Charisma has fallen on hard times in the church. Or at least some of us have become suspicious of it. The cracks have been showing for a while. Nine years ago, long before Oxford University Press crowned rizz (slang for the kind of charisma that inspires romantic attraction) its 2023 word of the year, Rick Warren observed, “Charisma has absolutely nothing to do with leadership.”

But we all know that it does, don’t we?

We like leaders with dynamic personalities. We are drawn to them, in the church and in politics. For good or ill, charisma is a factor. The charismatic leader is a common feature of the origin stories of many Christian (and non-Christian) organizations and denominations. Many movements trace their beginnings to a larger-than-life personality with a great ambition for God whose effectiveness seems to be due as much to personality as to God’s call.

For example, Scripture says that Saul, Israel’s first king, was “as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else” (1 Sam. 9:2). The impression made by Saul’s physical appearance suggested that he would be an ideal king.

Subsequent experience proved otherwise. When the prophet Samuel looked for Saul’s successor among the sons of Jesse, the Lord warned him not to be swayed by such things. “The Lord does not look at the things people look at,” he said. “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).

However, when David was brought before him, 1 Samuel 16:12 notes that he was “glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.”

Charisma, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. So there is a cultural dimension to charisma. One reason 1 Samuel emphasized the physical appearance of Saul and David is because the king was also a warrior. People saw the king as a deliverer (1 Sam. 8:19–20). Saul’s height and David’s health contributed to their prowess in battle and made them seem kingly.

Yet Scripture is clear: Any success they experienced was due to more than their natural gifts. It was ultimately a function of charisma in the truest theological sense. They succeeded because the Holy Spirit came upon them in power (1 Sam. 10:10; 11:6; 16:13).

And then they each sinned very publicly. The similar failures of today’s charismatic leaders have made national headlines and become fodder for podcasts and documentaries. Their stories are a blunt reminder that sometimes charisma, like beauty, is only skin deep.

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But the familiar trajectory of their story lines also proves that charisma gives a kind of power, whether we want it to or not. We’re just not sure what kind. Is it an authority that comes from God? Or merely a work of the flesh?

Charismatic leaders have been present throughout history. But the ideal of the charismatic leader was brought to the forefront by the 20th-century sociologist Max Weber.

Drawing on the biblical idea of leadership as a gift from God (Rom. 12:8), Weber defined charisma as “a certain quality of an individual person by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, super-human, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” For Weber, the essence of charisma was a leader’s forceful personality that compelled others to follow.

A strong personality, however, was not the only thing that made such leaders charismatic, according to Weber. Charisma is the result of a collection of traits, including sanctity of character. By Weber’s definition, the combination that makes up charisma is rare.

If a sociological definition of charisma is “power through personality,” the biblical idea of charisma locates the power elsewhere. Charisma, Scripture suggests, is the power of the Holy Spirit granted by the grace of Christ. This God-given power is displayed through (and sometimes in spite of) personality. In this biblical definition, personality is a medium by which God’s power is displayed, not the source of that power.

In this respect, all leadership is charismatic because leadership is a gift from God (the etymology of charisma denotes a gift from God). Not only is the ability to exercise leadership a gift granted to certain individuals, but the individuals are themselves gifts given to the church (Eph. 4:7–13).

This spiritual charisma is not for only a handful of people in the church. God gives the Spirit “to each one … for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). The church does have leaders, but its health and success do not depend upon them alone.

The church’s leaders—those who exercise spiritual gifts in its midst as well as those who perform the necessary functions and tasks that enable it to fulfill its mission—all contribute to the Holy Spirit’s charismatic leadership of the church.

The public failure of many dynamic leaders is a reminder of the danger of relying too much on any individual—including ourselves.

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When Moses’ father-in-law Jethro saw Moses surrounded by the people as he judged their disputes from morning until evening, he quickly saw the folly of such a leadership model. “What you are doing is not good,” Jethro said.

