Leadership: Leaders Embody Christian Character

Leadership Blog


Leaders Embody Christian Character

If I were to say the word “Dust” to 5 different people, I might get 5 different perceptions of the word.


The attentive housecleaner would think about the film of dust that accumulates on table and furniture tops.


The rose grower would think about dusting the roses to protect them from blight.


The detective show enthusiast would think about what the crime scene specialist does in looking for fingerprints.


The farmer in the Midwest would think about the plane flying over the field treating the crops.


The theologian would think of the Ash Wednesday imperative that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.”


All perfectly good definitions of dust. To have a conversation about dust, we would need a common definition to use to keep us on the same page.


Any time a word is used, it should be defined in a way that makes clear how the word is being used. This is called an Operational Definition.


When we speak about character, there is also the need to have an operational definition of the word.


Character, for this blog, is the nature of a person that shapes what they do and say.


We are going to be even more specific. I am writing about Christian character.


Operationally defined, Christian character is what people do and say when who they are has been shaped by the Word of God through an encounter with Jesus Christ.


Leaders in faith communities embody Christian character. In doing so, they create an environment where mission can thrive. 


The Cultures of Character and Personality

There was a shift in America from the Culture of Character to the Culture of Personality at the turn of the century (1800 to 1900’s). Susan Cain, in her book Quiet, refers to an observation made by cultural historian Warren Susman. This shift from the Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality represents a change in the way leaders are asked to lead.1


In the Culture of Character, the leader was someone who was, “serious, disciplined, and honorable.” The public impression of the person was not nearly as important as what the person did in private.


With the advent of the Culture of Personality, leaders started paying attention to how other people saw them. It was a shift from doing what is right to looking good in front of others. Being “bold and entertaining” were seen as an important part of a person’s identity and required the person to be a performer.2


Comparing written guides for character of the time with “personality-driven advice manuals3,” Susman noted the attributes outlined for each. For the character guides, a person was “described by words like citizenship, duty, work, golden deeds, honor, reputation, morals, manners, integrity.” In the personality advice manuals, the qualities of “magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, glowing, dominant, forceful, and energetic” were lifted up.4


I think it is important to consider the differences between a Culture of Character and a Culture of Personality. In recent years, leadership in the church has been based heavily upon the Culture of Personality. Larger than life personalities have dominated the podcasts, book deals, and the pool of keynote speakers considered for clergy and lay leader training.


When I think about leadership, I think about the Culture of Character—but a particular kind of character. When I think of the character in leaders of churches, I think specifically about Christian Character. This type of character is distinct from any other definition of character. 


What Makes Christian Character Different?

It is commonly assumed that good deeds make for a good person. Most certainly – at times – we can trace one’s good deeds to a motivation to do what is right and good. We are also aware that a person can do good things out of less than honorable intentions. Martin Luther understood this. Luther would tell us that good deeds don’t make a good person, but a good person does good deeds. In modern parlance, “Sitting in a church building doesn’t make me any more of a Christian than sitting in a garage makes me a car.”


Instead of assuming that a person’s deeds will shape who they are, we assert that something has happened to the person first; the person is changed from that encounter; and as a result, the actions of that person are shaped by who they have become. 


For Christians, the death of Jesus on the cross for the forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life is the life-changing moment. It washes over us in Holy Baptism. It satisfies our hunger and thirst in Holy Communion. It permeates our minds, hearts, and souls as it comes to us in the proclamation of the Word of God. “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” we are changed.5


Jesus shouted to the dead Lazarus to come forth from the grave. Lazarus came forth and was unbound from the tyranny of death.  The Word of God is God’s bold announcement that death has no power over us, that God loves us unconditionally, that God calls us to share the gifts of life with others, and that God will sustain us in all our endeavors. 


No moral system or methodology for making meaning in the world can have that impact on us. That is why Christian Character is different from other kinds of character.


Christian Character

Having a Christian character is to be human once again, living in the power, grace, and gift of life that comes from God through Jesus Christ.


Pastor John Strommen writes that for Christians, any conversation about being human starts “with our relationship to God.”6


This relationship with God tells us three things about our lives, according to Pastor Strommen:

  1. God’s breath filled dust and brought us to life;
  2. God’s breath sustains us; and,
  3. God’s breath gives us a hopeful future.7


Christian character is marked by New Life; God Sustaining Us; and God Giving Us Hope.


Leadership with Christian character embodies those marks of God’s new life, sustenance, and hope.


The End of Christian Leadership

Too often, when we hear the word END, we think “being concluded”. 


I invite you to consider another definition of the word END, that is, what is the purpose of what one is doing?


When we talk about the END of Christian leadership, we are speaking about the purpose of Christian leadership.


Too often, Christian leadership is described as having a toolkit with the right tools at our disposal. In this scenario, the END of Christian leadership is seen as using that toolkit wisely to meet a proscribed set of measurable objectives. The END of that type of leadership is success and accomplishment. It starts with gathering the skill set necessary to meet those objectives and knowing how to best use the tools.


While it is important to develop one’s leadership skills, Christian leadership does not start with gaining a skill set, but starts with Christian Character. 


Christian leadership comes from the core of who we are. Who we are is shaped by our encounter with Jesus. As we encounter the grace and mercy of God, we are changed. Just as when someone we adore says “I love you to us” and we are different, hearing God’s promise of love through Jesus changes us. 

