The Confluence of Character and Competence in Leadership

I’ve asked a few of my friends to contribute content to my website. This week, I’m featuring an article by Josh Benadum. Josh Benadum is a teaching pastor and elder at Xenos. He is an incredibly sharp thinker, speaker and leader. In this article, he explains how our character can hinder further development in our spiritual leadership.

The Confluence of Character and Competence in Leadership

By Josh Benadum

It’s often been observed that Paul’s qualifications for deacons and elders are focused on Christ-like character rather than skill or ability. This is a real and important biblical emphasis to unpack. The Old and New Testaments are littered with examples of individuals who could get others following them but could not get themselves to follow God, and were thus disqualified (ex. Saul, Diotrephes). When God chose David over Saul, it was not because of David’s superior stature, speaking ability, influence, or charisma, but because he was “a man after my own heart. He will do everything I want him to do” (Acts 13:22).  Are we therefore to assume that if we were only allowed one, we must choose mature character over leadership ability? Perhaps, but fortunately this is purely hypothetical. The choice between character and skill for the individual Christian leader is a false dilemma. Rather it is critical to comprehend the relationship between the two, as we seek to grow in our service to God.

Leadership skill and mature character are not one in the same. Anecdotally, it is possible to have good personal character but be relatively uninfluential. For example: a Christian might have excellent self-control learned through humble submission to God. One could be full of compassion and kindness, fostered through dedicated prayer. But does that mean this same person knows how to disciple others? Teaching the Word is not a mere matter of Bible knowledge, but also training in exposition and delivery.  So it is important to recognize that growth in one area doesn’t necessitate growth in the other.

How then can we understand the dynamic? Growth in character ought to drive development as a leader. Expanding leadership influence then must be sustained by continued growth in character (1 Timothy 4:11-16). As a young Christian I was thrilled to be able to offer friends spiritual advice and pray with them. The more I learned about God’s love, the more I desired to be used by Him. God was remaking me into a more loving person! But as I sought to love others more and more I encountered a problem: for all my zeal, I wasn’t very effective. The realization pricked my pride, but it also pained me legitimately because I wanted to see my friends actually grow with God. Ministry became a motivational source for sanctification in my life. God began to teach me patience and compassion. I found myself picking up books on how to disciple, teaching, listening, and helping others. I then applied the techniques I learned out of a desire to not just feel love for people in my own heart, but effectually impact them for Christ. As my influence increased I was driven back to God, asking for further growth in character to fit my new responsibilities.

Most leaders will probably find my experience relatable. But what does the principle look like extended? How should ongoing refinement of our character take us even further as leaders? It is not uncommon for leaders to stagnate and even stumble after years of service. To learn more, let’s consider five essential aspects of mature character and how growing (or failing to grow) in each could make all the difference for our leadership.

1. Hospitable (Titus 1:8)

Hospitality, or being welcoming to strangers (philoxenos) has to do with loving those outside your immediate circle of friends. Paul prays the Thessalonians might grow in their love for each other, but also everyone else (1 Thessalonians 3:12). Practically speaking this can look like maintaining a lifestyle of reaching out, or continually being willing to open up your life to new people. There are many ways to be hospitable: being engaging with newcomers at meetings, using our homes to host events, cooking meals, creating a warm atmosphere for times of fellowship, and initiating real friendships with those who don’t know Christ.

Growing in hospitality is an important part of effective leadership. Modeling a spirit of outward reaching love keeps a church from becoming inward. Cultivating a warm and engaging atmosphere establishes a context for ministry. While leaders don’t need to aim to be best friends with everyone who walks through the door, they should be attentive to people feeling comfortable and welcome around the Body of Christ (1 Peter 4:8-9, Romans 16:16).

2. Not self-willed (Titus 1:7)

Self-will is one of the greatest enemies of spiritual growth, partially because of its propensity to camouflage. Self-will can be bold and offensive; as with the person who always demands their way. But it can hide in more secretive forms; as with the autonomous person who doesn’t share their plans in order to avoid critique. Self-will can look like outright rejection of God’s moral will, but it can also manifest as a self-righteous attitude, or a self-centered approach to ministry.

At the heart self-will is the proud preference for my way over God’s way (Jeremiah 7:24). Self-will can be evidenced by a lack of prayer, or consistently attempting to serve in the power of the flesh. Self-willed leaders find it hard to take input from others (Proverbs 12:15), and often fail the test of failure by failing to learn (Psalm 32:9).

