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Character: The Essence of Effective Leadership

By Richard L. Dresselhaus

A minister might appear, by all external criteria, to be an effective leader; but if character is absent, it is only a matter of time (or eternity) until the house collapses for lack of a good foundation.

Run the credit card through the slot, lift the lever, and presto, the gas pours from the pump into your tank. But not at the station I was at. The pumps were old and antiquated. Then I saw the sign, "Pay inside before pumping gas." So in I went with my credit card.

"Sir, we don’t take credit cards here; only cash."

By this time my patience was exhausted, and I replied, "Aren’t you a little out of date here?" And I aggressively placed a $20 bill (or so I thought) on the counter.

I proceeded to the pump to fill my tank with $20 worth of gas. But at $10, the pump shut down. I can’t believe this. She is cheating me out of $10, I thought. So back to the cashier with my impatient plea:

"Ma’am, I gave you a $20!"

"No, you gave me a $10."

"No, check your register, it was a $20."

She persisted. I gave up, jumped in the car, and headed down the freeway to the church. Then it hit me. Oh, no, I did break that $20 the night before. She was right. Worse yet, I began to review the entire event. Moments into my review, I felt guilty and disgusted with myself. I was embarrassed and ashamed. That episode, I admitted to myself, was far below my sense of dignity and was a radical violation of the principles of good character I have tried to guard and cultivate through many years of pastoral ministry.

The next day, I was back to that same service station with an apology. I felt much better and knew that if the cashier should perchance be seated on the front pew next Sunday morning, I could at least face her with some sense of assurance.

Here is what I learned about character in that unfortunate encounter:

CHARACTER AND LEADERSHIP

What does character have to do with leadership? Everything. In fact, since leadership is about influence, and influence is about relationship, and relationship is about character, character and leadership are inseparably intertwined. You cannot lead effectively without authentic and godly character.

Rarely does a pastor fail because he* is a poor preacher, inadequately trained, or unsure of his call. Typically, pastors fail over matters that have to do with character. They compromise in the little and hidden things that over time undermine the integrity of their ministry and render their service for God ineffective.

For years my wife, Elnora, and I have tried to live with this criteria: What if this decision or action were projected on the screen before our wonderful congregation? Would we be proud or ashamed? More than once we have pulled back and taken a second look. The people we serve have the right to expect the highest level of honesty, truthfulness, respect, and fairness. Anything less compromises the integrity of our sacred call.

Many years ago Elnora and I spent a week at an intense discipleship retreat. In the course of the week, I yielded to some personal feelings about a certain practice of the "community" and expressed those feelings rather openly. Of course, I was rightly corrected. It was a moment of growth in my life. I’ve been grateful ever since. About 20 years later, I related that experience publicly as a part of a Sunday morning message. To my surprise, the wife of the pastor who had wisely corrected me was in the audience. My first words to her after the service were, "Did I tell the story right?" Fortunately I had. What a strong reminder it was to me that I dare not, for the sake of effect and impact, allow myself to embellish or distort the details of an illustration. Integrity and character are exposed at just these points.

I once heard of a minister who not only borrowed another minister’s sermon, but even used that minister’s personal illustrations as if they were his. This is both unthinkable and inexcusable. As someone has said: We dare not tell little lies to speak of great truths.

While studying preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary, I heard Ian Pitt-Watson use a most gripping illustration. Several years later, while speaking at a conference in another part of the country, I desired to use that same illustration. To credit Dr. Pitt-Watson seemed most unnecessary. This was a group of people distant from Fuller and its professors. Fortunately, by God’s mercy, I paused long enough to provide the necessary footnote. Following the message a total stranger expressed her appreciation to me for giving the proper credit for the illustration. Then she added, "I’ve heard him use that illustration myself." I was reminded again how critical it is to practice integrity, even in the little things.

The church is crying out these days for men and women who understand and practice the basic principles of effective leadership. But in all the discussion, may we not ignore or in any way depreciate the absolute necessity of character as it provides the foundation for leadership. A minister might appear, by all external criteria, to be an effective leader; but if character is absent, it is only a matter of time (or eternity) until the house collapses for lack of a good foundation. In God’s economy, godly character is what matters most.

Did not Jesus say a great deal about stewardship of time, talent, and resources? Is not character implicit in all He taught? Character is not taught in a classroom nor confirmed with the granting of a diploma or credential. Godly character is the product of a lifelong quest to allow the grace of God to touch us at the deepest levels of our emotions. It is the by-product of a practical life of spiritual discipline and submission to the will of God.

