Vital Questions about the Character of Leaders
Character is more important than gifting in Christian leadership. We may know this instinctively, but how should it shape church practice?
In a previous article on the FIEC website about the importance of character in Christian leadership, I began with these words,
"Character, Capability and Chemistry – the three Cs – are well known in leadership literature. They are always worth revisiting and examining from multiple angles and are the basics of good leadership and team life.
"Character. It is always first. It is what gets thoroughly examined over a lifetime of leadership. A weakness here will only have the volume turned up on it when leadership challenges really get going."
Well, the volume has been well and truly turned up on the leadership culture of conservative evangelical churches. Heartbreakingly, character blemishes have been uncovered, pain has been caused to many, and confusion has followed in the wake of it all.
So, it’s right to return to the subject with some further reflections on the significance of character for Christian leadership.
At the outset, it’s worth clarifying what we mean by ‘character’. It shouldn’t be confused with personality, as in the phrase, ‘Oh, he’s a real character’, when we mean that the person is a flamboyant extrovert, or perhaps has an interesting story to tell. Nor is it a role we assume, like a ‘character’ in a play, film or novel.
Rather, it refers to a Christ-like maturity seen in attitudes, actions and reactions. In the various passages on eldership, depending on exactly how you enumerate them, 23 out of 25 qualifications focus on this. It is summed up in qualification number one: ‘blameless’ or ‘above reproach’ (1 Timothy 3:2). No obvious concerns, reservations, or weaknesses. It is about consistency that speaks of the goodness of God and holiness seen in the way the person both relates to God as Saviour and Lord, and to others. It is love in attitude and action (1 Corinthians 13:1-7).
That is not the same as perfection. As Schaeffer used to say, “If it is perfection or nothing, it will always be nothing in this life.” Part of a mature character will be a willingness to think of self less, and to think highly of others (Philippians 2:1-4). It will be seen in a commitment to right any wrongs and to not let any evils fester (Ephesians 4:26,27, 29-5:4; 1 John 1:8-2:2).
Of leaders, it should be possible to say, “remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7), for they “watch their life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16, note the order).
Having set that context, let’s frame six questions we need to wrestle with by beginning with one overarching query: if character is as important as we say it is, why do churches seem to reward charisma, capability, and giftedness above character when it comes to appointments, platforms, approval, publicity, and recognition?
Is this just a perception? I don’t think so. It is real to many people in our churches and it’s a huge, off-putting problem. It calls for a serious and humble self-examination by any of us in leadership to make sure we are authentic servants of a holy Master.
Here are my tentative stabs at some reflections on leadership character.
In a selection process, are we taking character as seriously as we think we are?
Perhaps we ask some questions about Christian experience. We get a few people to fill out a reference. We pay attention to what a person says at an interview. We have good intentions.
But how probing are we, really? How direct are church members about a prospective leader? It is very hard in a public meeting to raise issues of concern. Of course, it’s a good thing that few people want to ‘dish the dirt’ but sometimes existing leaders may be averse to hearing criticism of an upcoming leader, so may not listen if members bring up issues about their character either.
This is especially so when good leadership candidates seem few and far between. I guess we bias towards the positive to encourage a keen young person forward, somewhat Barnabas-like (Acts 15:37).
Even when we do pick up concerns, we tend to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who is still growing in grace – often because we know that our own lives are also a work in progress.
This can work the other way around, too. It’s difficult for an existing leader to raise matters of concern if the congregation are warmly enthusiastic about the ministry they are receiving from a prospective leader. Often fellow leaders see things a congregation do not – a short temper or a demeaning attitude. It’s far easier to turn down a candidate whose gifts are not very strong and the congregation are less positive about.
Of course, there is then a third problem. The church safety net (the congregation and the fellow leaders) can be easily circumvented. People can find their way onto a church ministry course without too many questions being asked and then present themselves, eventually, as ‘qualified’ to a needy church somewhere.
By this stage, the needy church may assume that the character qualifications must have been met elsewhere otherwise the candidate would not have been selected for ministry training in the first place. Maybe the candidate even has some friends in well-thought-of ministry positions who can be named, quoted and referenced but, in reality, they don’t really know them well.
The result of all this? The church simply judges the giftedness of the candidate. Even that is done quite quickly. It means that trouble might well follow. I have seen it happen, bringing huge heartache and deep trouble to other believers. 'Painful' does not do it justice.
My reflection is that the thorough knowledge of a candidate in their home church is key. The encouraging of honest conversations, where anyone can speak truth to the existing leadership, is crucial in raising up leaders of good character for ministry.
Ideally, I would want someone who is going into training to be recognised by their church as a leader having already met the criteria of, for example, 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. They may be sent by their church to a place where they can gain more intensive training, so they arrive as a leader in training, not a prospective church leader.
How do we spot problems that might surface later?
