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Trustworthy Pastors

By Craig Brian Larson

In an ill-fated attempt to save money, a year ago I changed the spark plugs in my Toyota Corolla myself instead of going to a mechanic. I followed the directions to the letter, hand tightening the plugs until I could no more and then using a wrench to screw them 45 degrees further.

Four months later, though, when my son pulled into the high school parking lot, he suddenly heard a banging beneath the hood and smelled gasoline. When he opened the hood, he found that one spark plug had exploded from the engine.

Later at the dealer, the service manager informed me they would have to take the engine apart to retap the spark plug hole, and the repairs would cost $800.

Assuming that dealers do things to the maximum, I asked, "Is there any way you can repair this for less?"

"Not if I’m going to do it right," he answered.

I told him I needed a day to decide what to do. I prayed and in search of a trustworthy second opinion the next morning, I called a repair shop frequently advertised on a Christian radio station.

After I described the problem, the service rep said, "I’m 90 percent sure I can retap the hole without taking the engine apart. If so, the total cost will be $150." He said there was a small chance this might not work, but the savings would be worth the risk.

He was right.

I made two commitments after this experience: 1) I will use more torque when I tighten my spark plugs, and 2) If I can help it I will never ever return to that dealer.

Trust is no small thing in life, or in ministry. Since coming to my new church I’ve thought a lot about what our goals and purpose should be. Of course, we aim to mold believers as devoted followers of Christ, bring outsiders to faith, and build a strong community life in the church. But I have an additional, somewhat unusual, declared purpose. Unusual because I feel the need to spell out explicitly what in the past was taken for granted: I want people who attend our church to grow in trust for ministers, Christians, and the church.

That’s a tall order, I know. I and the people in our church are human, as subject to sin as anyone else. I don’t want to be or sound self-righteous, so I tremble to declare publicly such a purpose. In fact, once I do so, I am quickly reminded of how regularly I fall apart.

Late in 1995, a man who sporadically attended our church loaned me a number of books and CDs, and I assured him I would return them. Weeks later he shifted allegiance to another church, and I never saw him again. Of course I still intended to return his property. Each time I saw his things on my bookshelf I told myself I must to get those back to him. But that errand never buoyed to the top of my priority list, and I sort of hoped he would attend a service just to pick them up himself.

Several months passed, and one day a letter from him landed on my desk. It contained a check for $10 and a request that I mail his books. Before this I had a floating sense of guilt about his books and CDs; now I felt like a louse. He felt as though he had to spend money to get his own property back. So I gathered his materials together, drove them to his apartment one Sunday night after church, left them with the security man, and later mailed his check back. Finally I had in some measure redeemed myself.

Not so fast. Three days later I found another of his books in an overlooked pile. Oh boy, I thought. Well, this one I’ll handle promptly. I brought it immediately to the office, phoned and left a message on his answering machine saying I had found it and would get it to him.

That happened some 8 weeks ago, and the book is still sitting on top of my file cabinet. Meanwhile, I received another letter from him thanking me for returning the materials and asking that I would indeed return the one remaining book. This Sunday after church I will drive to his apartment and return his book.

What have I done to this man? I’ve given him the sense that he can’t trust Christians, even pastors, with his property — even when they promise to return it. If he can’t trust pastors with his property, can he trust them with the issues of his soul?

To Sustain Church Life

Some time ago to my regret I broke a basic rule of computer use. While editing an article I forgot to save my work to disk on a regular basis. I had worked on the manuscript for 45 minutes and made significant changes; meanwhile a thunderstorm blew up outside. Suddenly the lights and monitor flickered. With instant dread I realized my omission and frantically hit the save key, but it was too late. All those words and tough decisions gone.

They disappeared forever because of the nature of a computer. A computer’s random access memory is a tenuous thing: just an evanescent world of electricity. All computer ultimately processes are electrical on/off toggles called bits. Eight bits make a byte; their sequence determines what character that byte is. So in the RAM, War and Peace, Romeo and Juliet, are merely millions of electrical toggles. Pull the plug on what has not been saved to disk, and the electrical world of the computer evaporates.

Similarly in church, trust upholds all that is truly of the kingdom. We call sinners to trust the gospel and Christians to believe the Bible. We ask virtual strangers to open up and depend on each other in the community of Christ. We ask givers to trust planning, and counselees to trust our advice. Church is pervasively a trust environment.

