By Laura Stephens-Reed
“I’m worried that things are going too well at church.”
This was the concern that one of my longtime coaching clients brought to a recent conversation. She wasn’t being pessimistic or paranoid. She was being pragmatic; she’s experienced enough in ministry to know that 16 months is a long honeymoon for a senior pastor.
It seemed dismissive to encourage her to gather her warm fuzzies while she may. Instead, I agreed that conflict would arise at some point. “But,” I added, “all the trust-building you have done since day one will prepare you and your people to wrestle well with the challenge.”
Sure enough, the next month this pastor shared that some of her church members had become angry with her when a guest preacher made strong assertions about a controversial topic. (Though the pastor hadn’t voiced the sentiments herself, the offended parties held her responsible for turning the pulpit over to the guest preacher.)
The pastor reached out to each irate person, deeply listening to his/her concerns. Drawing on her history as a consistent, compassionate, and open leader in the congregation, she successfully restored and reinforced the bruised relationships.*
While you won’t find it lined out in many position descriptions, perhaps the most important task of a minister is to build trust with and among people in the church. Without trust, congregations are unable to live fully toward the purpose God has for them. Trust creates permission and space for people to put forth ideas – even conflicting ones – and consider and improve upon each. No one can later undermine acted-upon ideas by asserting that his/her view was silenced.
The thoroughness of conversation creates widespread ownership of ministries, because everyone has had input into their shape. Programs aren’t siloed or reliant upon one or two relentless advocates. This broad engagement allows pastor and parishioners to hold one another accountable, because everyone is clear and in agreement about what the tasks are and who is responsible for them. Accountability, rather than being punitive, becomes about empowering and encouraging one another.
And this answerability allows for a new metric for progress toward a divinely-given future story. Rather than being shackled by spreadsheets tracking nickels and noses – which often result in panic or paralysis – churches can embrace the shared vision as their goal and celebrate milestones that indicate movement toward it. (If you’d like to read more about the importance of trust, I highly recommend reading Patrick Lencioni’s Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team.)
How, then, do we cultivate it? Here are a few suggestions:
- Set your default to trust. Trust people until they prove themselves unworthy of your confidence in them. (Even then, a second chance is often warranted.)
- Tell your story. Let others get to know you, not just about Create spaces for church members to tell their stories to one another.
- Be genuinely curious about people, particularly those you assume think differently than you. Listen deeply to their replies to your questions.
- Be present for the highs and lows. Walk alongside those in your care as they celebrate and grieve.
- Communicate clearly and often. Use every possible means to get the word out about processes and plans.
- Be reliable in your promises and consistent in your actions. Let people know what to expect from you.
- Ask for forgiveness when you’re not. Authentic apologies for falling short can sometimes increase trust in you.
- Invite pushback. Model healthy conflict, which is simply a value-neutral difference of opinion.
- Say thanks. Let people know that you see them and their efforts.
- Let hope, not fear, be your guide. Act out of a sense that things are not what they should be, but in time they will be.
No matter what your experience, skill level, or title, the ability to lead effectively largely depends on the trust your congregants have in you and in each other. (Trust might be loaned to you on the front end of your tenure, but you must quickly show yourself worthy of that trust for it to anchor your leadership over time.)
When trust takes deep root, the seeds of a long and fruitful ministry together are sown. And when you part ways in due time, you have helped the church set their own default to trust, thus allowing the next minister to be quickly and generously embraced as leader.
*Story shared with permission.
Laura Stephens-Reed’s ministry is focused on increasing health in congregations and the clergy who lead them. She attempts to be faithful to it through clergy coaching, congregational consulting, writing, and resourcing and supporting peer groups of ministers. Stephens-Reed also serves as a Regional Director of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Peer Learning Groups.