Jan 13, 2003

From the Archives

New Study Identifies the Strongest and Weakest Character Traits of Christian Leaders

The leadership scandals of the past year have raised numerous concerns about the character of individuals who assume positions of leadership, whether they serve in the business, government, non-profit or religious sector. Understanding the character strengths and vulnerabilities of leaders is critical toward protecting organizations and the people who rely upon them from being crippled by unethical decisions and immoral behavior.

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A new study from the Barna Research Group of Ventura, California, provides an unusual examination of the character of church leaders. Using the data from the Christian Leader Profile(tm), a 177-question diagnostic that was completed by a national sample of 1344 leaders involved in Christian churches across the nation, the study examines four aspects of people’s leadership: their sense of calling from God to leadership, the nature of their character, the strength of their competencies, and the aptitude they possess for leadership. Data released by Barna shows that the character of church-based leaders differs according to the position, age, gender, and leadership aptitude of the individual. The report also identified the character traits that are generally strongest among church leaders – as well as those that are most likely to be the weak links in their character.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Of the 13 “character clusters” evaluated by the Profile, the strongest attributes associated with Christians involved in church leadership were having a conscience that is sensitive to sin, morality, godly demeanor, humility, values, faith maturity, and trustworthiness. Attributes that were not as strong included using appropriate speech, having a controlled temper, and teaching ability. The attributes that rated lowest on the scale were possessing a loving heart, modeling servanthood, and having godly wisdom.

Digging more deeply into the three traits that reflect the most common weakness of church leaders, the Profile data indicate that the problems associated with servanthood center around not feeling a sense of responsibility to those who are needy and an unwillingness to sacrifice what they have for the good of others. The most serious challenges related to having a loving heart included the unwillingness to go out of their way to help the disadvantaged or to generously share their resources, and failing to do what is right because of the potential for suffering or personal disadvantage. Wisdom ranked lowest of all 13 character traits evaluated. Among they key difficulties related to that attribute were reliance on personal ability and insight rather than godly guidance, struggles balancing spiritual and worldly forms of wisdom, and inconsistently listening to God.

Character and Aptitude

The Christian Leader Profile(TM) categorizes leaders into one of four types: Directing, Strategic, Team-Building or Operational, based on the notion that every leader is incomplete in his/her skills and abilities and must therefore partner with leaders who have complementary capabilities. The Profile data indicate that these different types of leaders also have different challenges in the area of character.

Directing leaders, who tend to be the “big picture,” motivational leaders who focus people’s attention on vision for the future, are most likely to exhibit biblical values. However, they are more likely than others to struggle with servanthood and exhibiting a loving heart. They are the rivers of the organization, but sometimes lose sight of the fact that their aggressiveness and zeal for the vision may hurt some of the very people they wish to help.

Strategic leaders are those who analyze information, evaluate options and recommend the most effective courses of action. They are the strongest types of leaders when it comes to faith maturity and exhibiting biblical wisdom. However, they are most prone to difficulties with their temper and speech. They become so passionate about the paths they have discovered that they may lose patience with people who hold different opinions or who fail to understand why the path the Strategic leader suggests makes the most sense.

Team-Building leaders focus on mobilizing people around the vision, using people’s gifts and abilities to maximize productivity. While they do not outshine their fellow leaders in any particular character quality, they are most likely to have trouble teaching effectively. They are highly relational and able to get people excited about their role in pursuing the vision, but they are often ineffective communicators of transformational or strategic principles.

Operational leaders develop systems to facilitate the efficient and effective flow and continuity of the organization’s activity. While these leaders did not emerge as having a particular strength, they were notably weaker than their colleagues in the areas of temper, godly demeanor (e.g., being pleasant and respectful), servanthood and teaching ability. It appears that their focus on making the process work sometimes causes them to become overtly frustrated with the efforts of others.

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Demographic Differences by Character Trait

Several demographic factors relate to people’s character profile. Gender did not make much of a difference, although men involved in ministry appear to have less of a struggle with temper and more of a struggle with wisdom than do women.

Generational differences are much more common. For instance, Baby Busters (i.e., adults 37 or younger) scored much lower than older church leaders in relation to faith maturity, being trustworthy, wisdom and appropriate speech. Baby Boomers (i.e., those in their late thirties to mid fifties) had relative difficulty with exhibiting a loving heart. Older church leaders tended to have higher scores on every attribute tested, but clearly struggle most with wisdom and servanthood.

Senior Pastors were different than church staff, and also different than lay leaders. In comparing these three segments who are involved in leading churches, Senior Pastors had substantially higher scores regarding teaching ability and having a controlled temper. Pastors were generally slightly higher than or equivalent to church staff or lay leaders on other traits, but all three groups exhibited similar weakness in relation to servanthood and wisdom.

Interpreting the Outcomes

The research offers both encouragement and challenges according to George Barna, who created the Christian Leader Profile(TM) and analyzed the data in the report. “It is affirming to realize that such a high percentage of church leaders have strong character in so many areas, especially dimensions such as values, conscience and morality. It is particularly pleasing to see that the character of lay leaders in the Church is just as reliable as that of the clergy.”

The researcher expressed the hope that leaders would invest effort into growing in the areas in which their character is most vulnerable or least mature. “Character is not like competencies, for which it is acceptable to ignore your weaknesses and run with your strengths. Weakness of character will eventually undermine your strengths, no matter how strong they are. Identifying character vulnerabilities is helpful because it provides an early warning signal of pending disasters.

“Churchgoers rely upon leaders to use their leadership role appropriately,” the author of several best-selling books on leadership and cultural trends continued. “The public expects leaders to treat their position as a means of serving people with godly wisdom, genuine love and with the understanding that leadership is about the privilege of serving, not about power, authority, perks or ego gratification. For the Church to be distinguished from other groups in our culture, and to have positive influence on the lives of people both within and outside of the local church, its leaders must model the difference that being a Christian leader represents.”

Barna also noted that the character of Christian leaders is one of the topics he will address in his forthcoming seminar tour in which he will visit 24 cities throughout the country to discuss his latest research on four key topics. “When it comes to leadership, if a person is called to lead they may still be disqualified by the weakness of their character. During the seminar, in addition to discussing issues related to worldview development, children’s spiritual growth, and trends affecting ministry, we will examine some of the dominant challenges that all leaders face. The discussion would be incomplete without exploring the quality of leaders’ character.”

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Research Methodology

The data described in this report are based on a national sample of 1344 adults (age 18 or older) who completed the 177-questions involved in the Christian Leader Profile(tm). These individuals were either Senior Pastors, church ministry staff or lay leaders (deacons or elders; teachers were excluded unless they were also an elder or deacon). The Profile was administered online on a confidential basis during the third and fourth quarters of 2002.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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