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Personality Driven Church

April 17, 2005 by

Reflecting on many of the churches I have visited and/or have been made aware of over the years, I am curiously cognizant of how many are recognized by the name of the senior pastor rather than by the name of the church. It doesn’t take long to create a list of dozens, if not hundreds, of such well known church leaders.

On the other hand, I am pleasantly pleased by the number of churches that come to mind where I do not know the pastor’s name, but do know the church and where it is located, perhaps even what its strength is in the community, some of its functions as a church, and more.

Without formal research, one of the obvious differences that come to mind is that the churches without a well known personalty tend to have history (been around for a generation or more), while the personality driven ministries are attached to the age of the known person.

Could it be that churches known for the personality of the pastor are doomed?


In their book Built to Last, James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras have a section in chapter two titled “The Myth of the Great and Charismatic Leader.” When they asked executives and business students to comment on the success of visionary companies (companies that are “built to last”), the responses pointed to greats like Sam Walton, William Procter, William E. Boeing, John Nordstrom, and others.

“… these chief executives displayed high levels of persistence, overcame significant obstacles, attracted dedicated people to the organization, influenced groups of people toward the achievement of goals, and played key roles in guiding their companies through crucial episodes in their history. But – and this is the crucial point – so did their counterparts at the [companies who are not "built to last"]! In short, we found no evidence to support the hypothesis that great leadership is the distinguishing variable… Thus, as our study progressed, we had to reject the great-leader theory; it simply did not adequately explain the differences between the [companies who are "built to last" and those who are not].”

Again, because I am without specific research as it relates to the church, I am cautious in my conclusions. However, there does seem to be something lacking in the personality driven churches. If the church is not being built to last for generations to come, then what is it being built for?

Churches that know who they are and who they should be to their communities understand good marketing and communication. Instead of being recognized by the personality of the pastor, a church could and should be known for the impact they have in their community.

Post By:

Brad Abare


Brad Abare is the founder of the Center for Church Communication. He consults with companies and organizations, helping them figure out why in the world they exist, why anyone should care and what to do about it. He and his wife Jamaica live in Los Angeles with their daughter, MirĂ³.
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7 Responses to “Personality Driven Church”

  • K. Cawley
    April 18, 2005

    You have started my morning off with some good thoughts. I would also like to throw in that I love what you guys are doing here.
    ‘Personality Driven’ might be terminology that is used to reflect a certain style of church (I’m not certain if you intend it to be loaded), so this thought might be entirely out of order, but…
    It seems that the paragraph you quote from ‘Built to Last’ only proves that the charismatic leader factor is not the sole factor determining success and longevity in a business (or a church, perhaps).
    However, isn’t it possible that the churches with long histories that you mention could have had many charismatic leaders throughout their history– and thereby all of them could have struggled with being personality cults at different points in their history (though they aren’t identified with a charismatic leader now)?
    This is simply for the sake of re-stating the apparent findings of Collins and Porras (I admit, I am not familiar with their book). That is, that great leadership was not proven to be the ‘distinguishing variable’. And, for the sake of offering the obvious possiblity that charismatic leaders could be cultivating values within their community that will live on well after they are gone.
    Just a thought– maybe I’ll share more as the day moves on.


  • Brad Abare
    April 18, 2005

    Cawley – I think we’re on the same page. Soon after I wrote this entry, I jumped quickly to the thought that just because a church may have a “personality” in the pulpit doesn’t mean the church can’t live and thrive beyond the current pastor. As the book suggests, companies can live quite a long time through many leaders, but they are not companies that are successful (in terms of dollars, brand, etc.). Because we measure churches differently, our evaluation must have a different matrix to filter through. But my premise still remains: churches built on the personality of a leader rather than the needs of a community seem to have their wires crossed.


  • cryptblade
    April 18, 2005

    This is an interesting topic. I’m sure it can be argued that the churches of some of the personalities on TBN, for example, may have a cult of personality around the senior pastor. I’m reminded of Joel Osteen on TBN with his church in Dallas. I don’t know the church name – I know his name. But his father was the previous senior pastor and was a personality himself. Joel Osteen’s father passed away several years ago, but the church seemed to have continued to thrive under new leadership.
    Here’s another consideration: you don’t know the “personality driven” churches interior structure. How do you know how well the senior pastor has trained his or her pastors to take over or to plant new churches? Your only basis for judging is what you see. You’d have to be an active member to understand how well the other assistant pastors have been trained to take over.
    My church’s senior pastor is well-known around the area and has been seen on PAX, BET, and TBN. But, he has the assistant pastors trained to take over when he is absent. And the assistant pastors are all very good. Those in the church, especially members, have complete confidence in the assistant pastors’ abilities to take over when our senior pastor leaves.
    And, to support some your writings – yes, a “personality-driven” church must be balanced by a lot more FRUIT than simply the personality of the pastor.
    My church is very active in the community and is actually well-known by both the church name and the pastor’s name. But isn’t that the point? The church, the pastor, and its members are called to be a light to the world – so the presence must be able to effect postively, the community.


  • Bob
    April 19, 2005

    Interesting thoughts. I immediately thought of Swindoll’s former church. As I understand it, they dropped off significantly when he left, but have since rebounded and are doing very well (I know that’s in the eyes of the beholder, but generally speaking…). It was a very difficult transition period though, and it was a process measured in years, not months or weeks.
    I also thought of my aunt’s church, which currently is a personality-driven church. She works in the bookstore on Saturdays and spends a lot of time answering calls about whether or not the senior pastor will be there or not. Although they’ve got a great staff, the attendance still drops by almost half when the senior pastor is gone. It’s discouraging for those who, like my aunt, are more faithful to the church than to the pastor.


  • Peter Hamm
    April 19, 2005

    Could it be that churches known for the personality of the pastor are doomed? Gosh, I hope so! But I agree that sometimes it’s not so easy to identify them. It might seem that a church is a cult of personality when under the surface, it actually isn’t.
    That said, the church IS a cult of personality… but the personality in question is Christ, not the Lead Pastor!


  • Paula
    April 21, 2005

    I think in such churches, members need to make sure that it’s Christ they’re following, and not the pastor. In my old church, there were members who were following the pastor, and so when he was fired due to certain issues, they all left the church too.


  • Mike
    July 15, 2006

    You may not have the research, but Christian Schwartz does. In his Natural Church Development book, he says that a superstar pastor is not only not needed for a highly effective church, it is often a detractor and limits church maturity and growth.



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