Some leaders are born, not made

by
07 February 2014

The research undertaken by David Voas suggests a strong link between church growth and the priest's personality

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 leadership courses.

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 non-Charismatic.

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 Perceiving.

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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 attributes:

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 attributes.

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 respects.

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 only one.
 

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 from www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk/report

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