This is a tough question. Think of the words of Jesus in the Parable of the Sower. The good fruit was slowly choked by the weeds, briars, and thistles that grew alongside it. The worries of this life and the deceitfulness of riches are hard to pick out as they gradually take hold of our lives (Mark 4:18-19). So how do you spot them in embryonic form?
My reflection is this: if you see any character weakness before an appointment – even the slightest concern – speak up and engage with the person and the weakness. It won’t go away and it may get a lot worse.
The result might be that a person doesn’t go into leadership. Or perhaps they go elsewhere – to a church that does call them into ministry, showing your caution was a tad unjustified. If the latter happens, that’s okay and you can acknowledge it warmly (See Paul in Acts 15:38, 39, Colossians 4:10 and 2 Timothy 4:11).
Of course, the opposite can happen too. If a person you had concerns about is expedited into ministry elsewhere, it may lead to a lot of pain.
Linked to this, is the difficulty of seeing patterns of sin. One person may witness something concerning but it is just one thing, so it gets dismissed. Others may also see just one thing… and so it goes on. Either no one joins the dots, or some who begin to join the dots may not raise a red flag as each incident seems trivial.
Over time, the “just one things” stack up, until it is too late. How many affairs are so obvious after the damage is done? The warning signs were there, but they were not acted on.
This is not easy territory to navigate. But my reflection is that if anyone sees patterns developing, they must not be ignored. I know the danger of relational explosions if they are brought to the person’s attention or a leadership’s attention but sin is deceitful, and sinners like us can be very manipulative. Leaders should know this, and they need to be candid with each other.1
If someone is already in leadership and we see that something is wrong, then it must be confronted. Brené Brown points out that leaders are good at wearing masks and hiding their faults from many2, and Christine Porath also challenges leaders not to overlook even small wrongs that grate or aren’t in line with Christian behaviour. Her recent work on civility has pointed out how any form of rudeness, abruptness, ignoring others, and so forth is incredibly harmful.3
All this takes great courage and genuine humility, and all that without a hint of self-preservation about someone whose gifts may outshine your own. It’s very tough, but very necessary for the good of the church (see Acts 20:29, Galatians 6:1).
Do we think character flaws won’t lead to disqualifying sin?
It will all work out okay, we think.
Naively we assume that serious sin can’t happen to this person because they are a child of God and well-regarded by others. They are gifted by God for this ministry, so how can a small character flaw be serious enough to wreck a ministry? Surely God won’t allow this to ruin what he is doing through them?
It is easy to rationalise like this. It even sounds plausible, but it is wrong.
It reminds me of the 1997 film Titanic: “This ship can’t sink!”, was met with the sad riposte, “She is made of iron, sir. I assure you, she can.”
We need to face up to the doctrine of indwelling sin. There are so many warnings about its dangers to any and all of us. We must take up our cross daily to put self and sin to death (Mark 8: 34-35; Galatians 5:24-25). Without that, sin can strike out and bring great misery. And it does.
It doesn’t mean that we constantly think or expect the worst of one another, but rather that we shouldn’t be caught off guard (1 Timothy 4:16; 2 Peter 3:17).
Leaders need our prayers, desperately, but they may need our rebuke too if sin rears its ugly head before it becomes a ministry-wrecking (or even life-wrecking) sin (1 Timothy 5:20).
Of course, ‘due process’ is important here (see the immediately preceding verse, 1 Timothy 5:19). But my gut feeling is that we often shy away from any of this. Perhaps we are tempted to overlook a problem, or we are fearful of negative consequences if we delve into it. Maybe we are even blinded by the wonderful gifts on display so that we don’t even see a problem?
Again, think about patterns. Don’t ignore even the small clues that indicate a problem.
Do we think it’s not our problem?
The issue of process is tricky. A church member might think, ‘it’s not my role to sort this out’ and leave it to the leadership.
If a member is well-taught, faithful and brave, they might implement a Matthew 18 process (see Matthew 18:15-20). But a prominent and gifted leader – with the power leverage on their side – may send them off with short shrift so that it never gets beyond an initial conversation. The member is left thinking, ‘I’ll never do that again’.
If an issue gets brought to the leadership’s attention, it is problematic again. There are bonds of friendship, the need to work together, and a fear of the consequences for the church, which makes any process feel onerous. An assumption that all leaders have flaws might mean we are reluctant to address a character issue with a fellow leader, and we don’t implement Matthew 18 or 1 Timothy 5.
Of course, it is possible that false accusations are made, which is why we have 1 Timothy 5:19. We see the Apostle Paul being misrepresented by his opponents (e.g. 2 Corinthians 10:10) and also Jesus (Matthew 11:18, 19).
It’s a minefield and we just hope it will all go away. To our cost.
We face a real conundrum in our culture. How do we help the victims of sins committed by gifted leaders while not weaponising victimhood where everyone can claim that status for themselves in one way or another? ‘I am the real victim here’ is an increasingly common refrain from those who have perpetrated wrongdoing.