I recently heard a most enlightening commentary by Michael Josephson on the absence of character in our contemporary world. He said, "There’s a cartoon of an earnest-looking fellow standing in front of a man behind a desk. The caption, ‘We admire your integrity, Daniel. Unfortunately, we have no room for that in our firm.’ This may not be an overstatement." Mr. Josephson provided the facts to support his contention—not a good testimony: "A 1995 survey of more than 2,000 secretaries in the U.S. and Canada revealed that 60 percent lied about their supervisors’ whereabouts. Okay, that’s a moral misdemeanor. But nearly one in five also said they had falsely stated they witnessed a signature on a notarized document, and 10 percent said they removed damaging information from a file at the request of their boss." These actions by secretaries, Mr. Josephson states, "reflect the flexible morality of individual supervisors who, out of ambition, fear, or corrupt character, ask others to lie or look the other way." I especially like his closing exhortation: "Your integrity is a personal asset. Don’t let anyone mess with it."1 Good counsel. Sadly, the church has been impacted by the world. I wonder how many pastors wink at their secretary’s response to a caller: "I’m sorry, the pastor is not in today," when in reality he is in the next office; or, "I’m sorry, this is pastor’s study day," when in truth that pastor is enjoying a round of golf.

The people of God deserve better. This kind of careless conduct and compromised integrity erodes the leadership influence of a pastor. It may not expose itself immediately, but in time it will be very clear that something is amiss. I have heard it often said, "I feed more on the spirit of my pastor than even the words that he speaks." People look for the validation of the message preached through the integrity of the life lived. If observed conduct and proclaimed truth do not run on parallel tracks, the intended impact will ultimately be reduced to absurdity.

No place are integrity and character (or their absences) more clearly demonstrated than in the area of church finance. Granted, responsibilities may be delegated, but it is up to the pastor to be sure that the highest level of integrity is demonstrated in the handling of God’s resources—designated gifts. Payroll deductions, income projects, budgetary controls—all these and more remain under the pastor’s direction. Who can count the number of pastors who have shipwrecked on the shoals of careless procedures and thoughtless negligence in the area of church finance? Diligence here is a must.

What can pastors do to build the kind of character that will support and sustain a ministry of effective leadership in the local church?

Adopt the right models.

We become like the people we follow. This is why it is so important to carefully select the people after whom you pattern your life. In time, you will adopt as your own their values, perspectives, principles, behavior, and character. Learning, for all of us, is primarily through imitation and example. Right choices here will prove to be most important.

I have a vivid memory of the pastor under whom I first served as a minister. Fresh out of seminary and ready to embark on a life of pastoral ministry, I was ready to be nurtured and trained. Brother Wilbur Weides was my choice, and it was a good one. I listened to every word he spoke, evaluated every decision he made, observed every response he made to people, and studied the way he ordered his life. To this day, I admit to being something of a "Weides clone." He was a wonderful model. In these days when bigger is better (or supposedly so), may we be very careful to choose models for ministry who exhibit the kind of character and integrity that point clearly to Jesus Christ. Some of our finest pastors, rich in character, faithfully serve the Lord in uncelebrated ways and in obscure places. But when the light of eternity sets its focus, many of these pastors will shine with brightness.

Choose models for ministry who will challenge you to the highest levels of godly character. Qualities of authentic leadership begin to emerge right here.

Define carefully the boundaries.

When it comes to character and integrity, where have you set the boundaries? What do you consider essential to good character? What would you see as a compromise of integrity? We must all be very intentional. An old college professor put it this way: "Fair weather is building weather." In other words, don’t wait for the storm to strike before you bolt down the hatches. Draw the boundary lines now so you will know where you stand when the crisis strikes.

It would be very difficult to play a good game of football, tennis, hockey, or basketball without boundary lines. In the same way, it is impossible to live a life characterized by authentic character without knowing where you have placed the boundary lines of moral and ethical behavior. There is a provocative billboard on the freeway between my home and the church. It would be sinful for me to look at that sign as I go by. Why? Because as Job says: "I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl" (Job 31:1, NIV). This is where I have drawn a boundary line as it relates to moral purity.

If a man disallows a look, he will not be tempted to inappropriate action. This is just the point when it comes to character. We must define the boundaries and hold ourselves accountable to live within those boundaries—resist all monetary pressures to move the boundaries to accommodate inappropriate conduct. None of us dares to wait until we find ourselves in the midst of an ethical and moral crisis before we intentionally determine what is, for us, inappropriate behavior. The discipline of defined boundaries will build into our lives the moral and ethical fabric that will equip us well to lead the church. Anything less will result in ineffective and spiritual disaster.

