Reflections on the need for character in ministry

  1. Character demands integrity

“Integrity”, wrote John Stott, “is the quality of integrated persons, in whom there is no dichotomy between their public and their private lives, between what they profess and what they practise, between their words and their deeds”. In other words, character involves not pretending to be who we are not. As we sometimes say, ‘What you see is what you get’. D.L. Moody, the great American evangelist, said: “Character is what we are in the dark”. Or as John Pritchard, a former Bishop of Oxford, wrote in his Handbook of Christian Ministry: “In leadership character comes first …. a character of integrity, openness and trustworthiness is absolutely vital”. Or in the words of John Wooden, a former American basketball player who later became a celebrated coach: “Be more concerned with your character than your reputation. Your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think you are”.

  1. Character involves vulnerability

Because integrity involves no pretence, it involves openness, which in turn involves vulnerability. Jesus, for instance, in the Garden of Gethsemane revealed the depth of his suffering to his friends. Jesus did not pretend to be ‘super man’. Neither should ministers or leaders pretend when the going is tough. Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks, said in a 2017 interview: “When the leader demonstrates vulnerability and sensibility… the team wins”. Leaders who are honest about themselves with others, far from losing the respect of others, actually gain trust. Vulnerability allows people into the issues we are facing, and gains their support.

  1. Character emerges through suffering

Helen Keller, the blind/deaf American author and social activist wrote: “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” Or to quote the Apostle Paul: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character” (Rom 5.3,4). The Greek word translated as character (dokime) was used of metal passed through fire out of which all impurities purged. The crucible of suffering can be a pathway to sainthood., although there is nothing automatic about that. As Calvin pointed out, suffering “provokes a great part of mankind to murmur against God, and even to curse him”. But, said Charles Cranfield, “Paul is here thinking of what it is achieved within it is met by faith in God, which receives it as fatherly discipline”. Life can be tough – and ministry can be tough too. My experience is that I became a better person – and a better pastor – as a result of those tough times.

  1. Character is accompanied by grit

Paul wrote ‘endurance produces character’ (Rom 5.4).The underlying Greek word translated as ‘endurance’ can also be translated as ‘fortitude’, ‘steadfastness’, ‘perseverance’ – or more idiomatically, ‘grit’ or ‘guts’. In the recent Six Nations’ rugby games time and again the commentators talked about how it was the team with ‘character’ – and by that they meant ‘guts’ – which ultimately wins the day. Ministry is not for the faint-hearted. There are times when grit is required if we are to be effective leaders.

  1. Character is expressed in service of others

Jesus, after he had washed his disciples’ feet in the Upper Room, said “I have set you an example” (John 13.15). True Christian leadership is not concerned for self, but for others. Service, wrote Stephen Cottrell, the new Archbishop of York, is “the heart and the heartbeat of all ministry. Christ is one who serves – the one who serves us, who are his servants – and we best follow him and emulate him by serving others ourselves.” Or as T.W. Manson memorably put it, “In the Kingdom of God service is not a stepping-stone to nobility: it is nobility, the only kind of nobility that is to be recognised”. Servant-leadership focuses on the people to be cared for rather than just the job to be done. Servant-leaders cannot trample on people even in pursuit of the kingdom.

  1. Character is rooted and developed in God.

Character is different from personality. Personality is what we are born with – character is the result of choice. Personality is the result of inborn traits, whereas character is learned behaviour. It has been said, “Brains and beauty are God’s gifts – character is your own achievement”. What God requires is for us to develop character. In this respect Prov 4.23 has some good advice: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life”. The heart here is the source of all behaviour, as is reflected in the translation found in the GNB: “Be careful how you think, for your life is shaped by your thoughts”. The development of Christian character involves the exercise of discipline in a life that is rooted in prayer and in God’s Word, a life that is above all focused on Jesus and as a result a life that is transformed by the Holy Spirit. In the words of Paul: “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord, as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Cor 3.18)

One comment

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with all your comments about character- often left out is the willingness to be vulnerable, but all the facets of character you mention are important . Very well expressed.

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