“You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone” (Ex. 18:17–18). Jethro’s solution was to disperse the load by sharing the responsibility of judgment with others.

God seems to have confirmed Jethro’s counsel with a similar dispersal of the Holy Spirit when he took “some of the power of the Spirit” that was on Moses and placed it on the elders of Israel (Num. 11:17).

Not only did this action anticipate the shared burden of leadership that we find in the New Testament church; it also foreshadowed the broader outpouring of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. Not everyone in the church is called to be a leader. But we all have been granted the gift of the indwelling Spirit (Rom. 8:9).

If the power to lead is ultimately traced to the Holy Spirit, what role does personality play? Is it an asset or an encumbrance?

A common view says that the best leadership style is one where personality disappears. As I wrote in Preaching Today, we hear an echo of this reservation in a prayer I have often heard uttered before a sermon. It goes something like this: “Let my words be forgotten, so that only what comes from you is remembered.” Such prayers mean well but miss the point, not least because it hardly requires an act of God to forget what the preacher says.

In a series of lectures delivered to students at Yale, 19th-century pulpit master Phillips Brooks famously defined preaching as the communication of “truth through personality.” Brooks understood personality to be something more than personal style. It includes the preacher’s character, affections, intellect, and moral being. This is a matter of God working through the
whole person.

Leadership is mediated the same way. The qualifications for leadership outlined in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 concentrate on the kind of person being considered more than on the tasks they ought to perform.

Personality matters in leadership. A study of America’s largest churches by Warren Bird and Scott Thumma asserts that, “by and large, megachurch pastors are long-time servants of their churches”—not the abusers or criminals recent headlines have trained us to watch for. “They keep the church’s focus on spiritual vitality, having a clear purpose, and living out that mission.”

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The majority of these churches have experienced significant growth through the ministry of a charismatic pastor who served the church for an average of 22 years.

Other research suggests that certain personality factors—the ability to inspire, assertiveness, and agreeableness—enhance the work of church planting.

God works through the nature of people just as he does through natural processes. He can send bread from heaven but mostly provides food through planting and growing. He can heal instantly through a miracle but more often heals through the ministration of doctors and medicine. Christ has provided the church with gifted personalities who teach, lead, and administrate, and this is the usual way he works.

Image: Illustration by Tim McDonagh

Yet it cannot be denied that personal charisma can be a liability as well as an asset. One 2018 study has shown that the more charisma leaders possess, the more effective they are perceived to be by their followers. But this is only true to a certain point. The difficulty is in determining how much charisma is too much.

How can leaders know when they have moved from self-confidence to overconfidence? Unfortunately, this seems to be a lesson usually learned through failure.

Charismatic personalities can be egotistical and narcissistic. Yet no church looking for a pastor says to itself, “Let’s hire a conceited jerk!” In the same way, nobody looking for a church thinks, Where can I find an abusive pastor today? We are drawn to narcissistic leaders because they are attractive.

Narcissistic leaders have a presence. They are exciting. They hold out the promise of great things. Many produce impressive results, at least for a while. Churches hoping for a messianic leader can find the narcissistic style that often attends charismatic leadership very appealing. They tolerate abuse, hoping that the pastor will lead them into the promised land of ministry success.

As is true of every codependent relationship, this one is built upon a dysfunctional system of rewards. Congregations enable narcissistic behavior because they get something from the leaders. Perhaps it is the adrenaline rush of a magnified personality expressed through preaching. Often, it is an ability to attract a crowd.

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Churches that tolerate abuse from narcissistic leaders often fear that no one else will be able to produce similar results. Or they worry that the pastor’s departure will hurt attendance. The larger the church, the more difficult it can be to disengage because there seems to be so much at stake. They too often end up developing social systems that reinforce abuse.

Narcissists surround themselves with people who make them feel special. This inner circle experiences a vicarious thrill by being associated with the leader. This association often comes with perks or special treatment, even if that is only access to a perceived celebrity. The result is a codependent loop that blinds those responsible for holding the narcissist accountable, leading them to be complicit in the abuse.

