In God We Trust, In Church We Don’t

in-god-we-trust-during-financial-and-economic-trials-imageAn insidious distrust is raging throughout our connectional system.  Pastors don’t trust laity and vice versa.  Congregations don’t trust their Annual Conferences, and neither one fully trust the General Conference.  Confessors don’t trust Reconcilers, Contemporary Worshippers don’t trust Traditional Worshippers, and Traditional Worshippers don’t trust that someone won’t sneak drums and guitars into the sanctuary.  Gossip is a rampant problem at all levels.  Many people disbelieve the veracity of our claims to openness, inclusiveness, justice, mercy, grace and love.  The denomination suffers a growing credibility problem with spiritual seekers who perceive hypocrisy, dishonesty, and self-serving motives in much of what we say and do.  How have we come to such a state?  If trust is not a hallmark of the church, where else in the world can we hope to find it?  (If you said government, politicians, pop stars, or the media… well, good luck.)

Yet, people want to trust.  Surveys from a diverse set of sources indicate that people value honesty, integrity, sincerity, candor, and transparency in their leaders, and support those who seem to best embody them.  People are willing to give others the benefit of the the doubt, until it is proven that their trust is misplaced.  In our churches, trust shouldn’t be that hard to come by, but it seems to be a rare commodity.

In interviews with pastors, a large number report the following:

  • a lack of trust that the Annual Conference truly supports the local church (often saying that all the Annual Conference is interested in is whether or not the church is paying apportionments)
  • a fear of sharing true feelings with colleagues and/or district superintendents due to potential consequences
  • a lack of candor with some lay people in the church to avoid conflict
  • a concern about saying things that might offend church members causing them to withhold offerings and support
  • a sense that the General Conference is out of touch with the local church and not representing the majority of United Methodists

Laity report:

  • being made to feel like second class citizens in the church by ordained clergy
  • pastors withhold information and make decisions that reflect personal priorities rather than those of the congregation
  • a sense that the Annual Conference leaders don’t really care about what is happening in their local church
  • feelings that “liberals/conservatives/long-time members/new members/insert scapegoat her” are trying to destroy the church

Conference leaders feel that:

  • local church leaders don’t always report accurately the state of the congregation’s health and/or statistical data
  • pastors are not providing appropriate leadership regarding apportionments and denominational obligations
  • many local churches do not value or appreciate the work of the Annual Conference
  • general boards and agencies are out of touch with the real resource needs of conferences and congregations
  • seminaries are not adequately preparing congregational leaders for the practical demands of the local church

purple_peopleThese lists can all be expanded, and reframed dozens of different ways, but the point is that we are living in a culture of distrust and ( here is my meddlesome personal opinion) it is up to leaders at all levels to turn things around and create systemic environments of trustworthiness and integrity.  While not easy, the path isn’t all that complex.  Many congregations have successfully addressed division and broken congregational trust in straightforward, healthy ways.  I want to offer four truths about trust, and share some significant actions many healthy congregations have taken to build trust.

Four Noble Truths of Trust:

  1. leaders model trust and bear the burden of being trustworthy, regardless of the actions of others
  2. trust is built day by day; we earn trust, but we’re not entitled to it
  3. it takes time to build trust, but only a moment to lose it
  4. the success of any relationship — with individuals or in groups — is ultimately dependent on the level of trust

You can debate whether or not these are “truths” — in fact, I encourage you to — but ignore them at your own peril.  Many congregations and conferences have addressed trust issues, and here are some of the essential actions taken to build/rebuild trust:

  1. tell the truth/don’t confuse it with opinion
  2. be clear about goals and expectations
  3. strengthen the flow of communication
  4. be transparent
  5. name, confront, and address bad behavior
  6. lose the defensiveness — make it safe to speak up and speak out
  7. learn to ask questions before making statements
  8. set ground-rules of respect and disagreement
  9. admit mistakes
  10. identify and overcome avoidance behavior — talk to people not about people

Tell the Truth, and Don’t Confuse It With Opinion

No brainer, right?  Speaking the truth in love is an age-old Christian teaching.  It’s what we are expected to do, even when it is difficult.  But a major problem that we have today is that we confuse truth with our own opinions, and we pretend they are one and the same.  What the Bible says and what the Bible means are not always the same thing.  When we pass off interpretations and opinions as “THE TRUTH,’ we do damge to both, and people lose faith in us and grow to distrust us.  Saying what we mean, and committing to be as truthful as possible with everyone in the faith community takes practice, but is ultimately worth it.

Be Clear About Goals and Expectations

Many people lose trust when they feel the rules are being changed.  Leaders often say one thing is a priority, but then they don’t support it.  We preach on rules of conduct, but then violate them.  We say ‘x,’ but do ‘y.’  Yes, this is called hypocrisy, but often we do it by accident, rather than by intention.  Without clear goals and expectations, our actions are inconsistent and confusing.  People look at us and do not trust that we know what we’re doing.  This is most true in groups where new things are launched all the time, but nothing ever seems to get finished.

Strengthen the Flow of Communication

Don’t assume anything!  Talk about ideas, plans, decisions, and strategies.  Make sure that any message is not merely transmitted, but that it is received and understood.  Verify that people are paying attention.  Encourage questions, and make sure they get answered.  Discuss decisions and help people understand why they are being made, and what the benefit will be.  Don’t bulldoze over people with new ideas and changes, and then expect them to figure out why they were made.  Don’t merely dispense information, but work to create shared knowledge and understanding.