In one critical way how unlike the business world is this business called church? In the halls of commerce you can sign contracts, cut certified checks, and thereby exchange valuables even with a total stranger. In ministry if you lose trust, all that is good evaporates. One moment if you lose trust, all that is good evaporates. One moment you have the life-giving community of Christ, the next a wary crowd of disillusioned, self-protective skeptics, and even cynics. You rarely find commitment — and never find love — where you do not have trust.

In the most painful experience in my ministry I saw firsthand the annulling effect of distrust. In one church I pastored a new couple started attending, and I saw great potential in them. They were devoted, experienced in ministry, and anxious to serve in the church, so I rapidly turned over to them several significant responsibilities.

But then they turned against my leadership, and what followed utterly bewildered me. My words were twisted and my motives misread. I was condemned if I did and condemned if I didn’t. My sermons were aimed at them, they said. My explanations were a lie, they said. Meanwhile, knowing their attitude toward me, my imagination worked overtime when I thought about what they said to others in the church.

The last time we talked I was seated at my desk and the man was leaning across it screaming accusations in my face. I was sweating. No doubt about it, when trust leaves, church turns Chernobyl.

I have a theory about the genesis of this dark episode. When this couple first came to our church, they told me they had been burned and betrayed by the pastor in their previous church. I’m convinced our problems hearken back to that previous breach of trust. Once someone loses trust, it takes considerable time to get it back, and the lingering poison leaches into other relationships.

Thankfully, things rarely go to the extreme this relationship did. More often, distrust merely expresses itself in checkered attendance, dead formality, or sparse involvement. But either way, it pulls the plug on true Christian devotion and church life.

Which brings me back to how I conduct myself as pastor. Most of the people in my church will live elsewhere and attend another church someday. If I cause people to feel they cannot trust pastors and churches, it will not only undermine what could happen in the present; they will likely carry that cyanide with them to church after church for years to come. Who knows how much pain and impairment they will cause. On the other hand, if I show myself trustworthy, I lay a foundation on which God can build his work for a lifetime both in our church and others.

I came to my present pastorate in August 1995, and since then when friends ask how I’m doing, I usually say something like "I’ve never been so happy and satisfied in my entire life." Yes, I’ve been with wonderful people in the past, and this is still the honeymoon, but I just feel especially good about this church and its future, and one reason is the people in our church are especially trusting and trustworthy. They give me freedom and authority to make decisions and do my job. They honestly critique my leadership initiatives, but not with a negative spirit. When I make mistakes, they assume the best. They largely handle their own responsibilities in the congregation and follow a high level of discipline n their speech. Honeymoon or not, a trusting environment is a place where church feels and works like it ought to.

To Empower Followers

Several years ago my wife bought a toy to entertain our youngest son during church: You could call it the Rogaine game. A clear plastic shell covers a cardboard picture of a man’s face, sans hair and eyebrows and facial hair. Loose inside the shell are black iron fillings, and tied at the end of a string is a pencil-shaped magnet. You use the magnet to move the fillings into position as the man’s beard, eyebrows, moustache, and hair.

I tried out this toy of course and got a bit impatient. The magnet attracted only a lima-bean-sized pile of filings at a time, and filings tended to fall off on route. So we upgraded. I used a larger magnet we had around the house, and I found it pulled a larger pile of filings that stuck tenaciously to the magnet as I moved them toward their destination.

A trustworthy leader is likewise magnetic. Research on leadership consistently shows that followers rank honesty as one of the most desired qualities in their leaders. Healthy people want to follow someone who is safe and true.

A few months after she started irregularly attending a church I pastored, woman told me she wanted to talk with me. I had previously noticed that at services she typically seemed cautious and reserved both with others and me. When she came to the office to talk, I found out why.

Seated across the conference table from me, she explained that although she was a follower of Christ, she had not attended one church regularly in more than a year. She had been church-surfing or not attending at all. Before that, she had been involved at a strong church, until the truth surfaced about the pastor’s moral failure with another woman in the congregation. She said it didn’t surprise her because "he had make advances toward me."

I recall that she made some sort of slur about pastors in general, which for some reason has faded from my memory. I do remember feeling shabby just sitting there, as though I had to apologize for being pastor. I didn’t like that feeling.

This wasn’t all she came to talk about. She struggled with other problems, which I tried to give counsel on, but what I said seemed to carry little weight with her. She brushed off my advice like dandruff. A month or so later she stopped attending.

I’ve found that we can only lead those who trust us.

