5 Key Characteristics of a Leader

John Caldwell lives in Perthshire with his wife, Laura, and two sons, Ethan and Caleb. John serves as both founding pastor of Kairos Church, Stirling with the Apostolic Church UK, and as prison chaplain at HMP Shotts. A prolific author, John’s books include Christ, the Cross and the Concrete Jungle (personal testimony), Vision from the Valleys, and The Lion’s Roar: a Prophetic Wake-up Call.

Some leadership books have focused on the character of leaders, while others have emphasised their skills and gifts. Could it be that all of these graces are sourced and inseparably combined in the Ephesians 4 ascension ministries?

What are the essential characteristics of a Christian leader?

There are multiple characteristics of Christian leadership, and all of them are essential. For example, J. Oswald Sanders, in his classic ‘Spiritual Leadership’, argues for eight essential characteristics: discipline, vision, wisdom, decision, courage, humility, integrity and sincerity.[1] Larry Osborne argues that Christian leadership must reflect Jesus who embodied a “strong and clear sense of identity, security, and destiny.”[2] The outworking of these characteristics are groundbreaking: “No wonder [Jesus] could take on the role of the lowest servant. Unlike everyone else in the room, he had nothing to prove and no one to impress.” Dr David Yonggi Cho argues for four essential characteristics of leadership: identifying needs of others and meeting them; the ability to make others succeed; a pioneering spirit and the ability to forge ahead; and the commitment to invest all our energy towards self-development.[3] At the other end of the leadership spectrum, Henri Nouwen argues that “the Christian leader of the future needs to be radically poor.”[4] He does not just mean materially – he means poverty of skills, experience and professionalism. In other words, a Christ-like humility and dependency upon God rather than reliance on power and professionalism and competency.

The picture is clear: there is no end to ink that has been spilt in attempts to distill the essential qualities of Christian leadership. Further, who can say that any one list is wrong, or better than the others? But there may be another perspective on leadership, laid out in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 4, that identifies five essential characteristics found in the ascension ministries of Jesus Christ: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. It is not simply the case that each gifting is given to various individuals, but rather each gifting contains characteristics, or graces, of Christ’s leadership. Whilst no individual embodies all five gifts fully as Jesus did, each of these five gifts contain characteristics that all leaders should aspire to embody.

Apostolic Leadership

Not every leader is an apostle, but apostolic DNA should shape all leaders to some extent. The apostolic, in many ways, is the foundational, overarching theme of all Christian ministry and leadership. Apostolic means one who is sent, in Latin the word is missio, where we get our word ‘mission’ from. The mission (sending) of God is fundamental. If we have not been sent by God, and if we are not captured by the mission of God, we may have a church job, but we do not have authentic Christian leadership.

Consequently, Apostles are visionaries and pioneers. Many leadership books, like the examples above, emphasise the need to be visionary and pioneering, to see things others cannot, and to go where others will not – but these things find their life source in being sent. Christian leaders are not just ambitious entrepreneurs; they are servants sent from the most High God. Consequently, this sending is the source of the leader’s authority – which is another essential characteristic of Christian leadership. But it’s a delegated authority. We are simply stewards of this authority. This is a safeguard against misuse of authority – apostolic is not about hierarchy, it is about humility. God is a sending God, and we are people who he has sent. Jesus said: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21)

If we understand the apostolic nature of leadership, we understand that essential leadership qualities such as vision, pioneering, people-development all flow from this foundation. Understanding the apostolic characteristic of leadership redeems leadership qualities from secularism and embeds them in the Christ-centric vision of Ephesians 4.

(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Ephesians 4

Terry Virgo reflects: “Can we do without apostles? The answer very much depends on what we are aiming to build. If we want simply to preserve the status quo, certainly we can cope without them. If we want a nice cosy, charismatic house group, or a safe institutional church enjoying a little renewal now and then, we can find some of our hopes fulfilled. But if we want to see the church come to the fullness of the stature of Christ, to a mature man, it is essential for all the gifted people mentioned in Ephesians 4 to have their full place in our church life.”[5]

Jeremiah Johnson says: “Fivefold ministry leaders who carry a Davidic heart of humility and teamwork will train and equip the body of Christ like never before.”[6] Peter Wagner says: “A church without apostles will not function as well as a church with apostles.”[7] Likewise, I’d say, leadership that lacks apostolic elements, will not function as well as leadership that is apostolic.

