Have you ever noticed how often we rank skills over character?

You’re seeking to hire someone for a job. Which is more important? Skills for the job, or the character of the one seeking the job? In almost every hiring situation, skills are the focus (though I have heard that Human Resources folks are increasingly Facebook and Instagram-stalking potential employees in an attempt to ascertain whatever they can about applicants’ private lives.)

I would like to suggest that in Christian ministry, character should be weighted over skills.

Let’s take an extreme example: the Sunday morning worship leader. How many skills are needed to effectively lead a contemporary worship service? There are many: Ability to read a chord chart (and usually to read music as well), singing ability, awareness of the various instruments of a band, knowledge of sound equipment and lighting, ability to organize practices, ability to organize a complicated calendar, and a winning personality. And there are more. But what about character? How important is it that your worship leader is a person of the Word and prayer, who is personally committed to sharing the good news with people who don’t know Christ, who loves the church Christ died for, who is compassionate toward the needy, who is humble, faithful, honest, and forgiving?

David Needham was one of my professors in college. He wasn’t a musician, but he was a worshipper of the Lord. He often started class with an a capella worship chorus that I have never heard sung in any church. The words were simple—almost simplistic: “You are my strength, oh God. You are my help, oh God. You are the One on whom I call. You are my shield, oh God. My life I yield, oh God. Forever you will be my all in all.” But he was a man of character who everyone knew deeply loved the Lord. He drew us into worship because he led us out of the overflow of his deeply rooted life in Christ. I would rather have him—a non-musician—lead me in worship any day of the week (including Sunday morning!) than a wiz-bang worship leader who lacked in some core area of character.

I once heard theologian Millard Erickson comment that if he were hiring for a faculty position at his school, he would prefer someone who possessed the minimum skills required for the position but who also exhibited excellent character over someone with outstanding skills but who lacked in some core area of character.

But you might be thinking: “That’s a false dichotomy. What about someone who possesses a good balance of both?”

I would suggest that if that thought crossed your mind before you read my question, you probably have not prioritized character over skills in the way that you ought.

Character is more important in ministry than skills.

And “balance” is never a word you want to apply to a person’s core character and commitments.

Many years ago I was in a discussion with a faculty colleague (not at Biola) to whom I was lamenting the theological drift of Brian MacLaren. (MacLaren had just released his provocative but less-than-orthodox book: A New Kind of Christian.) My colleague’s response floored me: “But MacLaren’s way of putting things is so interesting. He’s a great communicator and really gets people thinking.” I objected that MacLaren was on a trajectory away from orthodoxy (which has been confirmed in subsequent years…). My colleague’s response? “I would be glad for someone to cut corners a bit on doctrine if he’s able to communicate well.”

He was willing to compromise on the character (not to mention the theology!) of the communicator (here, the author), if the skills of the communicator were strong enough. If you follow through on his logic, it seems that he would have to agree (if he were consistent) that the greater skills a person possesses, the less character that person needs—since his or her skills somehow compensate for the character that is lacking.

Without pitting the two against each other (and I’m not trying to pit them against each other), it appears that the Bible often prioritizes character over skills. For example, 1 Timothy 3 instructs us that an overseer (elder, pastor) must be

  • above reproach (overall character)
  • the husband of one wife, managing his own household well (character in the family)
  • self-controlled, sensible, respectable, not addicted to wine (character in personal life)
  • able to teach (doctrinal character[1])
  • hospitable, not a fighter, gentle, peaceable, having a good reputation with those outside the church (character in relationships)
  • free from the love of money (character in relationship to money) 

(1 Tim. 3:2-7, re-ordering mine)

Where are skills in the list? At least this particular biblical list prioritizes character over skills when overseers are appointed. I may be missing something, but I don’t know of any instance in the Bible where skills are prioritized over character. This doesn’t mean that skills don’t matter; they do. But the point of this post is that throughout the Bible, character is viewed as vital, central, necessary, and indispensable for a leader, and this should not be forgotten. My fear is that we forget it all too frequently.

What are your thoughts about the relationship of skills and character?

[1] The most exegetical help we have in interpreting the expression “able to teach” comes from the parallel qualifications list in Titus. Titus 1:9 speaks of one who should be “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” In other words, an overseer/elder must be one who knows doctrine, and, for that reason, is able to instruct in what is right and wrong doctrine. Furthermore, the only other time that didaktikos (“able to teach”) is used in the NT is 2 Tim 2:24, which is also about correcting those who err in their knowledge. So it is probably incorrect to think of “able to teach” in 1 Tim 3:2 as a skill.