Character: The Secret to Leading for the Long Term
It comes as no surprise to anyone when I say that pastoring is hard. Pastors bear the spiritual responsibility of a church. They grow it to sustainability, help it thrive, drive the vision, and care for the culture.
I recently wrote an article for Influence Magazine on “Leading for the Long Term.” In it, I try to debunk some false facts about longevity, and share some insights on how to stick it out. I wanted to take some time here to explain how the secret to longevity and sustainability for the long haul is character.
In the midst of difficulty and stress (which pastors readily acknowledge), we have found through quantitative research that pastors are pretty resilient. We’ve worked hard over the years to debunk fake statistics suggesting otherwise.
In the article at Influence Magazine, I address the actual statistics on the longevity of pastors:
Statistically, about 1% of pastors drop out of ministry per year. 93% of Protestant pastors strongly agree that they “feel privileged to be a pastor.” Nearly 8 in 10 pastors (79%) disagree with the statement, “Being in ministry has had a negative effect on my family."
Math does not care about our feelings, and the statistics point to seeing that pastors recognize the stresses associated with their jobs, but are much more resilient than popular (church) culture gives them credit for.
In 1988, I was ordained. In my denomination, local churches do the ordaining and hold the credentials. So, at 20, I was ordained and pretty much off to the races with little training, preparation, and mentoring. But my character was far from ready—and I want to help pastors see clearly what took me years to recognize; namely, you can't shortcut character.
What Is Character?
There can be a lot of confusion and misunderstanding about what exactly character is. As I discussed in the article:
When we talk about character, we are referring to the distinctive nature and quality of a person’s heart. I am the interim teaching pastor at Moody Church in Chicago, so I read a lot of D.L. Moody these days. Moody describes character as “what you are in the dark.” We can’t fake it, assume it, or contrive it. The subtlety and inevitability of character are why it is both so important and such a major weakness for many leaders.
Character is the core of who we are. And it's often developed in the dark and in the private rhythms of our life. Most of the hard work for any success comes on the front end: practice, practice, practice! And while practice can never make perfect in a fallen world, practicing character before the heat of a situation will determine your response. Over the course of your ministry, developing and practicing character will be THE factor that will either help you succeed, or cause you to retire early.
There are a few areas where character often gets compromised, and thus are worthy of special attention, including sexual ethics, issues of our family of origin, and the need for leadership accountability.
Long-Term Sexual Character
Character issues extend far beyond the sexual, but we would be remiss if we didn't address it as a critical topic related to character.
Sexual character is the common failing we see and read about in the press and in the newspapers because it gets the most hype. This can sometimes lead to it being seen as the cardinal sin from which there is no return. Research shows that “most pastors (57%) and youth pastors (64%) admit they have struggled with porn, either currently or in the past,” according to a 2016 Barna survey.
So, sexual sin is real and frequent.
Of course, God created us as sexual beings, yet I believe many of us have unrealistic beliefs that the spiritual and the sexual are disconnected. For those who grew up in the church, we are trained in a narrative that says, “Wait until marriage; the sex will always be amazing and mind-blowing, and you will remain faithful to your spouse until death.” It doesn't always work that way. Marriage ebbs and flows, and it's not always awesome.
Then, you are in the ministry, with often deeply personal conversations about spiritual and emotional realities. Such conversations create bonds—and it is important to know upfront that you will probably find yourself attracted to people and people will be attracted to you, regardless of physical attributes. When you recognize this, you can prepare for when it happens. Many times, pastors are emotionally driven, and practical safeguards and honest communication with your spouse are the way to maintain and protect sexual character in the context of ministry.
Healing of Identity Issues
From my observation, pastors tend to be emotionally unhealthy, even more so than the population they serve. It takes a unique person to emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically give of themselves the way pastors need to, and many of us have father issues (or other issues) that contribute to the need to be liked, the need to be seen as worthy, and the need for approval.
This addresses the core of our identity, and subsequently the core of our character. Early on in ministry, I realized a lot of what I was doing was based on my own father wounds. I grew up in an alcoholic home, and many leaders I know have similar stories. I often asked myself, How do I avoid some of the character flaws that become evident with a father wound?
The answer is, at least in part, proactivity. I mention in the article:
You can avoid a crisis of character by being aware of your weaknesses and guarding where you might fail. Manage stress and pressure by relying on a support team of godly people who can help you carry the load. Build relationships with mentors. And, if needed, seek out counseling and psychological help.
Getting counseling, finding a godly fatherly mentor to model healthy interactions, and developing a community prior to the stress and pressure that comes from point leadership is crucial. It takes a lot of heavy lifting to heal identity issues that stem from your past, but it will benefit your ministry greatly if you do.
Leadership character is another difficulty we have seen, especially in recent years.
One of the things that was helpful for me was having peers and mentors speaking into my life, even as my influence expanded. Let's face it, I'm a D-list Christian celebrity. I'm like the background vocalist in the band of well-known Christian leaders, but even now people pay me deferential respect and it's challenging to have honest feedback. I share in the article:
I currently have three or four people who speak directly into my life, and I have had to work toward that. Humility, teachability, and honest personal assessment are the inoculations against most leadership character flaws. If you can do the hard work of self-evaluation on the front end, it will benefit and protect your ministry for the long haul.
Most of the medicine for these leadership character flaws relates to the community in which you participate. If you can do the hard work of developing a community where you can be honest and open, it will benefit and protect your leadership for the long haul.
Character with your sexuality, with your identity, and with your leadership will help you go the distance. And even when you fall short (and we all will at some juncture), there is no cardinal sin that God cannot forgive or does not redeem. The gospel tells us there is hope when we fail. That's not an excuse, but rather a motivator. I conclude in the article: "God can and does redeem a leader's shortfalls for His glory, but gone unchecked, a pastor can have serious character failings as a result of unresolved emotional and psychological wounds."
The key to lasting in ministry is character. There are many facets to it, but addressing the issues head on will change you, sustain you, and equip you to last for the long term.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.