The Gallup organization recently updated their data on the reputation of clergy in America:
In an article titled, “The 8 People Americans Trust More Than Their Local Pastor,” Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra of Christianity Today notes that trust in clergy has dropped steadily among Americans since 2009, down from a high of 67 percent in 1985 to just 48 percent in 2016. While this may not be surprising in light of publicized scandals throughout this period, it should be concerning to all Christians, particularly those who are called to serve as pastors.
So, what does it take to build trust between pastor and people? This should become the subject of serious and sustained conversation in the Church, so I will offer my thoughts on five ways of being that build pastoral trust:
1. Integrity in the conduct of one’s life. “Integrity calls me to account for authentic agreement between my words and my deeds. It is not the idea that I will ever live out my convictions and beliefs flawlessly, but that I am always willing to confess my shortcomings and invite others to point out my contradictions so that I might repent and learn.” Integrity demands of a Christ-follower that the worldly systems of power and influence give way to the Jesus-style power of laying down one’s life. Parishioners are astute in discerning the authenticity of their spiritual leaders. If a pastor’s preaching and teaching does not rise from a pure and contrite heart, people will soon know.
2. Modesty in the conduct of one’s life. There is wisdom in the classical vows of ordained ministry that included obedience, chastity, and poverty. The contemporary view of pastoral vocation seems to demand (with biblical support) that “those who work deserve their pay” (1 Tim. 5:18). It is true that support for the ministry is a serious congregational obligation. However, if clergy are not disciplined about how we live in an age of consumeristic excess, our testimony is tarnished and our credibility strained. That which is considered lavish and that which is considered modest is difficult to establish in cultures with wide disparity of economic status. Nonetheless, there is wisdom in the prayerful, disciplined movement toward simplicity and modesty in the conduct of one’s life.
3. Listening. The art of truly listening to people is in short supply these days. “Pastors are sometimes so distracted by the ‘busyness’ of ministry that we do not have time really to listen to folks and they know it. Our lack of confidence or perhaps lack of clarity about our call causes pastors to talk too much about how busy we are and how hard we are working to run the church. When we do this, we certainly do not inspire confidence in our people that we are able or even interested in attending to their lives. The art of spiritual direction is about more than giving advice. It is significantly about the flesh-and-blood ministry of being with a person, sitting with them, and actively listening to them.”
4. Stability. This is the commitment to remain with a people, even when the assignment is not very pleasing to me. In the sixth century, Pope Benedict added the vow of stability to the vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty. “Think about the contrast of the constant and faithful pastor with the contemporary habit of short, serial relationships that are so much a part of life in our time. What better way to model God’s faithfulness than through a vocational life that does not capriciously move from place to place or throw in the towel when the going gets a bit rough?”
5. Truthful, non-anxious speech. We find ourselves as ministers of the gospel of peace trying to find our voice in a noisy, anxious, and angry world. The worst we can do as pastors is to match the anxiety and compete with the noise. Too many pastors are displaying a very noisy and anxious social media presence, which is a factor in the diminishing of congregational trust. I agree with Dr. Tom Long who noted in an interview that people are longing for someone who can stand calmly under the authority of the Spirit and tell the truth about something.
I know that other notes could be added and these expressions could be improved, but I offer them to my friends and colleagues as we seek, by the grace of God, to conduct ourselves in Christian ministry in ways that reflect the character of our Good Shepherd, Jesus. May the Lord help us to rebuild trust in the pastoral office.
Jeren Rowell, Ed.D. | President and Professor of Pastoral Ministry
Nazarene Theological Seminary | Kansas City, Missouri
Quotes are from Rowell, J. Thinking, Listening, Being: A Wesleyan Pastoral Theology. (Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 2014).