Growing Trust

September 27, 2018

“We trusted Bill, and this clouded our judgment.” Missy Rasmussen, a former elder of Willow Creek Church, spoke these words at a Willow family meeting in early August as she reflected on the last four years of her church’s relationship with their founding pastor, Bill Hybels. “We trusted Bill, and this clouded our judgment.”

I wonder what Missy means by “trust.” Willow Creek’s leadership is undergoing a complete overhaul after the sexual misconduct allegations surfaced against Hybels and after the board failed to respond appropriately. As the organization works through this situation, I wonder what “trust” will look like—the congregation’s trust of the leadership, the leadership’s trust of the pastor(s) and of one another. Can trust be rebuilt in that system? Should trust be rebuilt in that system, or is the system too broken to support trust, no matter how carefully it is rebuilt?

I imagine that the word “trust” calls up all sorts of thoughts and feelings, especially when you intersect those thoughts and feelings with the life of the church—megachurches like Willow, global institutions like the Roman Catholic Church, or your 200-member congregation a few blocks away.

I don’t know what it is like to be you, but when I think of ‘trust’ in my life, the first things I want to say are these: Because I am human and live in a real and broken world, I have trusted people and regretted it, and I have withheld trust from those who didn’t deserve my withholding. Because I am human and live in a real and broken world, I have broken the trust of those who have given their trust to me and I have had trust withheld from me for reasons that I do not know or understand.

And yet, by God’s grace, I am experiencing a relationship with a congregation within which there is a healthy amount of trust—trust that is not blind and cloudy, but increasingly clear-eyed and infused with relational accountability and hope.

How did my congregation and I get here? How does anyone get here? Given the reality that trust is not really a place at which you arrive, it might be better to ask: How does a congregation together with her pastor develop (or grow or move more deeply into) trust?

When a pastor arrives in a congregation, he or she may experience a general presence of trust or a general presence of distrust, depending on the leadership dynamic that preceded him or her. That said, a congregation will be filled with individual people who land in many places on the spectrum of trust, depending not only on the last pastor-congregation dynamic, but also on their personal background and their lifelong history of relationships with those in places of spiritual authority. Each pastor and each layperson in a congregation is a mix of irrational and rational trust, and irrational and rational distrust.

A pastor entering a congregation with the hope of keeping, earning, or building trust will do well to think about trust neither as a goal to be achieved (as if the trust of the congregation is something to create or coax out as a product), nor as a means to a personal end (as if the presence of trust might be used as a manipulative tool for the pastor to get what he or she wants), but as a by-product of a healthy relationship between pastor and congregation—a relationship that exists as a means to the end of the mission of God in this world.

The best kind of trust is a disposition that is increasingly clear-eyed and infused with relational accountability and hope. Here are a few ideas for cultivating this kind of trust as pastors and congregations together.

Trust grows when the congregation feels listened to and known. The first year or two of a pastor’s time in a congregation should be spent doing much more listening and much less speaking. Is your pastor a careful steward of the stories of your congregation? Is there evidence in your pastor’s messages that they have listened to the heartbeat of the congregation?

Trust grows when there is a consistency of character over time. A pastor’s faithfulness in big things and small things cannot be determined in the first two months of her time in a congregation. Give her 18 months and ask: Does she do what she says she’s going to do—when she says she’s going to do it?

Trust grows when there is a consistency of character between a pastor’s private and public selves. Does he practice what he preaches? Is there a strong connection between what he believes and how he lives his life? Furthermore, do you see in him a healthy self-awareness and a real vulnerability (not a fauxnerability)? Does this well-stewarded authenticity emerge at appropriate times and places in his preaching and ministry?

Trust grows when pastors can receive constructive feedback and when they submit themselves to the evaluative processes of the lay leadership. Does your leadership have an evaluation mechanism in place? Does the congregation speak into the evaluation? Does your pastor embrace these processes?

Trust grows when a pastor cleans up the messes she makes. When your pastor makes a mess, how does she clean it up? This question is broader, of course. When your congregation makes a mess, how do you clean it up together? Mission statements and vision statements, as helpful as they are for congregational direction, mean nothing if a congregation doesn’t clean up the messes they make when they hurt one another or when they fail in their mission. Trust grows, not when the pastor and congregation are perfect, but when there is a process in place (and followed) for repentance, apology, truth-telling by all parties, forgiveness, and restoration.

Finally, trust grows when both pastor and congregation together trust the leading and revealing of the Holy Spirit. No one can know themselves or another person completely. Together, we must pray the prayer of Psalm 139:23-24:

Search us, God, and know our hearts.
Test us, and know our anxious thoughts.
See if there are any offensive ways in us,
and lead us in the way everlasting.

Only God sees all the parts of us. God, in God’s way, lovingly shines light in the shadowy places in our hearts that need God’s knowing, and then leads us in the everlasting way. One of the members of my church when asked to define “trust” said, “Part of our trust of a pastor is a strong sense that the pastor helps us to let God do that work in us even as she is seen to let God do that work in herself. I guess one way of saying this is that the congregation should sense a deep spirituality in the pastor.”

If you are experiencing a call to deepen your trustworthiness, I encourage you to ask a few of the people closest to you the following questions: “What can you almost always count on me for?” and “What can you almost never count on me for?”1 Let yourself feel the impact of other people’s experiences of you and, by God’s grace, confess what needs to be confessed, and move more deeply into renewed faith, hope, and love.

Because we are human and live in a real and broken world, we know that we will never (in this life) fully trust in the way that God has created us to trust, and we will never be fully trustworthy in the way that God has created us to be trustworthy. But, by God’s grace, I know that we all can grow in both of these capacities. And this fills me with hope. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

About the Author
  • Rev. Heidi S. De Jonge is the pastor of Westside Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Kingston, Ontario. A 1999 graduate of Dordt in philosophy and psychology, and a 2005 graduate of Calvin Seminary, she is now beginning her doctorate of ministry at Western Theological Seminary, studying under this year's distinguished alumnus, the Rev. Dr. Chuck De Groat. Heidi enjoys cake decorating and distance cycling and is, with her husband, raising three elementary age daughters to love God and God's world.

  1. See chapter 4 of Learning Change: Congregational Transformation Fueled by Personal Renewal by Jim Herrington and Trisha Taylor, for more on the place of integrity in congregational life.  

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