Christians on Leadership, Calling and Career

April 18, 2013 – No matter what’s happening around the world, leadership takes center stage.

Kim Jong Un is leading his nation to the brink of war. A group of Senators is directing their Senate compatriots to adopt new policies about illegal immigration. People speculate where the new Pope and the new Archbishop of Canterbury will take their respective churches. On a daily basis, the cable news talking heads either applaud or excoriate the leadership of President Obama. Concern over leadership is, it seems, everywhere in church and culture.

But that also makes it difficult to define. Leadership is one of those “if you see it, you know it” kind of qualities. It’s something Americans clearly value, all the way from their immediate employer to their minister to their president. And, according to a new survey conducted by the Barna Group, more than eight in ten (82%) Christian adults believe the United States is facing a crisis of leadership because there aren’t enough leaders. What do people value in a leader? What is the Christian perspective of leadership? And is the younger generation looking for a different type of leader?

The Traits that Make a Leader
What’s the most important quality in a leader? According to a new survey of Christian adults conducted by the Barna Group in conjunction with Brad Lomenick, president of the Catalyst conference, the primary answer is “integrity.” More than half (64%) of Christians say integrity is one of the most important traits a leader must have. Other traits Christians say are important include authenticity (40% listed this as a vital characteristic) and discipline (38%). In fact, Christian adults chose all three of these qualities above “passion for God”—less than one-third (31%) listed that as a necessary trait. The traits Christian adults were least likely to select as most important are humility (7%) and purpose (5%).

Among evangelical Christians, who are a subset of the larger group of self-identified Christians, the results are largely the same with one notable exception—more than eight out of ten (83%) evangelicals listed “passion for God” as an important trait for leaders, compared with the 31% of all Christians. Passion for God was the number one trait evangelicals look for in a leader. Evangelicals selected integrity as the second most important leadership quality.

But practically, where do those answers lead Christians? What are they really looking for in a leader they have to interact with on a daily basis? Put simply: what do Christian adults look for in a boss? The research also explored the kinds of characteristics that people want to find in their boss.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same top two characteristics emerged when asking about important leadership qualities and important employer traits: integrity (57%) and authenticity (47%). But after that, the lists diverge. Whereas Christians value discipline, passion for God and competence in their leaders, they want to actually work for a boss who is collaborative, competent and humble. Passion for God drops from fourth place to seventh, perhaps reflecting people’s recognition that the workplace is not necessarily filled with believers. Still, among evangelicals, finding a boss who is a believer remains the most important criterion in their job search.

Younger Christians—those aged 18-39—are slightly more interested in collaboration and purpose than are Christians over 40. They are also much more likely than older adults to look for bosses who are humble, with nearly one-third (32%) of 18-39 year-olds listing humility as a key trait in a potential boss.

Who Is Leading in a Crisis of Leadership?
More than eight in ten (82%) Christians believe the United States is facing a crisis of leadership because there aren’t enough leaders. So who are the people rising as leaders to meet that challenge?

More than half of Christians in this country identify themselves as leaders (58%). Yet, less than one-sixth (15%) say their primary leadership trait is integrity, the quality Christians were most likely to name as an important leadership trait. In fact, Christians are most likely to identify their primary leadership trait as competence (20%), followed by discipline (16%), collaboration (15%), integrity (15%) and authenticity (14%). Only 1% of Christians say they are best at being humble (it is perhaps ironic that anyone would self-describe in this manner). Evangelicals are cut from a different bolt of cloth, naming passion for God as their best leadership quality (42%), compared with only 4% who named competence as their defining leadership trait.

In the Barna survey, leaders were also asked what they would most like to improve about their leadership, using the same list of 10 traits. The area where they said they want the most help is courage (27%), followed by a desire to grow in terms of discipline (17%), vision (15%) and passion for God (13%). Evangelical leaders are most similar to the broader Christian market in terms of their aspirations to improve as leaders: they want to grow in courage (27%), discipline (25%), passion for God (14%) and vision (9%).