C. Kavin Rowe writes, “Leading an institution as a Christian is an adventure. It is anything but boring, and it is anything but easy.”8 To further stress the challenging nature of Christian leadership, Rowe states, leading an institution “requires from us all that we have to give, really, in the sense that it demands that we think about the Lord and that we behave in ways that show that we think about the Lord.”9 He describes this kind of leadership as that which both gives to us and demands from us. We can find joy in leading as a Christian. Giving thanks for that joy, we also realize that Christian leadership “calls forth a kind of seriousness about repentance and forgiveness and sin and the texture of Christian life.”10


This type of leadership described by Professor Rowe is only possible if we have received the gift of new life, sustenance, and hope from God.


As Christian leaders, we see ourselves and the people we lead through the prism of Jesus and his death on the cross. The work of Jesus changes everything. The prism through which we then see each circumstance in which we find ourselves as Christian leaders is that of seeing “all those things in the light of Christ.”11


In a relationship with God, Christian leaders bring to their context the capacity to focus on what is life-giving, what is life-sustaining, and what gives hope to life. That is the END of Christian leadership.


The Fundamental Background of Christian Leadership

At the forefront of every Christian leader is their Christian character given them by God. Christian leaders are shaped by God’s gift of new life sustenance, and hope.


Christian character is also what shapes the background through which all things are viewed. All the challenges, demands, and tasks of leadership are received through the background lens of new life, sustenance, and hope. 


Being a Christian “leader is about cultivating the right kind of background.”12


Stand in the busy food court of a local mall. You will be overwhelmed by more stimuli than you could ever process. Not surprising, you will find yourself focusing on that which is familiar. For my son, that would be Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. He can recognize the colors and patterns for the vendor, the smell of the pretzels, and the memory of his last time eating at Auntie Anne’s. His background with this vendor gives him a framework that allows him to focus amidst the plethora of stimuli.


As C. Kavin Rowe states, the background we use to recognize patterns helps to “reduce the appearance of complexity by screening out certain things and highlighting others, and they make the world appear to us in specific and manageable ways.”13


In the book, “Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing,” authors Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe use the example of a stop sign. When seeing a stop sign, we don’t go through a series of conscious questions and answers that lead to a logical conclusion. We don’t say, it’s red, octagonal, and has the word Stop on it. We simply see the sign and say, “It’s a stop sign.”14 Our background allows us to draw an almost immediate conclusion.


Rowe uses the example of the stop sign to speak about the importance of a person’s background. When a person’s background is shaped by the presence of God’s new life, sustenance, and hope, they gain the capacity to see, hear, and recognize the presence of God and the activity of God in their lives. The church’s mission is built upon that reality.


Professor Rowe uses the concept of background to speak about Christian leadership, “Christ shaped leadership is about developing a fundamentally Christian background in our institution or organization.”15 Leaders operate from that fundamental background and strive to shape a community of faith that functions based on a Christian background. The qualities of that Christian community are God’s new life, sustenance, and hope. 


13 Features of a Christian Leadership

A community that is shaped by God’s new life, sustenance, and hope will allow room for leadership that makes mission thrive. What might that leadership look like? I conclude with 13 Features of Christian Leadership whose background is in God’s new life, sustenance, and hope.


Professor Rowe outlines these 13 features of Christian leadership. Christian leadership is made manifest in:

  1. Humor: Laughter is a sign that we refuse to give in to brokenness.
  2. Scriptural Imagination: Learning to read the Bible well and developing a scriptural way of living requires slow reading, sustained attention, and community.
  3. Resilience: It is not necessarily toughness, but a lived hope, a way to keep getting up again that has its roots in God’s permanent faithfulness.
  4. Failure: Christians need leaders—and institutions—to train us in how to fail.
  5. Connections: Christian leaders cannot compartmentalize their lives because Christ is the Lord of all—so all things must be seen in relation to Christ.
  6. Silence: In this speedy world of words, leaders must learn how—and when—to use them.
  7. Success: Recognizing and not denying the reality of failure and death.
  8. Listening: Knowing how to listen well, which demands the ability to pay active attention while avoiding distraction and to relate what is being said to it context.
  9. Hierarchy: Wisdom in shaping a hierarchy toward a community’s public witness and the importance of Christian character for leaders.
  10. Institutions: institutions are where Christians become Christians. And leaders, those in power, are the ones who shape institutional life.
  11. Power: Found in hope, living out our lives of hope, we participate in God’s remaking of creation in Christ.
  12. Power of Images: leaders think about the place of images in their life and work, noticing that images are powerful, can be idols, and can create the space for growth in discipleship.
  13. Neighborliness: Strengthen the role the church plays as the place where our families and distant connections come together.16



1 Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, 2012. Random House Publishing: New York, New York.

2 Cain, Susan, pages 21-24.

3 Cain, Susan, page 23.

4 Cain, Susan, page 23-24.

5 1 Corinthians 15: 52.

6 Strommen, John. Becoming Human Again. www.1517.org/articles/becoming-human-again-2. 2023.

7 Strommen.

8 Rowe, C. Kavin. “The character of Christian leaders determines their impact.” Faith & Leadership, September 19, 2023. Faithandleadership.com.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Rowe, C. Kavin. Leading Christian Communities page 36.2023. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan.

13 Rowe, page 37.

14 Rowe, page 37.

15 Rowe, page 38.

16 These 13 Features are found in C. Kavin Rowe’s book Leading Christian Communities, pages 33-100. On those pages, Rowe unpacks each of the 13 features listed above.