AS PART of the Church of England's Church Growth Research
Programme, we conducted a survey of 1700 churches and ordained
ministers. The findings highlight the importance of particular
leadership characteristics and strengths.
Less comfortably, it also suggests that these qualities are not
easy to acquire. There are strong associations between growth and
personality type, but none between growth and attendance on
This message may not be a surprise. A number of people commented
to us that a newcomer's first contact is often with the priest; and
it has to be positive. The personality of the priest is crucial to
the experience people have at church. Of course, by no means
everything comes down to personality, and different circumstances
call for different types of people.
Younger clergy are more likely than their elders to report
growth. Gender makes no difference in this respect, nor does
ethnicity. Marital status is not associated with growth, but having
children living at home is. Young clergy, with young families, have
the edge in leading vital churches. They need some time, though:
growth is associated with tenure in the post.
It is natural to suppose that "churchmanship" may be connected
to growth or decline. Clergy were asked to place their theological
orientation along three seven-point scales, running from Catholic
to Evangelical, liberal to conservative, and from Charismatic to
The association between churchmanship and growth is not strong.
Self-reported growth is associated with Evangelical and
conservative, as well as Charismatic tendencies, but with the other
two variables held constant, only the Charismatic dimension has an
effect. Once other characteristics are taken into account,
churchmanship is nearly always reduced to insignificance.
WITH the kind permission of Professor Leslie Francis, the survey
included a battery of items for the Francis Personality Type
Scales. Like the familiar Myers-Briggs system, these scales
represent an attempt to apply the psychological-type theory rooted
in the pioneering work of Carl Jung. There are four dimensions,
identified by the letter in upper case: Extraversion or
Introversion; Sensing or iNtuition; Thinking or Feeling; Judging or
The first two dimensions turn out to be relevant for growth, for
reasons that may seem natural. Extraverts are energised by dealing
with the outside world. Whereas Sensing individuals are methodical
and rely on experience, N-type people (those who prefer to gain
information in an intuitive way) trust inspiration; they are likely
to focus on possibilities and the bigger picture.
Previous research suggests that Extravert and iNtuitive leaders
are good at developing a vision, and goals for the future, and at
training people for ministry and mission. Extraverts also have an
advantage when it comes to converting others to the faith.
In contrast, Introverted leaders prefer to be involved with the
sacraments and administering the parish; Sensing leaders are also
orientated towards visiting, counselling, and helping people.
The data show a reasonably strong association between
self-reported growth and "E" and "N". The combination of "E" and
"N" is particularly effective.
We found that clergy with an "I" and "S" combination are three
times as likely to preside over decline as substantial growth; "E"
and "N" clergy are twice as likely to experience substantial growth
as decline. These links between clergy personality and growth are
corroborated by results from a much larger sample of clergy of all
denominations in Australia.
THE effectiveness of a leader is ultimately a matter of specific
qualities or skills rather than personality itself. If personality
has an effect on church growth, it is because the characteristics
that matter (such as offering inspiration, for example) come, more
or less naturally, to different types of people.
It should be said, though, that people are capable of performing
in ways that may not come naturally to them. Many ordained
ministers are highly versatile, and successfully deploy different
traits in different roles. It is important to try to identify the
key qualities, not least to decide whether they can be taught.
We asked clergy to assess themselves. "What do you see as your
strengths?" "Some of your qualities will be more or less developed,
either in relation to each other or relative to the characteristics
of others. How would you rate yourself on each of the following
Empathising: sensing what other
people are feeling; listening and counselling;
Speaking: being confident when
giving a sermon or addressing a formal meeting;
Innovating: regularly coming up with
new ways of doing things;
Connecting: spending time with
people in the community and listening to their views;
Managing: creating good systems and
providing clear expectations to lay leaders;
Envisioning: having a clear vision
for the future and being focused on achieving it;
Persisting: finishing what you
start, despite obstacles in the way;
Motivating: generating enthusiasm
and inspiring people to action."
WHEN we take one characteristic at a time, "motivating",
"envisioning", and "innovating" are strongly correlated with
growth. "Speaking", "connecting", and "managing" are more weakly
linked to growth, and "empathising", and "persisting" do not
feature at all.
Two variables may be correlated, however, because each is also
associated with something else. "Motivating" and "envisioning"
remain important, positive qualities when controlling for other
In contrast, "innovating" and "connecting" fall short of
statistical significance, and "managing" and "speaking" no longer
have any real influence. "Persisting" and "empathising" now have
negative effects - not, presumably, because these are bad qualities
to have, but because these strengths are not congruent with
flexibility and a willingness to push people in new directions. So,
when we are examining what is conducive to growth, some qualities
that would otherwise be strengths appear to be weaknesses.
More than half of the survey respondents had been on a
leadership course, but this did not, of itself, appear to lead to
growth. Perhaps there is an adverse selection effect (if people
from declining churches are more likely to attend such courses),
but it is hard not to be sceptical about the effectiveness of these
courses in producing growth, however helpful they might be in other
Serving the Church as an ordained minister is a vocation. All
clergy have a calling. The question is: what, exactly, are they
called to do? Not everyone is equally well suited to every task,
and parish ministry involves many functions, from consoling
individuals to inspiring whole congregations; from running the
organisation to creating new forms of church.
To point out that people have different talents is not intended
to make invidious distinctions. Generating numerical growth isan
important objective for the Church, but it is far from being the
David Voas is the Director of Research and Professor of
Population Studies at the University of Essex. He is one of the
authors of From anecdote to evidence: Findings from the Church
Growth Research Programme 2011-2013, which can be downloaded