Prophetic Leadership

Bryn Jones identifies several prophetic leadership characteristics. Prophets, he says, are people of presence, people of perception, people of revelation, people of confrontation, people of demonstration, people of motivation, and people of perseverance.[8]

Having drawn his conclusion from studies of prophets in the Scriptures, it is interesting to note that Jones’ analysis of the various five-fold gifts are not limited to function, but also include elements of character. Perception, for example, speaks of wisdom and discernment, perseverance speaks of godly character.

This is important to note because very often discussions about leadership are often polarised due to emphasis in character and gifts. I would argue, in the ascension ministries of Christ, character and gifting converge in the person of Christ. These are gifts of Christ, and when Christ raises up these gifts they embody his character, presence and power. Gifts and character come together in an ascension ministry view of leadership.


We best see the characteristics of the evangelist in the life of Jesus, and then Phillip. Evangelists are good news people, and good news is not to be concealed, but it has to be shared. Therefore, the heart of the evangelist is to go beyond the comforts and restrictions of church boundaries. The evangelistic leader will be people-centred, rather than task-centred. The evangelistic leader will not be comfortable with simply maintaining the existing congregation, but will be compelled to reach those out with the church walls.

The evangelist, as can be seen in both Jesus’ and Phillip’s approach to Samaritans, will cross cultural and social boundaries in order to reach the lost. The heartbeat of the evangelist is always for the marginalised. An evangelistic leader should lead the church to be the kind of people who bind up the broken-hearted, set the oppressed free, and who take good news to the poor (Isaiah 61). Again, if the gift of the evangelist is the ability to communicate with lost people and engage them, the character and motivation of the evangelist is love and compassion. Leadership without compassion can quickly morph into unhealthy power dynamics. Ascension ministry evangelistic leadership must be motivated by compassion. And compassion embodies humility, patience and other character traits (1 Corinthians 13).

Pastoral Leadership

I’m a Pentecostal Lead-Pastor. However, my understanding of the role of a pastor was not shaped by what I observed amongst Pentecostal pastors when I first became a Christian. No. My approach to pastoral leadership is shaped by classical Baptist and Presbyterian approaches to ministry. When I became a Christian, many pastors had adopted (or been taught) the church growth model of pastoral ministry. Consequently, they functioned more like CEOs than pastors. Church was a business to be run, not a flock to be shepherded. Larry Osborne says: “It’s not so much about the task of leadership as it is about the heart of leadership and what it means to lead like a shepherd instead of a CEO.”[9] The outworking of this approach to leadership is it will “actually produce disciples rather than merely bigger and better-run churches.”[10]

Most leadership books that focus (rightly) on the importance of character over charisma, lay emphasis on leadership motivation. A common leadership trap is the motivation of pride. Pride is self-serving. This was the motivation of the religious leaders at the time of Jesus. They loved recognition and praise from people for being ‘good’ people. True leadership motivation springs from godly character and sanctified motivations. Therefore, good leadership is humble, sacrificial, and others-focused. These characteristics are found in the shepherd gifting more than any other gifts. Jesus himself identified this: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11) Recovering the heart of a shepherd will lay a good foundation for any emerging leader. The shepherd-heart is loving, humble, caring and sacrificial. Such characteristics are a safeguard to fleshly leadership pitfalls such as pride, arrogance, dominance and narcissism. 