Be Transparent

communityToo much information is kept confidential and too many secrets are kept in most of our congregations.  Certainly, there are confidential and potentially damaging situations that not everyone should know about, but in a congregation, issues of planning, finance, membership, staffing, reappointments, and decisions that will fundamentally change a church’s culture should be open to all.  There is an inverse relationship between secrets and trust: the more secrets, the less trust; and the more trust, the less need for secrets.

Name, Confront, and Deal With Bad Behavior

There is behavior that is inappropriate in a congregation: lying, gossip, spreading rumors, bad-mouthing and disrespect, name calling, and stirring up trouble are good examples.  All too often, we witness such behavior in the church and we attempt to ignore it, as if it will go away on its own.  It rarely ever works out this way.  Congregations as communities of faith development can benefit by identifying unacceptable behaviors, agreeing that they should not be allowed in the interactions of the faith community, and determining the best way to deal with them.  This happens by intention, not by accident — we need to eliminate that which prevents us from being the true undivided and non-divisive body of Christ.

Lose the Defensiveness — Make It Safe to Disagree

Adopt a fundamental mindset that everyone has a right to their opinion, and that there is some measure of validity to every point of view.  Disagree with ideas, not people.  Honor, respect, and even love the people who hold very different beliefs and attitudes.  Let people know that if they disagree that they will still be welcomed, respected, and included in the Christian community.  Encourage people to share dissenting opinions, and remember, they are all opinions.  Don’t jump on people, make them feel stupid, or ridicule opponents.  Making a safe environment for disagreement is a great trust builder.

Learn to Ask Questions Before Making Statements

Heavy-handedness breaks trust.  If you know all the answers for everyone else, trust is fully dependent on your being right every time.  Don’t assume you know what others think and mean.  Ask.  Encourage people to share their opinions and thoughts.  Ask people to clarify what they mean, and don’t put words into other people’s mouths.  Asking good, open-ended questions indicates that you care what others think, which builds trust.

Set Groundrules for Disagreement and Respect

Agree on how people will disagree.  Create behavioral covenants that state the way the group will listen to, discuss with, honor, engage with, challenge, and respect one another.  Let people know that conflict isn’t negative as long as it is dealt with in a healthy way.  Don’t push toward unanimous agreement, but viable consensus.  Shift away from “win-lose” practices to “win-win” scenarios where people live in an assurance that what they think matters.

Admit Mistakes

Nobody is perfect, and people distrust those who act like they are.  Admitting mistakes sends the message that, while not perfect, a person is honest and willing to take responsibility without placing blame.  The corollary is “Say I’m Sorry.”  Admission of guilt, wrongdoing, ignorance, short-sightedness, and any of dozens of other failings will not undermine faith, but strengthen it.  An honest apology is a lynchpin upon which to rebuild trust.

Identify and Overcome Avoidance Behavior — Talk To People Not About People

No one seeks confrontation, yet there is much greater value in addressing things as they come up rather than waiting for them to work themselves out.  Talking about people, placing blame, spreading rumors and ignoring toxic situations will poison trust, and leave the community of faith doubting the integrity and abilities of the leadership.  Sitting down with people, face-to-face, lets people know what it truly important.  Bringing together people who spread rumors and inaccurate information sends a clear signal that triangulating behavior will not be tolerated.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but merely presents some commitments that congregational leaders and members have made that began to turn things around and established a foundation of trustworthiness upon which to build strong, healthy Christian community.

Also check out Tearing Down the Church Together

16 replies

  1. I read many great articles, such as this one, about the identification of problems or challenges that our Laity or Clergy is having in our Church. I seldom see in the article any options that are available or proposed to go about remedying the identified concerns. Until we obtain a commonality of response to these circumstances nothing will get solved. Leadership by some entity (person or organization) is desperately needed to explain how to go about addressing these challenges.

    • Well, Roger, obviously I failed in my intention. I, too, lament the number of articles that point out the problems without suggesting ways to move forward… that’s why I put the list together of things I believe we need to do differently. I believe the best way forward is for those in leadership to covenant together on ways they will work together, things they won’t tolerate in working together, ways they will work to improve their cvommunication, and the things they will do to hold each other accountable. Sorry my suggestions don’t offer more help.

    • You’re not the first person I have heard this from. I really touched a nerve with this one — my inbox has been full of emails with people sharing stories, heartaches, concerns, and frustration about a system that seems deeply corrupted and compromised by trust violations, fear, and broken covenants. It absolutely breaks my heart, and it will not change until bad behaviors are confronted, named, and proclaimed unacceptable, and new trustworthy practices are put into place. Much of this comes from a system lacking real accountability, and it won’t change until leaders at all levels take it seriously. This is a dragon in need of slaying.

  2. Brilliant! Our church is a case study of distrust and miscommunication. Our pastor is wonderful, but he became aligned with one side in a major debate, so he is now essentially ineffectual. We need trust, and you offer more practical help and suggestions than anything else I have seen. Do you do indivdual church consultations? Thank you for offering hope to a particularly hopeless situation.

  3. BTW: After having been recently laid off from working for a UMC church Chapel Hill Fellowship in Wichita KS (in about the best way this could have been done including 3 months notice) I have lost a lot of my trust in the church because this decision was made behind closed doors and I was never given what I considered to be a full and sufficient explanation.

  4. You’ve done it again, Dan.

    I just this morning had a blog exchange with someone else about the lack of trust and truthfulness in our churches.

    My observation is that there is a conspiracy of “niceness” or a shallow and false peace that it preserved out of fear that conflict cannot be dealt with openly. At least, that is too often the case.

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