Influence

 the shape of leadership

The Trustworthy Pastor

Credibility must be earned, not assumed

Scott Wilson on January 26, 2022

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What do unchurched people in our communities hear when they listen to our voices? What do they see in the expressions on our faces? Do they see us moving toward them in love and compassion or away from them with disgust? Or do they see us moving toward them with a stick in hand?

These questions are relevant because trust in pastors has been eroding in recent years. In a 1985 Gallup poll, 67% of Americans surveyed rated the honesty and ethics of clergy members as “high” or “very high.” By 2020, the percentage had slipped to 39%. Respondents had more trust in clergy than in car salespeople and members of Congress, but that’s nothing to brag about.

In the past, people often looked to pastors to provide a moral compass and chart a path through difficult times, but not as much today. How can we earn trust again? I believe we need to consider carefully how we treat people both inside and outside the Church.

Inside

Health starts at home, and trust in the community is founded on trust within the walls of the church. I’ve tried to focus on five priorities at our church:

First, be real. Perhaps the most common accusation pastors and other church leaders hear is that we’re hypocrites. They see a disconnect between what we preach and how we live. Young people have very finely tuned antennae to detect authenticity — or the lack of it. When they sense we’re not being genuine, they don’t walk away; they run!

What does it mean to be real? When Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, the first point on the list was this: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

We’re authentic when we live lives of repentance — not spin, not image control, and not power plays. This means we admit our mistakes and confess our sins. Certainly, we need to be wise in knowing whom to talk openly with and how much to say, but we need to move much further toward vulnerability and away from self-protection.

Why are Christians — and especially pastors — reluctant to confess and repent? There may be many reasons, but in 2 Corinthians 7, Paul distinguishes between “godly sorrow” and “worldly sorrow,” explaining why the type of repentance that leads to the second kind is so repulsive.

Godly sorrow is a repentance that reconnects us with the grace of God; it reminds us that we’re forgiven, loved and accepted by grace alone. In stark contrast, worldly sorrow happens when we’re trusting in our goodness to earn points with God, so admitting we’re not good crushes us, bringing self-condemnation and shame, which Paul describes as a kind of “death.” We need to experience godly sorrow, and we need to teach it to our people.

When we’re honest about our flaws, we speak with more compassion about others’ flaws, and this honesty is fertile soil where God’s amazing grace can take root and grow. If we miss this one, we’ve missed everything in our attempt to build trust inside and outside the church. Everything else is based on this.

Second, meet and exceed expectations. A part of being honest is setting goals and timelines that are both visionary and attainable. If our goals are unrealistic, we frustrate people who see us as failures. If we aim too low, we don’t inspire anyone to greatness.

When we fail to meet others’ expectations, their respect for us leaks. Managing expectations doesn’t build respect, but it goes a long way toward keeping it from leaking. The solution isn’t to avoid goals, timelines or a vision for something better. We build respect when we set clear and attainable goals, communicate progress toward them, and reach them.

This doesn’t mean it’s our job to be at everyone’s beck and call to meet their every need. As our churches grow, we should delegate wisely and well and communicate clearly to our leaders and our people about how our role is evolving.

At one point, I realized I was stretched far too thin. In a board meeting, I asked everyone to write down the responsibilities they considered most important for me as their pastor. After a few minutes, I collected the papers. As I read them, I asked someone to write these duties on a whiteboard.

By the time the list hit 25, a few people chuckled. When we got to 39, everyone was laughing — everyone but me, that is. I knew the weight of their expectations would crush me because no one could meet all of them.

I went down the list one by one and asked, “Am I the person who needs to fulfill this expectation?”

The board members quickly realized someone other than me could take care of many items on the list. After working through this process, there were only four responsibilities left that only I could do:

  • Vision: Provide direction for the church.
  • Funding: Make sure we stay within the budget.
  • Staff: Manage all our personnel.
  • Preaching: Be the primary communicator on the weekends.

Sometimes I look back on an event and think, Lord, I had no idea how important this would be, but You saved me from a world of trouble by leading me to do that!