Practice integrity in the little things.

The temptation always is to wink at the little things. It’s just a nickel… dime…insignificant point…of no consequence. So we grow accustomed to living a little below the line of clear integrity and uncompromising character. It goes in many directions: How we fill out our tax forms; the deductions we allow; the way we calculate our income; the manner in which we figure our tithe; the system we use in screening our calls; the way we respond when someone asks us to pray for them; the explanation we give for being late; the alibis we give for missing an appointment; the way we fulfill our promises to missionaries. The list is almost endless.

The temptation is to dismiss the "little things"—to see them as unworthy of our attention…to reason that we are too busy for such trivia…or that everyone is given to some breach of integrity on so-called minor points. A rash of more minor infractions has preceded radical and tragic moral and ethical failure. Remember, Mr. Josephson speaks of "moral misdemeanors"—those less consequential infractions of the moral and ethical code. Tragically, moral misdemeanors typically become moral felonies. The roots of ethical catastrophe reach deep into a mix of lesser offenses. This downward spiral must never be allowed to develop. It is deadly to the work of God. Watch out for the little things—it’s where big trouble has its beginnings.

Stay accountable to God’s appointed authority.

I am accountable to the board of our church and the leaders of our Fellowship, the Assemblies of God. More than once I have foolishly mused: If I could just run this church as I want, without regard to a church board, life would be a lot easier. Those are the words of a fool. The lack of accountability ultimately destroys the ministry and influence of any pastor. We must have a God-given authority to which we are accountable. After 40 years of working closely with a variety of church boards, I am prepared to give clear testimony that these boards have been a godsend to me. They have prevented me from making some very costly and tragic mistakes.

The accountability structures provided by our Fellowship have also been a source of moral and ethical ballast in my life. I try never to forget that I am responsible to my fellow ministers for the way in which I live my life and conduct my ministry. I hold in high honor those partners in ministry who provide the God-given authority in my life. Submission to the authorities God has placed over us is not only a matter of compliance to a set of guidelines, it is an attitude of the heart. It is at this level that authentic character is allowed to emerge and the highest level of leadership influence achieved.

No pastor is ever going to be an effective leader until he has learned first to be an effective follower. It is sheer hypocrisy to expect people to follow our leadership until first we have demonstrated the kind of humility and submissiveness that is required of those who serve the Lord effectively as a faithful follower. Authentic character that demonstrates itself in effective leadership has learned well this fundamental lesson. It is God’s way to suppress arrogance, pride, and conceit. Only then is any minister qualified to lead the church for which Jesus died.

Practice well the essential disciplines of the Christian life.

An autopsy on moral and ethical failure typically reveals that the fundamental disciplines of the Christian life have been neglected. When the outward demands of ministry are no longer commensurate with the inner flow of Christ’s life-giving grace, failure is inevitable.

Every minister must be committed first to the nurture of his own inner spirit. Only then is it possible to move among the people of God with authentic and Christ-honoring influence. Leadership that presents itself as qualified and worthy, but is not anchored in spiritual discipline, is most hazardous to the life of the church. The challenge here is great. The life of a minister is filled with justifiable demands. Good things press in on every side. The hours of the day are never enough. We smart over the guilt of work never done. And in this setting, it is easy to miss the one thing most needed—to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn of Him. Anything less will rob the minister of an effectiveness in leadership, which is one of the crying needs of the church.

Every pastor lives in two worlds—the inner, invisible world of the spirit and the outer, visible world of daily life and experience. The former is ours to control, the latter is God’s. I am encouraged by this truth. When life seems hectic and threatening, I can be strengthened by God’s presence and power in the inner world of my spirit. It is reassuring to know that I can cultivate an inner character and integrity that will sustain me as I continue to fulfill the call which God has placed upon my life. It is here I find strength to carry on.

Yes, I have failed more times than I care to admit. But I am very glad I humbled myself, drove back to that antiquated station, and from my heart told the cashier, "I’m sorry!" Godly character that results in authentic leadership is built in moments just like that.

*No gender bias is intended by the use of the masculine pronoun for pastor.

Richard L. Dresselhaus, D.Min., is an executive presbyter and senior pastor of First Assembly of God, San Diego, California.

ENDNOTE

1. Michael Josephson, "Character Counts," radio station KNX, Los Angeles.

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