These days, whenever churches get mentioned in the company of banks, Congress, journalism, and big business, the news is probably not good.
Case in point: Amanda Ripley’s recent piece in Comment Magazine on The Mystery of Trust.
For decades, at least four different research organizations have been surveying the public about its confidence in public institutions and their leaders. The findings are consistently grim: trust in most organizations, from banks to church to Congress to newspapers to big business, is on the decline, and the decline has accelerated recently.
As Ripley ruefully notes, “the story of trust in America is mostly a story of scarcity.” The one exception is the US military, which has actually gained trust since 1981. Analyzing what the military did right, Ripley points us to three “ingredients” that build trust: ability, benevolence, and integrity.
Ability captures the obvious, rational reason to trust something or someone: they seem to know what they are doing. Benevolence reflects the sense that an organization has our best interests at heart, that they are motivated by the forces of good. And integrity means that the institution has strong, admirable values to which it adheres, even under pressure to do otherwise.
Alongside banks, then (and Congress, and newspapers, and big business), churches might want to take an audit of trust’s three main ingredients. How well stocked is our congregational pantry in ability . . . benevolence . . . and integrity? An honest assessment of these three attributes feels important at this time.
Too often, congregations assume that good intentions are sufficient to earn trust. They bank on their benevolence and downplay the importance of ability or integrity. (We mean well, and that is good enough!) Yet benevolent values that are not consistently or competently enacted in the world do not build trust—instead, they erode it, and not just for the institution in question.
Often, too, congregations put ability on one or two leaders. (The new pastor is here, phew! She will take us where we need to go. Or… Well, we got rid of him and his lack of ability, so now we should be fine.) But the work of building, sustaining and regaining trust cannot be left to one or two church leaders. It is the shared responsibility of church board members, pastors, staff, and other congregational leaders.
And too often, alas, congregations set aside integrity under pressure to keep the machine humming. (We know that Jesus calls us to care for the poor, but staff need to focus first on the youth basketball league so we can recruit new members.). Or we assume that our own church’s integrity is unquestioned in the public sphere even as highly publicized clergy scandals dominate media. (But that scandal has nothing to do with us!) The problem is, for those who are not familiar with church world, all clergy, all churches, and all scandals look alike.
No wonder, then, that churches are running low on trust.
The Bible speaks of trust many times, most often in regard to trust in God. But many of these texts just call for trust and don’t explore it further. An important scripture passage that digs deeper into the meaning of “ability, benevolence and integrity” can be found in Romans 12:1-2:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
All the building blocks of trust are here. The journey toward becoming trustworthy originates in the “mercies of God.” We don’t resolve to work on trust before we experience the touch of God in our lives and the trust in God that follows. We then present ourselves as a living sacrifice – we offer all our vital powers, our identity, our service to God as an act of worship and devotion. (If we don’t curate our ability to have something in ourselves that is worthy, we have nothing to offer.) We also learn, with God’s help, to listen to God and turn aside from voices of distraction or destruction, to be transformed rather than conformed. (What better call to integrity can we heed?) And in this transformation, we discern God’s will – “what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (What better definition of benevolence could there be?)
Our trustworthiness – as followers of Jesus and as congregations – has a unique foundation in God’s grace and mercy. But we need ability, and integrity, to discern what is truly good, and to regain the trust of the world. Trust is coin of the realm in ministry, and every church board would do well to take stock at this time.
How much does your congregation trust you as a church board? What are some signs of that trust or lack of trust?
How much does your community trust your congregation to act with benevolence, ability, and integrity? What are some signs of that trust, or lack of trust?
Where trust runs high, what has built that trust?
Where trust runs low, what has eroded that trust?
Reading Romans 12 together, how would you assess your capacity, as a congregation, to be transformed rather than conformed?
What is God’s will for you in this time?