Article, “The Relationship of Charismatic Leadership to Follower Organizational Commitment for Future Pastors: A Christian Perspective,” Brian Perna and Brandon Knight

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The Relationship of Charismatic Leadership to Follower Organizational Commitment for Future Pastors: A Christian Perspective

Brian Perna, PhD, Assistant Professor, Organizational Communication and Leadership, Murray State University

Brandon Knight, PhD, Assistant Professor of Communication, William Carey University


The relationship of charismatic leadership to follower organizational commitment in religious nonprofit organizations is important. Based on twenty interviews with religious leaders, spiritual change agent and emulating a servant’s heart were painted. This research is of benefit to leaders in the religious nonprofit context because these findings illustrate how charismatic leadership and organizational commitment foster a human element and connection in leadership. Of even greater significance in this research are the implications of real word application for future pastors in need of leadership development. Research implications for studying the communicative practices of charismatic leadership and organizational commitment in organizations are discussed.

Keywords: Charismatic Leadership; Organizational Commitment; Religious Nonprofit Organizations; Qualitative Research



Leadership in a religious nonprofit organization is imperative for organizational commitment to grow and exist (Hannum, Deal, Livington-Howard, Linshuang, Ruderman, Stawiski, Zane, & Price, 2011). With over 1.5 million Internal Revenue Service registered nonprofit organizations since 2008, it may be fruitful to examine how leadership creates, maintains, and empowers organizational commitment (Wing, Roeger, & Pollak, 2010). Religious nonprofit organizations lack resources for paid staff, thus effective leaders must adapt to multiple perspectives (Hannum, Deal, Livington-Howard, Linshuang, Ruderman, Stawiski, Zane, & Price, 2011). Leadership in religious nonprofit organizations may shape a framework for exceptional role expectations, creativity, and an intrinsic motivation toward organizational commitment (Jung, Chow, & Wu, 2003; Nemanich & Keller, 2007; Shamir, House, & Arthur, 1993).

Superior leadership qualities generate and enhance awareness of the collective mission interest of the religious nonprofit organization through emotional ties that transform the needs, values, preferences, and aspirations of followers (Bass, 1991; Shamir, House, & Arthur, 1993; Rowold & Heinitz, 2007). Likewise, leaders are change agents as their personal characteristics influence their followers’ goals, beliefs, and attitudes, and this promotes understanding that socializes their followers toward positive performance outcomes that are beyond expectation. (Kuhnert & Lewis, 1987; Nemanich & Keller, 2007 Rowold & Heinitz, 2007). And exceptional leader invokes an interest and passion for organizational commitment through the leader’s significant personal sacrifices and going above the call of duty (Bass, 1991; Hollander & Offermann, 1990; Shamir, House, & Arthur, 1993). Organizational commitment and leadership should be emphasized in religious nonprofit organizations to inspire leaders to convey meaningfulness and moral purpose (Bass, 1991; Shamir, House, & Arthur, 1993).

Indeed, organizational commitment plays a strong part in the belief and acceptance of what the organization’s goals and values stand for, in a willingness to put forth effort on the organization’s behalf, and in a strong sense of membership (Porter, Steers, Mowday, & Boulian, 1974). Likewise, organizational commitment is socially exchanged and influenced by its role in identification (adopting the organization’s values and goals), involvement (psychological role immersion), and loyalty (organization affection and attachment); that commitment is essential for the survival of religious nonprofit organizations’ leaders, so the relationship and characteristics of leadership and organizational commitment are worthy of further exploration (Buchanan 1974; Eisenberger, Huntington, Hutchison, & Sowa, 1986; Mathieu & Zajac, 1990; Meyer & Allen, 1984). Hence, the scope of the present study is to expand an understanding of organizational commitment and charismatic leadership by exploring nonprofit religious leaders, specifically Christian pastors.

