1,001 Ways to Break Trust (and One to Fix It)

tw08_snakesonstringsI wrote two posts last week about the importance for pastors to tell the truth, and it generated a suprising amount of debate — both on the side of saying that there is never a good reason to lie as well as those defending the need for strategic fabrication and misinformation.  For many, truth is a gray area — there is no simple black and white, right or wrong to the issue.  But the discussion triggered a staggering number of personal emails sharing stories about broken trust and the damage done by not telling the truth, as well as telling the truth inappropriately.

For example:

  • a pastor who preached using a couple from the congregation going through a divorce as an illustration
  • a pastor who actively covered for a staff person having an affair by telling her spouse that he (the pastor) didn’t know where the staff person was when she was playing around
  • a pastor who leaked a laity leader’s drinking problem to pressure the person to resign his position
  • a lay leader who started vicious rumors about each new pastor he didn’t care for
  • a pastor chronically telling whoever he is talking to what he thinks they want to hear so they will leave him alone
  • a treasurer who refuses to let anyone else see the church financial records, so that no one but her knows that the congregation is on the verge of a total collapse
  • a pastor who knows he is leaving the church reassuring parishioners that he isn’t going anywhere
  • a district superintendent telling a church there is no plan to move the pastor after the decision has already been made
  • a pastor sharing publically who voted for and against a controversial decision in a closed meeting
  • a pastor publishing the names of all the church members giving-to-date in a “special” church newsletter

What are we thinking?  Look at the list again.  Which of these things looks like a good idea?  If a group of church people got together and studied the list, how many of these things would they like to try themselves?  I am hoping the answer is “none.”

Trust is so fragile.  Many people will begin by extending a certain measure of trust, but once it is broken, it is so hard to rebuild.  It is perhaps so precious because it is so fragile.  Telling the truth inappropriately is almost as bad as lying.  It can do catastrophic damage.  This last week’s lectionary passage from James pointed out what a potentially toxic and virulent thing the tongue can be.  The author emphasizes the need for teachers and leaders to “tame the tongue,” so that it offers only praises and blessings rather than curses.  But this still begs the question: why is it so easy to use the tongue as a weapon rather than a tool?

Three troubling attitudes have popped up out of this whole discussion:

  1. people can’t handle the truth, so it is better to keep it from them
  2. pastors have the wisdom to know what people have a right to know and what they do not
  3. avoiding conflict and unpleasantness is our highest value

The number of pastors who defend lying as a way of protecting the congregation is high.  So is the fear that scandal might tarnish our image, and if there is a dark secret in the family, it is best hidden so that people won’t leave the church.  One pastor actually told me, “I will not share any information that could reflect badly on the integrity of the Christian church.”  Think about this for a moment.  Withholding negative information to protect integrity.  Act without integrity to insure integrity.  Kind of like using guns to insure peace.  It may work and in some cases be the best course of action, but is it right?  There is an insidious subtext that lay people don’t have the coping and processing skills to understand what is going on.  I find this incredibly insulting.  Having done mediation work for two decades, it is laity leadership more often than clergy leadership that is the key to reconciliation and health.  This leads to the second troubling attitude.

The vast majority of emails I receive from pastors state unequivocally that they know when it is right to tell the truth and when it is acceptable to lie.  Pastors “know” what is right.  I wonder how they come to such confidence?  One pastor wrote to me saying, “I pray about every decision I make.  I take very seriously what I will say and what I will not.  We went through <a terrible experience> in my church that simply made it impossible to tell people what was actually happening.  It was in prayer that I received the story that we told the congregation.  You may call it lying, but for me it was a case of spiritual discernment, and I have no doubt that it was the right thing to do.”  Hard to argue with such conviction, but forgive me if I read in this a smidge of rationalization and delusion.  The concept of the Spirit of God directing spiritual leaders to lie is unnerving to me.  I believe that sensitive decisions should be made in community with other leaders and not fall to the shoulders of any one individual, including the pastor.  I never knew for sure what others “needed” to know.  I always saw the pastoral ministry as a journey with the congregation, not me up front with everyone else following behind.  It is obvious that my bias is toward full disclosure and total transparency.  When there was a breach in the spiritual family, the whole spiritual family dealt with it — whether it was financial, sexual, personal or other.  Perhaps I never had the kind of earth-shattering crisis that could have destroyed the Christian church for all time, but I did have the kinds of experiences that might have destroyed the congregation if handled poorly.  I was fortunate to pastor three churches that all wanted to address problems and conflict rather than avoid them.

This is the third attitude that has been prevalent — don’t make waves.  Keeping the peace at all costs and making sure that people don’t get upset is a high priority.  There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself, however the desire is so strong that it causes people to justify lying as an appropriate peace-keeping strategy.  The emails I have received contain a litany of cliches: “don’t rock the boat,” “what people don’t know won’t hurt them,” “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” “ignorance is bliss,” and “don’t ask, don’t tell,” among them.  “I will not share anything that hurts people’s feelings, causes ill-will, or makes people uncomfortable at church,” writes one pastor.  “I take the concept of ‘sanctuary’ very important.  Church is one safe place where people can escape all the unpleasantness of the world.  I am not going to allow problems behind the scene poison the congregation’s experience of safe, spiritual community.”  This is a lovely sentiment, but at what cost?

