Character and Competence Matrix

Both character and competence are necessary for trust in the context of church leadership and ministry. By placing these in a matrix, some observations about trust become clear.matrix

The matrix to the right displays “Character” and “Competence” ranging in strength from “High” to “Low.” This yields four possible positions on the matrix:

  1. High Character/High Competence
  2. High Character/Low Competence
  3. Low Character/High Competence
  4. Low Character/Low Competence

Trust—in functional relationships matrix high highlike that which exists between church leaders—is only possible when both character and competence are high. We trust each other—fully, completely—only when we have confidence that we are working with people who have high integrity and high ability. Trust is a function of believing both in “who someone is” and “what someone can accomplish.”

matrix distrustOnce character or competence is called into question, trust becomes the first victim. Certainly (as is proper) we respond to people of both low character and low competence with distrust and suspicion. But even when only one of these attributes is questioned (e.g., high character but low competence), trust still takes a hit. Someone may have the best motives and intentions. But if he or she doesn’t have the skills to translate those intentions into results, we will not trust them with the important work we’ve been given to accomplish. In a similar way, someone may have the best skills, abilities, and experience. But if we cannot count on their character (their honesty, humility, selflessness), we will not trust them to put their skills to work on trustable means and ends.

This same matrix helps those of us who manage church leaders to develop strategies for helping, encouraging, and growing the leaders God has given us. I assume (if your experience matches mine) that the people you work with are always a mixed bag; the good, the bad, and the downright ugly!

matrix high lowIt’s fairly easy to know how to handle those at the extremes—those high or low on both dimensions. People who are highly charactered and competent (the red square), those who get ministry done in a manner that honors Christ and benefits the church, should be celebrated, honored, and rewarded. These are the kinds of shepherds and ministers we want working in church leadership. On the other extreme, those who lack character and competence (the blue square), who can’t be effective in a ministerial role and won’t live out the principles that define our live together, should be let go … quickly. These are kind of shepherds and ministers who “are blemishes at your love feasts … shepherds who feed only themselves” (Jude 12).

matrix incompetentIt’s in the middle ground that things become more complicated. How do we handle people on our leadership team who evidence the highest character, the best motives and intentions, but are incapable of doing effective work? They are nice people, but they can’t be trusted with any work that matters.

Such people are absolutely worth our time and attention. Because of their good character (a relatively rare thing in this dark world), they deserve the best we have to offer in helping them be successful in ministry. What we must not do, however, is persuade ourselves that competence is unimportant, that incompetence can be overlooked or ignored. Even though it may be painful, when we find ourselves “blessed” with people of high character and low competence, we need to muster up the courage to confront the issue, see if there is any willingness to develop competencies, and develop a strategy for skill building. Perhaps some reading … specific training … pairing the person with someone who is successfully doing similar work (a model) … intensive coaching. If all else fails, ask whether the incompetence is general or specific. Sometimes people are mismatched to responsibilities. A change in job description (reassignment) can often do wonders for someone who is ill-equipped for their present role.

If even that fails, however, church leaders must value their mission and their work highly enough to let good-charactered, poorly-skilled people go (or ask them to step down). Doing so is hard and won’t be accomplished without pain. But it underscores our commitment to Kingdom work, our estimation of its importance, and our determination to see it done. And, in the end, such hard decisions increase the credibility of church leaders with the congregation. Church members have an innate sense of who is effective and who is not. They know the difference between nice and competent.

matrix uncharacteredThe last square on the matrix (low character/high competence) is the hardest kind of leader to deal with. What do we do with members of our leadership team who can organize up a storm, speak and write well, run a program, possess a charismatic style … but are careless about the constancy of their character? They excuse small dishonesties. They rationalize laziness. They downplay inappropriate interactions. They ignore people they’ve run over.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking we handle these people well. The most difficult leader to deal with is the one who demonstrates surface success while experiencing character leakage below the waterline … the one who attracts the crowds but doesn’t offer substance … the one whom everybody loves but is haunted by demons he can’t seem to tame. I’ve known supremely gifted preachers and worship ministers who were not held accountable for small erosions of character … until a character-avalanche occurred and swept away their ministry. I’ve known elders who have led capital campaigns and raised lots of money, but were so heavy-handed and prideful in doing so that I cannot image God was honored.

What are we to do with people like this?

  1. Determine that competence never trumps character. No matter how gifted or skilled, a church leader is never exempt from the character rules that govern a Christian’s life.
  2. Address character issues immediately and earnestly. Step in. Confront. Give opportunity for confession and repentance. Doing so may well save a competent leader’s future. Failing to do so only postpones the inevitable and intensifies the fall.
  3. Explain the difference between lack of character and failure of character … between a pattern of uncharactered behavior and an instance of uncharactered behavior. Explain that you can only work with the latter and that one of your primary tasks in the present situation is to discern which problem of character is involved.
  4. Be crystal clear about boundaries and consequences. If internet pornography is a weakness, explain what is expected, how computer usage will be monitored, and what will happen if there is a lapse.
  5. Define your relationship with the person in question. You are a friend, brother, and fellow leader of the church. But you are also the one who will monitor their behavior in the future and hold them accountable for their decisions.

If even this fails, church leaders must value their own integrity highly enough to let highly-skilled, poorly-charactered people go (or ask them to step down). Doesn’t matter how great the numbers are for his youth ministry. Doesn’t matter that he has a group of people who respond well to his shepherding. If you can’t trust a leader’s character, you can’t trust his leadership, and you must not wait until the wheels come off and the church is shamed before acting.

Doing this is hard and won’t be accomplished without pain. But it underscores our commitment to Kingdom principles, our estimation of the importance of integrity, and our determination to put Christ-likeness above everything else. And, in the end, such hard decisions increase the credibility of church leaders with the congregation. Church members have an innate sense of who is charactered and who is not. They know the difference between merely competent and Christ-like.

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© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.