corporate community; we don't need a model. We have a model.

Matt Tully
Thank you, Paul, for taking the time to talk today.

Paul David Tripp
Thanks for the opportunity. I can't tell you how honored I am to be doing what I'm doing. It's the great privilege of my life.


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