Trust in Church Leadership

He sat in my office and spoke in a flat monotone. “I don’t respect your leadership. I can’t abide your preaching. I don’t value your ministry. I don’t trust your character.”

I was stunned. This was a man I’d brought on staff to serve as my partner and companion. I’d opened my heart to him, confessed my sins to him, poured out my dreams and frustrations to him. I’d considered him one of that rarest of things in ministry—a friend.

For two hours, I died as he expressed his disdain. I asked for specifics, hungry for something to atone for, eager to repent and beg forgiveness. But he would not stoop to actual examples. No instances to back his accusations. It dawned on me finally that he did not want my penitence. He only wanted me to know that he had weighed me in the balance and found me lacking.

It took me months to recover from this assault. I grieved daily … for the loss of friendship … for trust turned to ashes. I was left with a spiritual self-doubt that was almost crippling in intensity. I never felt so alone in my ministry life.

As the smoke cleared, a few things became obvious. He didn’t trust me (and, as he made evident, nothing I did or said would change that). Now I couldn’t trust him. Other staff were aware of (and incredibly uncomfortable with) the new tension in the office, but they didn’t know what to do about it. They wanted us to kiss and make up, to shake hands and let-bygones-be-bygones. When that didn’t happen, they lost trust themselves.

It was the most awful season of ministry I’ve ever experienced.

The Value of Trust

Steven Covey (the son) has written a book called The Speed of Trust. It is a book about the importance of trust, how to build trust, how trust greases the wheel of cooperative behavior and makes “team” possible.

In the introduction to the book (“The One Thing that Changes Everything”), Covey writes:

There is one thing that is common to every individual, relationship, team, family, organization, nation, economy, and civilization throughout the world—one thing which, if removed, will destroy the most powerful government, the most successful business, the most thriving economy, the most influential leadership, the greatest friendship, the strongest character, the deepest love.

On the other hand, if developed and leveraged, that one thing has the potential to create unparalleled success and prosperity in every dimension of life. Yet, it is the least understood, most neglected, and most underestimated possibility of our time.

That one thing is trust….

Contrary to what most people believe, trust is not some soft, illusive quality that you either have or you don’t; rather trust is a pragmatic, tangible, actionable asset that you can create—much faster than you probably think possible.

His exploration of trust made me think about the importance of this quality to church leadership and, particularly, how trust can be built in a leadership team: Senior Minister, elders, and staff. I’ve been in churches where there has been high trust among church leaders, close cooperation, and great confidence in one another. On the other hand (as the story above indicates), I’ve worked in church settings where the level of trust was low, resistance rather than cooperation seemed characteristic, and suspicion was the order of the day.

The most striking realization about these situations was how important trust is to ministerial effectiveness. More than giftedness and management and growth strategies, trust is foundational to effectiveness. “While high trust won’t necessarily rescue a poor strategy, low trust will almost always derail a good one.” (Covey, pg. 21) When church leaders trust each other, great things can be accomplished. When they don’t, that lack of trust will undermine the effectiveness of all concerned and erode the ability of church leaders to lead.

The second-most-striking realization for me was my inability to explain why trust was present or absent in different situations. I didn’t have a vocabulary for talking about trust. I knew when it was there or when it was missing. But I couldn’t explain the whys and wherefores of it. For me (and, I’ve observed, for others), every trust issue boiled down eventually to a question of integrity: “I don’t trust her so there must be something defective about her character.” As I have discovered, this is not only untrue, it is unfair. But I’ve made that mistake more than once. And I’ve watched fellow church leaders make the same mistake. Sometimes, trust is broken by a lack of character. But most often, there are other factors involved (e.g., lack of competence or poor conflict resolution skills). If we really want to understand and address questions of trust, we’ve got to expand our vocabulary for talking about it.

The third-most-striking realization for me was my lack of resources to build (or rebuild) trust when it was broken. I simply didn’t have a toolbox for fixing distrust. Beyond apologizing or explaining or appealing, I really didn’t know what to do when trust broke down. I started thinking that you either have trust or you don’t, that trust can be broken but it really can’t be fixed.

Over years of thinking about the importance of trust for ministry teams and church leadership, I’ve come to some conclusions:

  1. Trust is absolutely necessary to the effectiveness of church leaders and leadership teams.
  2. Distrust, if not addressed, is a form of cancer that eats away at ministerial effectiveness and leadership credibility.
  3. Trust can be built—or rebuilt—if the conditions are right.
  4. Trust depends on several factors, based on the kind of relationship you are developing.
  5. Trust in the context of “team” is as dependent on the system as on the individual.
  6. The essence of leadership in the context of a ministry team is being trustworthy yourself, recruiting trustworthy partners, setting a trustworthy direction, and building a trustworthy system.

The following series of blogs explores the issue of trust in church leadership. Trust between Senior Ministers and staff. Trust between staff and elders. Trust between leaders and the church. Your comments on and thoughts about this subject would be welcome.

[Go to the next article in this series.]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.