LAKE FOREST, Calif. – Less than a day after hosting a forum that brought together the presumed Republican and Democratic presidential nominees, megachurch pastor Rick Warren delivered a sermon at his church in Southern California, sharing with his congregation what he feels are the first three characteristics to look for in leaders.
While Warren acknowledged the fact that there are a lot of characteristics that are important to look for in a leader, he said none are more important than these three – integrity, humility, and generosity.
"A nation is never stronger than its leadership," the prominent megachurch pastor stated Sunday in his sermon at Saddleback Community Church in Lake Forest, citing a number of verses from Proverbs throughout the service.
While Warren did make mention of the events from the day prior – when thousands gathered at Saddleback Church to hear Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain answer identical questions for an hour each – he said the sermon was not just about the presidency.
"In November, we're going to vote for leaders at every single level of government – from the local community, the state, county, and on and on," Warren pointed out.
Furthermore, "everybody has to lead at some time in life," he added.
"If you want to summarize it in one word, leadership is influence," he continued. "You have influence over neighbors, friends, relatives, at the office, at school, so you're a leader."
So what is the kind of leadership that America needs? What is the kind of leadership that God blesses?
First, Warren said, God blesses leaders who live with integrity.
"Most important thing a leader has is his or her credibility," the Southern Baptist preacher stated. "If you have no credibility, you have no trust; if you have no trust, you have no leadership.
"All leadership is built on trust," Warren asserted. "If people trust you, they follow you. If they don't trust you, you may have the title, but you're not the leader."
And the source of credibility, Warren said, is integrity.
While leaders in the past, such as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, were known for integrity, many leaders today are more interested in image than they are in integrity, Warren stated.
"Image," he explained, "is what people think you are; character is what you really are. Character is what you are in the dark."
To those who would say what a leader does in their private life does not really matter, Warren insisted that it does matter if they want God's blessing.
"The truth is, what you do in your private life always affects your public life," he said. "In fact, that's the definition of integrity – that your public and private are the same.
"Any time you segment your life into public and private, you lack integrity," Warren claimed, noting that the word "integrity" comes from the word "integer," which means a unit of one.
And having integrity doesn't mean perfection, because nobody's perfect except Jesus, he said.
"What it means is 'What you see is what you get.'"
More than visionaries and more than smart leaders, Warren said what America needs are leaders with character.
"It's the first thing we need to look for in a leader and the first thing we need to pray for in a leader," he said.
Equally important in a leader, according to Warren, is humility – the second characteristic to look for.
"The worst sin is not adultery. The worst sin is not murder …. The Bible says the worst sin is pride," Warren pointed out.
"That is the root of every other problem in your life," he added.
Going further, Warren said humility is not denying strengths, but being honest about weaknesses.
"Humility is not thinking less of yourself," he continued. "It's thinking less about yourself."
Warren said there are two ways that God tests humility – through criticism and through praise.
"Every time you get criticized or every time you get praised, God is saying 'This is a test,'" Warren said, encouraging the congregants to check if they handle criticism pridefully or defensively and if they handle praise arrogantly.
"Do you want to know how to be humble? Simple. Get interested in other people," he exhorted.
"When you're humble … you just don't think about yourself. You're so busy thinking about others, thinking about God, thinking about what others need that you're just oblivious about how you appear, how you look."
And lastly, Warren said God blesses leaders who share with generosity – the third characteristic to look for.
"Generosity is a big issue with God because it makes us like Him," he said. "The hallmark of whether a person is genuinely a loving person, genuinely a compassionate person is their generosity.
"You cannot say I am a loving person and not be a generous person," he claimed.
"If you want to be a leader of influence and honor, you must learn the principle of generosity."
Warren recalled how both Obama and McCain had discussed with him the need for America to be a blessing to others, as America is arguably the most blessed nation in the world.
While the responses from the White House hopefuls on Saturday were widely divergent on a number of issues, as expected, such as their opinions of the present Supreme Court justices, the two senators notably agreed on what America's great moral failure is – the lack of selflessness.
"I think America's greatest moral failure in my lifetime is that we still don't abide by that basic precept in Matthew that whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me," responded Obama during his session with Warren as McCain supposedly waited in "a cone of silence."
"There is a pervasive sense, I think, that this country is wealthy and powerful as we still don't spend enough time thinking about the least of these," he added.
McCain similarly said in his response that America's greatest moral failure "has been throughout our existence, perhaps that we have not devoted ourselves to causes greater than our self interest although we've been at the best at it of anybody in the world."
In his sermon Sunday, titled "The Kind of Leader America Needs," Warren reiterated the senators' sentiments, pointing to a number of verses including Luke 12:48.
"We have not been blessed just so we can enjoy it; we have been blessed to bless the rest of the world," Warren stated. "And that involves leaders that understand the principle of generosity."
Warren pointed to his own personal success as a case in point, having gone from tithing ten percent of his income to 90 percent over the past 33 years.
"Do you know why God blessed 'The Purpose Driven Life' book and made it the best-selling book in the world and the best-selling hardback in history?" he asked, referring to his 2002 devotional book which has sold over 25 million copies worldwide. "You know why I think it went? 'Cause God knew that He could trust me with the money. He knew that we weren't going to spend it on ourselves."
After referring to a passage in Proverbs, Warren said the kind of leader that America needs is someone who says "We've been so blessed. How are we going to speak for others?"
"The purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have no influence," Warren explained.
It is "not so that we can be powerful," he added. "The purpose of influence is to use it to do good, to be generous with what God's given to us."
And according to Warren, the three characteristics – integrity, humility, and generosity – are the antidotes to the three basic traps of leadership – "lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, pride of life" – which Warren noted as being as old as mankind.
"Lust of the flesh" is the temptation to feel good, and the only antidote is integrity, Warren stated. "Lust of the eyes" is the temptation to have. And it is generosity that breaks that grip on materials. And the antidote for "pride of life," naturally, is humility.
"This is why if you focus on these three things in your life and if leaders will focus on them, they will be the kind of person that God blesses."
In closing, Warren urged churchgoers to pray – for the candidates, for themselves, and for wisdom. He then urged them to check out the candidates and, more than the issues, what the character of each is. Lastly, Warren encouraged them to register to vote and then vote.
"I've been around the world, and there are many places around the world who would die to have the freedom to vote," he reminded.
Warren has not made known publicly who he plans to vote for and has not offered a personal endorsement as he believes it to be inappropriate for pastors to do so for political candidates.
According to a poll conducted by his denomination's research arm in June, however, 80 percent of Southern Baptist pastors said they plan to vote for McCain. Only one percent said they plan to vote for Obama, and the rest were undecided.