Competence and Trust

In my experience, an absence or failure of character in church leaders is less a “trust problem” on a day-to-day basis than the assumption that character is all you need. Over and over again, I’ve seen churches set their trust-threshold at the most basic level (character) only to be disappointed by people who don’t have the skills or experience to accomplish the task with which they’ve been entrusted. In the context of church leadership, trust requires more than confidence in someone’s character. It also requires trust in their competence.

Competence: The state or quality of being adequately or well qualified; ability; fitness; proficiency; the ability to perform; a quality that permits or facilitates accomplishment.

For certain relationships, character is probably enough; it is a sufficient basis for trust. All we ask of friends, for instance, is that they tell us the truth, show a little loyalty, and demonstrate genuine interest in our well-being. We don’t really care whether friends are able to balance their checkbooks or demonstrate a commitment to recycling.

But for any working relationship, competence is a necessary part of trust. We look for capable people when we need to accomplish something, when there is some task to complete. It’s not enough (in functional relationships) that someone be nice or humble or honest. I know lots of nice people I would not trust to manage my finances or edit my books. Someone can be genuinely good and (if they lack skills and experience) still be good for nothing. Character doesn’t trump calling, gifting, equipping, and experience.

Ministry positions and leadership roles require not only people of exemplary character but people with certain skills, abilities, experiences, and work habits. A minister or elder can have exemplary character, but unless that character is supplemented with adequate skills to get the job done, to produce needed results, trust cannot develop and cannot be sustained. We ask people to serve as elders, we hire people for positions of ministry, because there are important tasks to accomplish. Leadership is not a reward for being a nice person; it is a responsibility entrusted to people who are capable and competent to do the work.

When Competence Fails

Most of the people I’ve served with in churches have been people of great competence: motivated, skilled, hard working, capable. There have been a few, however, who majored in “nice” and minored in “work.” Give them a job to do and it would sit there begging. Give them an area of responsibility and get back excuses instead of results. There are few things more frustrating than working with people who have good character but bad skills. It’s like house-training a puppy: messes everywhere but they’re too cute to discipline!

Yet there are certain competencies we expect and need in those who lead our churches. A shepherd who doesn’t know his Bible or can’t listen or won’t practice hospitality is not much use. A small groups minister who can’t write curriculum or train leaders or organize groups isn’t worth having. Such people clog up a church’s leadership, taking precious spots that could be filled by others (who would actually help us do our work) and using their position as leaders to make decisions about matters they are not competent to judge. The fact that we allow incompetent people to continue in leadership roles sends a clear message to our leadership team and to our churches: what we do, what we’ve been charged to accomplish, isn’t really important enough to risk our comfortable relationship with nice people.

If I had to choose, I’d rather have charactered and incompetent people than competent and uncharactered people. Character without competence results in ineffectiveness. But competence without character results in something far more corrosive: accomplishing unworthy goals by unworthy means.

But the point is we don’t have to choose! For church leaders, it’s not “either/or”; it’s always “both/and.” We should ask for and expect character and competence. Nothing less is worthy of our commission. Nothing less is worthy of our Lord. And nothing less is capable of fostering the sort of trust that is required for church leaders to be effective.

Because we do and should take competence seriously, any question of incompetence must be addressed immediately. We can pray our way, train our way, grow our way into greater competence. What we must not do is settle for an incompetence that threatens the mission Jesus has entrusted to us.

Competence Myths

There are a couple of popular myths about competence that should be debunked. The first one has already been addressed:

  1. Character is all you need; competence is gravy. No. In functional relationships, where the point is to get something accomplished, competence is as necessary to trust as character. Without confidence that someone has the ability to do his work, there can be no real trust among church leaders.
  2. Competence is all you need; character is gravy. I’ve known ministers (for example) who have relied on their talent, abilities, and skills while neglecting the cultivation of their souls. “Trust me,” they seem to say. “I am uniquely gifted.” And then comes the affair, the pride, the lie, or the abrasiveness … some character flaw that puts competence in its secondary (and rightful) place.
  3. God makes us competent. What gives this truth the status of myth is the way it is often used.  Of course God makes us competent for ministry and leadership. (See 2Cor 3:5-6.) Any competence we can claim for Kingdom matters comes from him and not from ourselves. That said, this truth is often used not as a way to give glory to God (and deflect it from ourselves, as when Paul made this statement) but as a way to excuse incompetence. “I don’t need to read and train and grow my skills for ministry. God makes me competent.” “Don’t criticize my lack of competence. God has equipped me as I am. To criticize me is to criticize him.” “I may be incompetent in the present. But have faith; God will make me competent in the future.” Such excuses minimize the extent of our partnership with God (we can cooperate with God by growing in ministry and leadership), the seriousness of our calling (God never calls without equipping us for effective work), and the importance of our work (why would God give us responsibilities now but postpone our competence to do that work until some nebulous future?)

Affirming Competence

Church leaders need to build “competence trust”—in each other and from the church. Having confidence in each other’s capability to do God’s work is vital for effective leadership. If you want to foster greater “competence trust” among the members of your leadership team, here are a few ideas for doing so intentionally:

  1. Be clear about the kinds of competencies needed to accomplish various leadership roles. What skills do elders need to do their work well? What abilities must a Senior Minister demonstrate and how do those abilities differ from a Children’s Minister or someone who is leading Adult Education for the church?
  2. Study together examples of people whom God called to leadership roles and then equipped to fill those roles effectively. (E.g., Moses, Bezalel, David, Isaiah, Peter.)
  3. Affirm instances of competence demonstrated by your leadership team. Make it a habit to notice and commend good work by your people. (Elders need this affirmation as much or  more than staff people, BTW.)
  4. Build “accountability” into your team. Be clear about the competencies you expect and then evaluate the performance of your team (and team members) by those competencies. If a competency isn’t important enough for accountability, it is a competency that doesn’t count.
  5. Address any questions of competence immediately, boldly, and honestly. Show that you take competence seriously, not only because it’s the responsible thing to do but because you value the trust that only competence can generate.
  6. Find ways to assess the level of trust among your team members (and within the church) in the competence of other team members and in the team as a whole.

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