It’s hard to discern a potential leader’s character, even in our native cultures. Unlike physical features, the terrain of character is invisible, demonstrated over time through a person’s life. Veteran pastors in the West say it typically takes 2-3 years to really know if a man has character fit to lead the church. How much more difficult is it then to discern character across culture and language barriers?
When that cashier is careful to not touch your wife’s hand when taking money from her, is that because he believes women are inferior and dirty? Or is that because he is wanting to protect the honorable reputation of your wife in a culture where a bad reputation for women can be life-threatening? Which is it? We are faced with a thousand dilemmas like this when we begin doing character work across culture.
Here are 22 questions that can serve as practical lenses for discerning character no matter what culture you’re in. They’re not exhaustive, but I hope you will find them helpful. They are also not original to me, but represent the pooled wisdom of many conversations with pastors, authors, friends, and wise believers. Some of these questions have also practically emerged out of being burned and bitten by wolves.
Before we look at the questions, however, we do need to keep a couple realities in mind. First, biblical principles do not change throughout time and across cultures. They are universally true and unchanging. However, the expressions – the applications – of those principles do vary from one century to another and from one culture to another. This will also be true at times for how character is expressed.
How an American shows respect is night and day different from how Central Asians show respect. Same principle – respect – outdo one another in showing honor. But very different, even offensively different applications. The same goes for hospitality, what constitutes manliness, who should kiss who, how we think about time, etc.
To make it even more complicated, the scriptures sometimes tie a principle and an expression very tightly together – like baptism and the Lord’s supper. The expressions are commanded along with the principle. But other times we are given principles and a large degree of freedom in expression – as with musical worship in the church. Especially for those of us in cross-cultural ministry, this is an area for careful and nuanced study of the Word.
How narrow or broad is the spectrum of faithful expression for a given biblical principle? We should know that spectrum of faithful expression, and then choose a posture according to our unique context.
To illustrate what I mean, imagine a huge Kentucky oak, not a squat mountain scrub oak like ours in Central Asia, but a remarkably tall and straight tree, a couple hundred years old. This huge oak tree has roots fixed in the earth, steady, strong. It’s trunk is firm and unmoving, solid. However, once you get up into the branches, you see some sway when the wind blows. Even the strongest and healthiest tree has some sway.
Our biblical principles are like the roots and the trunk. Our faithful applications are like the branches. Solid biblical principles have some sway in their applications across time and cultures. Disregard the universality of biblical principles and you become a relativist. Disregard the existence of the sway and you fall into a classic error of fundamentalism, which is mistaking an expression for the principle itself.
So then, ask these questions for discerning character, and be aware of how character does and doe not express itself differently across cultures.
1. How does his local church feel about this brother? The local church is often the very best reference we can have on a man’s character. What do the elders see? What do the old ladies see? Do the members of the church commend him as one already leading, already shepherding even without a title?
2. How does he respond to gospel conversation? Do his eyes gloss over and does he insist he has that topic down? Or does his heart burn within him? Does he light up at the chance to revisit the beauty of the good news?
3. How does he handle the word? Does he exhibit a posture of humility and carefulness toward scripture?
4. Does he repent freely? This is a big one for Central Asian culture! You know your local brother’s character is changing when he doesn’t just give a general, “I’m sorry,” but he starts naming specifics – and in front of others!
5. How does he respond when someone sins against him? Or when he is publicly shamed? Does he know how to extend grace and forgive? Or does he keep bringing it up and holding a grudge?
6. Is he a good follower and team player? I never want myself or my friends to follow anyone who can’t be a good follower themselves. And neither should you. The healthiest leaders are those who also know how to be good followers.
7. How does he respond to those with power and position? Does he always gravitate toward the preaching pastor, the foreigners, those with power? Does he seem to be trying a little too hard to look good in their eyes?
8. How does he respond to the vulnerable? To women, children, the poor. Our response to the vulnerable always exposes our character. Is the instinct to protect them, to ignore them, or to take advantage of them?
9. How do his wife and children respond to him? Let’s not neglect to ask the people who live with this man what he’s really like at home. A pastor who used to be a cattle farmer told me they once fired a man for how the cattle acted around him. They never saw him abusing the cattle, but they could tell from how the cattle acted what was happening when he was alone. How do a man’s wife and children respond to him? And what can that show us?
10. Is he quick to deal out judgement? This often means he’s hiding sin or doesn’t understand the gospel. Most of the wolf-types we’ve encountered have been unpredictably judgemental on minor issues.
11. Can he be trusted with money? As one of our top church-killers, money issues are often what make or break the character of a Central Asian leader. He must be above reproach with money or he will not make it in this environment of foreign organizations excited to partner financially.
12. Is he self-aware of his own weaknesses and need for the body’s diverse gifts? Do not appoint a man to leadership who is still in the phase of thinking that everyone else needs to be gifted exactly like he is. Only appoint men who rejoice in others’ diverse giftings.
13. How does he respond when he doesn’t get his way? A man of good character knows how to defer, how to trust others even when they disagree.
14. Does he welcome correction? This is a sign of wisdom. (Prov 9:8)
15. Is he gracious toward cross-cultural mistakes? This is a very practical filter for us. The only local partners that will last with us are those who have a robust category of grace for honest cultural mistakes that we can’t help but make. If they’re harsh with your cultural mistakes, they will be with others’ even from their own culture.
16. Does he always make it about himself? Somehow does the conversation always turns back to his accomplishments?
17. Does he host or serve in ways that don’t get recognition? As one Central Asian pastor has said, pay attention to the Central Asian man who cleans the bathroom or does the dishes. That means something!
18. How does he handle his liberties? Mature christian freedom is freedom for the sake of love, not freedom for the sake of freedom. Will he give good things up that cause others to stumble?
19. What is his reputation among the discerning? Do you have folks around you who are perceptive and discerning? Lean on these people and their gifts of character discernment. I am helped to hear what a certain teammate of mine sees in a person, and to hear how my wife feels about that same person. What they see and feel tends to be validated later as a person’s true character is exposed.
20. What comes out of him in a crisis? Some security police crashed a church meeting at a colleague’s house a couple years ago. A new believer who struggles with fear stood right up, went over to the police, greeted them, told them his name, welcomed them, and acted with great courage and respect. You can’t plan reactions like that. Crises expose what is deep down inside.
21. Does he keep his commitments? A righteous man swears to his own hurt (Ps 15:4). This is foundational for building trust.
And lastly, 22. Does he run when the wolf comes? Or does he lay down his life for the sheep, as the good shepherd did? I was discipling some Iranian new believers in the US and they were bothered by the fact that staff pastors at our church were paid salaries. “How do we know they’re not just in this for the money, like the mullahs back home are?” they asked. “You’ll know,” I said, “when a wolf emerges, or anytime when caring for the sheep means the pastors must sacrifice and suffer. Then you’ll see their character emerge.”
Why is it important that we have some practical filters like this for discerning character? Because it’s hard to see character even in our native cultures, let alone in one where we are outsiders.
These filters give us some tools to have on hand, things to notice as you are walking with potential leaders – or any believer for that matter. How they do with these lenses applied will expose who they are, or who they are becoming.
It’s hard to see character, but a man’s heart is exposed by the fruit of his life (Matt 7:15-20). If we are careful to study the fruit, we can truly “see” the heart, and character will no longer be invisible.