In recent years, we have seen contemporary church leadership structures fall like a house of cards. Scandal after scandal reveals how far leadership has fallen from the characteristics of the loving, humble shepherd. Church over-lords have used clerical credentials to amass for themselves wealth, power, and possessions and have exploited the flock financially, emotionally and even sexually. The Bible has imagery to describe these leaders: wolves in sheep’s clothing. Shepherds who feed themselves. In Ezekiel we read: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?” Yet we also read in Jeremiah: “And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will guide you with knowledge and understanding.” (Jeremiah 3:15)

So we see, from both old and new testaments that the gift/function of pastor (shepherd) is inseparable from the godly characteristics that define the role. From this perspective, we have to say that the often polarised (character versus gifting) debate is misleading. Rather than being two separate aspects, they are in fact inseparable characteristics of Christ. The same Spirit who imparts power gifts to believers, also infuses us with the character needed to accompany the gift.


Paul lays out qualifications for church leaders in his letter to young Timothy: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.” (2 Timothy 2:24) In addition to godly character, Paul says leaders must be able to teach. He also says: “You have heard me teach things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others.” (2 Timothy 2:2) Again, godly character is linked with gifting – the ability to teach. Notice Paul emphasises the leader must not be argumentative and should be reliable. Perhaps this is because beliefs about doctrine can make people argumentative. Many teachers, whilst trying to teach, have found themselves in contexts where they get some push back and may be tempted to be drawn into an argument. Gentleness and patience are needed for the teaching ministry. In many ways, pastors and teachers could be interpreted as one ascension gift. To pastor, one must be able to teach, and to teach in a life-giving way, one must have the heart of a pastor. Teachers without a pastor’s heart can create arrogant, elite and harsh church communities. As Paul says: ‘knowledge puffs up, love builds up.’

In addition to the actual function of teaching, teacher-leaders, by definition, should be marked by wisdom, discernment, knowledge and insight. Their doctrine should be applicable to life. From this perspective they should function in some ways like a guide or a coach. Experiential knowledge is essential if teachers hope to be leaders.


Sadly, the church’s approach to apostolic Christianity has tended to fall into two extremes. One is to deny the present day need for all five (or four) ascension ministry gifts, and the other is to be hyperbolic about the restoration of apostolic and prophetic leadership. Peter Wagner can fall into the latter category: “We are now living in the midst of one of the most epochal changes in the structure of the church that has ever been recorded. I like to call it the ‘Second Apostolic Age.’ Those words were penned almost 20 years ago. The passage of time have proved them somewhat overly optimistic. However, over-exaggeration of the “fivefold” or “ascension ministry” approach to leadership need not lead to neglect.

Whilst some apostolic churches have defined apostolic in a way that inflates ego and personality, this does not mean that an apostolic approach to leadership is not biblical or needed. As I have attempted to show in this article, each ascension ministry is a fusion of gift and character. Both aspects are essential in revealing something of Jesus to and through the church. By emphasising ascension gifts, I am not downplaying or neglecting the essential role of godly character and motivation in leadership, but I am arguing that the true manifestation of apostolic leadership will portray the fruit, power and presence of Christ. Further, in addition to each ascension ministry being an individual gifting for an individual leader, I am also arguing that all leaders need to be influenced and shaped by each of the five gifts. Otherwise, teaching pastors will create elitist doctrine-focused churches, pastors will create spiritual hospitals where people never really move on into maturity, evangelists will end up frustrated as they maintain churches they were never meant to … and apostles and prophets? They will probably be ex-communicated. We need the whole Christ, to equip the whole church, to reach the whole world. And the means God has given his church is the ascension gifts of Christ.

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Ephesians 4:12-13

[1] Sanders, J.O., Spiritual Leadership, p52-62.

[2] Osborne, Larry, Lead like a Shepherd, p128.

[3] Cho, Dr. David Yonggi, Spiritual Leadership for the New Millennium, p164-168.

[4] Nouwen, Henri. J., In the Name of Jesus, p64.

[5] Virgo, Terry, The Spirit-Filled Church, p152.

[6] Johnson, Jeremiah, I see a new apostolic generation, p150.

[7] Wagner, Peter, Apostles Today, p12.

[8] Jones, Brynn, The Radical Church

[9] Osborne, Larry, Lead like a Shepherd, p5.

[10] Osborne, Larry, Lead like a Shepherd, p5.

3 thoughts on “5 Key Characteristics of a Leader

  1. Excellent. Really helpfully and clearly laid out. Much to inspire and food for thought. Thank you John.


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