“Nature or Nurture?”

“Are leaders born or made?”

The question popped up on my radar screen, again, while writing a review of Re:Vision: The Key to Transforming Your Church by Aubrey Malphurs and Gordon Penfold. After satisfying the reader with an avalanche of data proving that “re-envisioning pastors”[1] have distinctive temperaments as measured by the DiSC Personality Profile or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) they conclude that a handful of personal characteristics distinguish turnaround pastors from their colleagues.

Those distinguishing characteristics lie in the realm of “temperament.”

Temperament or type is your unique, God-given (inborn) behavioral style.[2] Your temperament is the combination of preferences that you choose when you take the Personality Profile (DiSC) and/or the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).[3]

Why the question arises

This creates a significant problem for those not gifted as turnaround pastors! If the ability to turn churches around is a matter of inborn temperament, what hope is there for those who not born that way? This is a significant question for the authors, for similar research, for church leaders, denominational executives, seminaries and for pastors!

After all, if this ability is inborn, why conduct the research and why write the book?[4] They tackle the issue head on, opening a very important discussion about the nature and source of leadership. They deal with issue by way of three questions:

  1. What if I’m a non-re-envisioning pastor? (Pages 120″“124)
  2. Can a non-re-envisioning pastor become a re-envisioning pastor? (Pages 125″“126)
  3. Should a non-re-envisioning pastor become a re-envisioning pastor? (Pages 126″“127)

Although they offer useful (and affirmative) answers to all three questions, I’d like to suggest an easier and more productive way to answer the question. Cut the Gordian knot by rejecting the false dichotomy in the “are leaders born or made” question. Instead, let’s reframe the issue (remember, what you measure is what you’ll find) and let’s direct our attention to Paul’s response in the Pastoral Epistles.

Why the question is irrelevant

Well, perhaps irrelevant is a tad hyperbolic, but given the fact that no consensus has emerged despite decades of research, there is apparently no satisfactory answer when the question is posed in “either or” form. The “nature vs. nurture” or “born vs. learned” lens, when applied to leadership, has proven itself lacking in sufficient refractive power to disclose a satisfying answer. It is therefore probably a false dichotomy. If not, it is at the very least unhelpful.

There is a better way to probe the issue, one that provides a satisfying answer; it looks at phenomena rather than etiology.

Litfin has shown us how to arrive at a satisfying, useful understanding of leadership and leaders by exiting the nature vs. nurture cul-de-sac. In “The Nature of the Pastoral Role: The Leader as Completer”[5] he states that the typical research into the source and nature of leadership is fruitless.

In seeking to understand leadership, secular researchers looked for many years down a blind alley. They assumed that all true leaders possessed certain traits or characteristics. Originally such traits were considered to be inborn; later it was agreed that they could be learned. But in either case the assumption was that leadership traits existed and could be isolated by research.

Modern research has recognized this futility and has abandoned the question for a more useful take on the issue. This utilitarian approach renders the either-or approach irrelevant and perhaps false dichotomy.

Modern theorists often begin by distinguishing between “leadership” and “leader.” “Leadership” is broadly defined as any behavior which helps the group meet its stated goals or fulfill its purpose [emphasis mine], while “leader” refers to anyone who is assigned to provide such behavior [emphasis mine] or who emerges in an extraordinary way to do so on his or her own.

These helpful definitions, in addition to avoiding the fruitless nature vs. nurture debate, dovetail nicely with Paul’s instructions to Timothy in the two letters that bear his (Timothy’s) name.

Leaders lead irrespective of temperament

As I read 1 & 2 Timothy I get the impression that Timothy was a timid (1 Timothy 6:12″“13), fearful (2 Timothy 1:7) young man who shrunk from confrontation (1 Timothy 5:20″“21; note the stern admonition in v. 21 that follows the instruction to publicly rebuke those who persist in sin) who struggled to maintain his leadership in spiritual and ecclesial matters (1 Timothy 4:11″“16). Yet, despite the fact that Timothy was not predisposed by temperament[6], Paul had no hesitancy in instructing Timothy to provide the leadership behaviors the Ephesian church needed into order to continue in its God-given mission. He was not the least bit concerned that Timothy would suffer spiritual or emotional harm by leading outside the operational parameters of his temperament.

This emerges most clearly in 2 Timothy 4:5, where Paul tells him to “DO the work of an evangelist.” Paul had available terms to describe those who were created to BE evangelists; Ephesians 4:11 is the case in point. His instruction indicates that Paul understood that Timothy was not an evangelist “by nature” or “by temperament.” Still, he was comfortable telling Timothy that he had to engage in the behaviors that typify evangelists!

Sidebar: I suppose one could misconstrue my point by saying, “See! Leadership isn’t hardwired at birth, it is (or can be) learned!” To which I reply, “So what? Your point is irrelevant in helping every pastor, regardless of temperament or training, to be more effective as a turnaround pastor.”


Malphurs and Penfold have done the Church a great service by identifying the characteristics that distinguish those who are consistently able to bring new life and conversion growth to stagnant and dying churches. And, as their research shows, turnaround pastors can do it again and again, in church after church.

When we couple their findings with Litfin’s helpful redirection in the study of leadership and with Paul’s instructions to Timothy we come away with one significant conclusion: Pastors who are not naturally inclined to the behaviors that turn churches from death to life can still function as turnaround pastors by engaging in the appropriate leadership behaviors.

And I guess I’ll add a second, less important, conclusion for the sake of closing the loop. The question of whether leaders are born or made is irrelevant.


  1. They define a turnaround pastor as one whom God uses to lead a plateaued or declining church into growth at the rate of at least 2.5% per year for five years. They also use the term “re-envisioning pastor” later in the book, but the terms are, for all practical purposes, interchangeable.  â†©
  2. The operative word here is “inborn.” This is the source of angst for those who aren’t naturally inclined to the behaviors that characterize turnaround pastors.  â†©
  3. Page 69.  â†©
  4. A question that my research colleagues Gordon Penfold and Gary Westra have to face in our own research into these issues.  â†©
  5. A Duane Litfin, “The Nature of the Pastoral Role: The Leader as Completer”. Bibliotheca Sacra 153:339 (January 1982).  â†©
  6. Paul would not have used the term temperament but given the fact that the term was well entrenched in Greek literature several centuries B.C. he may have known of the concepts.  â†©