How do we truly and fairly triage? This is so difficult to answer that we avoid the issue and hope it goes somewhere else. Here’s the problem: in our evangelical sub-culture, it often does. Sinning leaders and sinning church members often move on when trouble is spotted. Not too many questions are asked, the benefit of doubt is given, and they embed themselves as a leader or a member elsewhere.
That’s the problem with saying “it’s not our problem”.
Where are character flaws challenged?
We know the classic passages about the significance of character for ministry. Who hasn’t read 1 Corinthians 13:1-7, or Galatians 5:22-23, or Matthew 7:15-23?
But once a person is on a platform, it is so much easier to hear the brilliant words and never see the character flaws. Take a conference speaker. The worst we will hear is a questionable viewpoint on a particular theological matter. It is much harder to see a dodgy life when it is covered over by sound doctrine.
Great chunks of 2 Corinthians are dealing with just this problem. The Corinthians were so easily taken in. Can we be?
Conferences, fraternals, and committees are not the primary place to challenge character weaknesses in one another. A leader may be warmly welcomed at these, and even be a speaker on the platform, but that shouldn’t mean his whole life is being endorsed because his whole life is not on display.
If we expect evangelical parachurch organisations to ‘police’ all leaders, we are looking in the wrong place. It is not their role or function.
Rather, it is the function of the church a leader belongs to, where they should be transparently known (1 Thessalonians 2:7-11 – see the various ways he says ‘you know’ in that section). We should be wary of any leader living loosely to a local church.
This issue of transparency is an important one. It does not mean that ministry has no personal privacy about it. When we sin as leaders, we confess in the realm we sin in. If it is in thought and attitude, we confess to God. If it was a sin against our spouse then we confess both to God and to her, asking for forgiveness. If it happened in front of the children, then they too will be requested to forgive their dad. These sins and their subsequent confession/forgiveness don’t need broadcasting to others.
Yet, as one who exemplifies ‘open hearts and open homes’, the leader should not exude a secretive attitude towards his own life. In the natural flow of relationships, both ‘at work’ and informally, people should sense that they know their pastor and that he isn’t hiding anything about himself. What they see, is what you are.
And that will be true in a leader’s dealing with other leaders. We don’t have to ‘wear our hearts on our sleeves’ to nonetheless be open with fellow leaders both internal and external to our own church.
Of course, if we pick up concerns, then as fellow leaders of other churches we may need to act out of brotherly concern and for the sake of the gospel. I think it can be argued that 3 John 9-10 is a church leader trying to deal with such a matter.
It’s difficult and messy, but so necessary when an overpowering leader has his own church under his thrall.
What is the antidote to the Cult of Personality?
All of us could, more transparently, embrace our weakness and vulnerability. We should be ever wary of what power can do to us. I have said it many times: of the three great temptations of the world – dodgy sex, dodgy money, and dodgy power – it is the last that hoodwinks us. Tolkien was spot on when he portrayed the Ring of Power as the threat to Middle Earth’s wellbeing.
Immersing ourselves in the theology and way of the cross, as expounded for example in 2 Corinthians, is a way of emphasising God’s grace in our weakness. Of course, ‘weakness’ in that letter doesn’t mean ‘indulge me in my sin’ but it is about a mindset that is humble.
Philippians 1:15-18 is another beautiful example of this. Here, Paul isn’t a man with a hungry ego needing recognition and acclaim, but a man who wants Jesus to be known and loved. But the warning of the passage is that some Christian leaders (see v15 and 17) did have such egos! Remember also the injunction of 1 Timothy 3:6.
We’d do well to recall 1 Thessalonians 4:11: “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life” (see also 1 Timothy 2:2). That doesn’t mean a useless life, an ineffective life, or a quietist life, if I may use that phrase. It means a life freed from satisfying an ego that has to make a name for itself or be someone. It is an ego that can use the gifts God has given to reflect Christ, not self, to others (Romans 12:3-8). It is a wise way.
Think too of how helpful James is as he paints a powerful contrast between two kinds of wisdom:
"Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbour bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness." (James 3:13-18)
The great news is that any of us can keep asking for that heavenly wisdom to bear fruit in our lives (James 1:5).
If this is our emphasis as leaders, we can safely thank God for his gifts to us all (Ephesians 4:7 and 11) and praise him for all he is doing (1 Corinthians 2:5-9), without denying that grace he has shown. We can be so grateful to God that his Holy Spirit is at work in all his children, bringing forth that attractive fruit of Christ-likeness (Galatians 5:22-25). We can praise him that his grace is active, keeping us from evil and promoting what is good so that he is honoured and others are blessed. It is because of his ministry that our ministries are possible.
That ministries are fruitful all over our land is a mark of the rich grace of God. Acknowledging that will signal to everyone that ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ is our goal, not climbing a pecking order of acclaim in evangelicalism (see Colossians 1:27, 28).
1 Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Jossey-Bass), 2002.
2 Brené Brown, Daring to Lead (Vermilion), 2018.
3 Christine Porath, Mastering Civility (Grand Central Publishing), 2016.