the shape of leadership

Character Matters Most

Why church leaders should practice integrity in hiring

One of the most important decisions a congregation makes is the election of its pastor. In turn, some of the most consequential decisions a pastor makes regard the hiring of pastoral staff. A good deal hangs on these decisions. Good leaders can make a church, but bad leaders can break it.

In Healthy Leadership for Thriving Organizations, Justin A. Irving identifies four qualities potential hires should exhibit. For each quality, Irving provides leaders a diagnostic question to consider as they interview applicants.

  1. Character. “Is this a person of character who believes in our values and mission?”
  2. Competence. “Does this person exhibit present competence — or a significant capacity to learn?”
  3. Chemistry. “Does this person fit with our team culture, and will this person have good chemistry with the team?”
  4. Complement. “Would this person be a complement to the team, or would adding this person produce a redundance (too much similarity) or a contradiction (too much difference)?”

While all four qualities are valuable, they are not equal. The 216 Christian leaders Irving interviewed gave character “sequential priority” over the other three qualities. Character matters first.

Irving quotes Nathan Finn, a leader in Christian academia, to explain why: “It is not within my power to change someone’s character. If he is a person of character, I can often resource him to grow in competence. If he is a person of character and has an appropriate level of competence, I can almost always help him adapt to our culture.”

Obviously, the same is true when the applicant is a woman.

There is truth in the sequential priority of character in hiring decisions. But when choosing leaders for a church, character matters most, not just first. Character is more important than the other qualities.


Why Character Matters Most

I realize my claim is bold, but there are several reasons I believe it’s true.

The first is biblical. In the pastoral epistles, Paul details qualifications necessary to hold church office as an overseer, elder, and deacon (1 Timothy 3:1–13; Titus 1:5–9). Character outweighs all other considerations.

For example, regarding overseers, Paul lists 10 character qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:2–3, while “able to teach” is the only competence qualification. Verses 4–5 use management language, but the emphasis is on respectability. And verses 6–7 require spiritual maturity and a good reputation to avoid falling into “judgment” or “disgrace,” respectively.

Regarding deacons, of the 10 character qualifications Paul lists in verses 8–13, all of them are character related.

Similarly, in Titus 1:5–9, character is Paul’s main concern for elders and overseers. Of more than a dozen qualities Paul lists here, only three have to do with competence: managing God’s household, hospitality, and teaching sound doctrine (verses 7–9). The others have to do with character.

That brings us to the second reason character mattes most: the nature of ministry.

A plurality of Americans considers clergy ethics no better or worse than everyone else’s, in other words. That’s a stinging indictment of
a profession that’s supposed to be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2).

Throughout the business world, executives and managers lead their employees to produce goods or provide services. While the character of employees is important, competence to make a widget or cater a banquet is more important. Those are the kinds of things customers want.

In the church world, however, pastors are not producing goods or providing services. Christianity is not a consumer religion in which the customer is always right. Pastors open the Word of God to their congregations to, as Jesus himself said, “make disciples … teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20).

Teaching in this context doesn’t mean sharing gospel information as much as it means showing gospel transformation. That is why Christ’s call to the disciples began with the words, “Come, follow me” (Mark 1:17). And it’s why Paul lays emphasis on imitation: “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

The nature of ministry is intensely personal. Jesus set the example for all Christians to follow. Consequently, pastors cannot lead where they have not followed.

A third reason character matters most is the current culture.

Since the 1970s, Gallup has tracked Americans’ confidence in various institutions, as well as their perception of certain professions. The result is bad news. Over the past five decades, Americans have lost trust in organized religion, and they don’t think much of clergy ethics.

In 1973, 65% of Americans expressed a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in organized religion. Fifty years later, just 32% of Americans had the same level of confidence.

Gallup’s 1977 poll saw 61% of Americans rating clergy ethics “high” or “very high,” compared to 32% who did so in 2023.

Sadly, the share of respondents rating clergy ethics “low” or “very low” nearly tripled over that same period, from 7% in 1977 to 20% in 2023. Almost half (45%) in 2023 said clergy ethics were “average.”

A plurality of Americans considers clergy ethics no better or worse than everyone else’s, in other words. That’s a stinging indictment of a profession that’s supposed to be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2).

There are several reasons for this decline in trust of the American Church and its leaders. Pastors have acted scandalously. Media has trumpeted their failures. Partisanship distorts people’s perceptions of faith. And the rise of the “nones” means many are no longer predisposed to view religion favorably.

If people distrust Christians and view clergy ethics with suspicion, church leaders will have a hard time advancing the gospel. People will not embrace the good news as good if they see its messengers as bad. We must earn — in some cases, earn again — our neighbors’ trust.

That’s why character matters most.


Making Character Matter

Max De Pree famously wrote, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” That is what I have tried to do in this column — define the reality that character matters most in a church’s hiring decisions. I hope I have been persuasive.

I also hope I have not been misunderstood. By saying character matters most, I am not suggesting competence, chemistry, and complementarity are unimportant. Churches should hire good people — team members who are also good at their jobs, good with ministry peers, and a good mix for the team.

Above all, however, churches should ask whether applicants obey the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37–40), produce the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23), and demonstrate love in their interactions with others (1 Corinthians 13:4–7).

As Paul pointed out, religious activity — no matter how spiritual and powerful it may seem — is useless in the absence of Christlikeness (1 Corinthians 13:1–3).

There is a proverb among human resources professionals that says, “We hire for competence but fire for character.” How often has that been true in our churches, when high achievers have been brought down by low behavior? Perhaps it’s time to put character first and emphasize it most.

The rest can be taught.


This article appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Influence magazine.

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