Character Matters Most: 3 Lessons from the Life and Ministry of Billy Graham

No matter your religious background, it's nearly impossible to ignore the tremendous legacy of Billy Graham. As the world received the news this week of his passing, his influence permeated every news feed, including my own on Facebook.

Reports say that Graham spoke in front of live audiences totaling almost 215 million people in his lifetime. He was the pastor to Presidents and some would say the entire United States at pivotal times of distress and decision.

His simple message and contagious passion for Jesus affected spiritual transformation in millions of people. And yet, throughout his life and ministry, there wasn't a controversy or scandal that sidelined or marginalized his ministry or impact.

Graham's power and influence came because his message matched his mandate; he practiced what he preached in word and in deed.

As we reflect on Graham's life, we need to be reminded of the unmatched importance of integrity and character.

You just can't fake it
We've all heard it, and for years I said I believed it: character matters more than competency.

And yet in the past, there have been times when I have promoted a rock star speaker or leader to a level of leadership that their character either didn't match or simply wasn't ready for. The end has always been a downright catastrophe.

This is the simple but painful lesson I have learned: influence plus character brings fruit. Influence minus character brings disaster.

[bctt tweet="Influence plus character brings fruit. Influence minus character brings disaster." username="christhroness"]

So, how can we facilitate the better equation? Not merely through education. Humility, grace, trustworthiness, and integrity cannot be taught. They are forged in patterns and rhythms of a growing disciple who understands that the ministry and mission are more important than themselves.

In this way, you just can't fake it - character matters more than competency.

Learning from Billy
So how did Billy Graham live a life above reproach? How did he keep morally clean in a morally unclean world?

In their book, The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham, Harold Myra and Marshall Shelley outline three of Graham's convictions that led to his lasting influence.

The starting point of these convictions lay in Billy's belief that "spiritual enthusiasm does not make you immune to greed, pride, lust, and ambition." With that in mind, Billy and his entire organization committed to living out these three safeguards:

1. Shady handling of money
Graham and his team knew that emotional appeals work. With the massive crowds Billy spoke to, the inherent temptation would be to wring out as much money as possible from an audience.

However, Graham refused to go down this road. Instead of looking at the audience to help his ministry continue, he created a fundraising plan beyond his speaking ministry to finance the mission. This method was unheard of at the time as other traveling evangelists would simply pocket the money for their personal use.

Graham ensured that the offerings given during his events were not the sole provider for his financial needs. Because of this, his team continually downplayed the offering to ensure it was not a distraction or hindrance from the gospel message he presented.

2. Sexual immorality
Graham knew that with being widely known and celebrated came sexual temptation.

In order to combat this issue, Graham and his team pledged to live above reproach with members of the opposite sex. He said, "We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have been even the appearance of compromise or suspicion." This meant that they wouldn't be in the same room alone with a member of the opposite sex other than their wives.

As faith leaders, we must do more than not play with sexual temptation - we must flee from it. Scripture doesn't leave much room for interpretation when it comes to the gravity and consequences of such sin.

Graham knew this and led himself and his organization to flee from any appearance of sin.

3. Exaggerated accomplishments
Graham knew that there were no small sins. Therefore, he decided to put procedures in place to promote truth-telling. For example, instead of exaggerating the size of an audience, Graham and his team accepted crowd estimates from the police and other officials, even if they believed there were more people in attendance.

This is a lesson needing to be retaught in our social media age in which optics seem to matter most; where we can angle our pictures in such a way that our gatherings seem fuller than they are; and when we drop names and numbers purposefully to tell people how successful we are.

When we exaggerate our accomplishments, we erroneously believe the lie that we are what we do, and in so doing, tether our identity to our work. When this happens we ride the rollercoaster of our success' and failures, instead of finding our identity in Jesus' work.

Graham warred against the tendency to show himself to be more successful than he was because he wanted to show how great God was, and not himself. We need to do the same.

Character or competency?
Brad Lomenick, former Catalyst leader said, "Talent and ability may help you get to the top, but it takes character and integrity to stay there."

Do you believe this?

As leaders, we need to not only develop skill and acumen but sharpen every ministry and leadership tool we can, just never at the cost of character.

Billy knew this, lived it and proved over the course of his ministry. And it was because of this integrity that God immensely blessed and anointed his ministry.

And that's why his legacy and his influence will be remembered forever.

