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the art of character

Updated: Oct 24, 2023

Throughout our lives, we are all called to lead in one area or another. Just as valuable as learning how to lead is learning how not to lead.

I’ve recently listened to Christianity Today’s podcast “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” The multi-part documentary series recounts the story of megachurch Pastor Mark Driscoll and the Seattle Church he led called Mars Hill.

Mark and Mars Hill rose to prominence in the early 2000s and grew to become one of America’s largest and fastest-growing congregations. His sermons were known for their fiery and blunt nature and often covered divisive topics such as marriage, sex, and gender roles.

While fruitfulness was apparent from Mark’s teaching time at Mars Hill, it came at great cost. His narcissistic behavior, crude language, and lack of accountability and control ultimately caused the deterioration and implosion of Mars Hill. His spiritual abuse also caused immeasurable damage and trauma to countless numbers of people.

As the narrator puts it, “It [The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill Podcast] is the story of one church that grew from a handful of people to a movement that collapsed almost overnight. It’s a story about power, fame, and spiritual trauma; problems faced across the spectrum in churches across America. And yet, it’s also a story about the mystery of God working in broken places.”

If you listen to the podcast, and I hope you will, you’ll likely hear Mark say some things you agree with. You’ll likely hear positive things that happened at Mars Hill which happen in your organization or Church today. You’ll might even grow fond of the version of Mark who started Mars Hill with seemingly good intentions.

But, at some point, things will take a turn.

For each statement Mark makes that you agree with, there are two or three statements you vehemently disagree with. For every positive thing that happens within Mars Hill, there are two or three very negative things happening simultaneously. For every likable quality of Mark, there are two or three things you begin to despise about him.

It’s important to note that none of this happened overnight. If there is anything you should take away from the podcast it’s this: Organizational or personal downfall is gradual.

It’s also important to note that intentions are always good at the beginning of these stories. But we know, as the adage goes, “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

There is no shortage of examples of the personal or organizational rise and falls. We see it happen throughout history in governments, businesses, churches, nations, and especially leaders.

We see so many falls that it begs the question:

Is an eventual downfall the natural progression of leadership?

It might seem so, especially when you hear stories like that of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill. But the truth of the matter is, while downfalls are incredibly common, they aren’t imminent.

One statement made throughout the podcast series is, “Mark’s charisma outpaced his character.” Here lies arguably the greatest key to leadership I’ve found.

When looking back at nearly every downfall in history, the charisma--talent or attractive qualities--of governments, businesses, churches, nations, and especially leaders outpaced their character--their moral qualities.

Most leaders have no lack of charisma. And even if they do, charisma is often easy to fabricate. What they do lack and cannot fabricate is character. Just as the downfall is gradual, so too is the building of one’s character.

I’m in the process of publishing my first book. Writing it has been an incredible journey, and I pray it finds success in the marketplace. I’d be lying if I told you I haven’t thought about what would happen if the book outperformed even my dreams and expectations. Is it probable? No. Is it possible? Absolutely.

Do I have the character required to take a stage like that? I’d like to think so. I pray I do. But I can’t help but think of artists such as Justin Bieber and Billie Eilish whose lives completely changed within a matter of weeks, going from no-name amateurs on social media to international superstars and platinum artists.

Imagine going from singing on YouTube or social media to being the #1 artist in the world within a few months.

You go from your childhood bedroom to a tour bus, a few thousand YouTube views to the #1 music video in the world, your mom cheering you on in Canada to every teenage girl screaming your name all across the globe.

It’s no wonder why celebrities like Bieber and others eventually met their downfall. Fortunately for JB, he was able to recover from the fall and rise back to prominence. For others, the fall costs them everything, including their lives.

The warning I hear from these examples is this:

If you don’t put in the reps to build character before your charisma elevates you to fame and prominence, you will eventually falter.

There are far fewer examples of people whose character outpaced their charisma.

Why? Because character isn’t sexy like charisma. Character doesn’t sell like charisma. Character takes too long to build, and too few are willing to accept the terms and conditions required to maintain it throughout their careers.

But, for those who maintain their character despite their charisma, legacy lies on the other side.

I can think of but one man who, despite his unparalleled charisma, His character always and has forever prevailed.

He was a Hebrew carpenter. More than anyone to ever live, Jesus of Nazareth had opportunities to feed His ego on the hype of the crowds. But he didn’t. Why? Because he knew something, someone greater was at play.

Arguably the most remarkable example of this is when Jesus says, “By myself, I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.” John 5:30 NIV

Is this true?

If Jesus is who He claimed to be, there was nothing He was not capable of. But although He had all power available to Him, He chose submission instead. We see Him deflect all credit to His father.

Leaders, like Mark Driscoll and others, who have more reason than anyone to be humble instead choose pride. Jesus, the one man who had more reason than anyone to be prideful instead chose humility.

This humility, among His other traits, is what makes Jesus worthy not only of respect but of worship.

On the cross, Jesus was mocked and tempted to save Himself from the suffering inflicted on Him by the Romans. He certainly had the power to do so, yet we see He chose not to.

Why? Because Jesus’s character outpaced His charisma.

Jesus knew that His life was the only hope humanity had to restore its relationship with God. Jesus knew that we couldn’t bridge the gap, so He had to. Jesus knew that what lay on the other side of temporary sacrifice and pain was a legacy of blessing and eternal life.

It would have been easy for Jesus to lead with charisma, but we were worth leading with character to Him.

These are but two of countless examples of His character-first leadership model. Character-first leadership wasn’t common in Jesus’s day, and it certainly isn’t in ours either; however, it is the reason why we’re still talking about Him 2000 years after His death.

Caesar, Herod, and Pilate led with charisma first. That’s why they are footnotes in the story of a Jewish carpenter instead of the other way around.

To make a splash, lead with charisma.

To make waves, lead with character.

You can always fabricate more charisma, but character is a limited and valuable resource.




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