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Personality Driven Ministry – A Two Edged Sword

Probably the most controversial part of my book “Branding Faith” is a section I devote to “personality driven” churches and ministries.   While there’s been a lot of criticism lately about churches and ministries lead by strong personalities, the truth is, it’s been around since the days of the early church.  In Branding Faith I looked at both sides of the issue – certainly it’s a major reason so many organizations are popular.  But should something negative happen – financial, sexual, or other misconduct – or even bad health or death – it really hurts the organization.

I was reminded of that two-edged sword while thinking about Steve Jobs at Apple.  Steve is the undisputed leader of the Mac world.  He’s a charismatic, visionary, driven guy, and he’s become the icon of the Apple universe.  That’s all good – as long as he’s seen in a good light.  But after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003 it put the company’s stock on a roller coaster ride.   When things are good, Steve is the front man and spokesman – the guy everyone wants to hear from.  But the flip side is that by putting so many of Apple’s eggs in the “Steve Jobs” perception basket, any flare up or negative news about his health sends the stock reeling.

Churches and ministries should take note.  I’m not against personality driven ministry because I think it will always be around.  People naturally like to follow teachers they personally relate to and like.  But if that’s your style, then be prepared for the fall-out.  A great organization like Coral Ridge Ministries wasn’t prepared when Dr. D. James Kennedy passed away, and they’re still reeling.  Decades ago, when Pastor Rex Humbard was one of the most viewed personalities in religious broadcasting, simply the news of his retirement damaged giving so much the ministry never recovered.  The ministry planned to continue, but they discovered that all those years of focusing on Rex had a downside.  After all, people thought, who wants to donate money to a retired preacher?

On the flip side, some organizations who planned and were ready have actually prospered.  Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University are actually growing under the leadership of Jonathan Falwell and Jerry Falwell Jr.

More to the issue – institutional organizations like the American Bible Society or World Vision aren’t so focused on a single person.  That’s part of the reason they’ve done so well for so long.  People give to the organization, not the person.

The point is – personality driven ministry is a two-edged sword.  Outside Houston, no one cares much about Lakewood Church, but millions of people follow Joel Osteen.  Same is true for Joyce Meyer, Billy Graham, T. D. Jakes.  Their vast support base follow them, not their ministry.  That’s well and good.  But be prepared for when retirement, death, or other mishaps happen.

Personality driven ministry is great while the personality is around.  But it takes years – perhaps decades – of careful planning to make sure the organization can  continue after the loss of a popular leader.

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  1. <p>Since I work for a ministry (web content/editing) that does skew toward personality reliance, I'm curious how you would recommend moving away from that trend. Obviously, I know there should be gradual movement toward the ministry name and away from the personality, but I've found internal resistance to this–as well as donor reliance on the name to generate excitement (opening emails, clicking links, time spent on the page).</p>

    <p>I have been passing on some of your posts as "subtle" hints and also making recommendations to that effect, but so far, the name has been increasing on the website and not scaled back. I know, however, that this could be detrimental in the long run.</p>

    <p>Do you have any suggestions for switching paradigms and for making a stronger case about the long-term impact?</p>

  2. Phil,

    I am interested to hear your answer to the last question by john, "do you have any suggestions for switching paradigms and for making a stronger case about the long-term impact?"  I am interested because I am an administrator in an organization and I see this not only on a national level but also on a local level.  I think we have shallow discipleship in our churches and therefore immature believers.  Instead of coming to church because of an encounter they come because of chris.  Obviously God uses each of us to bring someone but there has to be maturation to wean us off of the friend and build our faith.

    God Bless 


  3. Good questions from both of you. There’s no question that it’s very difficult to switch once you’ve started down the personality road. That’s been one of the strategies for Coral Ridge Ministries. After D. James Kennedy’s death, they’ve had enormous challenges changing the thinking of the donors. I also think TV is a personality driven medium – so with media – it’s especially tough. But it will never happen until the rest of the church or ministry programs are simply as good or better than the pastor or leader. A brand is not what YOU say it is, it’s what THEY say it is. It’s similar with a personality. Why do people come to the church? If the big reason is the pastor, then it will be tough to change. However, if your worship leader is in demand, or other programs are terrific, then there’s a possibility…

  4. I don't know that you do change it but you prepare for a handing off of the torch. You slowly, and intentionally, begin to introduce a new flavor, new ingredient into the mix.

    There does needs to be balance though. Lakewood is a good example, they would do well in looking at the example of Apple. Apple will continue to do well because their product is a great product. People love both the product and the leader. If they had only focused on the leader, they would have a serious problem today. A church like Lakewood would do well to look at their "product" and find ways for people to love the church and the leader. Because at the end of the day it needs to be about more than a man.

  5. I think that it can be done and quite successfully. Please these are just some suggestions that I have regarding this. First of all it needs to be addressed from the foundational stages of the ministry or the business organisation to not build on the personality of the leader/s but on the mission/vision of the organisation – therefore allow a period of change after a set period of time e.g every 3 – 5/5 – 10 years and prepare for a transition of leadership and a new way/s to accomplish the mission/vision of the organisation. Secondly prepare leaders to be more transitional and to hold to positions of governance lightly especially where leading people’s lives is concerned. I think in many ministries especially in the previous two or three generations prior to the entry of this millennium, we have adopted an empire building mentality so that most founders of a ministry organisation want to remain in it till they die and before they let go, they groom their children for the thing they spent years building up whereas if the truth be known I think God would have had other plans for them but human nature kicks in because we hate being uncomfortable after the difficulty of building that ministry for so long, it finally becomes a self sustaining and now to move on to something else? I think this is where culture and tradition become a big problem because we now make it that what the society is doing is the standard of living – e.g. job for life. Thirdly many leaders should become more about building others up to take over (or release people in their congregation to do certain things independent of them) and try as much as possible to take a backseat role by allowing others to go forward. I think many in leadership have a teaching mentality rather than a training mentality. When you train/disciple/mentor the aim is to release them after a period of time to go on and do the work and continue what you may be doing so that you can do other things, whereas many churches think that the congregation are to spend the rest of their lives in the pews/seats serving only the leader/s vision in life and that is far from biblical truth. These are just some of my suggestions.

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