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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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5 Comments

  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…

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