Unknown to many within the Christian community, recent research suggests a pending dilemma involving the creation of new leaders for coming generations. For example, in a study conducted by Barna in 2019, the Connected Generation senses a crisis in relation to leadership. The researchers suggest that, if anything, the findings posit an overwhelming concern for the future as it relates to new leaders: “Four out of five affirm—and nearly half strongly affirm—that ‘society is facing a crisis of leadership because there are not enough good leaders right now’ (82%). This is one of the most widely endorsed statements in the entire global survey, which suggests its significance to this generation” (Barna, 2019, para. 2). Whereas the local church plays an integral role in providing opportunities for young Christians to enact forms of leadership in ministries, Barna president David Kinnaman argues that the church may miss specific developmental opportunities if there is a refusal to adapt to both this period of uncertainty and to the current changes in what truly entails leadership. The pastoral role, however, is unique due to its positionality. In essence, the pastor is viewed as being called by God and placed as a leader over the organizational context. McNamee (2011) illustrates that the expectations placed on the pastoral leader can result in him or her questioning personal aptness even while acting as the spiritual guide of others. Monohan (1999), more specifically, notes the complex sharing of work between clergy/pastors and laypeople within the organizational context. Therefore, more research guiding effective leadership among pastors, which is already shown to be in a state of crisis through the Barna (2019) study, is needed.

Organizational Commitment and Charismatic Leadership

Porter, Steers, Mowday, and Boulian (1974) referred to organizational commitment “in terms of the strength of an individual’s identification with and involvement in a particular organization” (p. 604). This definition attaches willingness to the religious nonprofit context because of the need to enhance a loyalty to their mission (Cook & Wall, 1980; Kanter, 1968). In a religious nonprofit organization, the organizational commitment aspects of continuance (a social role in the system), cohesion (positive orientations toward community involvement), and control (upholding group norms through the positive binds of personality) may result from the followers’ interpretation of the degree of support from the organization’s leadership (Eisenberger, Huntington, Hutchison, & Sowa, 1986; Kanter, 1968). Although charismatic leadership’s association with organizational effectiveness and organizational commitment have been established by Angle and Perry (1981) and its association with organizational commitment and positive attitudes have been outlined by Porter Steers (et al.), researchers have yet to explore the relationship of organizational commitment and charismatic leadership in religious organizations. Therefore, the role of organizational commitment in relationship to charismatic leadership deserves attention.

Conger and Kanungo (1998) defined charismatic leadership as “an attribution based on followers’ perceptions of their leader’s behavior” (p. 47). Specifically, qualities of charismatic leaders are portrayed through becoming change agents that are contextually sensitive to social environments that create strategic opportunities, are formulating and articulating a future vision, and are motivating followers to achieve a vision (Conger & Kanungo, 1998). Charismatic leaders evoke followers’ admiration because leaders are “active innovators” in achieving organizational goal vision (Conger & Kanungo, 1998). Relating to a charismatic leadership-organizational commitment relationship, vision is conceptualized as the “idealized goal that the leader wants the organization to achieve in the future” (Conger & Kanungo, 1998, p. 53). In a religious nonprofit organization, the charismatic leadership-organizational commitment relationship may influence the future achievement of goals (Conger & Kanungo, 1998). Thus, in charismatic leadership, the vision of success is an embodied perspective of both the leader and follower that advocates a challenge and motivation to change the followers’ attitude (Conger & Kanungo, 1998).

The admiration of the charismatic leader suggests a vision that the followers respect, identify with, and want to emulate (Conger & Kanungo, 1998). Moreover, an effective charismatic leader articulates vision and strategy along with a process of motivation (Conger & Kanungo, 1998). The charismatic leader emphasizes status quo shortcomings and deficiencies in order to create a plan of action for a strong identification of future visions and goals (Conger & Kanungo, 1998). Equally important, the charismatic leader motivates followers through articulating their assertiveness, confidence, expertise, high energy, follower concern, and persistence, which develops followers to be motivated and enthusiastic (Conger & Kanungo, 1998). These process qualities of motivation transcend into achieving the vision (Conger & Kanungo, 1998).

Successful charismatic leaders instill a sense of follower trust by leading by example, committing to a common cause, and conveying knowledge and influence in their area of expertise (Conger & Kanungo, 1998). Charismatic leaders evoke surprise (unconventional vision realizations) and admiration because they are “active innovators” in achieving the vision of organizational goals, thus influencing followers’ attitudes, behaviors, and values (Conger & Kanungo, 1998).

