The Platform is not the Person
We all present ourselves to give good impressions to others. Ordinary community members want other ordinaries to think of them in positive ways. More public figures in a community do the same, sometimes with a more ramped method of image management. Teachers do this in their teaching, pastors do this from the platform and pulpit and in various communications, neighbors can be quite busy in managing what other neighbors think of them. Authors present themselves in their writings in a way that readers trust and then think of them in those terms.
Photo by Nikolay Vasiliev on Unsplash
What about social media? Not a few critics think the whole thing is little more than image construction and management. I’m not so cynical, but let’s not be naïve: our social media is a forum of self-presentation.
Let’s call all this self-presentation the platform. On the platform we create a persona, and the persona is what we want others to think of us, whether we are curating that image or not. Others generate impressions of who we are on the basis of our public presentation.
Untangling persona and platform from person, personality and character require discerning eyes, wisdom, and discernment.
Especially when you are hiring someone, marrying someone, engaging in a business partnership with someone, learning from someone, and working with and for someone.
The “best” platformers are also the best at curating a persona. Discerning people know this, and learn to look behind the persona to the personality and character.
I propose a model for our discussion today: Imagine you are on the side of a small pond and you see a beautiful lily pad flower. You can’t see the lily’s stalks or stems or know how long they are and neither can you see the root system and the ecosystem that nourishes the water lily.
The flower is the persona; the stalk/stem the personality; the root system is the character/virtue.
Everyone sees the flower and everyone, or nearly everyone, admires its beauty. It is designed for that impression. The stalk is known only by those who either read about water lilies or who dive under the water to see them (or Google them to see underwater water lily stalks/stems). Only those who study water lilies know about the root system and the ecosystem it needs to produce that beautiful flower.
This is my parable: the platform is no more the person than the flower is the water lily. Except this breaks down: water lilies can only produce flowers while humans can curate an entirely fraudulent persona.
So what can we do? Of course, I’m thinking of churches as I always do. Which means I’m thinking of church hirings of pastors and leaders and teachers and staff etc.. I’m thinking of Christian institutions in general as well.
Many hire for the flower people will see and this mistakes the persona for the personality and may well ignore the character. Big mistakes are made here.
How to get into the water to find personality and character?
First, I’m with the Christian institutions that require each candidate to sit for a test in psychology, say the MMPI, and have a trained psychologist interpret the test for the candidate. In this way the candidate can become much more self-aware. I also believe that churches can work with psychologist to get a good handle on the personality one is hiring.
Second, I’m for the institution having at least one psychologist on the search committee. (And fewer lawyers by the way.) Most humans can only see the flower/persona, they render judgment of a person on that basis of the persona, and most also think they are pretty good judges. Psychologists are trained to dive into the water and look at the stalks and stems.
Third, I’m for wisened sages on the search committees who have seen it and been there and done that. They will spot elements of the candidate that inexperienced members will not see. Thus, find a retired pastor for your search committee. Not someone who knows the candidate. Someone who can simply offer wisdom to the search committee. (The composition of search committees is a separate issue but diversity — women, persons of color, differences in economics and education — is big and will help with discernment of character, too.)
Remember this: charlatans are great on the platform, they curate their image very well, and they can persuade effectively. We have to get behind the persona to the realities of the personality, character, and genuine virtues.
Fourth, probe into character and virtue by working through social media, friends and contacts, family members and work histories. Measure the candidate by the classic elements of a tov character: wisdom and knowledge (creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning), courage (bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality), humanity (love, kindness, social intelligence), justice (citizenship, fairness, leadership), temperance (forgiveness, mercy, humility, modesty, prudence, self-regulation), and transcendence (appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality).
Fifth, move from these basic classic virtues into Christian virtues by assessing the candidate’s Spirit-filledness and Christlikeness. Check them out in comparison to (1) Jesus’ own life, (2) the Sermon on the Mount, (3) some good ethical list of NT and Christian virtues, and (4) the list of virtues for elders in the Pastoral Epistles.
You can’t do this in two one hour interviews on Zoom. You are a choosing an exemplar of Jesus when you choose a pastor or a leader in some Christian institution. What matters more than the flower and the stalks/stems is the character rootedness. This takes time, lots of it, and it takes wisdom and discernment.
Sixth, compare them honestly and kindly according to exemplary models you have of tov character and someone who has done this job well. No two persons are the same but people will eventually be comparing. There is no reason a wise search group can’t spend some time pondering the candidate in the light of others who have done this job well.
“Wow, that person is amazing on the platform!,” is not the surest path to hiring someone with character. Flowers are attractive and charismatic but what we need is a character of rootedness in Christlikeness.
Are they tov or not?
For an extensive study of character, I recommend C. Peterson, M.E.P. Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (New York: OUP, 2004).
When I drop a seed into a hole in the ground, it begins with the root, not with the flower. Choosing people for a search committee is perhaps the most critical part of a hiring procedure. It's not that easy to settle for "root" people when the "flower" people are so engaging. But a committee that does not include at least one or two "root" folks may end up making a serious mistake in its choice of a leader. Cut flowers don't last - not in a florist's shop, likely not in a church.
Some mainline denominations have ordination/credentialing requirements. These include MMPI, Enneagram, Myers-Briggs, M.Div., education and employment verification, reference checks, interview processes from a variety of pastoral and lay leaders, and more, including continuing education requirements and compliance with a code of ethics. Data bases are maintained, and the denomination serves as the clearing house of clergy conduct and misconduct information. It may not be perfect, but is at least a step in the right direction.