Character and Trust

At the very heart of trust is the issue of character.

Character is to trust what oxygen is to breathing. There is no level of trust possible without some level of confidence in the integrity, humility, honesty, and faithfulness of the person with whom we are in relationship.

Character: features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing; moral or ethical quality; qualities of honesty, courage, or the like; integrity; good repute.

Trust in someone’s character relies on more than seeing occasional flashes of good qualities, trustable qualities, in another. It grows and strengthens when we see those qualities consistently, persistently, across time and under various circumstances. Character is the term we use to describe people who have good characteristics and live them out characteristically. And trust is the response we gladly give charactered people.

When Character Fails

Although most of the people I’ve served with in churches have been people of high integrity, there have been a few who were “character-challenged.” Sexual infidelity. A tendency to lie. Self-centeredness. Laziness. We often assume that, because someone is a “minister” or “elder,” he or she must have integrated values and principles. And, most of the time, that assumption is validated. On occasion, however, you encounter someone who can “fool all of the people some of the time.” They manage to wrap themselves in a position of leadership in spite of glaring gaps in their character.

When that happens, trust is not only difficult, it is dangerous. Uncharactered people will take advantage of churches and exploit members who give them their trust. When a church leadership discovers one of their number has character problems, it is absolutely necessary that the problem be addressed and resolved. Failure to do so reflects on the character of the entire leadership team.

That doesn’t mean our first instinct is to throw individuals under the bus. There is a difference between a lack of character and a failure of character that should be recognized and responded to accordingly. The former displays itself as a pattern that will, eventually, require a removal from positions of leadership. The latter occurs as an instance, an isolated and atypical incident, that requires grace and careful handling. All of us have momentary lapses and failures of judgment. None of us live up to our principles perfectly. Character defects can be healed. Trust can be reestablished even in the wake of serious blunders. Transformed characters are, after all, the business we’re in!

But, because we do and should take character seriously, any question of character must be addressed immediately. And any instance of character failure should be met with a “restoration plan” that is both authentic and rigorous.[1]

Affirming Character

Church leaders need to build “character trust”—in each other and from the church. This is too important, too vital for effective leadership, to leave to mere assumptions. If you are a Senior Minister (for example) and want to foster greater “character trust” among the members of your leadership team, here are a few ideas for doing so intentionally:

  1. Talk frequently about the kind of character expected of those in leadership roles. Study the Beatitudes together. Discuss the fruit of the Spirit. Place a high value on holiness. Hold up a standard of character that inspires and motivates your team.
  2. Affirm instances of character demonstrated by your leadership team. Write a note commending an instance of kindness. Mention in a meeting someone’s decision to take the high road with a critic. Be aware of character markers in those around you and show appreciation for them. Encourage the members of your team to do the same for each other.
  3. Encourage your team to pay attention to the little things that demonstrate character. Keep your commitments. Do what you said you’d do. Return phone calls and emails. Show up on time. Follow up.
  4. Build “accountability” into your team. Expect honesty and confession. Create safeguards that protect the team’s credibility (e.g., internet tracking, rules governing meetings with members of the opposite sex). Encourage relationships within the team that focus on confession, prayer, and a hunger for holiness.
  5. Address any questions of character immediately, boldly, and honestly. Show that you take character seriously, not only because it’s the right thing to do but because you value the trust that only character can generate.
  6. Find ways to assess the level of trust among your team members (and within the church) in the character of other team members and in the team as a whole.

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[1]     Gordon MacDonald’s Rebuilding Your Broken World is a helpful resource for designing a restoration process.

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