Explorations of charismatic leadership found that it is useful for training managers (Conger & Kanungo, 1994) for creating proactive supervisors (Crant & Bateman, 2000), for communicating social change (Fiol, Harris, & House, 1999), and for relating to followers (Ehrhart & Klein, 2001). Charismatic leaders foster a unique impression by creating encouragement through inspirational and idealized vision that is transmitted through a strong sense of mission to their followers (Conger, & Kanungo, 1992; Conger, & Kanungo, 1994; Conger, & Kanungo, 1987; Fiol, Harris, & House, 1999; Shamir, House, & Arthur, 1993; Yammarino, Dubinsky, Comer, & Jolson, 1997). Unlike prior contexts of charismatic leadership exploration, the religious nonprofit context is unique because its leaders must adapt to a mostly volunteer staff (Hannum, Deal, Livington-Howard, Linshuang, Ruderman, Stawiski, Zane, & Price, 2011). While this research is a good foundation on charismatic leadership, a more fruitful exploration is warranted to explore its relationship to organizational commitment. Moreover, through inspirational vision that is extraordinary, advocated vision that succeeds in attitudinal change, and idealized vision that is likeable, all transmitted to their followers by a strong sense of mission (Conger, & Kanungo, 1992; Conger, & Kanungo, 1994; Conger, & Kanungo, 1987; Fiol, Harris, & House, 1999; Shamir, House, & Arthur, 1993; Yammarino, Dubinsky, Comer, & Jolson, 1997). In other words, charismatic leaders shift the followers’ self-interests to the collective interests of the organization (Shamir, House, & Arthur, 1993). In short, further research is needed to clarify the charismatic leadership-organizational commitment relationship in religious nonprofit organizations. As such, these findings suggest that religious nonprofit organizations are a rich context to study an organizational commitment-charismatic relationship. Hence, this study was guided by the following research question:

RQ: How does charismatic leadership influence organizational commitment in a nonprofit organization?


The research question was answered with in-depth interviews of leaders who were recruited using purposeful sampling (Tracy, 2013). All participants stated their titles and were thus identified as religious nonprofit organizations by stating their titles. Eighteen participants were male and two were female while all participants were Caucasian. All participants were from religious nonprofit organizations. Religions explored were Baptist, Catholic, and Methodist. The ages ranged from 32 to 75 with an average of (M = 49.7) and an average tenure of 11.15 years. Participants voluntarily signed an IRB approved consent form and were interviewed using a semi-structured interview guide that was audio recorded, which averaged 30.86 minutes. Participants’ names were changed to ensure confidentiality and were transcribed once theoretical saturation was reached. Smith’s (1995) thematic analysis analyzed these 172 pages of data by writing down themes that related to charismatic leadership and organizational commitment characteristics. Lastly, three participant checks verified theme exemplar accuracy and reflection (Hosek & Thompson, 2009).


After reviewing the transcripts based on the research question, Spiritual Change Agent and Emulating a Servant’s Heart emerged.

Spiritual Change Agent

The leader as a Spiritual Change Agent utilizes charisma to spiritually change commitment dedication to Christ. This leader communicates charisma to foster belief and service to Christ in the following exemplar:

Charisma is great for initial engagement, but we try the best we can to point folks towards not a devotion to a charismatic leader, but devotion to Christ; there’s a tight line that charismatic ministers have to walk because we never ever want things to become about us. We want people dedicated to Christ by serving somebody else, and giving.

Spiritual Change Agent constructs a charismatic opportunity for a link to spiritual follower connection in the following illustration:

Charisma can be a tool in the toolbox that can serve the leader well. One thing about charisma is that if you are an interesting person and you have an interesting life, that passion for life actually makes people interested in you. That kind of charisma can serve you well. The ability to connect with a large and diverse group of people on a personal level is significant to make them feel personally connected to a leader.

These leaders use charisma not for their own gain but to connect volunteers to spirituality. Charisma is important in leader-follower connection.

Emulating a Servant’s Heart

This theme depicts serving the people of God, not just the church. To fully emulate God’s work, the servant of the church has a heart for the love of God and people as painted in the following exemplar:

In chapter 13 of John, Jesus washes the feet of the disciples and that was the job of a servant. Here you have God himself washing the feet of the disciples. That is the attitude of people serving in the church. It helps to have some kind of winsome personality to draw people in, but if someone does not have a heart of God and God has not changed their heart, then that is only going to go so far. So it takes a change of heart to draw people in and point them to what God has called them to do.

