In a recent article, CHC Ministry Partner David Brubaker, Associate Professor at Eastern Mennonite University, wrote:
“Trust in our institutions-and in institutional leaders-is crumbling. Put simply, our society and our world are changing much too rapidly for our institutions to keep pace. As a result, many view our great institutions of the 20th century as incompetent at best and corrupt at worst. Religious institutions are no exception.”
The list of examples seems endless. Major universities have been charged with everything from sex abuse cover ups to awarding degrees for academic work not done. Two major drug companies have been found guilty of egregious price-gouging, especially on drugs sold to the poorest among us. The integrity of all of the wonderful people in law enforcement has been called into question because of the many deaths of unarmed persons at the hands of the police. Even after the financial crisis of 2008 and all the controls put on financial institutions, banks have been found to have engaged in fraudulent practices, even for their best customers. Many media outlets drive agendas rather than ‘report’ the news. And the current political season reminds us all that truth and trust are rare commodities indeed.
As Brubaker noted, the church is not exempt.
The most public scandal for the church is the cover up of priestly sexual abuse in the Catholic church. But it goes much further than that among Protestant congregations. Ministers caught in extramarital affairs or pornography addictions or financial chicanery all serve to question the trustworthiness of all other ministers. But even these salacious events are not the sole cause for lost trust.
A minister who cannot keep confidences, a church that shuns a family with a gay son or daughter, a member who spreads lies in an effort to make someone else look bad, a search committee that is less than honest with a prospective minister, a staff conflict that creates division in the church or a group of people bent on the removal of a minister (no matter the cost) can all destroy whatever trust there may have been in a once faithful congregation.
Every example mentioned above represents a very small slice of the church or any other group of institutions. The problem is that when one of them does something wrong or questionable, trust is often eroded in all the others. So, when trust is lost, what then? Or perhaps the better question is ‘what do we need to do to make sure trust is never lost?’
First, we must always seek to tell the truth. This is not always as easy as it sounds. Things we have been told in confidence often put ministers in awkward situations. Sometimes the truth can serve to damage another person needlessly. While we may not always be able to tell everything we know, we must never give in to telling something we know to be false.
Second, we must create an atmosphere of transparency in all the processes of the church. When counseling with a minster considering a new church or place of service, I encourage them to find out how decisions get made. Every congregation makes decisions. Some have bylaws to govern decision-making. Others rely on how they have ‘always done it’. Still others depend on whoever is ‘in charge’ at the time a decision needs making. It is vital that the congregation knows the process for decision-making and that that process is followed. Decisions made in secret or those made outside established channels will often serve to undermine trust.
Finally, we must communicate clearly. When I was a pastor, our monthly newsletter was a good forum for communication; but I never found it to be adequate for all that needed to be said to the congregation. So a couple of times each year we mailed a ‘pastoral letter’ where I explained in some detail the issues facing the church and how they were being handled. The staff often chided me for ‘over-communicating’. But by making every effort to keep the whole church ‘in the loop’, it bolstered the sense of trustworthiness of both the staff and the elected leadership.
Trust is such an essential ingredient for what it means to be a healthy church. We simply must never take it for granted. Rather we must guard it and foster it in everything we do.