If our board had not engaged in this conversation, there would have been multiple scorecards. Everyone in the room would have had his or her own set of expectations. If I’d tried to meet all of them, I would have pleased some and disappointed others. I would have been whipsawed back and forth by their approval and disapproval on virtually every decision I made.

Having a single scorecard clarified expectations and gave me the opportunity to gain the respect of the board.

With that settled, I could focus on exceeding expectations by delivering more than they expected, better than they expected, faster than they expected. The respect others have for you erodes when you fail to meet their expectations. It remains relatively constant when you consistently meet their expectations. And it grows to the degree that you exceed their expectations.

It’s not enough to just inform influencers of your decisions. You need to include them in the process of decision making. If you don’t even talk to them before you make an announcement, you can expect major blowback. If you tell them but don’t engage them in the deliberations, they may grudgingly accept your decision, but they won’t be cheerleaders. If you take the time to meet with them before you make an announcement — sharing your heart, listening to their ideas, and adjusting the plan based on their wise input — they’ll almost certainly have your back.

If this sounds like it would take too much time, don’t kid yourself. Putting out fires takes much more time — and the drama reduces their respect for you.

Every influencer has two metaphorical buckets: one filled with water and the other with gas. When small fires of discontent start after the announcement of a new strategy, influencers will reach for one of the buckets. Which one they choose will depend on how much you’ve included them in the process. If they don’t trust you, the gas they pour on the situation will create a raging inferno.

Third, create a robust process for decision making. Over many years of trial and error (mostly error), I’ve learned that three elements need to be in place so I can make good decisions: accurate data, expert advice, and buy-in from key influencers.

I bring together my team and ask simply, “What information do we need so we can make a good decision?” I’ve learned that the time invested in getting advice from smart and godly people is well worth it. And I’ve found that key influencers will drift away — or, worse, become antagonists — when they don’t feel included. Trust grows when people feel valued in the most important decisions.

Fourth, never stop growing. When a leader is growing, others will be eager to join in and contribute, and the organization almost certainly will grow. Stagnant leaders don’t create excitement, vision or trust.

Fifth, fix your problems. This goes back to authenticity. We all have problems. You know it, and your people know it. But they’re asking, “Do you see your problems like I see them?”

We’re authentic
when we live lives
of repentance —
not spin, not image
control, and not
power plays.

Establish a culture where people feel comfortable giving honest feedback. You lose their respect when they believe you are unaware of your problems, unable to do anything about them, or unwilling to address them. Failing to do anything about obvious problems compromises credibility and trustworthiness.

Outside

A culture of trust inside the church gives pastors credibility and security to reach out to people who aren’t religious. In the current political climate, I’m afraid far too many people see the Church (and its pastors) as affiliated more with a political party than with Jesus. We run the risk of losing a generation that’s turned off because we seem more interested in politics than the kingdom of God — at least, that’s their perception.

Before you write me off and turn the page, let me assure you that I have strong beliefs about what America should be and can be, so please give me the honor of reading the rest of what I have to say.

I have three filters that determine what I say and how I say it:

1. God has called me to reach the lost … all the lost. He hasn’t called me to reach only those who lean toward my political views. He has called me to reach people of color and white people, gay people and straight people, insiders and outsiders, Democrats and Republicans. When we demonstrate genuine compassion for all people, our communities will sit up and take notice.

Of course, we may catch flak from other Christians. If that happens, we’re in good company. In the opening scene of Luke 15, Jesus was hanging out with tax collectors and sinners. Tax collectors were collaborating with the Romans, so they were despised as traitors, and the term “sinners” applied to anyone who didn’t measure up to the standards of the religious leaders.

The picture we get is that these outcasts felt completely comfortable with Jesus. They didn’t feel judged, and they didn’t conclude they were His project for the day. They felt loved and accepted. Luke 15:2 says, “But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”

Eating with someone signified acceptance. The three stories Jesus told were of a shepherd going out to find a lost sheep, a woman staying in to find a lost coin, and a father running out to greet a lost son who was returning home. The point is that the religious leaders had failed to reach out to the people God loves. Instead, they condemned the One who did reach out.