For me — an I emphasize that this is my own personal observation — this whole issue is symptomatic of the larger issue of what it means to us to be “church” in the 21st century.  For almost two thousand years, the “shepherd-sheep” model of church has been dominant.  This is a deeply patronizing and limiting image, even though it is biblical.  The minority model throughout the past two millenia is the one I would like to see dominate in the millennium to come: that of teacher-disciple.  This is a much more empowering, edifying model — and equally as biblical.  See, the problem with the shepherd-sheep model is that try as hard as you will, if you’re a sheep you can never become a shepherd.  You will always be subservient and inferior to the shepherds (pastors?) who tend you.  However, a disciple is in training to become a teacher.  Followers can become leaders, learners can become teachers, disciples become stewards, mentors and guides.  Shepherds protect their lambys from the wolves; teachers equip and train their students to protect themselves.  Where “pastoral” ministry is locked into the traditional “shepherding” mentality, you can treat the sheep anyway you see fit — they won’t know any better.  But where “disciple-making” ministry prevails, teachers have the highest commitment to equipping students to become trustworthy, honest, and respectful leaders themselves.  The pathway toward healing broken trust is not through the sheep-pen, but into true spiritual community.  It will take more than a shift of metaphor, but moving from the “shepherd-sheep” to the “teacher-disciple” worldview may be a very good first step.

10 replies

  1. Dan,

    As a pastor, I am certainly guilty of the telling people what I think they want to hear at the moment (often to help make sure I’ll get a paycheck that would clear) – my last church would have been insolvent without the financial support of two families, so keeping them “happy” until forming disciples that translated into giving felt essential, even though definitely not what Jesus would have done. I think that underscores, at least in my experience, the fundamental problem – taking shortcuts, if you will, to try and keep the institutional church afloat while at the same time attempting to make disciples, which is time intensive. These goals would ideally always go hand in hand, but sadly they sometimes seem to part ways.

    While I am in favor of telling the truth for the right reasons, I would say that our general failure to make disciples frequently means that certain laity in congregations are as complicit or active in the lies and dishonesty as the pastors are. I saw that mentioned in your list (“Lay leader spreads rumors . . .”), but the bulk of your post seems directed to pastors (whom I imagine are the majority of your reading audience, so I don’t intend to fault you for that). I just to want to make sure this whole topic doesn’t get unloaded unfairly on pastors exclusively.

    Thanks for listening.

    • And I try to strike a balance so that the blame doesn’t fall too heavily on leaders — primarily pastors — who are trying to manage wisely and well in a dysfunctional system. Our system sometimes punishes honesty and rewards dishonesty, so it is hard to blame individuals. My main point is how sad it is that the system has gotten so broken that honesty isn’t always the best policy (to draw upon another cliche…)

  2. Do we really think that we can take sin, that which seperates us from God, this lightly and still say that we live lives of holiness which is different from the world around us??

    • Apparently. It boggles my mind, but there are some who feel we can play loose and fast with the truth and it’s no big deal. Sad, huh?

  3. Just a note on a pet peeve of mine from the end of your fourth paragraph:

    “Begs the question” does not mean “raise the question.” Begging the question is a form of logical fallacy in which a conclusion is used as a premise. To argue, for example, that whereas only a Divine Designer could account for an elegantly created universe, and whereas we see elegance in the created order, therefore the universe must have been designed begs the question “only a Divine Designer could account for an elegantly created universe.”

    Begging the question is the wicked step-sibling of circular logic of the the-Bible-is-inspired-by-God-because-Second Timothy 3:16-says-the-Bible-is-inspired-by-God variety.

    See http://skepdic.com/begging.html for more info.

    • So, you don’t think the conclusion that it seems easier to use the tongue to destroy than build up is valid? I actually think that both James and the majority of modern culture assume the initial point that snarkiness is easier than blessing. In this case, I think it both begs and raises the question, but I didn’t obviously mean it the way you read it…

    • The questions that race through my head are about accountability and just simply not tolerating bad behavior. This stuff happens over time through inattention and carelessness much more than by intent. But like you…c’mon!

  4. I especially appreciated your mention of the third attitude that is prevalent: “Keeping the peace at all costs and making sure that people don’t get upset.” In my opinion, that attitude is by far the most destructive, not only because it is used to justifying lies, but also because it is what keeps pastors from setting healthy boundaries and speaking up when their own needs are going unmet.

    I am both a pastor and spouse of a pastor, so I fully understand how it can seem expedient for clergy to keep their true feelings carefully hidden and just smile and keep getting blamed for everything and handed additional responsibilities. However, as I stress in my life coaching and workshops for pastors, this is not only damaging to the pastor (and his/her family), it is also enabling the congregation to remain unhealthily dependent and keeping the people of God from doing the work they are called to do.

  5. Good balance – telling the truth doesn’t mean that we automatically spew every bit of information we’ve ever gathered just because we have a platform from which to do so.

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