“No one around here trusts the other side at all.” – a U.S. Congressperson, January 2021
“When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” – Psalm 56:3
Former Secretary of State (and Secretary of Labor and Treasury at different times) George Shultz died this past weekend. In December, to mark his 100th birthday, he published “The 10 most important things I’ve learned about trust over my 100 years.” Among other life experiences, Shultz lists the steadfast love of his parents, the earned respect of his Marine sergeant in World War II, the voice given workers in the workplace, the importance of empathy, and how all of these built trust.
The list concludes with number 10:
“In God we trust.” Yes, and when we are at our best, we also trust in each other. Trust is fundamental, reciprocal and, ideally, pervasive. If it is present, anything is possible. If it is absent, nothing is possible. The best leaders trust their followers with the truth, and you know what happens as a result? Their followers trust them back. With that bond, they can do big, hard things together, changing the world for the better.
This is an excellent guidepost for church boards: when you, as a board, are at your best, you are trusting God and each other. When that trust is in place, disagreements are respectful, there is laughter to punctuate the difficult moments, and discussion of different ways forward – even when you yourself don’t favor some of those ways – feels possible and nurturing. Small bumps in the road are quickly left behind, for the sake of some larger vision of service and hope.
The opposite is also true: when we do not trust God and trust each other, everything is difficult. The air feels stale. The room (or Zoom) feels profoundly uncomfortable and you feel out of place (and out of sorts). The only laughter is derisive. Every small slight is recorded, remembered, and weaponized for use at an opportune time.
Why don’t those of us on church boards spend more time nurturing and growing the trust we have in God and in one another? Too many times, we assume trust is like the air we breathe – it was in the place we gathered when we arrived and will remain when we depart. It really only takes one experience where trust is absent to disabuse us of the notion that trust is constant. And, once lost, it is a long and challenging process to restore trust within any group.
As a strong incentive, scripture continually paints a picture for us of what trust offers us. Think of the prophet’s proclamation:
But now thus says the Lord,
the one who created you, O Jacob,
the one who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
Isaiah never mentions the word trust in this ascendant passage. But trust in God – as creator, redeemer, and sustainer – is infused in every line. The boldness and courage that Isaiah describes is not some self-invention of the people of God. It is only enabled by their trust in God. Especially after a year of unprecedented pain and uncertainty, with the future of the church clouded in mystery, trust is the indispensable companion for every church board.
Seth Godin wrote about trust recently, reflecting on the hyper-networked world of technology in which we are marinating.
Humans have been in tribal relationships since before recorded history began. The word “tribe” appears in the Bible more than 300 times. But the internet isn’t a community or a tribe. It’s simply a technology that amplifies some voices and some ideas. When we don’t know who these people are, or if they’re even people, trust erodes.
When a site decides to get big fast, they usually do it by creating a very easy way to join, and they create few barriers to a drive-by anonymous experience. And when they make a profit from this behavior, they do it more. In fact, they amplify it.
…And now we’re suffering from the very openness and ease of connection that the internet was built on. Because a collection of angry people talking past each other isn’t a community. Without persistence of presence, some sort of identity and a shared set of ideals, goals and consequences, humans aren’t particularly tempted to bring their best selves to the table.
The system is being architected against our best impulses. Humans understand that local leadership, sacrifice and generosity build community, and that fights and scandals simply create crowds.
Community … generosity instead of fights … the persistence of presence … a shared set of ideals. None of this can live and grow without trust.
So, for your church board, what erodes trust?
Withholding the truth from your colleagues or slathering it in “happy talk.”
Not listening carefully or empathetically.
Believing that your experience is (or should be) normative for everyone.
Holding a conviction that those outside your view, your contacts, your tribe have nothing to teach you.
Keeping accounts on everything anyone said that you take to be hurtful or inconsistent.
Needing to “win a pure fight.”
Not recognizing fear or pain for what it represents in yourself or others.
Not believing that most messes can get cleaned up among people of goodwill.
Living by the motto: “If it’s going to get done, I have to do it myself.”
And, for your church board, what nurtures durable trust?
Generosity, kindness, empathy, and careful listening.
Humility that you don’t see – you can’t see – everything.
Transparency in emotion and thinking – and communication.
Utter and complete dependency on God, mystery and all.
An ability to repent.
A willingness to be forgiven.
The capacity to be vulnerable and to risk failing together.
An ability to grieve together and to grieve on behalf of one of your group.
A joy in rejoicing together and giving thanks.
You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
Do you agree with Shultz that “the best leaders trust their followers with the truth, and … their followers trust them back”?
How well are you doing, as a board, in trusting one another (or your congregation) with the truth?
How is your board different from the kind of anti-community described by Godin?
How does – or how can – your church board practice “the persistence of presence?”
What helps you to ‘bring your best selves to the table?” What is keeping those ‘best selves’ away?