Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert…He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
-1 Timothy 3:2-7 (NIV)
Ideally, you want both, of course. It might also depend upon how specialized the competence required is. (If I have a brain tumor, I want a neurosurgeon who knows his stuff. How good a guy he is might not enter my mind.) But when Paul wants to talk about the work of a shepherd/elder/overseer*, he doesn't formulate a job description. Management experience isn't really on his mind. He doesn't get into degrees and education. The ability to think strategically, or outside of the box, or in any of the other trendy ways that interviewers want candidates to be able to think doesn't make his list. He doesn’t even say much about what the job entails. Instead, he focuses on the character of the people he wants for the job.
“Above reproach,” he begins, making sure no one takes too lightly the standards to which church leaders should be held. A church leader should be faithful to one spouse and have earned the respect of his children. Self-control, gentleness, and temperance should keep a church leader even-keeled and cool-headed, and he should never impose his will through violence or intimidation, or find himself compromised by too much to drink.
Paul goes on to say that a church leader should share possessions with those in need, instead of obsessing about how to get more. He should be able to teach. Shouldn’t be a new believer. His reputation must even extend to those outside the church, so that he is a credible witness to the gospel.
We're not used to thinking like this, even in church. Too often, the people to whom we look for leadership are those with strong personalities, who have a vision for the church and are charismatic enough to convince a substantial number of people to follow their vision. Too often we hire shepherds, bringing in people from outside who have degrees and experience and competence in building big, busy churches. We hire folks who know how to preach, or at least present, and who can do so with the requisite degree of hipness.
We look for leadership to the educated, talented, personable, and persuasive, people who any corporation in the world would groom for upper management, and we hope that those folks will keep it together enough spiritually. We entrust leadership sometimes to too few, and too often to the spiritually and emotionally immature, and they're left unaccountable. And then we're shocked when disaster happens and people who aren't ready to care for the church instead use it and take advantage of it and sacrifice it on the altar of their own ideas and ambitions.
Now, listen, I don’t have anything against churches bringing in smart, talented men and women with education and expertise. People like that can do a lot of good in a church, especially if along with their education and expertise, their intelligence and competence, they have a love for the Lord and his people and a dependence on the Holy Spirit. Oh, and you know what else those smart, talented, educated experts need?
They need shepherds. They need overseers, elders, who care for the church.
Church leadership, you see, isn’t outcome-based work. It can't be measured on an earnings report, or summed up on a spreadsheet, or assessed by attendance numbers. It isn’t primarily about setting vision, or managing people, or facilitating numeric growth. The job description is to watch out for the flock, to guard it against influences that would undermine it spiritually, and to help it to be strong and united and growing in the Lord. The people who should do that job should be full of the Holy Spirit, people of faith and character who follow Jesus in loving the church sacrificially.
I’m close to a church leader, an elder, who regularly prays by name for every family and every person in the church. He just goes page by page through the directory, lifting people up to God. He’s done this for going on two decades, at least. People don’t know. The person who disagrees with him or criticizes him or tells him off for some offense has no idea that her name might very well have been on his lips the day before. But he considers this work indispensable to his calling as a leader in the church.
I’m thinking of another church leader, a former elder at the church I’m a part of. More precisely, I’m thinking of his funeral, when our building was crammed full of people who had come from far away to celebrate the ways that his life had touched theirs. He served for, I guess, four decades, at least. He was in some ways pretty old-school. Some would have considered him far too traditional, not in-touch enough with the trends to be a good leader. But try and tell that to the hundreds of people who walked by his casket that morning in our church building, and touched his shoulder, and shed tears, and silently thanked the Lord that they knew a shepherd like him.
Next to those examples, I think that much of what passes for church leadership is sound and fury, signifying nothing. Character, for a church leader, is competence.
*In Titus 1:5-9, Paul uses the same language to describe the ideal elder that he uses in 1 Timothy 3 to describe the ideal overseer. In Acts 20:17-28, the terms elder, overseer, and shepherd are used interchangeably of the same group of people.