Emulating a Servant’s Heart aids church followers spiritually by emulating a servant attitude in the following description:

I see charisma as a personality trait. I try to have a servant’s heart. And I want them to have a servant’s heart. I see the church as a hospital. People are hurting. Church is not a place for saints to be put on a shelf. We are to help one another, our community, and our world. I cannot expect or lead someone into that if I do not do it myself.

Hence, Spiritual Change Agent and Emulating a Servant’s Heart describe charismatic leaders because they are changing their followers’ direction from serving them to emulating Christ’s heart and devotion.

A Pedagogical Exercise: Learning Servant Leadership Through Imitation

So, how might one teach these discovered themes of charismatic leadership in the classroom setting? Whereas many seminary professors take an on-the-job training approach which challenges students to work with and alongside pastors deep in ministerial work, not all undergraduate level courses on leadership or pastoral training allow for this possibility. Thus, we propose a leadership analysis for the classroom that would come before any on-the-job training exercises.

This pedagogical exercise is based on the exercises of imitation in ancient rhetorical training, albeit from the standpoint of leadership rather than oratorical training. As Corbett (1971) rightly argues in an article entitled The Theory and Practice of Imitation in Classical Rhetoric, pedagogy was built upon observation and, consequently, assimilation. The same could and should be said for those preparing for leadership positions, especially those feeling called to serve in ministry. Both Jesus and the apostle Paul saw pedagogical value in imitation. According to Patterson (2016), Christian leadership is best viewed through Jesus’ servant model of leadership and contrasted with the ascendant-dominant model which seeks leadership through a frame of egoism and pride. Likewise, the apostle Paul specifically requests early Christian readers to imitate his life and actions because his pursuits as a leader was to serve as Christ: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).

Therefore, students would be provided the two themes discovered in the current research on charismatic leadership: Emulating a Servant’s Heart and Spiritual Change Agent.  Once discussed, students are then challenged to research and analyze a contemporary pastor who meets both criteria. Because these themes are broad, student findings will cover a plethora of examples in which these themes emerge. The students could share their findings via presentation, thereby offering numerous imitative possibilities for future ministry.

Fortunately, imitation pedagogy teaches from both virtue and vice. Thus, students should also contrast virtuous models with contemporary examples of pastors who failed because they lacked the two themes of charismatic leadership. More significantly, students should analyze what vices in pastoral leadership undercut the two discovered themes of charismatic leadership. For example, the rise and fall of Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church was followed by laypersons and pastors around the nation. But, what did we learn from his failure in leadership? The obvious answer is nothing if students have not thoughtfully analyzed and considered what was missing from his leadership qualities and actions.

The authors have found this assignment to be most productive in courses specifically on leadership and pastoral training. Students who undergo leadership analyses prior to on-the-job training at the seminary level will have an added level of competency when the time comes because they will partner both theory and praxis. More significantly, teaching leadership pedagogy from a point of leadership inherently points to the necessity of learning from others in Christian community despite the influence of capitalism and individualism.

The goal of this practice in imitation pedagogy regarding pastoral leadership is to better prepare students for future ministry which, as this research has shown, directly affects organizational commitment. Ed Stetzer (2020), in the Christian Education Journal, focuses on the current crises within theological education and its connection to the issues among pastors when leading. To Stetzer, innovation in pedagogy is needed due to the current moment: “The challenge for theological education is to hold these two in tension, understanding the gravity of the crisis while persistently looking for the opportunity to advance the mission” (p. 174). The proposed innovative pedagogy among future pastors is an attempt at dealing rightly with this tension.


The goal of the current study was to determine how charismatic leadership relates to organizational commitment in religious nonprofit organizations. These findings suggested that communication is the bridge that connects leaders and followers. Leaders that engage in the communication process effectively and display strong leadership behaviors have been shown to positively produce effective communication behaviors (Neufeld, Wan, & Fang, 2010). Leaders communicated interconnectedness by structuring an expression of care by sharing spiritual values with volunteers; in doing so, the complex practice of understanding and applying the Bible created strong cultural values of spirituality and aided in accomplishment of spiritual goals (Alrawi, Awad, Alrawi, & Alrawi, 2014; Marques, Dhiman, & King, 2005; Vaccaro, Jansen, Van Den Bosch, & Volberda, 2012).