2. God has called me to make more and better disciples. The Great Commission calls us to go to “all nations.” I take that to mean all cultures — the ones where I feel comfortable and the ones where I don’t feel at home. God doesn’t care more for one set of people than another.

Jesus took off the robes of glory to come to the undeserving, to take the punishment we deserved, and to love us extravagantly and sacrificially. If the Great Commission calls us to love people who are different from us, we have the ultimate example in Jesus. He loved us when we were different in almost every way, with absolutely nothing to offer Him.

3. God has called me to a “double Kingdom impact.” Matthew’s Gospel gives us the Parable of the Bags of Gold. When the master put three servants in charge of his wealth, the one he entrusted with five bags of gold earned five more, and the one with two earned two more. The master commended both servants when he returned home. But the one who had received one bag was afraid and hid it in the ground. He wasn’t willing to take a risk, so he had no gain on investment.

I want to go where “the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few,” to the “streets and alleys” where people are far from God and need a Savior (Matthew 9:37; Luke 14:21). That’s where I want to invest my energies and my heart.

Our nation has become intensely polarized. It’s not just that we hold different opinions (that’s always been the case), but more than ever, we dehumanize and demonize those who disagree with us. And I’m not talking only about extremists; I’m talking about a lot of us who are pastors.

I know of a pastor who recently encouraged his congregation to “own the libs.” He assumed everyone in the room was a Republican, but how would someone who leans left have felt during that service? The pastor was effectively eliminating half the nation from hearing the gospel.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not advocating for a watered-down, sentimental brand of Christianity. But I’m certainly advocating for both truth and love, not harshly communicated truth that’s devoid of God’s love and kindness. I’ve seen pastors become so worked up over claims of election fraud, mask mandates, and vaccines that they missed opportunities to lead their people with wisdom and grace.

In his last letter, Paul wrote this to Timothy:

Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will (2 Timothy 2:23–26).

Miroslav Volf grew up in Croatia during the Balkan Wars and witnessed his brother’s murder. Afterward, he grappled with the grace of God and the command to forgive. He finally found rest in a profound truth: Forgiveness experienced leads to forgiveness granted.

In his book, Exclusion and Embrace, Volf wrote, “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.”

Ephesians 4:31–5:2 says, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

I’m not arguing for or against a particular political platform. I’m simply encouraging you to view people who disagree with you as people created in the image of God, people Jesus loves so much He died to save them. They are valuable to Him, and He delights to welcome them — no matter what they’ve done or what they believe. That’s the reason sinners surrounded Jesus. That’s the reason they knew He loved them.

Do the people in our communities hear the love of Jesus when we speak? Do they see His compassion in our faces when we look at them? The current waves of grievance and resentment are based on some painful truths that things aren’t what they should be, but it’s our calling to represent Jesus’ love, wisdom and power far, far more than any political position.

In fact, I make it my practice to completely avoid any mention of politics in my preaching and leading. I can certainly talk about particular issues, but I want to point people to Jesus, not a politician or a party.

We need to know when it’s time to change course before it’s too late. When Billy Graham was 92 years old, a journalist asked him if he had any regrets.

Graham reflected that he wished he had spent more time with his family. Then he added, “I also would have steered clear of politics.”

He recalled that he had been a pastor to the presidents, but he had also decided to move beyond pastoring to endorse Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign.

“I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places,” Graham said. “People in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back, I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.”

All around us, people — including Christians — are demanding their rights. But our King gave up His rights, emptied himself, and suffered for the sake of others.

Paul put it this way in Philippians 2:5–8:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!

As pastors, we can earn the respect of people inside our churches by being honest, thoughtful and responsible, and we can earn it outside our walls by leaning hard toward Jesus and away from divisive political positions.

This article appears in the Winter 2022 edition of Influence magazine.

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