The Character Factor

by Paul Sailhamer, ECCU Pastors Advisory Committee Chairman
(Originally published as a post within ECCU’s former e-publication, The Buzz.)

Nobel prize-winning Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once observed that the West was trying to replace morality, based on Judeo-Christian revelation, with legalism—coming up with more and more laws to cover decisions traditionally governed by personal character. In the 35 years since this observation was made, our own country has become more and more legalistic.

Rules and laws cannot replace morality and character. This is crucial to the understanding of leadership, especially Christian leadership. While it is very important for churches and Christian non-profits to strive for solid, biblical polity and org charts, the sine qua non must still be genuine Christian character and integrity. The best polity and organizational philosophy are always vulnerable to a lack of character in leaders and decision makers.

Tragically, many today doubt not only the content of good character but its very existence…and our organizations and institutions are sadly reflecting its loss. Cynicism is often the response. Shouldn’t I at least expect the man who is in charge of collecting taxes to be an honest taxpayer himself? Shouldn’t congressional members with oversight of financial institutions play by the rules with their own personal loans and acquisitions? Shouldn’t the pro-family senator be faithful to his own wife and children? Shouldn’t the pastor who teaches the Bible live by his own exhortations?

Eighteenth-century English Bishop Joseph Butler left a definition of character that should be on the lips of every church and non-profit board member: “...by character is meant that temper, taste, disposition, whole frame of mind from whence we act in one way rather than another...those principles from which a man acts, when they become fixed and habitual in him we call his character...”

In other words the adage still stands that character is what a person does when no one is watching. These definitions have been under serious attack in our culture. In the mid-1990s a famous minister, speaking at a pre-inaugural prayer service, looked a newly re-elected U.S. president in the eye and said, “Remember, Mr. President, character isn’t what you do when no one is watching, but rather what you have the courage to speak out about when everyone is listening.” In earlier days that would be called talking the talk but not walking the walk.

Solzhenitsyn saw the flaw in the Soviet system that led to its downfall in his own lifetime. He also identified the flaw in our system: It is impossible to levy enough rules and laws to replace the essential role of character and integrity in our churches, non-profits, businesses, and government.

A decade ago, when The Block, the first major shopping center designed to attract teenagers, opened in Orange, California, the management posted signs at the entrances detailing 32 things not allowed on the premises, including the prohibition of bringing “dead animals” onto the property! Yet in the “repressive” 1950s, shopping centers had no posted rules. When we left the house, our mother would say, “Stay out of trouble,” and we knew exactly what she meant.

I am grateful that character is at the center of the leadership model that guides ECCU’s management team. Those of us who lead organizations cannot take for granted that our carefully formed constitutions and bylaws are sufficient to secure the integrity of our ministries. The character factor must influence the way we live out our guiding principles.

Paul Sailhamer brings a broad ministry background to ECCU’s Pastors Advisory Committee, including 35 years of pastoral ministry, 15 in executive pastor roles. He has directed a non-profit Christian foundation, currently serves as a consultant with Arrow Leadership, and operates his own ministry consultancy, Pilgrim’s Projects.

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