To Mirror the Faithful One

A few months ago a jet from a bargain-rate airline plunged into the Florida Everglades. Anyone who flies notices stories like that and stores in memory the name of the airline. Even before that disaster I would have hesitated to travel any airline that boasts about cutting all costs possible. No, if I have my choice I always fly United and not the least of the reasons is my former next-door neighbor Scott.

A former jet mechanic in Viet Nam, Scott now keeps planes in the air for United, and he’s a no-nonsense, forthright person. The kind of person I jumped at the chance to get inside information from. On the sidewalk out front of our duplex I asked about the standards and procedures they follow to keep aircraft dependable. "Is it like working in the kitchen at a restaurant?" I asked. "Do I want to know the truth about these airplanes?"

"No," he assured me. "They’re safe."

We once did a brake job together on my Chevy Cavalier, and his mastery of the details that make or break a successful change of the pads, rotors, and drums gave me the sure sense that this man knows the subtleties of machinery. He even wore latex gloves over his hands, like a surgeon, as we worked. I’ve never met the hundreds of other mechanics who work for United, and of course in this unpredictable world one of their planes could go down tomorrow, but one reason I have confidence in United is I that I have confidence in Scott.

I want to have a similar effect for the kingdom of God. I want to be so trustworthy that through me people actually gain confidence in Scripture, in the church, and — can it be— in God! I’m convinced that in God’s list of priorities, how much fruit I bear, in numerical terms anyway, matters less than how accurately I reflect his character. This is so partly because one ultimately leads to the other; and partly because the Lord is as fiercely zealous for his faithful name as he is for fallen people.

Even though I live in an age that has lowered the bar again and again, according to Paul I must be "above reproach." Nothing else will do. An untrustworthy man of God is indescribably worse than an oxymoron; it is unthinkable, it is defamation.

In countless, telling, unspectacular ways one man in particular has mirrored the trustworthy image of God to me. Jim served as Illinois college ministries director when I dedicated my life to Christ. At first meeting I sensed something quite different about him: no show, not trying to impress anyone, ’just" deep and wide devotion.

You can’t long fake trustworthiness or learn a technique for it. I saw the trustworthiness in his soul seep out in a thousand little facial expressions, in body language, in the choice of words, the manner of carrying himself.

Put political spin doctors on one end of the spectrum, and Jim is the last guy on the other end. For example, though his work with college students required that he in effect promote that ministry (he wasn’t on salary but had to raise monthly support from churches), he never exaggerated the numbers of groups or students involved; if anything he understated what was happening. When he promoted college events to students, he didn’t hype the speakers or activities. Unadorned, unteased, bedrock truth is the only language he knows.

I’ve seen Jim sorely tested. Some 20 years ago his son Joshua has faced numerous surgeries and often warded off death. Yet despite Jim’s concerns for his son, the financial pressures, and his increased responsibilities with his family, I have seen him carry on with grace and childlike dependence on God.

Jim has convinced me of one thing. Even if every leader I know caved in to temptation, I would never lose confidence in God of church or ministry, partly because I have long seen Jim quietly live his trustworthy life. That is its power. The trustworthy life is stronger than the unfaithful life, able to restore to restore in frozen-tempered cynics.

Several months ago a woman in our church went through a personal crisis. For political reasons a new superior at work wanted to do her in and a power play that lasted several months made life miserable for her. Eventually the woman from our church lost her job, and being a native to another country, she had to return to her homeland. It was the sort of experience that turns and isolated person bitter.

But this woman was not isolated. She had attended church regularly and hosted a small group, and during this emotionally devastating time in her life her friends in church did not let her down. Individuals prayed with her and for her and asked regularly how she was doing. One day, feeling at her wit’s end, she called the office to see if she could come over that day and talk with me. "Of course," I said, and as we later walked through what the Scriptures taught a believer to do in her situation, she clearly was encouraged by seeing God’s viewpoint. At the small group meetings others listened to her and wept with her. In sum, the church was indeed the church to a Christian in need.

When we said good-bye on her final Sunday, she said, "The Lord has been working through all of this for good, and I am stronger because of it."

She found that the church of Jesus Christ is trustworthy, and as a result she will never be the same.

"It would be true, for there are those who trust me," said missionary Howard Arnold Walter in his personal creed. Yes, we will fail at times, hopefully only in minor ways, and we will need to apologize and ask forgiveness. But that certainty must not make us shy away from the goal of being trustworthy, for many and much depend upon it.

Craig Larson, pastor, Lake Shore Assembly of God, Chicago, Illinois

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