If you ask 50 people in your congregation, “What one attribute matters most for a leader in the church?” you will likely get a wide variety of responses. The truth is, even though the responses may vary, they would likely fit into one overarching theme: a leader’s credibility. Credibility is the differentiating factor between good and great leaders—including leaders in ministry. A leader may have all the skills and knowledge in his or her area of expertise, but will continually struggle if credibility is lacking.
Credibility is the most important attribute for any leader—it is the quality people most seek in the men and women they choose to follow. James Kouzes and Barry Posner (2011) have been researching the characteristics of admired leaders around the globe since the early 1980s. Their work is a powerful reminder that “Above all else, people want leaders who are credible” (p. 16). Kouzes and Posner assert that to be credible is to “do what we say we will do” (p. 33), and that people desire leaders who are honest, forward-looking, inspiring, and confident (p. 7). In its simplest form, these attributes of credibility can be distilled down to two key themes: competency and character.
Competency deals with things like one’s ability, knowledge, and strategy. Oftentimes, competency includes things you can learn in a classroom or through life experience.
Character, on the other hand, deals with one’s moral qualities—the way one thinks and acts. How one treats others and lives out one’s values are all a part of one’s character.
Both competency and character are essential in the life of a leader, regardless of the venue in which he or she leads. These attributes are so vital, in fact, that United States Army General Norman Schwarzkopf once stated, “Leadership is a potent combination of character and strategy. But if you must be without one, be without strategy.” Did you notice an underlying assumption General Schwarzkopf’s remarks? In leadership, character trumps strategy. We tend to focus on the strategic, competency-based parts of leadership—and make no mistake, those pieces matter—but, particularly in the church, the leader’s character is of the utmost importance.
This idea was echoed last year by a group of students at Concordia University, St. Paul. I asked a class of 22 students, “What are the three most important attributes of a leader?” Of their responses, 48 (72.7%) dealt with issues of character—things like being authentic, passionate, vulnerable, and respectful. Only 18 responses (27.3%) dealt with issues of competence, such as communication and knowledge of the subject. For this group, character was a primary consideration in whom they elected to follow.
Why is character such a big deal in the life and ministry of a leader? Here are two key reasons:
- Character matters to God. We live in a world that, in many ways, believes that an action is acceptable if its end justifies its means. But that philosophy is out of alignment with God’s Word. As the Spirit works in the lives of God’s people, we are told that our lives will bear fruit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23 ESV). This fruit is the outward evidence of God’s work of sanctification, and it is developed continually through Word and Sacrament.
- Character builds trust. As the saying goes, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” While both competency and character are necessary for any leader, competence matters only if people trust a leader. Living with character helps build trust, and trust opens doors to share in our areas of competence in leadership and ministry—whether that is through preaching, teaching, or another area of service in the church.
It is easy to develop the competency side of credibility—there are books, conferences, podcasts, and more, all built around the idea of teaching new strategies for ministry and leadership. But exploring the side of credibility that deals with character is much trickier. As you continue your development as a leader, how are you growing—not only in your knowledge, experience, and expertise, but also in character?
Kouzes, J., and B. Posner. Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.