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.