‘Personal style’ is a popular term. It’s a way of articulating that God has made us with different wiring, different preferences, different habits and gifts. Our personal styles impact the way we serve in ministry and the roles we get asked to do. For example, someone who loves planning events will often get asked to plan events.
Some personal styles can result in highly effective ministries. If you are task-orientated, decisive, and confident, your ministries will probably be highly efficient. And if you pair your efficiency with some charisma, people will certainly want to follow you. But there is a challenge for people who fall into this category (and those of us who serve alongside them): could this kind of ‘effective’ personal style inadvertently excuse sin? As an old trainer of mine likes to say, your strengths are your weaknesses…
Hidden dangers within a personal style
Titus 1:7 demands that leaders not be overbearing or domineering. Often though, the mildest form of ‘overbearingness’ can present as a positive trait in a ministry context (such as efficiency! or persuasiveness!) and be celebrated. What might this mean? If an overbearing personal style is widely celebrated for its effectiveness, might people then excuse some brazen remarks? Some ungodly decisions? Might people say, ‘never mind, that’s just their personal style?’ And if a vice goes unchecked, how far could it go?
We have seen this before
This danger isn’t only theoretical. If you have followed the cases of Mark Driscoll and Steve Timmis, you will know they both stepped down from their ministries amidst allegations not only of immediate misconduct, but in the context of long-term patternsof behaviour; patterns that were described as being evident from the beginning. An early participant in Timmis’ ministries described him as “combative,” and Tim Keller has said of Driscoll that “the brashness and the arrogance and the rudeness in personal relationships … was obvious to many from the earliest days”.
If these behaviours were already evident, why did their respective ministries continue to grow?
The independent review commissioned by The Crowded House (where Timmis was an elder) at one point summarises Timmis’ personality as “forceful and determined,” which contributed to people admiring him and joining his ministry. As we’ve already noted, Driscoll was likewise known for having a strong personal style. Being determined and persuasive are certainly virtues of leadership. Yet, as people were attracted to their apparent virtues, it seems some also turned a blind eye when things went too far – when persuasive became domineering. An associate pastor of Driscoll admitted, after the fact, “I was complicit to [his] actions; guilty by way of association and being silent.”
Discerning our vices
Who, though, is responsible for discerning and disarming the vice? The leader in error, or the community around them? And who is accountable if it goes unchecked? It is true that God holds all people accountable for their own sin. But we are not always able or willing to recognise our own errors. Providentially, God has brought us into community so we might guard one another. Numerous verses call upon us to rebuke a brother who sins and not stay silent (Proverbs 17:10 and 27:5 come to mind). Under God’s grace and with the Spirit’s help, we are called to discern and disarm our vices together.
This requires humility from the leader: a willingness to hear and receive feedback and to accept a rebuke. It requires courage from the community: to speak in love and not stay silent. Both demand vulnerability, and this requires trust. Sadly, one testimonial regarding Timmis reported a “precarious relationship” and a “fear of … being rejected” such that no level of rebuke could be safely offered to Timmis, nor would it be willingly received.
Stopping sin in its tracks
Choosing when to speak up can be challenging at the best of times – especially if the vice looks like a virtue! How do we draw a line between strong leadership and domineering behaviour? Am I simply being too sensitive? Perhaps, as a starting point, we (Christians) should view our virtues more cautiously. It might mean giving less glory to humans and more glory to God. Sometimes it might mean choosing people for leadership who are less efficient and less persuasive and more unassuming and more self-effacing. When we overemphasise somebody’s strengths, we tend to underemphasise their weaknesses, and so are at risk of letting vices go unchecked.
This short article is not a sufficient treatment of the cases involving Driscoll and Timmis, and it is certainly not an attempt to diagnose either situation! But, hopefully, this article (and those cases) is enough of a prompt for us to simply look at ourselves and our own ministry teams. What are the personal styles evident in my church? How do they impact the way we serve together? Are some virtuous behaviours masking sinful tendencies?
want to serve with the gifts given us and in the way God has wired us. So, we
had better grow in our abilities to discern between virtue and vice. I pray
that God would give us courage to speak when we suspect the seeds of sin are forming
in our brothers and sisters, and the humility to listen when feedback is
directed our way. Any presentation of sin must be discerned and disarmed before
it is too late. No excuse of ‘that’s just his personal style’ can be permitted.
 Independent Learning Review for The Crowded House, 2020, 7. Available here:
 Michael Paulson, “A Brash Style That Filled Pews, Until Followers Had Their Fill”, New York Times, 22 Aug 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/23/us/mark-driscoll-is-being-urged-to-leave-mars-hill-church.html
 Independent Learning Review for The Crowded House, 2020, 37–38.
 Ron Wheeler, “I. Am. Not. Anonymous.”, ronwheelerjnr, 7 Aug 2014,
 Independent Learning Review for The Crowded House, 2020, 27.