Weighing Character and Personality

by Gary Corwin

Who, for example, would tend to be better positioned to shine in cross-cultural communication, Ms./Mr. straight-laced introvert, or Ms./Mr. personality?

In a recent issue of Critique (2012, 5, 16), Denis Haack makes reference to an intriguing new book by Susan Cain entitled Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. While there are many aspects of this book that would be interesting to explore, Haack focused on its description of a cultural shift that took place in the early years of the twentieth century (Cain 2012, 21-24). In this passage, historian Warren Susman is quoted as having described the shift from a Culture of Character to a Culture of Personality.

The things that mattered most in the Culture of Character—seriousness, honor, and discipline—came to be replaced in the Culture of Personality by boldness, the ability to entertain, and the good first impression. How others perceived one in public came to be far more important than how one behaved in private. One of the reasons offered for this shift was urbanization and the fact that more people now lived in cities surrounded by strangers instead of in a community where people were intimately acquainted with one another over a lifetime.

The article goes on to include two lists of key words. Associated with the Culture of Character are words like citizenship, duty, work, golden deeds, honor, reputation, morals, manners, and integrity. Associated with the Culture of Personality, the list includes magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, glowing, dominant, forceful, and energetic. 

As I reflected on the key words associated with the two cultures, I began to wonder whether the selection and evaluation processes in missions today is taking seriously enough the implications of this shift, a shift that has only been enhanced by the power of technology and the new social networks to shape the way we perceive one another. 

Lest the reader assume I am now going to lobby for simply returning to a late nineteenth-century cultural standard, let me broaden the discussion to a mission practitioner point of view. Who, for example, would tend to be better positioned to shine in cross-cultural communication, Ms./Mr. straight-laced introvert, or Ms./Mr. personality? On the other hand, who would be more likely to handle trying circumstances? The point, I think, is that it is vitally important not to be simplistic in how candidates are assessed. We need people of sterling character and integrity, but we also need people to whom strangers are drawn.

What are some steps that agencies might take in order to maintain a balanced approach? Let me suggest

First, better means need to be employed for discerning the kind of person a candidate is. Both character and personality are a reflection of being. We in the West still put too much attention on knowing, important as that is, to the neglect of being or doing. Perhaps this is an area where our colleagues from the Global South, who are not so hyper-focused on knowledge, may be able to teach us a great deal.

Second, we need to be clearer about the things that are important prerequisites for every candidate, and those things that are guideposts toward the most effective deployment. Being a person of character and integrity is not an option for some. It is a bedrock necessity for all. Having a sparkling gregarious personality, on the other hand, is a wonderful gift and important for achieving effectiveness in some roles, but not essential to serving well in other roles. Our mobilization efforts, therefore, need both the clarity and means to measure both aspects. They must provide pathways for directing and equipping potential candidates that discern and address shortcomings in essential character matters, as well as pathways leading to fruitful deployment that matches the Spirit’s gifting of each person. 

Third, agencies must be willing to say “no”, or at least “not yet,” to potential members who have not yet developed a track record of strong character and accomplishment. It does no good to send the unprepared into the challenges of long-term cross-cultural ministry. When a significant track record of contribution and character in a local church setting is lacking, it is crucial that agencies insist that candidates establish that kind of record before being sent out. Certainly, short-term endeavors can be helpful in this regard, but not as much as one might hope unless the leadership and purpose involved is geared to challenge and monitor character development.

Finally, agencies and churches need to work more closely together, to affirm that essential character traits are present in a candidate, and in developing means of remediation where they are lacking. Candidates are not static and irredeemable when they come up short on some measure, but they do need guidance and help to ultimately make the grade. Agencies need to work hard developing strong enough relationships with churches to ensure that partnering in this effort is something they can believe in, and join together in. These relationships are likely to be achieved one church at a time.


Gary Corwin  is associate editor of EMQ and staff missiologist with the international office of SIM. 

EMQ, Vol. 49, No. 2, pp. 136-137. Copyright  © 2013 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 

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