Facing the Monster: receiving feedback and criticism

The Big Ugly Monster
If you've been a leader for any length of time, you know "the monster" and the feeling that comes from facing it all too well. It's the person who approaches you after a sermon and says, "Pastor, can I give you some feedback?" and you see the one page of single-spaced notes they have taken. It's the email after a leadership meeting with the subject title that reads, "A few thoughts…".

You feel the anxiety in your stomach. You play out possible scenarios and your response in your head. The big ugly monster keeps you up at night.

It's the monster we don't want to face. And yet we must.

Leadership: does pride or humility follow it?
There are some who say that being in a leadership position naturally lends itself to pride. I understand what they mean. Sometimes leaders take the spotlight, have the mic and always get the last word.

When this paradigm of leadership is adopted, leaders think of themselves more highly than they ought to, and pride becomes their default and their downfall.

When leadership is all about you, of course pride is the danger.

However, leadership can be one of the most humbling and refining instruments in God's toolbox.

Why do I think so? Because as I lead, I realize more clearly than ever than those who I lead have to deal with…me.

My annual review has refreshed this concept for me.

The Review
I set up an anonymous online form in which any staff member, no matter where they are positioned in our organizational chart, was able to anonymously answer 4 questions:

The questions were:
1. What is Chris doing well and should continue doing?
2. What should Chris stop doing?
3. What should Chris change or do differently?
4. Is there anything else you would like to say?

I received 18 anonymous surveys that were sent directly to my Lead Pastor. He then went through each one and summarized the main takeaways.

Facing the Monster
Here are a few of my reflections on facing the scary monster of feedback and criticism:

1. It's not as bad as you think
Through this process, I was reminded again that even the feedback that stung wasn't all that bad. The main reason for this was because I choose to receive it with a growth mentality, rather than a defeatist mentality. I have learned that when faced with feedback, I have the power to choose how I will receive it. Instead of allowing it to defeat me, I choose to use it to develop me.

When it comes to the difficult topic of feedback and criticism, we go to the worst-case scenario.
I don't think this has to be the case. I left my review feeling more encouraged and receiving more clarity on how to grow moving forward.

Why was I energized? I was reminded that God continues to use my strengths in communication, vision, leadership and preaching to build CA Church.

2. It's more necessary than you think
This review again exposed all of the weak spots I am aware of: impatient for progress and typically driven toward tasks rather than people. But it also exposed things I didn't even know existed like being distracted by technology in a staff prayer time or a failure to make one decision in a timely matter that negatively affected a group of people.

It is vital for any growing leader to provide avenues where people can be real with you. Mining for feedback is more necessary than you think because as a leader, you model a growth mindset for your team. Feedback should be a normal, everyday process in a healthy team. Yet often, as leaders, we are good at giving feedback, but not so great at providing avenues for our own evaluation and performance.

If you step out as the leader and ask for honest feedback, you model that it should be sought after is a normal part of leadership and can be used as an agent of growth for any ministry or organization.

3. The gospel is more functional than you think
I don't think there is anything more effective than feedback to make the gospel real to you in your role as a leader. As Christians, we give intellectual attestation that we do not find our identity in our work, but often times we place it on our performance.

Receiving feedback makes the gospel granular as it forces us to answer the question: am I defined by my work or by Jesus' work?"

[bctt tweet="Receiving feedback makes the gospel granular as it forces us to answer the question: am I defined by my work or by Jesus' work?" username="christhroness"]

This applies both to my strengths and my weaknesses:

  • If I apply the gospel to my strengths, I understand that any credit given to me actually belongs to God who created me, saved me, empowered me, wired me with gifts and is the author of my story. I understand that I am a product of a wider community that developed me, loved me when I failed, and believed in me when I didn't. I can't take credit for any of this. God receives the glory - I don't.
  • It also applies to my weaknesses. Hearing painful insights about my weaknesses, sin, quirks, personality or oversights doesn't destroy me. Through the gospel, I am reminded that God's love for me is constant, both on my best and worst days. I am reminded that I receive a righteousness through Christ that I did not, cannot, and will not earn. It was given to me freely and abundantly in Christ.
  • You see how grace starts to feel real? Receiving feedback and criticism provides a boundless opportunity for you to once again understand, and be in awe of, Jesus.

    It's your turn
    How will you start the process of mining for feedback?

    I'll help you. Using the four simple questions above, create a Survey Monkey survey and send this out to your leadership team, Elders, or staff.

    They will be glad you did as they are able to voice their insights (both positive and negative!). You'll learn about your strengths and weaknesses. You will also be reminded again of the sufficiency of Jesus.

    It's a win/win/win.