Narcissistic leaders are usually bullies. Such leaders develop organizational cultures marked by fear and punishment. They use the power of their spiritual position to shut down anybody who challenges them. They create a culture that silences objections and penalizes objectors.

There is always a cost to those who challenge narcissistic leaders. Church members who question their agendas or practices are accused of being divisive and undermining God’s plan. In a misapplication of 1 Samuel 26:9 and 11, some warn those who criticize the pastor not to “lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed.” Threats and retaliation are explained away as “church discipline.”

Weber described the process in this way: “The people choose a leader in whom they trust. Then the chosen leader says, ‘Now shut up and obey me.’” This approach sounds uncomfortably like the philosophy of many high-profile church leaders whose strong personalities made them prominent but whose bullying style subsequently brought them into disgrace.

Where, then, should we look to find the ideal leadership personality? This seems like one of those Sunday school questions where the answer is always “Jesus.” Although the Bible outlines standards of character for church leaders, we do not find a single personality type held up as the ideal, either by narrated example or explicit command.

The Bible’s depictions of great (but of course faulty) leaders offer a varied portrait. Moses is not like David, who is not like Paul. One does not get a sense that the Spirit shapes those God uses as leaders into or out of a single personality type. Extroverts, introverts, detailed planners, intuitive responders, dynamic personalities, and retiring types all seem to have a place.

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Likewise, Jesus’ choice of apostles hardly reveals a single apostolic type. Taken together, his disciples seem an unlikely group coming from radically different backgrounds with conflicting values and ideals—except perhaps for a shared penchant for missing the point. They were fishermen, Zealots, separatists, and collaborators with the Romans. This belies the uniformity we often see in profiles that describe the ideal leadership personality.

Even if there is a common personality profile for charismatic leaders, most leaders in the Bible do not fall into this category.

Consider Paul and Apollos. Today, we know Paul’s work much better than Apollos’s. But when they were alive, the star power seems to have been on Apollos’s side. By all accounts, he had charisma. A native of the great city of Alexandria, Apollos was “a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures,” as well as someone who “spoke with great fervor” (Acts 18:24–25). These traits garnered Apollos a following in the church of Corinth (1 Cor. 3:4).

Paul also had followers in Corinth. But to some there, Paul’s charisma was limited to his letters. According to 2 Corinthians 10:10, they complained, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.”

Those who are called to the same task may not perform it in the same way. The examples of leaders like Moses, Peter, and Paul indicate that God prepares leaders’ distinct personalities for the tasks to which they are called. I am convinced that this preparation includes deficits as well as strengths. God calls the foolish, the weak, the brash, and the timid (1 Cor. 1:26–29).

Successful leadership depends upon charisma in the larger, biblical sense of the word. It is a gift that God grants through his Spirit. Leadership abilities, as well as the leaders themselves, are given by God today, just as they were in the Bible. They are as varied in their personalities as any of the leaders we read about in the Bible and just as imperfect.

We would probably prefer to have Jesus alone as our leader. We are longing, I think, for a movement whose only impetus comes from the Spirit rather than as a response to someone’s personality.

Such a thing is certainly possible, but it is not the norm. Most of the time, God works through people. Where there are people, personality is always a factor. The Word who “didst not abhor the Virgin’s womb,” as the ancient hymn declares, does not shrink from revealing himself through the personality of his servants.

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The spectacular failure of so many high-profile leaders should make us Christians wary of placing too much stock in the personality of any single individual. The church has no room for personality cults. There is only one Messiah for God’s people, and his name is Jesus.

But that should not make us afraid of personality itself. Personality can be distorted by sin, but it is also God’s primary medium for displaying his image in our lives. Personality is not a liability in leadership. It is the face of the soul.

John Koessler is a writer, podcaster, and retired faculty emeritus at Moody Bible Institute. His latest book is When God Is Silent, published by Lexham Press.

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