How to Spot Character in Your Next Pastor

How to Spot Character in Your Next Pastor

Estimated Reading Time: 8 min
Corey Williams | January 18, 2022

In his book, The Road to Character, David Brooks talks about resume virtues and eulogy virtues. He says resume virtues are the skills you bring to the labor market: an undergraduate or graduate degree, expertise as a writer, coder, leader, project manager, or engineer, to name a few. Education prioritizes these virtues. Employers focus almost exclusively on them. And individuals define themselves primarily by the number of these virtues they have accumulated. Less prominent—but more important—are eulogy virtues. These are the character qualities that Brooks says “get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.”

Well-documented are the tragic shipwrecks churches and other Christian organizations have brought on themselves in recent years because they prioritized resume virtues when selecting their pastor or ministry leader. If a church is primarily concerned about ministry experience, preaching talent, organizational know-how, or vision casting (whatever that is), that local assembly could unwittingly bring a deeply unqualified, spiritually harmful leader into their midst because they didn’t closely examine the man’s life and doctrine (1 Tim 4:16). If a Christian organization—a school, non-profit, or para-church ministry—cares more about executive skill and experience than character, they open themselves up to the possibility that their organization may lose the Christian convictions it was founded on.

Again, there’s no need to document the damaging effects of this kind of misplaced prioritization. In previous years, dozens of prominent Christian leaders have done extraordinary damage to churches and other organizations not because of incompetence, but because they were missing eulogy virtues. And it’s not necessary to explain what those eulogy virtues are for pastors and other Christians leaders. They are clearly spelled out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. But what is needed, now more than ever, is a way to figure out if the pastor or leader your organization is about to hire has those “eulogy virtues.” Every candidate will say he does. But many who insist they are elder-qualified don’t have the necessary character over the long-term. So how can you tell who possesses these attitudes of the heart—these character qualities that can be faked over a few interviews, but not over a few years? While there is no perfect answer to that question—wolves really do dress in sheep’s clothing and bad leaders can slip past tight guardrails—there are hiring practices that can help elder boards, search-committees, and leaders prioritize eulogy virtues and better protect their people from a leader of low character. In this article, I will suggest four such practices. They aren’t exhaustive. But they are starting points, essential strategies for any search committee looking to hire their next spiritual leader.    

Avoid Youth

Resume virtues do not appear overnight. They are forged by years of good habits. Only by practicing virtues over and over and over and …. over again can those virtues become instincts. That is why 1 Timothy says that an overseer must not be a new convert. Inexperienced Christians are more prone to the devil’s vices, such as conceit. Recently, several pastors of megachurches have resigned in disgrace, and in the Monday morning quarterbacking of these situations, a common analysis was . . . “their competence outpaced their character.” That is true. These prominent pastors obviously had talent. They were gifted speakers and gregarious leaders. But many of them were young when their churches became large and their influence became significant. They had not had the time necessary to develop virtue and character, both which, unlike sunlight, grow poorly in the light. Instead of this character revealing spotlight, what many of these men needed was more time in obscurity, away from leadership positions. That time in obscurity would have had two possible outcomes, both far more desirable than these ministerial flameouts. It would have either revealed the rot at the core of their character, and they would have flamed out of ministry before the damage they inflicted was multiplied, or that same time of waiting would have developed the character necessary to lead well. Humility is the prince of all virtues, and it is best developed by patience and repeated exercises of trust. Neither are available to young men. That makes humility hard for them to cultivate. For those looking to hire their spiritual leaders, the lesson here is clear: pay attention to the date of birth. And be willing to say “not yet” to a young man eager for more responsibility.

Interview Previous Employees

This might be the most practical and most important step a search committee or elder board can take. If you want to know what a man’s character is really like, talk to those who have worked for him. If you are hiring for an executive position, talk to previous assistants. If the leader overworked them, didn’t respect them, or ever raised his voice with them in anger, that man is disqualified. I cannot overstate how important this step is. If a search committee or elder board does not speak to previous employees, they have neglected their responsibility and they have missed perhaps the best opportunity they have to evaluate the character of their potential leader. Everyone will speak with respect to their superiors. Only those with godly character will speak with the same respect and love for the less prominent. The epistle of James makes this point: “if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors” (2:9).  

Reject a Platforming/Growth Ministry

What is platforming/growth ministry? It’s a philosophy of ministry that believes—sometimes sincerely—that the pastor or ministry leader’s job is to build a platform—to make his name and his teaching well-known beyond the church or organization. Because this individual is the face of the organization, he needs to be famous because fame will attract people. In its most sincere form, a pastor with this ministry philosophy might think like this: I preach the gospel, so if my name and sermons are out there, then more people will come to saving faith and more people will come to our church and be well-taught, and Christ will receive more glory. In its insidious form, this platform building is entirely about the glory and popularity of the leader. It’s a manifestation of pride, a vice that disqualifies someone from spiritual leadership. And what makes this philosophy of ministry particularly dangerous is the inability to know if a leader’s motivations are sincere or insidious because the expressed goals and the behavior are the same. Growth is at the center of this ministry philosophy and the power rests on the personal charisma of the leader, not the gospel of Jesus Christ. And because this ministry strategy isn’t built on God’s power, it’s going to tempt the leader to use ungodly ends to achieve his means. He is freer to heap burdens on his people, to overwork them, to use them for his ends because he is the end. With this ministry philosophy, he prioritizes outcome over character. How do you spot this ministry philosophy in a potential leader? Closely scrutinize his social media accounts. If he aggressively advertises his speaking engagements, and if he quotes himself, that should raise a red flag. And pay careful attention to what this potential leader says about growth. If he emphasizes the size of his church or organization, and not the holiness or faithfulness of it, then you need to find another leader, someone who understands that “God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God” (1 Cor 1:27-31).

Demand Doctrinal Precision

If a man will lead a church or Christian organization, he must lead with conviction. And he cannot lead with conviction unless he loves the details of the doctrine he believes. When interviewing a potential leader, ask him about the deep things of God’s Word. Ask him about controversial topics: debated matters of theology. And look for zeal in his response. If God’s Word does not excite him, do not hire him.

If you do not learn from his response, if he cannot convince you that the doctrines of God’s Word are vital for all believers, he is not your leader.

And if the joy of study and discovery is not apparent, send him on his way. In your next leader, you must find a man with the biblical zeal of Psalm 119: “With my lips I have told of all the ordinances of Your mouth. I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies, as much as in all riches. I will meditate on Your precepts and regard Your ways. I shall delight in Your statutes; I shall not forget Your word” (vs.13-16). It is highly likely that a man with that zeal is a man with 1 Timothy 3 character. A love for God’s Word—a studious devotion to it—comes with integrity. They are a package deal.

In recent years, the evangelical church has seen the timeless truth of God’s Word confirmed again and again in the shipwrecks of its prominent spiritual leaders. If the evangelical church had followed Scripture—if it had consistently prioritized character and made virtue the defining quality for leadership—than the headlines would not include so many failures. Thankfully, God’s truth is timeless. First Timothy 3 and Titus 1 show us exactly what a godly spiritual leader looks like. It’s up to us to implement those standards in our hiring processes and it’s up to us, as the church, to prioritize these standards in the churches we attend and the leader’s we admire. Only when the culture becomes one of character over competence will we reject leaders with resume virtues and promote leaders with the eulogy virtues that should define all believers.

Corey Williams

Corey Williams

Corey Williams is the Chief Communication Officer at The Master’s Seminary.

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