She sat in my office, clearly having something to say; I had been at the church about six months. She said: “Dr. Kelsey, I will support you. I will follow you, but I will never trust.” Life had taught her that ministers were not trustworthy; too often she had felt disappointed and betrayed. I determined that day that I would earn her trust.
A part of my job is listening to churches and pastors talk about their relationship with one another. Sometimes it is going very well, other times—not so well. I have come to believe that the critical element in a healthy productive partnership between pastor and people is trust.
If there is trust, then failures and disagreements, challenges and setbacks, poor sermons and belt tightening can all be endured. If there is not trust, then even the smallest issue can escalate into a major problem.
This is why pastoral misconduct is so devastating to a congregation. It undermines that most basic foundation of a shared ministry: trust. We see ministers as “safe” people, people who will care for us and advocate for us. So we open ourselves up to them. Then when they betray our trust, the wounds are deep; and we find it difficult to trust the next one.
Trust that is destroyed must be deliberately rebuilt through a candid facing of what has happened and discussion with those affected. Burying it simply magnifies the power of the hurt.
Trust can be built through honest conversations about sometimes uncomfortable topics. Trust is built by making sure the other person understands us. It is often forged less by the words we speak than by the tone and what it reveals about us and our intentions. Transparency and vulnerability and goodwill speak louder than any words we might say.
Pastors must often earn trust from congregants, and sometimes congregations must earn the trust of a pastor. Congregants are not the only ones who have been hurt. This process is moved along by living honestly, patiently, and transparently before one another. Yes, that can be risky; but it is the path to wholeness.
I did earn that woman’s trust. I finally walked with her through a devastating personal tragedy; that tipped the scales in my favor. It was not easy, but it was deliberate.
Executive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State