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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ask the Matriarch--Doesn't Anybody Here Trust Anybody?

Good morning, RevGals and Pals.
Our question for this week comes very close to the absolute heart of what challenges us as pastors, I think.  Our enquirer wishes to remain anonymous -- or suggests we can call her "Square One" -- and her question really is a kind of square-one question.  In my experience, too, it's a reality that was never, never touched on in my seminary training; maybe you had a different kind of formation, either in the classroom or in conversations with mentors?
Square One asks: 
What are some ways that I, the pastor, can try to build trust among the congregation? I don't get the sense that they don't trust me (at least not mostly), but I do get the feeling--though no one has said it outright--that people in the congregation have felt hurt and betrayed by others in the congregation, and that the trust of elected leaders, especially session committees, is very low. There seems to be a lot of questioning, second-guessing, and some subtle undermining going on. How can I begin building a foundation of trust and faith in each other?
Our friend Muthah+, who blogs at ,  as always, has wisdom to share --
This is a toughie because often times these dynamics go back for generations and there won't be much that you can do for it.  BUT God's grace is greater that all the demented dynamics of parishes.  

I would preach about the problem of lack of trust using images that have nothing to do with the parish but are easily translated to your situation.  Try to emphasize God's mercy.  If there are ways that un-trusting people can work on a project that will work may help. Any success that can be had, laud and magnify.  Accentuate the positive. Try to be as gentle as possible.  This problem will probably not be worked out during your tenure, but you can help people who have been alienated to regain confidence in themselves and the God who loves them.  

Make sure that the session is being extremely transparent in their actions and get them to welcome suggestions.  The more there is frank but loving conversation about issues the better it will be.  Of course there will always be those trolls that would rather fight than do anything--it is part of the way that they understand what it means to be Christian but address them with respect and if possible humor.  

Do not let yourself be triangulated.  Give opposing voice the possibility to discuss the issues with one another if possible.
and she adds a PS:   Get a copy of Ed Friedman's book published after his death:   Failure of Nerve.    His work deals much with these dynamics in community. 
And for another effective tactic, we have this from our friend Songbird, who blogs at Reflectionary:
Dear Square One,
The best way to build trust is to listen. Listening shows you care, that the experiences of the person talking matter to you. The best way to get a chance to listen in an injured congregation is to put in the time visiting or meeting with as little agenda as possible. Let them talk about the small stuff until they open up about the actual hurts. 
I served an Interim in a wounded congregation. I did more home visits there than at any other time in my ministry. I accepted invitations to lunch and dinner. I listened to hours of family and local history. Finally, someone opened up about the damage done in the past. And someone else. And someone else. And someone else. Somehow the word got out that I was to be trusted. 
The way I made these visits happen was to ask for the knowledge or advice of active members about very low stakes matters in the life of the church. "May I stop by and talk with you about the Fair?" Or the way you've done the Stewardship campaign? Or how you made that delicious corn chowder? At the end of every visit, I prayed, reminding them I was there as their pastor, showing God's care and mine. 
When you create a climate of trust, you'll hear what the real troubles are and be able to take the next step, building their trust in each other. 
Blessings to you in your ministry.

So there we have it!  A big thank you to both our responders -- and now let us know what your experience has been in building mutual trust, openness, lovingkindness!  What has worked for you?  What have you seen working in others' ministry?

As always, we are eager to add your ministry questions to our list -- please do send them along to (and indicate whether you prefer to remain anonymous?)

blessings all!



  1. What Songbird said.

    I have had some express with covenants based on elders' ordination vows: Will you be a friend to your colleagues in ministry? Further the peace, unity and purity of the church? Serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love? Then we talk about what the congregation's part of that covenant is. I'm frequently amazed to realize that some people believe "church" happens for an hour on Sunday and not in the relationships of the congregation, so I try to be intentional in developing them.