Your Calling or Just a Job?
Many people discuss job or career in terms of “calling”—it’s prevalent in much of the writing and conversations surrounding the topic of leadership. Particularly among Christians, one’s occupation is often talked about in relation to God’s “calling.” And yet, only about one-third of Christians (34%) feel called to the work they currently do (among those who are presently employed). This is much higher among evangelicals (55%), but still reflects a huge gap in terms of the Christian community’s sense of divine purpose in their work. Others say they “do not feel called” (19%), indicate they are “not sure” (13%), or admit they have “never thought about it before” (34%).

Younger Christians are less likely to feel called to their work than do older Christians (31% versus 36%). However, older Christians are even more likely than the younger set to confess they have never really considered the idea of being called to their current role (26% versus 38%).

So, if many Christians don’t necessarily feel called to the work they’re doing, what does that mean? The Barna study asked employed Christian adults if they believe God is calling them to do something else in terms of work, but they have not been willing to make a change yet because of their current life situation. Overall, about one out of ten working Christians (9%) agreed strongly with that feeling and another quarter (26%) agreed somewhat, totaling one-third of today’s employed Christians (35%) who are experiencing this kind of tension about their calling. Among younger Christians though, nearly half (44%) are feeling this disconnect between their perceived calling from God and the realities of their current employment.

When asked if they believe a person’s calling lasts a lifetime, on balance, most people disagree rather than agree (68% versus 32%). In fact, only 4% strongly agree that a person can see what he or she is called to do from an early age.

What the Research Means
The research was directed and analyzed by David Kinnaman, president of Barna Group. He offered the following observations about the implications of the study:

1. Christians perceive a significant leadership crisis in America caused by a distinct lack of leaders. Most feel they are leaders, but many of them aren’t confident that their leadership abilities are the most important traits in a leader. This suggests many of them are still striving to meet even their own leadership expectations and it means many Christians may not think of their own leadership as helping to fill the leadership gap they experience. Perhaps this is why they are most interested in growing in terms of courage.

2. Evangelicals are far more likely than all self-described Christians to say passion for God is an essential leadership quality. That suggests evangelicals are much more comfortable working for people who share their beliefs and may not believe non-Christian bosses they work for are great leaders. In an increasingly secular context, evangelicals will have to navigate working with and for leaders who have a different definition of effective leadership.

3. It’s illuminating to learn how few Christians believe they’re called to do what they do. This data presents a challenge to the popular Christian understanding of career as calling since most Christians in the U.S. don’t seem to be thinking about their jobs in terms of calling. Most of the data suggests the concept of calling is not on their radar. If people don’t feel as if they’re being called to their job, does that really matter to the quality of the work they do or the lives they maintain? It is worth noting the trend that younger Christians feel more of a desire to see their career as a calling—and are more discontent when they feel a disconnect between their career and calling. However, is this perceived disconnect simply the reality of finding a fulfilling job when you’re young and inexperienced—especially in a bad economy? Is it the common angst of young people trying to figure out the purpose of their life? Or is it a sign of a growing trend among Christians to connect their faith more holistically with their life—a desire not to compartmentalize faith, life and work? Additional research and study is needed to clarify the connection between calling, leadership and faith.

Twitter: @davidkinnaman | @barnagroup

About the Research
The study on which this report is based included online surveys with 1,116 adults who were randomly chosen from the United States who also consider themselves Christian. The maximum margin of sampling error for a sample of that size is estimated to be within +2.8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

The study was conducted between June 5 and June 11, 2012 using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population, operated by Knowledge Networks. Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled panel. For those who agree to participate, but do not already have Internet access, Knowledge Networks provides a laptop and ISP connection at no cost. People who already have computers and Internet service are permitted to participate using their own equipment. Panelists receive unique log-in information for accessing the online survey they were recruited to participate in.

"Evangelicals" meet the born again criteria (described below) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as "evangelical."

The research was commissioned by Brad Lomenick, who is the author of a new book on leadership called Catalyst Leader.

For the purposes of this research, the following short descriptions were given to respondents on the 10 leadership characteristics.

Courage – being willing to take risks
Vision – knowing where you are going
Competence – being good at what you do
Humility – giving credit to others
Collaboration – working well with others
Passion for God – loving God more than anything else
Integrity – doing the right thing
Authenticity – being truthful and reliable
Purpose – being made for or “called” to the job
Discipline – the ability to stay focused and get things done

About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. It conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries.

Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each update on the latest research findings from Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website ( Additional research-based resources are also available through this website.

© Barna Group, 2013.