Virtues for Ministers

A draft report produced by the Baptist Union of Great Britain suggested that along with the list of agreed ministerial competencies, there should also be a list of ministerial virtues: “these virtues will include courage, humility and obedience; perseverance and self-control, patience and compassion, and above all, the virtue of love (Col 3.12-14)”.

On reading this I immediately checked out the Apostle’s Paul’s words: “As God’s chosen ones…. clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness [‘gentleness’] and patience. Bear with one another [GNB: ‘Be tolerant’] and…forgive each other… Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in harmony” (NRSV). All these virtues are certainly desirable in any minister. Compassion and kindness, humility and gentleness, patience and tolerance – all are essential, while a loving spirit inevitably forgives and sums up every virtue. The commentaries have some helpful insights. Andreas Lindemann defined ‘gentleness’ as “the power that enables us, precisely in moments of conflict with our fellow, so to meet him that he experiences the criticism of his behaviour (assuming that it is justified criticism) not as condemnation but as help”. Dunn wrote: “Such virtues (graces), particularly as in the combination here, can appear to encourage a ‘milksop’ weakness as in people whose calling in life is to be a doormat to others – at least as those caught up in the cut and thrust of the rat race that counts as strength. But in fact to live out such a character calls for strength which is rarely seen in the market place (as Jesus demonstrated)”.

However, desirable as these virtues may be for ministers, the truth is that Paul was writing not to ministers, but to a church. In this respect the Baptist Union document is misleading. Nor do their proposed virtues of ‘courage’ and ‘obedience’ feature in this passage; neither for that matter do ‘perseverance’ and ‘self-control’, although perseverance might be implied in the virtue of ‘patience’, and self-control in the virtue of ‘gentleness’ (often defined as ‘strength under control’).

So what virtues should ministers as ministers have? My mind went to 1 Tim 3.1-3 where Paul lists the ‘graces’ necessary for church leaders, but then realised that none of the items there are distinctively Christian. Nothing is said, for instance, about love, faith, purity and endurance, instead the list reflects the highest ideals of Hellenistic philosophy. According to Gordon Fee, “Paul is concerned not only that elders have Christian virtues (these are assumed) but that they reflect the highest ideals of the culture as well”.

Then another thought came to mind: What do we mean by “virtue”? According to the on-line dictionary Wikipedia: “A virtue is a positive trait or quality deemed to be morally good and thus is valued as a foundation of principle and good moral virtue”. Wikipedia goes on to point out that virtue is the opposite of vice. On the other hand, The Oxford On-line Dictionary defines virtue as “a quality considered morally good or desirable in a person”. This leads me to wonder whether virtue can be broader than moral excellence and can include desirable ‘qualities’?

With these thoughts in mind, I consulted others. Brian Harris in The Tortoise Usually Wins listed the following “virtues” for what he terms “quiet leadership”:

  • Modesty (see Rom 12.3). “We aren’t responsible for most things that happen – but we can shape and influence some outcomes”
  • Restraint (see Jas 1.19): Restraint is about ensuring that enough time is secured to be sure that quality decisions have been made”
  • Tenacity : “Without perseverance, few get beyond the realm of daydreaming”
  • Interdependence, which is the recognition that we “are always strongly dependent upon the input and performance of others”
  • Other-centredness, where “the driver for decision-making is not personal comfort, but the good of others”

David Parsons wrote: “What counts is Christian character built on faith, hope and love”. He went on: “Some positives in ministry might be listening to people and taking an interest in them; keeping confidentiality; tact; knowing ourselves; getting on people’s ‘wavelength’; a sense of humour; discretion; availability; hospitality; and administration.”

With reference to the virtue of ‘obedience’ highlighted by the Baptist Union report, Richard Dormandy said: “I would use ‘willingness’ instead of ‘obedience’….There are sometimes damaging problems with obedience and religion coupled together. There is such a need for true freedom, yet so many Christians live in fear. If ministers have obedience instilled into them, they will also expect it in others to them – and that is not usually good in a church setting. However, willingness is “the same but different”. It emphasises freedom of action, but willingness. I would rather have (and be) a willing servant than an obedient one – even though the results might be the same, my demeanour would be different”.

Alun Brookfield, with tongue not entirely in his cheek observed: “If we’re talking about ‘characteristics’, the primary ones have to be a thick skin, a big heart and unlimited energy”.

While Peter Thomas listed the following ‘characteristics’ as essential for ministers

  • Holiness – embracing purity, self-control, integrity, chastity, temperance and humility.
  • Love – embracing empathy, compassion, kindness and a servant-heart.
  • Spirituality – a vibrant personal relationship with God rooted in devotion to prayer and passion for Scripture.
  • Wisdom – embracing knowledge of, understanding of and experience of obeying God’s will.
  • Steadfastness – embracing patience, perseverance, longsuffering, courage, hard work, faithfulness, reliability, strength of character and ‘stickability’. This will include single-mindedness and focus without excluding the flexibility which is needed when things so often do not turn out as expected.
  • A cheerful disposition – surely joy, hope and faith should be outwardly evident, for some of the time at least.

I agree with all that has been said, but I would argue that the six key qualities or virtues desirable for pastoral leadership are:

  1. Vision – ministers need to be creative dreamers (planning is a competence!)
  2. Enthusiasm – ministers need to be passionate for Jesus, for his church, for his world
  3. Industry – ministers need to enjoy hard work
  4. Perseverance – ministers need to be marked by determination
  5. Humility – ministers must be servant-hearted, selfless rather than self-centered
  6. Love – where people know they are loved by their ministers, then anything is possible

What do you think are the virtues desirable for ministers?

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