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I’ve had one particular conversation over the years with different people, in different parts of the country, around different church contexts. You’ve likely heard the general script, which goes something like this:
They say, “We’ve decided to leave the church.”
We say, “Oh, really? Is everything OK?”
They say, “Yes, everything is OK. There is just. . . .” They hesitate. “There is just something that doesn’t seem right for us now. So we’ve decided to leave.”
This type of speak often—although not always—translates to, “I don’t trust the church anymore.” And they move on.
Some time ago, I was chatting with a pastor who had invested much of himself in a couple of key families at his growing church. When these families communicated their plans to leave, it completely broadsided him. I empathized because I have been in his shoes. At some point along the way, something happens to people’s trust and they will move on.
In today’s church organizations, visible flaws and failures among clergy have caused an undercurrent of distrust toward pastors, which makes it nearly impossible to lead effectively and which could deteriorate into a forced exit.
Church leaders must more intentionally consider the pressing issue of trust before it is too late, because trust is the central factor that aligns, synchronizes and oils the gears of unified diversity. Trust also propels an organization forward to reach its mission and change the world. It is every pastor’s responsibility to help create a culture of trust that can thrive in a climate of crisis.
I recommend that pastors weave the following two concepts into the life stream of their leadership and ministry: forging a trust core and infusing trust into their core relationships.
A pastor forges his own personal trust core by recognizing his brokenness and the brokenness of those who work with him, then anchoring himself in Jesus as his Good Shepherd, the only One worthy of ultimate allegiance and trust.
This genuine conviction of his own brokenness and struggle with his own depravity will drive a pastor to his knees in prayer, in utter and total dependence on the Lord (Nehemiah 1:1-10). It compels him to give other maturing believers permission to speak into his life (Galatians 6:2).
It is important to remind those we lead that we are human. Please don’t get me wrong: Honor needs to be given where honor is due. There is a place for public recognition and personal affirmation. But even the greatest leaders are human.
Unfortunately, the church ministry culture we create can inadvertently feed into a perfect-pastor-on-a-pedestal ethos. People start seeing us better than we really are, only to become disillusioned when our human imperfections surface.
A strong personal trust core shifts our confidence from ourselves and our performance to Him who is worthy of our total trust.
Each pastor needs to ask: Am I fully and completely satisfied with my Good Shepherd’s loving leadership and management of my life?
It is a trust issue, isn’t it? If we are not walking in step with the Spirit, trusting Him who is perfect in every way, how in the world can we build trust among our leadership team and congregation—people who, like us, are flawed, imperfect and limited in every way?
As we wrap our minds around the truth that God is our Good Shepherd and that He cares for us as His workmanship, we can forge our personal trust core and take that first step in cultivating a healthy framework for trust. The next step involves our team.
I would suggest that there are four primary trust-building characteristics that every ministry leader can assimilate, in the grace and power of God, to promote relationships of trust with his or her core team: integrity, skill, communication and presence.
There is nothing that ignites relationships of trust more powerfully than a pastoral leader who consistently walks the talk, exemplifying congruency, consistency and fairness.
Leaders must be who they are wherever they go, with a maturing conformity to the character of Christ—in alignment with the mission, core values and beliefs of the organization. Integrity also includes consistency: Do they do what they say they are going to do?
Fairness or justice is an often-forgotten aspect of integrity that accentuates the fair treatment of persons within the organization. Establishing clear and consistent policies and procedures for church business, decision-making, hiring/firing staff, church discipline and conflict resolution can enhance trust.
If integrity is a matter of the heart, skill is that matter of the hands. Psalm 78:72 says, “And David shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.”
The word skill is used interchangeably with ability in the trust literature. My friend and mentor, John Reed, would say it like this: “Just keep swinging to meet the ball.”
Pastoral leaders must always keep swinging to meet the ball in the playing field of ministry. In the process, each swing refines their technical skills in areas such as leadership, preaching, counseling, administration and interpersonal relations.
Strong leaders inform, inspire and link others through their public preaching, group sharing, individual conversations and written communications. They provide clarity, meaning, resources and hope for others, to help accomplish the mission before them.
Ministry leaders develop their mastery of talking the walk through biblically based storytelling—clearly translating the mission, vision, values and beliefs of the organization into the everyday language of the people they lead. Further, these leaders kindle critical thinking in the minds of others by spurring them to approach challenges with imagination and innovation.
Ultimately, these leaders paint a compelling picture of a preferred future, which excites others, inducing them to personally add value and contribute to the organization in reaching its destination.
Presence is the manifestation of a leader’s genuine care, compassion and benevolence toward another.
Receptivity is an important ingredient in personal presence. A receptive leader is one who makes himself or herself available and diligently employs active, empathetic listening in order to understand. In addition, receptivity means being open and responsive to new ideas, feedback and even criticism with a nondefensive spirit.
Personal presence also incorporates supportive encouragement. Ministry leaders see and bring out the best in others through insightful observations and/or questions, affirmation and reflective discussion.
Prayer then centers both receptivity and encouragement in an ultimate trust and dependence on the Lord. It recognizes the great potential for healthy relationships of trust to be formed in the grace and power of a great and ever-present God.
I am convinced that every church leader must more intentionally consider the pressing issue of trust before it is too late. When interpersonal trust between pastor and lay people disintegrates, the entire church experiences significant setbacks to its emotional and organizational health.
Trust can make or break a leader, a team or a ministry. It is every pastor’s greatest challenge and opportunity to help create a culture of trust that can thrive in a climate of crisis.
Visit efcatoday.org for a series of articles on the topic of pastoral transitions—a time when trust can be strengthened or tested.
Vital Trust Questions
Am I confident in God’s shepherding in my life and leadership?
Do I trust those on my leadership team and do they trust me?
Do we have positive, trust-building dynamics in our organization?
Could our current trust levels withstand the turbulent forces of a major crisis?
How am I creating a culture of trust that can thrive in a climate of crisis?