Communicating vision created higher spiritual organizational commitment for leaders (Fry, 2003; Smith, Arthur, Hardy, Callow, & Williams, 2013). Spiritual Change Agent resonates with charismatic leadership because a deep religious conviction to serving others is a relationship-building process that demands a passion for dedication to the leader role and to followers (Bramwell & Eddie, 2014; Gosha, Porter, Cherry, Ordu, & Horace, 2014; Hicks, 2002). Scholars found a transformative value that generates uplifting change and well-being among followers (Blocker & Barrios, 2015). Secondly, Emulating a Servant’s Heart illustrated an ethical vision that followers could model, thus creating a moral organizational climate (Reave, 2005; Reed, Vidaver-Cohen, & Colwell, 2011). Consistent with leadership researchers, Emulating a Servant’s Heart is constructed through the leader being a role model who exhibits godly virtues (Kriger & Seng, 2005). Specifically, the leader is communicating the love of God by imitating the life of Jesus, from the Bible, and from a moral virtue of leadership (Kriger & Seng, 2005). By sharing the faith and calling of Jesus with followers, the leader is showing others a caring and concern for each other, which involves and further invites spiritual practice (Kriger & Seng, 2005; Reave, 2005; Reed, Vidaver-Cohen, & Colwell, 2011).

Overall, this study adds to organizational communication literature in its nonprofit context exploration, specifically for the role of Christian pastor. An important implication of this research is that pastors may use valuable information from the emergent leadership themes in this study. Charisma for pastors is important in order to persuade people to be passionate about spirituality. An exceptional charismatic leader who utilizes charisma to find passion in the actions of followers, communicates the true essence of charisma, which is serving others. Using charisma to encourage followers to be passionate about life is strong advice for leadership. When leaders serve others not for their own gain but for the benefit of others, followers would desire to emulate similar sacrificial passions. Supportive communication fosters a powerful potential for serving followers’ commitment and organizational citizenship (Bakar & McCann, 2015; Graen & Uhlbien, 1995; Van Winkle, Allen, DeVore, & Winston, 2014). The pastor’s ability to affirm follower strengths and to develop relationships for the group unleashes a powerful service (Bakar & McCann, 2015; Van Winkle, Allen, DeVore, & Winston, 2014).

This study’s research implications may be applied to other organizational contexts.

Whether in faith-based organizations (FBOs, organizations that highlight religious/spiritual needs and values) (McNamee, 2011) or in corporate organizations, ethical citizenship embraces ethical actions that create a spiritual identity that encompasses a visionary system of core values for the good of the individual and the organization (Bell, Taylor, & Driscoll, 2011; Chieh-Peng, Baruch, & Wei-Chi, 2012; Fry, 2003). Workplace spirituality communicates social good, stewardship, servanthood, and connectedness that instill a context of interwoven cultural and personal values (Crossman, 2011; Fry, 2003). Leaders in any organization are at the forefront of communicating fundamental ethical systems that construct congruence at both the individual and team level of followers (Bell, Taylor, & Driscoll, 2011; Fry, 2003). Leader-follower communication is imperative for relationship growth in any organization.

Although this research offers valuable insight into understanding charismatic leadership and organizational commitment, there are a few limitations to note. Because the research sample consisted of mostly religious organizations, future studies should explore non-religious non profit organizations to compare leadership perspectives and organizational commitment.

Additionally, the sample comprised mostly of Caucasian women and men. Future research should attempt a more representative sample of the population with different nationalities and gender.

Finally, this research serves as a reference for leaders of all organizational types regarding the importance of communication surrounding the relationship of charismatic leadership to organizational commitment. This study supports charisma and organizational commitment because they play a significant role in shaping leaders’ experiences with followers. Leaders who find what followers are passionate about and encourage an obtainable vision will be successful. Flourishing leadership is about communication and seeing the strengths and weaknesses that positively influence organizational commitment because communicating leadership is ever important with the followers they serve. This research is applicable to the real-world problems of leadership within nonprofit organizational contexts, especially the role of pastor. As noted by Barna (2019), Christian churches are experiencing a crisis of leadership that will continue if nothing changes.



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