  2. "Some success." Wow. It's way early. :)

  3. This may be only tangentially related to the kind of trust issues you are dealing with, but it may be helpful....we are dealing with LONG STANDING issues of bad behavior, and we are beginning to talk about developing a behavioral covenant for the congregation. The vestry already endorsed something like this ("Guidelines for Mutuality) that included things like it's okay to disagree, maintaining confidentiality (not telling others' stories) not shaming or blaming self or others, etc. but we hope to take it a step farther. We're looking at Gil Rendle's book Behavioral Covenants for Congregations. If you unearth a pattern of incidents giving rise to the mistrust, something like that could be useful.

  4. Such wise words from my sisters in this thread!

    I have also found it is helpful (if temporarily painful) to name the distrust, and to elicit stories with in one-on-one conversations or small groups that tell the stories of how it came to be. One parish with which I was associated actually did a series of programs on it, culminating in a healing service. Ritual can be powerful to start the healing. I have also, on occasion, said to a person, "I am so sorry you have been hurt, and am grateful you were willing to share your story with me. What can I do to give you reason to trust me? How can we work together to help this community heal?"

    What Songbird talked about also really resonated for me. I serve a church that was mired in a distrust of clergy (for good reason, given the behavior of my predecessor). What helped them break through their distrust was seeing me provide solid pastoral care in the midst of deaths and crises. Since this was a weakness for my predecessor at the end of his tenure, my work in that area carried even more weight than usual.

    A friend is in a similar situation to yours right now, and sometimes he despairs that they will ever trust him. I've found my self saying to him, "It's not so much that they distrust you, but they distrust themselves because they failed the recognize the misbehavior of the bad actor in their story until it was a great big stinking mess." Sometimes it's not about you, it's about their own shame and guilt...but you still have to deal with it, although you have done nothing to deserve their distrust.

    It's a hard road, and I hold you in prayer.

  5. oh my, oh my. Such Comfortable Words from our sisters here. I am laying them to heart particularly as I head into leading a pre-ordination retreat (two incipient deacons and one priest ditto) this weekend. "Things I wish I had heard," for sure!

  6. the mistrust here was different, ministers [the previous 3] all left after 2-3 years. 'normal' in my denomination is 5-10,all left for different reasons. As well as that some people left over a particular denominational discussion, a few years before I arrived.
    it took 3 years of just being here before people trusted me enough to try some things I was suggesting, like having a stewardship campaign. It helped that Husband and I had most of the congregation for meals, in groups 0f 6-7, and they got to now us and each other, and see our furniture in the rooms and our pictures on the wall - we live in a church house.
    as someone else said, it isn't you they don't trust, they took a risk at some point and it backfired.
    sometimes Ministry is about being around,

  7. Dear Anonymous, I think that's a very good tactic...the hospitality campaign.

    There are some great "behavioral covenants" out there -- the International Anglican Conversation on Human Sexuality generated one during their three years of deliberations, I know, and I've used it.

    And in a couple of recent instances I know of "new" clergy who have observed the prevailing ethos quietly for six months or so, sometimes a bit longer, and then stood up and NAMED IT from the pulpit, quietly and firmly. That takes a certain kind of "presence," for sure, but can also be effective.

  8. Depending on the dynamics - and perhaps if the origins of the issue don't go too far back into the mists of time, then involving someone from outside, but who is trusted by all concerned, might help.

    We had a painful pastoral departure a while back which left the congregation divided. The new pastor invited one of the Grand Old Men of our denomination to come and lead a weekend. He had the trust of people across the division and the authority to stand up name the issues and basically say "you need to sort this out", which by and large we did. If the new pastor had tried to do that, he probably wouldn't have been heard, and would have been perceived by each group as taking the other side.

  9. dear Anon! Wow! I instantly thought of a handful of GOM's who could do exactly that most effectively.

    I've been thinking a bit more about a phrase that jumped out at me earlier and I didn't know why -- "our pictures on the wall" -- sometimes it might be key for the new pastor to take a careful walk through the church building and note all THEIR pictures on the wall, and ask out loud, "who's this?" "what's this?" "where's this?". I've heard of one such congregation where the pastor finally asked "WHAT" about a picture of some other, older church building -- "Oh, that's our church that was drowned" (YEARS BEFORE -- a dam was built, a reservoir was filled, etc. and the old church vanished). She was able to bring that loss into open conversation, open grief, open tears... and then things went on in a healthier way.


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