If you examine the job descriptions in searches for pastors, associate pastors, and church staff (as we have), you will find (as we did) an absence of expressed interest in character and a profusion of terms connected to skills. Job descriptions, even for senior pastors, have devolved into a can-do list. That is because we unconsciously value those who get stuff done, rather than those who exhibit godly character. Especially in the past fifty years, so many churches have hired on the basis of talents and skills and the capacity to “bring it” for weekend services. Somehow, we have equated ability with character. But when ability replaces character, we get toxicity in the boardroom and in the pulpit, and those toxicities corrupt the entire church.
In The Ascent of a Leader, which explores the topic of character in leadership, Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol, and Ken McElrath compare a “capacity ladder” with a “character ladder.” The former is a “task-driven organization, at the expense of people” and creates “people-users,” while a character ladder focuses on people and their success. On the capacity ladder, accountability means getting things done. Character, by contrast, focuses on depth of influence, living the truth, and protecting relationships. It sees failures in terms of development, not immediate results.¹
What does the Bible say about character? Jesus taught that a good tree [good character] produces good fruit. Bad character eventually reveals itself as rotten fruit, while good character over time will manifest itself as a sweet, juicy peach. Hear the words of Jesus:
By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them (Matthew 7:16-20).
Though this isn’t hard to understand, some go too far with it. No human always produces juicy peaches, any more than someone always produces rotten fruit. Even as Christians, we never always behave in good ways. Therefore, Jesus exhorts his followers to examine themselves and others. That is, he wants us to become “fruit inspectors.”
Jesus also talked about character formation using the term heart. Again, consider his words:
The words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander (Matthew 15:18-19, NLT).
Though Jesus didn’t use the word ethos (character), so central to the philosophy of virtue taught by the ancient Greek thinker Aristotle, what he teaches is similar: our behavior expresses our character. That is, within reasonable limits, what we do tells others who we are.
In the writings of the apostle Paul, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit becomes the central reality of transformation. For instance, consider Romans 5:5: “Hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Further, in Romans 8:9, Paul says, “You . . . are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.” And in 1 Corinthians 3:16, Paul indicates that this Spirit-in-us is not simply individually or personally, but in the church corporately: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?”
Jesus and the apostles all believed in the inner work of transformation, or character formation, which produces good fruit, or what we often today call virtue. Paul captures the essence of this virtue in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
The ultimate virtue is Christlikeness. The Spirit in us transforms us into the image of Christ.
In a church, character matters more than culture. Character matters more than strategy. It is character that determines the very substance of where we’re headed. As one pastor friend said to us recently, “The question is, ‘Who are we becoming?’”
When you invite another person on to your staff, are you asking the character question?
¹Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol, and Ken McElrath, The Ascent of a Leader: How Ordinary Relationships Develop Extraordinary Character and Influence (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1994). The book has no page numbers. We are referring to chapter 4.
Adapted from Pivot: The Priorities, Practices, and Powers That Can Transform Your Church into a Tov Culture by Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer. Copyright © 2023. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries. All rights reserved.
Posted on August 17, 2023
Scot McKnight is the Julius R. Mantey Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary and a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus.
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