Watchman Nee says, “Unteachability is one of the most tragic aspects of self-will. If a person cannot learn, what possibility of advance is there? If we can be thoroughly delivered from our reluctance to accept instruction, so that we receive it without hesitation, we shall be able to move on swiftly from one new lesson to another. There are endless lessons to be learned in the spiritual realm, so we must be prepared to receive help from many quarters. Unless we become better learners we shall make pathetically little progress even in a lifetime.”[1]

3. Gentle (1 Timothy 3:3)

Spiritual leaders must be strong (Titus 2:15), yet also gentle. Our English word carries the connotation of a soft and humble disposition or tone. However in Greek the word has a broader meaning: “Not insisting on every right of letter of law or custom, yielding, gentle, kind, courteous, tolerant.”[2] The gentle person by this definition is not given to black and white thinking. They don’t deal with people rigidly, but able to work within the context of human sin and weakness (1 Thessalonians 5:14).

Leaders must be principled fighters who hold to a biblical standard (Titus 1:9). But they also need to be able to see in shades of gray, recognize exceptions, and take into account difficult circumstances (Ephesians 4:2). This can mean being able to adjust your expectations or take a different approach with hard cases. Good leaders can recognize messy growth, and distinguish setbacks from hardened hearts.

While there may be “best practices” in leadership which should inform the calls we make, these aren’t always hard and fast rules. They need to be applied with prayer and in a spirit love, with an eye to what is best for the individual.

Bill Lawrence offers this advice: “Taking stands does not mean you should be inflexible; the secret to taking stands is knowing what is worth entering tension over and what isn’t. Make certain the stand you take is for the benefit of the person’s growth in light of the defined and agreed upon vision and goals, not just for policies, your preference or convenience.”[3]

4. Eager to serve (1 Peter 5:2)

Jesus Christ Himself blessed us with our ministry (2 Corinthians 4:1). Therefore leadership shouldn’t be characterized by dreary and dutiful compulsion, but joy and excitement! This doesn’t exclude moments of pain or whole seasons of grind and toil (2 Timothy 4:1-2). But the general disposition of a mature Christian is eagerness to serve our master in whatever way he chooses to employ us (Mark 10:45).

Enthusiasm for spiritual things, comes from increasing faith in the goodness and power of God. As we get to know him better and better, the more earnest we become to see His will done (Philippians 3:10-12). New venues of service or new challenges of faith only mean fresh opportunity to see His power released in our lives.  

Charles Spurgeon explains how leaders must model eagerness: “Moreover, for the sake of our church members, and converted people, we must be energetic, for if we are not zealous, neither will they be. It is not in the order of nature that rivers should run uphill, and it does not often happen that zeal rises from the pew to the pulpit.”[4]

5. Sensible (Titus 1:8)

In Greek being sensible pertains to “being in control of oneself, prudent, thoughtful, self-controlled.” Practically speaking the sensible person is characterized by “careful consideration for responsible actionintent on the what, the how, and the when of doing what should be done” (BDAG). Biblically, this is related to the notion of being sober and alert for the purpose of prayer and awareness of Satan’s schemes (1 Peter 4:7, 5:8).

Leaders need to be vigilant and ready. Attentive and sensitive to both danger and opportunity. Failure to think critically and anticipate what is coming can lead to discouraging setbacks and missed opportunities for growth. Leaders who are always on the back foot, rarely make wise decisions and tend to operate out of defensive fear rather than offensive faith.

Sensible sober leadership takes the time to weigh the pros and cons of major ministry moves. Timing matters when it comes to issuing a challenge, or rolling out a new direction for the group. It requires a steady hand on the wheel to make sure people don’t fall through the cracks, but are being ministered to and helped appropriately. Part of careful consideration is also seeking outside advice and thinking through situations as a team.


What holds many leaders back from increasing effectiveness isn’t training in technique, but development in character. The leader’s walk with God must remain dynamic, and we need to be seeking personal growth in every stage of life.  While we don’t determine the scope of ministry God entrusts to us, we can choose be faithful with what opportunities we have already been given (Luke 16:10).

As God transforms us, we can count on Him to make us more effective leaders. At bare minimum leaders model transformed character in compelling ways to their people. But character development should also drive us to become more humble, teachable, and ultimately skillful in how we love others.

[1] The Normal Christian Worker, Watchman Nee

[2] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., Bauer, W., & Gingrich, F. W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 371). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


[4] Chapter 3: Earnestness from Encounter with Spurgeon, by Helmut Thielicke The relationship between character growth and developing as a leader